When an Egyptian becomes an 'it': the psychology of state violence

Yasmine Fathi , Monday 19 Dec 2011

Ahram Online investigates how normally peaceful men can brutally beat, sexually assault, and kill their fellow citizens

Egyptian army soldiers
Egyptian army soldiers arrest a female protester during clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

A young female protester is dragged by her hair across the street by an army officer; a group of military personnel continue to beat a young man even after he stops moving; a young female activist is beaten, stripped down to her underclothes and kicked by army officers in the middle of the street; another female protester is beaten, her veil torn from her head.

These – and other, even more horrific images – have been seen in recent weeks on Egyptian and international news media and social networking sites. Such images – which have accompanied escalating clashes between Egyptian protesters and the ruling armed forces that have now claimed 13 lives – have sent shock waves throughout Egypt.

Conservative Egyptians have been shocked by images of a young female protester stripped down to her blue bra while being beaten by military police, or by footage of army officers atop a government building urinating on protesters standing below while making obscene hand gestures.

Such violent episodes, which during the Mubarak era had been confined to State Security buildings and police stations, now play out openly in the streets, as baton-wielding military police brazenly beat protesters – seemingly oblivious to their victims’ obvious pain – on live television.

Such images, unprecedented in Egypt, whose people are largely known for their peaceful nature, have led many local observers to ask how one human being could inflict so much suffering on another.

According to Egyptian psychiatrist and human rights activist Ehab El-Kharrat, torturers – or anyone used to inflicting pain on others – often resort to a handful of psychological techniques in order to justify their actions. One of these is the “objectification” of their victim, by which the tormenter degrades their victim’s status from that of human being to a mere object.

“The victim is no longer a human being endowed with feelings,” El-Kharrat told Ahram Online. “They go from being a ‘he’ or ‘she’ to simply being an ‘it’.”

In order to objectify young Egyptian activists, El-Kharrat said, Egypt’s military rulers and military-appointed government are using an “anti-youth rhetoric” to sway public opinion against the protesters, thus justifying their brutal treatment at the hands of security personnel.

El-Kharrat says this is the same discourse used by former president Hosni Mubarak in his final speeches before his February ouster, when he attempted to portray Egyptian revolutionaries as enemies of the state who threatened to plunge Egypt into “chaos and instability.” Similar phraseology is now being used to describe protesters by newly-appointed Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzoury.

“The discourse employed in recent speeches by the PM is that these [anti-government protesters] are the enemies of Egypt and the revolution; that they are criminals and represent a threat to national security and that it is therefore okay to brutally suppress them,” said El-Kharrat.

Hany Henry, an assistant psychology professor at the American University in Cairo, provided another explanation for the recent use of violence. He pointed out that human beings had a tendency to blindly follow orders and were often reluctant to confront those who abuse power.

Henry noted a controversial experiment by psychologist Stanley Milgram, conducted in 1961 to gauge obedience to authority.

During the tests, Milgram informed a test group of volunteers that they would play the role of a “teacher.” They would then attempt to teach a list of words to other subjects, dubbed “learners.” If learners answered incorrectly, teachers would subject them to an electric shock.

Although the shocks were in fact fake, the teachers believed they were inflicting pain on the learners. And as the experiment progressed, the former were instructed to gradually increase the voltage.

In Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 per cent of participants administered electric shocks of up to 450 volts – or at least thought they were – just because they were told to by an authority figure.

“Subjects continued to increase the voltage because they were told it was an effective method,” said Henry. “The moral of the story is that people tend to follow authority blindly.”

What’s more, Henry noted, Egyptian society is hierarchal by nature, with a long history of pharaohs, kings, sultans and pashas, all of whom were treated as superior to the rest of the society. These people have been traditionally referred to by Egyptians as “El-Kebeer” (“the great ones”) or “Asyad” (“the masters”).

“In Egypt, we have this idea that such masters enjoy a special place in society,” says Henry. “And if these masters tell you to torture, then you torture.”

Henry went on to suggest that the security personnel who have recently been videotaped brazenly beating protesters may themselves suffer from antisocial personality disorders. “These people tend to lack empathy,” he said. “They don’t feel any distress or remorse when they see others suffering.”

Another psychological transformation that takes place in the mind of the tormenter, said El-Kharrat, is “disassociation,” by which an individual enters an altered state of consciousness as a response to severe emotional trauma. Dissociation often happens when a person feels that they are dealing with a situation too difficult or traumatic to cope with.

“Torturers end up having a kind of split consciousness,” said El-Kharrat. “They may be loving and tender with their wives and daughters, but then they ‘disassociate’ with the protester in the street and beat them brutally because they perceive them as an enemy.”

According to Henry, the security officer who rains down blows on a protester’s prone body may also be suffering a form of “displacement,” by which an individual shifts his or her anger from an unacceptable target to a more acceptable one.

“These army troops might be suffering badly in the military – earning poor salaries, deprived from seeing their families,” he said. “But they can’t express themselves to the powerful military system, so they vent their rage on street protesters.”

Such displacement, Henry notes, frequently takes place in combat situations, when the perpetrator cannot see the real enemy. One famous case, he recalled, was that of Iraq’s infamous Abu Gharib military prison, where US soldiers tortured and raped innocent Iraqi prisoners in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion of the country.

“When US psychiatrists attempted to analyse what had happened in Abu Gharib, they found cases of displacement, by which American soldiers who participated in the torture sessions couldn’t see the real enemy and so subjected defenceless prisoners to these acts,” Henry said. “For them, the prisoners became the enemy; prisoners came to represent everything they hated. And this was fuelled, of course, by a healthy dose of sadism and racism.”

Experts also note that the charged rhetoric employed by the media against anti-government protesters tends to dehumanise the latter, portraying them as the advocates of ideas alien to the average conservative Egyptian mindset. A simple soldier, in this case, may feel he is doing his patriotic duty by beating the secularism or communism – or, even worse, the Kufr (heresy) – out of disobedient protesters.

“When such dehumanisation happens, one no longer sees the person as a human being. You strip him of his humanity – but it is our humanity that stops us from killing one another,” said Henry. “As a result, protesters become little more than insects to be crushed.”

Hania Sholkamy, an associate professor at AUC’s Social Research Centre, stressed that violence represented an innate part of human nature, but, as human beings left their baser instincts behind and became more civilised, they learned to curb their more violent instincts.

“We’re wired to control this urge and cope with it; institutionalise it into state functions, like the police and army, which are given the green light to perpetrate violence as part of their job,” said Sholkamy.

However, she added, how far they will go to accomplish their mission depends on how much of that innate brutal instinct they still retain.

“How hard to beat the protester? How will they know when to stop? How much suffering are they willing to inflict? This is the part that’s hard to explain,” Sholkamy stressed. “If the soldier fears his enemy, feels he must do whatever is necessary to survive, then that brutal instinct will re-emerge and they will inflict endless suffering."

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