Torture and Despair: The Psychic Roots of the Revolution in Tunisia, Egypt and Across the Middle East

28.1.11

The roots of the popular uprising in Tunisia that toppled President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, after 23 years of dictatorship, which has now spread to Egypt like wildfire (click to enlarge photo), and has begun manifesting itself in other countries as well, are, of course, many and varied. Statistically, the cause is a generation of young people — huge in number and largely unemployed — who have known nothing other than dictatorship and whose discontent, in Tunisia, escalated so suddenly, and reached a tipping point so swiftly that it created a mass movement too large for Ben Ali to suppress.

That, clearly, has provided inspiration across the Arab world, on the understandable basis that, if it could happen in Tunisia, it can happen elsewhere as well, but as I have watched this story unfold, and as I watch, with admiration and trepidation, the uprising in Egypt, where the dictator Hosni Mubarak initially appeared unprepared to take the route chosen by Ben Ali, and intended to counter the revolution with violence (but now appears to be on the back foot, promising to form a new government tomorrow, even though that will not placate protestors at all), I have been thinking not about the statistical cause of the uprisings, but about other triggers — actions that are resonant with symbolism, and that are the foundational impulses for revolution.

In Tunisia, this spur, as Brian Whittaker of the Guardian realized on December 28, in an article entitled, “How a man setting fire to himself sparked an uprising in Tunisia,” was the suicide, by self-immolation, of 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi.

As Whittaker explained:

[On December 19], twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, living in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, had a university degree but no work. To earn some money he took to selling fruit and vegetables in the street without a licence. When the authorities stopped him and confiscated his produce, he was so angry that he set himself on fire.

Rioting followed and security forces sealed off the town. On Wednesday, another jobless young man in Sidi Bouzid climbed an electricity pole, shouted “no for misery, no for unemployment”, then touched the wires and electrocuted himself.

On Friday, rioters in Menzel Bouzaiene set fire to police cars, a railway locomotive, the local headquarters of the ruling party and a police station. After being attacked with Molotov cocktails, the police shot back, killing a teenage protester. By Saturday, the protests had reached the capital, Tunis –and a second demonstration took place there yesterday.

Just 17 days later, what had started with the death of Mohamed Bouazizi had led to the flight of Ben Ali, and an example of people power that is now spreading across the Middle East.

Poverty and injustice, then, were at the heart of Tunisia’s uprising, but in Egypt, although the spur has been Tunisia, the movement’s symbolic power comes not from suicidal despair, but from the brutal murder, last June, of Khaled Said, a 28-year old businessman from Alexandria, who was beaten to death by the police in cold blood after they dragged him onto the street from an internet café.

In thinking about how the murder of Khaled Said is the symbolic spur for the uprising in Egypt (see “We are all Khaled Said“), I have realized that, although brutality was widespread in Tunisia too, it is appropriate that the Egyptian people are holding the memory of a victim of the state’s appalling violence as an inspiration, because Mubarak’s brutality — exercised in Egypt’s torture prisons, as well as in casual homicides like that of Khaled Said — is not only an emblem of Egypt over the last 30 years, but also reflects on wider issues that have, indirectly, dominated my life for the last five years since I began researching and writing about Guantánamo and the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”: the hypocrisy of the West (and, in particular, the United States), which funds Mubarak’s repressive regime (to the tune of $1.3 billion a year), and which made Egypt central to the “War on Terror,” its vile torture prisons the first port of call for victims of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program — the same prisons which, ironically, had radicalized al-Qaeda’s second-in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri and countless others in the 1980s.

Torture and state-sanctioned murder, then, is the spur for Egypt’s revolution as much as poverty and oppression, and with this in mind I was humbled to stumble upon an extraordinary article written last June, shortly after the murder of Khaled Said, by the Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswany, the author of The Yacoubian Building, and a member of the pro-democracy movement Kefaya, which captures perfectly the almost unspeakable cruelty at the heart of Hosni Mubaraks’s Egypt.

An Attempt to Understand the Causes of Cruelty
By Alaa Al-Aswany, June 29, 2010

It was Wednesday, June the 13th, 1906.

Egypt was under British occupation and five British officers went out into the country to shoot pigeons. One of them accidentally started a fire and wounded a peasant woman. The villagers gathered around and chased away the British officers, one of whom died of sunstroke. Lord Cromer, the British governor of Egypt at the time, considered the incident a form of rebellion and decided to punish the Egyptians severely to preserve the prestige of the British Empire and its troops. He ordered 52 Egyptians arrested and after a rapid trial which did not meet the legal norms 32 of them were convicted, four to death by hanging and the others to flogging or imprisonment with hard labour. The sentences were carried out in front of the peasants’ wives and children.

