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Why torture the innocent?

By Wael Eskandar Why would the regime arrest and torture someone if they didn’t do anything wrong or if they can prove their innocence? Such a question seems to be a common logical retort by many Egyptians in response to accusations that the regime, personified in its security and judiciary bodies, carries out gross injustices …

Wael Eskandar
Wael Eskandar

By Wael Eskandar

Why would the regime arrest and torture someone if they didn’t do anything wrong or if they can prove their innocence?

Such a question seems to be a common logical retort by many Egyptians in response to accusations that the regime, personified in its security and judiciary bodies, carries out gross injustices such as random arrests, assault, torture, beatings, illegitimate detention, sexual assault and killing.  At first glance it seems to cast a shadow over irrefutable evidence that the regime is indeed torturing many of its citizens, including the innocent. That is why we must remind ourselves of reality and attempt to answer that question: Why would the regime torture the innocent?

Perhaps the answer to this question is best illustrated in the 1979 film, ‘We’re the bus guys’ where two people are arrested after a fight with the ticket collector on a bus. They are taken to police headquarters and mistakenly transferred with political prisoners to a torture camp. They defend themselves by explaining that there must be some kind of mistake – that they’re the bus guys – but no one cares to listen. The warden doesn’t care either, he doesn’t necessarily disbelieve them but he’s under orders to get confessions out of all prisoners, after all, it’s not like the other political prisoners are more criminal in any way. Torture and humiliation ensue in the name of the country and the reason they ended up there along with the political prisoners gets lost along the way.

The story is set between 1966 and 1967 and is based on true events. Back then, the mukhabarat, Egypt’s intelligence services, were dominant in dealing with political security matters. They told the guards – the torturers – it was necessary to lock these people up, they were enemies of the state and Egypt would triumph if they were held in prison. In 1967, after Egypt was defeated in the Six-Day War, one question haunted the torturers: “Why were we defeated if we locked all the bad guys in?”

The story of the bus guys is the story of the Egyptian regime post 1952 when the free officers enslaved an entire nation. Power was in the hands of a few self-seeking individuals who profiteered from their positions and constantly fought to retain them. It remains very similar to the story today.

The keys to the dynasty changed hands within security services, but the regime’s indifference – and perhaps even contempt for its citizens – carried over. Upon taking over, President Mohamed Anwar Sadat arrested old power brokers within the government in 1971 to empower himself and keep their followers from regaining ground. Sadat attempted to uphold Nasser’s previous promise to end the ‘intelligence state’ by reforming the security apparatus already notorious for its harsh oppressive practises.

Under Sadat, there were moments where such practises were reduced considerably but the targeting of political opponents remained focused and old security practises were revived at various times. Towards the end of Sadat’s reign, state security had been more empowered to deal with the country’s internal politics.

In 1981, officers within the military conspired with extremist Islamists and assassinated Sadat. When Hosni Mubarak became president, more power was granted to the police represented by state security, the sadistic arm of the Mubarak regime. This was partly due to the assassination of Sadat, which meant that the military was not immune to infiltration and that mukhabarat failed to uncover the plot to assassinate the president. Mubarak was also attempting to sideline Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, the defence minister at the time and a popular figure within the ranks of the military.

By the 1980s and 1990s, state security had become so strong that it replaced intelligence as the main driver of the political agenda. Along with other factors, shifting control to the Ministry of Interior allowed one ministry to become both the judge and executioner, and thereby, torture became systematic by spreading inside police stations and over a much wider range of offences not limited to the political.

Under the firm grip of either intelligence services or state security, citizens’ rights and their dignity are disregarded. The current security apparatus is not trained to serve the people, but the regime. But regimes aren’t human and perhaps that is why most members of the security apparatus are dehumanised. On a more practical level, those inflicting the torture are quite separated from those making the arrests; they are taught not to listen and to inflict pain no matter what words are uttered by their victims.

Another way to describe it is that the regime does not care how many innocent lives they destroy, but how many threats to the state are averted irrespective of the cost. There are bound to be a handful of threats amidst the thousands they have arrested and killed. In the end, torturers are not held accountable because orders come from the main agenda drivers who protect the state and, in many ways, are the state. In all likelihood they do not think that torturing innocent people is a mistake in the first place.

The state has been consistent in its approach but the more worrying aspect of today’s Egypt is the silence – and even blessing – in response to such practises. Many have not only turned a blind eye, but even blessed the brutality of the state and created excuses.

Perhaps it is as American philosopher Eric Hoffer says, “The most effective way to silence our guilty conscience is to convince ourselves and others that those we have sinned against are indeed depraved creatures, deserving every punishment, even extermination. We cannot pity those we have wronged, nor can we be indifferent toward them. We must hate and persecute them or else leave the door open to self-contempt.”

Many Egyptians today believe that the police state can help solve the current crisis by offering some sort of stability. Researchers Thomas Plate and Andrea Darvi described it best when they said, “The tragedy of the secret police solution is that it is such a blunt and crude instrumentality that in the name of preserving paradise it winds up creating hell. And when even the moderate critics of the regime are eliminated, incarcerated, exiled, or intimidated, the secret police machine rolls on … Enemies of the regime will be created even if real enemies have long since ceased to exist.”

In the end, the answer to the question as to why the regime would chose to torture the innocent is found in the question itself. It’s because the regime chooses the immoral act of torture in the first place. It is because the security apparatus that is violating the law also controls who is to be held accountable for violating the law. It is because the regime doesn’t really care.

The fact of the matter is that we’re all the bus guys. To be subjected to grave injustice is just a matter of chance. It does not help if you do everything right, abide by whatever laws you can, cheer for the police despite their injustices, or keep to yourself. Sooner or later, you or someone close to you will fall victim to these injustices. By that time, it will not matter to security forces if you had been protesting their rule or cheering them on.

Wael Eskandar is an independent journalist and blogger based in Cairo. He is a frequent commentator on Egyptian politics and has written for Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, Counterpunch, and Jadaliyya, among others. He blogs at notesfromtheunderground.net.

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  • sam enslow

    The security forces are doing as they have been trained to do, protect the State and its rulers. They are a product of the Soviet Era in Egypt and modeled after Stalin’s KGB and Hitler’s Gestapo (which was in itself modeled after the KGB). The influence of the USSR on Egyptian thinking and political, social, and economic systems is ignored by the powers that be. The State and its institutions are to be protected – citizens are to serve them. Today’s love affair with Russia is due to Putin’s affection to that system. This serves the ends of Egypt’s elite. Stalin also had a very good constitution. It was meaningless, a nice piece of paper. The gulag served Stalin’s purpose better, “I have a problem with a man, no man, no problem.” and “It matters not who votes. What matters is who counts the votes.”
    In the US and many Western countries, and other democracies officials take an oath to protect the constitution – not nation, party, or man. In Egypt Stalin’s cult of personality still rules.
    Those in Egypt who justify torture and unjust imprisonment without regard to the rule of law or the protection of human rights are the very same ones who constantly harp about Gitmo. Both are wrong.

  • Ahmed Bata

    We are back to square 1, because we have no bill of rights. Without a constitution that protects us from the excesses of Islamists, second best is a state apparatus that will hopefully have a license to kill. You can take democracy, freedom of speech, economy, and everything else, roll it up, and smoke it. It would be a small price to pay for freedom from political islamists. Where is our Ataturk?

    • sam enslow

      Egyptians voted in favor of the new constitution for stability. If there was a real constitution with checks and balances that enshrined human rights, it would make no difference who held temporary power in Egypt. But in Egypt, it seems constitutions are just window dressing. With a real constitution, any attempts to pass laws against it would fail. In Egypt, the law still means nothing. The institutions and “big men” still rule. “Those who trade Liberty for Security get neither.”

      • Illuminati

        right, window dressing it is. Egyptians talk about virtual things they fail to define
        or quantify. They use clichés quite a lot. You get sick and tired of being
        reminded that Egypt needs to be a state of institutions, and yet, to my
        surprise, no one can truly tell you what these institutions are, what their
        role is, and what should their relationship be to the state. For many Egyptian’s
        the role of institutions is advisory at best, but can’t be regulatory or supervisional.
        I have seen Egyptians educated at the Kennedy School of Government, yet once back in
        Egy, they aren’t much better than the McCarithist TV reporter who is less
        likely to pass a GED

        • sam enslow

          I believe the ‘institutions” part comes from Sadat. I seldom hear mention of “the rule of law” or “separation of powers”. The educational system also tends to teach Carlyle’s “Big Man” theory of history.
          People tend to down-play the lasting impact of the Soviet era in Egypt. Most systems are and institutions are based on the Soviet model. The police force is based on Stalin’s KGB and Hitler’s Gestapo (in turn based on the KGB). Like Soviet citizens, Egyptians must deal with various realities: official; religious; and as experienced in fact. Much of what is said here is “what one should say” and is not a reflection of personal beliefs. Egyptians are more aware of what is happening to them than the government believes, but it takes time to get Egyptians to state their real observations on life (that can be dangerous). Egyptians dealing with reality are the people they want to be, witness Tahrir Square 25 January.