The outrage became known by the name of the village where the incident took place: Denshawai in Menoufia province. Public opinion in Egypt was enraged against the brutal crime committed by the British occupation and too many writers and poets to mention wrote articles and poems condemning the executions at Denshawai, from the nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel , who launched a campaign against the British occupation in the Western press, to Ahmed Shawki, ‘the Prince of Poets’, Hafez Ibrahim, Kassem Amin and many others. In Britain itself British intellectuals and politicians condemned the British response, led by the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who write a famous article entitled ‘A Day of Shame’ for the British Empire’. This widespread campaign led to the dismissal of Lord Cromer and a full amnesty for the villagers imprisoned.

Like all Egyptians I studied the Denshawai incident in primary school and then forgot about it for years. But I thought about it again when I was following the horrible crime which the Egyptian regime recently committed in the city of Alexandria, when two police detectives beat Khaled Said, an unarmed and peaceful young man, until his skull was crushed and he died in front of them. When I saw a picture of Khaled Said with his face mutilated from torture, I found myself making a saddening comparison: in the Denshawai incident four Egyptian peasants were executed and another peasant was shot dead by the British, in other words the death toll was five, but how many victims of torture have there been under the present regime?

According to the statistics of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, in only eight years (between 2000 and 2008), 113 Egyptians died from the effects of torture in police stations and state security premises. After the Denshawai incident the British occupation authorities had 32 Egyptians flogged, but how many Egyptians have been tortured by the Egyptian police? Over the period 2000 to 2008, the number amounts to 275 documented cases of torture, besides of course dozens of cases where the victims refrained from reporting they had been tortured for fear of revenge by the police. This leads us to a strange fact: the number of victims of repression by the Egyptian regime is dozens of times greater than the number of victims in the Denshawai incident. This begs some questions: why is the regime so cruel to Egyptians, and why do Egyptians treat fellow Egyptians worse than the British occupation forces treated Egyptians in their time? To find an answer, we need to compare occupation and despotism, which are similar in many respects.

Despotic rulers, just like an army of occupation, seize and retain power by armed might. Despotic rulers, just like a foreign occupation, have no respect for the people they oppress. The occupiers see them as an inferior race, and the despots see them as ignorant, lazy and unable to behave democratically. In both cases the people, in the eyes of the occupiers and the despots, are creatures of little understanding or competence, and so they have fewer human rights than other people. In fact it is imperative to repress them, and subjugating them is the best way to control them. Respecting their wishes and their humanity would only spoil them and lead to insurrection. Despotism is in essence internal occupation, not by a foreign army but by indigenous people. But there is an important difference: a British officer who tortured and killed Egyptians could claim to himself, falsely, that he was in a state of war and this entitled him to do things which would be banned in peacetime. But an officer who tortures and kills his own compatriots is a special case. How is it that a young Egyptian who has struggled to enter the police academy in order to enforce the law and protect people’s lives and property when he graduates can then turn into a thug who tortures and kills people?

Psychological studies have shown that torturers are not necessarily evil or aggressive by nature, and that outside their work they might be quite ordinary people who have to pass through various psychological steps before they qualify to become torturers. Firstly, they have to work within a political system which permits torture as an acceptable method to punish or extract confessions from detainees. Secondly, they have to find colleagues at work who torture so that they can convince themselves that they are doing it in response to orders from their superiors that they cannot disobey. The third stage in the creation of a torturer is self-justification. The torturer has to be able to convince himself that he is torturing people to protect the country, his religious faith or society, or for the sake of the security and safety of the people. The torturer has to portray his victims as enemies, hired agents or criminals so that his conscience can countenance torturing them. But these steps in the creation of torturers, as laid out in psychology, are not enough, in my opinion, to explain what happened to Khaled Said.

Why was this innocent young man tortured so brutally? If the policemen had decided to kill him, why didn’t they shoot him with a bullet? One bullet would have been enough to kill him. Wouldn’t killing him quickly have been kinder to him and to his mother, who spent 28 years looking after him, bringing him up, watching him with joy as he grew up, went to school and did his military service? Then suddenly, they called her to pick him up and she saw his face mutilated, the flesh torn and his teeth smashed from the brutal torture. The only explanation for this dreadful cruelty is that Egyptian torturers, even after going through all the steps necessary to prepare them, have not fully succeeded in killing off their own consciences. They still understand, deep inside themselves and in spite of everything, that they are committing horrendous crimes and that they are not protecting the nation or the people, as they claim, but rather protecting one person — the ruler. The torturers know that what they are doing to people is against the law, against custom and against their faith and they certainly would not like their wives and children to know that they torture innocent people to death. It is this sense of guilt which makes the Egyptian torturers even more brutal than the soldiers of a foreign occupation. It is as if they cannot bear to be in a state in which it is possible to waver or examine one’s conscience, as if they want to silence their consciences completely, and they do that by committing more acts of torture and repression, going to extremes so that their consciences will wither away and they can feel safe from remorse for ever.