          • Illuminati

            You raise a good point. The influence of soviet
            polity is apparent and is redundantly manifested by current day Nasserites who
            continue to enjoy a strong foothold on decision making in Egypt. I don’t however
            share your optimism about people being “more aware of what is happening to them
            than the government believes”. While they all agreed something was wrong and
            hence went to Tahrir square, the majority lacked a vision on what exactly is
            right. With lack of principles or common denominators, your democracy could be
            like that of Lebanon’s at best.

          • sam enslow

            We get smaller and smaller!
            Do not forget that the revolution started out as a protest against the police – not to remove Mubarak. The people of Tahrir wanted in final analysis to be treated like human beings. They were nor “revolutionaries” seeking to destroy the system or institutions. That happened. They did trust “the wise old heads” to make the necessary corrections in how the government operates, especially the police. Everyone sold them out. This combined with their almost total ignorance of politics, their own real history, and xenophobia to make their quest a failure. No JFK came to capture the spirit of Tahrir and work with it. Now I fear the real, destructive and bloody revolution. That may be a requirement of a revolution. The old guard never gets the message. During the American, French, and Russian revolutions, the ancient regimes were offered opportunities to reform/change course. They always doubled down on the very behaviors that lead to the initial protests. I fear this for Egypt also.

          • Illuminati

            Ukraine gives me hope !

    • Illuminati

      Last time you
      responded to my discussion, you indicated your knowledge of Finance. So let me
      use a Finance analogy. FREE Markets DO in fact Self-Correct. Bubbles
      burst automatically and the market returns to its key levels in the event it
      had gotten overheated. No one can “protect” you in the free market,
      and the idea of saviors doesn’t exist. When market participants feel the market
      is headed towards a bubble, they react, through free market operations, which
      collectively derives the market to where the majority has decided it should
      fairly be. Similarly, in democracies, we, citizens, similar to market
      participants, self correct in the event we, in majority and collectively, feel
      that our leadership is headed towards a place we don’t favor. We
      self correct through open market operations also, called voting. Ataturk’s
      secular turkey that bans head covers is just as bad as a state that tells women
      what is appropriate to wear.

  • Ahmed Bata

    this is the heart and soul of the middle east issue. Islamists don’t play ball. they do what it takes to gain power, then apply “sharia law”, destroy any opposition, and take over the state apparatus. Name one islamist government in the history of the world that has voluntarily given up power? I only of of 1, and that is Tunis. It happened there after threat from the secularists, and after seeing the example of Egypt’s nakba, when morsi refused to hold early elections. In order to change this overriding struggle for Islamic hegemony, you have to be willing to have monitors in every mosque, and arrest any Imam, the minute he speaks about politics. you have to reinterpret all that came before, weed out the majority of suspect ahadiths, kill a few million die hards, etc… or you can do it Ataturk’s way, which has lead to the only semi renaissance Islam has had in centuries. In order to have Islam prosper, you have to set Muslims free. They are currently under threat from every self proclaimed authority, and from their governments. Living in the USA (I think) you know how much Muslims can prosper when given their freedom Ahmed.

    • Illuminati

      Well, you make few good points. But here is where I don’t share your views. In the US, I hear claims that Muslims are trying to establish Sharia law. As this never really occurred to me as a moot possibility, I dismiss the absurdity of such claims as egregious fear mongering. It isn’t substantiated.

      Back to polity, I don’t see a secular-religious struggle in Egy, although we are struggling to shape our identity. However, this is a power struggle between political groups one of which has an “Islamist” background, which makes it more conservative than the rest. So yes, you and I may agree that the 2012 constitution had some articles that could potentially be put to test if confronted with someone’s secular identity, etc etc. But note that a constitution needs laws and statutes without which its ink on paper. These laws would have taken years to debate in a democratically elected house. A non MB majority in a house could also repeal or amend any constitutional articles as needed (the US constitution had 27 amendments).

      As we evolve, it will be a matter of time until the 60+ parties who are more of decorative ensemble to reorganize and regroup, and take stands on public matters while eyeing the interest of their constituents who elect them in FAIR elections. Also remember that removing Islamists from an election they won is similar to not letting secularists enter the race in , say Iran, both are as bad. A point to note also is that religious movements can still influence policies even when not in power; examples, Dry movement lead to prohibition in the 1920’s US, and Tea party which while focused on fiscal responsibility now isn’t immune from diverting its attention to moral and social issues, and more notably, wahabis in Saudi. So risk of getting conservatives remains and Atatork’s Turley eventually elected the FJP.

      As per one country where Islamist gained power and relinquished, I’d agree it’s one because it is only in one where Islamist were elected to
      power. Unless you count Saudi, whose officials aren’t elected, or Iran, whose election system is the Islamic opposite of what you are suggesting above, there aren’t many others.For Egy, we both now what happened !

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