The brutal way that Khaled Said was murdered has found its place in the history of Egypt and the memory of Egyptians for ever. Those truly responsible for the murder of Khaled Said are not the detectives who beat him to death, nor the commissioner who sent them nor the director of security nor even the minister of the interior. The prime responsibility for the murder of Khaled Said and of all the victims of torture lies with the head of state who, if he wanted to prevent Egyptians being tortured, could do so with a single word, in fact with a single wave of his hand.

If Khaled Said had been European, American or Israeli, President Mubarak would have intervened personally to have the killers arrested and severely punished. But it was Khaled Said’s wretched luck to be born Egyptian at a time when Egyptians are slaughtered like stray dogs, with impunity and without any impartial investigation or even a word of apology. The murder of Khaled Said is a turning point by which Egyptians have understood how subjugated and humiliated they have become and how they can never live in freedom and dignity until Egypt rids itself of despotism.

Democracy is the solution.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

18 Responses

  1. Tweets that mention Torture and Despair: The Psychic Roots of the Revolution in Tunisia, Egypt and Across the Middle East | Andy Worthington -- Topsy.com says...

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington and First World Music, Mark E. Smith. Mark E. Smith said: Torture and Despair: The Psychic Roots of the Revolution in Tunisia, Egypt and Across the Middle E.. http://bit.ly/hlMXJY [...]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Shared…

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Earwicga Amber wrote:

    There have also been large demos in Yemen http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12295864

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Earwicga Amber also wrote:

    Alaa Abd El Fatah says these protests have been building in Egypt for ten years http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/28/after-tunisia-alaa-abd-el-fatah-egypt

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Amber, for the links. Agreed re: build-up of tensions in Egypt for at least 10 years, but what interested me was a kind of deep psychological trigger, which was certainly present in Tunisia, and the Khaled Said group and Al-Aswany’s article really pinpointed that for me in Egypt too.

  6. dave larson says...

    this is a compelling article. thank you. i’ve ‘shared’ it.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Dave. Good to hear from you.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    On Digg, wanacare wrote:

    Here is the truth. It takes a lot more effort to read facts and figures from a responsible and honest source than to listen to ranting by a guy we find a point to connect with on TV, but if we want responsible government we have to labor to be informed about who is responsible. Thank you Andy & the people in the Middle East who are laboring for democracy, human rights for all and alleviating corruption.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Anita Gwynn wrote:

    Is it building in Libya, do you think?

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Not much reported yet, Anita — at least, not in the Western media. There’s an interesting round-up of unrest in various countries here: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/africa/110126/protests-riots-tunisia-egypt-lebanon-middle-east-north-africa?page=0%2C0

  11. Revolution in Libya: Protestors Respond to Gaddafi’s Murderous Backlash with Remarkable Courage; US and UK Look Like the Hypocrites They Are | NO LIES RADIO says...

    [...] the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where there was remarkably litle bloodshed, and the dictators Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali [...]

  12. Revolution in Libya: Protestors Respond to Gaddafi’s Murderous Backlash with Remarkable Courage « Eurasia Review says...

    [...] the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where there was remarkably litle bloodshed, and the dictators Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali [...]

  13. Revolution in Libya: Protesters Face Gaddafi’s Murderous Backlash as US, UK Ooze Hypocrisy | Amauta says...

    [...] the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where there was remarkably litle bloodshed, and the dictators Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali [...]

  14. How Abu Salim Prison Massacre In 1996 Inspired Revolution In Libya « Eurasia Review says...

    [...] an article a month ago, Torture and Despair: The Psychic Roots of the Revolution in Tunisia, Egypt and Across the Middle Eas…, I attempted to analyze and understand the symbolic power of the revolutionary movements that were [...]

  15. ARTICLE: Andy Worthington on “How the Abu Salim Prison Massacre in 1996 Inspired the Revolution in Libya” ‹ Libyan Council of North America says...

    [...] an article a month ago, Torture and Despair: The Psychic Roots of the Revolution in Tunisia, Egypt and Across the Middle Eas…, I attempted to analyze and understand the symbolic power of the revolutionary movements that were [...]

  16. “Occupy Wall Street”: My Support For Protestors In “Financial Gomorrah Of America” - OpEd says...

    [...] the “War on Terror,” and, of course, on the recent trajectory of protest and revolution, from Tunisia to Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the Middle East, and also in Europe, as manifested in Greece and [...]

  17. Iraq Veteran Scott Olsen, Beaten By Oakland Police, Becomes Symbol Of Occupy Movement - OpEd says...

    [...] rights from public sector unions suddenly discovered that, inspired by the people’s uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, there was a widespread interest in collective resistance to injustice — whether it was [...]

  18. The Year of Revolution: The “War on Tyranny” Replaces the “War on Terror” by Andy Worthington | Dandelion Salad says...

    […] all the brutality associated with unaccountable authoritarian regimes — the movements that were triggered by the single self-immolation of a Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, on December 19 last year, are […]

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