On the spectacle of violence

AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.Since the eruption of the Arab
revolt, the Arab world has been gripped with unprecedented levels of violence.

With 320,000 dead in Syria as well as the rise of
ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the massacres in Cairo, the Arab world has been
witnessing a period of intense barbaric violence that has mainly been
perpetuated by state or quasi-state actors. The spectacular nature of this
violence demands attention.

In certain cases, it
seems that violence is perpetuated for its own sake, not serving a higher
political goal. Violence in the Arab world has turned into a spectacle, almost
a show between those who inflict the violence and those who witness it.

For example, in 2011
in Syria a 13-year old boy by the name of Hamaz El Khatib was tortured to death. The torture was
extremely gruesome. It included cigarette burns, electrocution and mutilated
genitals. This led to an increase in protests in the city of Daraa, exposing
the political folly of such an action and turning the boy into a symbol for
early civil resistance. The regime, however, continued to use spectacular
methods of torture and violence, including barrel bombs, which led to the death
of thousands of people.

In Egypt, after the
massacre of almost 1000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in broad
daylight, the regime embarked on a campaign of terror of which the latest
victim was the Italian PhD scholar Giulio Regeni. The mutilated body of Regeni
was found in the desert carrying marks that indicate that he had been tortured for
a week, for 10 to 14 hours per day.

Arguably, the most
theatrical forms of violence are perpetuated by ISIS. They have conducted a
number of public beheadings and crucifixions, not to mention other acts of
cruelty such as sexual slavery and mass executions.

Violence under
autocracy is part of daily life in the region, as torture and violence continue
to be perpetuated on a large segment of the citizenry. One only needs to remember Khaled Saeed,
who in 2010 was brutally beaten
to death by two petty security officials in the middleclass area of Cleopatra, in
Alexandria, Egypt.

However, the locus
of state violence has moved away from the goal of regulating society towards
extracting ‘revenge’ on the body of those in opposition in a display of the
wrath of the sovereign. Previously there was a consistent logic of repression,
where the citizenry was aware of the red lines it could not cross and the
repercussions that would ensue if it did.

During the Mubarak
era in Egypt, for example, opposition movements were accepted as long as they
operated within these clearly defined red lines, the most important of which
was not to attack the head of the state. This allowed many opposition movements
to survive under the gaze of the state, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood,
which acted as a domesticated opposition, abiding by the rules of the game and
avoiding direct confrontation.

For example, as long as the Muslim Brotherhood did not attack the regime directly, they were allowed to participate in parliamentary elections and make massive inroads into civil society. Additionally, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, even though the organisation was "officially" banned, seemed safe from arrest; another sign of the implicit understanding between the state and the Brotherhood and the limits of repression. However, if red lines were crossed, repression was quick to follow. In the case of Al-Azhar students demonstrating in "militia-style" outfits in 2006, for example, the regime was quick to arrest them and put them on military trial. They received hefty prison sentences.

This was also evident in Syria even though the Baath regime was a lot less tolerant to the opposition. The clearest example was that of the Damascus Spring in 2000. After the death of Hafez El Assad a number of Syrian intellectuals called for regime reform and the establishment of a multi-party system. The movement was tolerated until 2001, then it was crushed by the regime and all its members arrested.

However, state
violence is rampant now, operating on a random basis and the citizenry are no
longer aware of the red lines.

via GIPHY. Random arrest of passerby in Egypt.

Repression has exceeded its
regulatory function and is driven by a desire for the display of power. It now
includes apolitical individuals innocent in the eyes of the regime or even
regime supporters. For example Fatima Naout, an Egyptian intellectual who supports Sisi, was
sentenced to three years for contempt of religion.

Thus, the old logic
of repression that aimed at changing the opinions of the citizenry through the
creation of a clear and direct connection between the act and punishment has
all but dissolved. Now punishment has moved to focus on the display of power –
on the body of the condemned.

This method of
bodily violence is also clear in the case of Syria. Both the regime and ISIS
have embarked on this technique of repression. This is made clear by the
methods of warfare employed, which involve the use of indiscriminate heavy
weaponry in opposition areas, the most brutal of which is the barrel bomb.

This deliberate
targeting of civilians displays a pattern; no offence against the regime need be
established, merely residing in an opposition-held area is enough to be
targeted and made an example of. One can assume that in many of these areas,
locals have ambivalent feelings about the opposition, especially if they reside
in ISIS held territories. However, this is not taken into account by the Syrian
regime. It follows a logic of 'guilt by association', where everybody is
targeted by the most brutal weapons of war.

Another example is the systematic use of torture until death against thousands of Syrians; an additional display of state power on the bodies of citizens.

Based on this, it is
highly likely that the regime has murdered, tortured and imprisoned many of its
own supporters, since its primary aim is not to regulate society, but rather
display its power and take 'revenge' on the bodies of the citizenry who may not
have even posed a threat.

ISIS uses this
method of spectacular violence extensively with similar aims to those of Arab
autocrats. From public beheading to crucifixion and sex slavery, ISIS is
copying the methods of the Syrian and Iraqi regimes as it claims the title of
“sovereign” in the areas it controls. It uses similar primitive means not only
to build fear in the hearts of the citizenry, but as a method of establishing and
displaying power.

ISIS has relied on this form extreme violence from the start seeing that it failed to create a mass support base beyond its core followers. Thus, a strategy of shock and awe became necessary to ensure political control. The use of public torture to punish minor social infractions, for example, is not only used to plant fear, but also to display their power as sovereign in the areas they control.

This increase in the
use of extreme violence can be attributed to the failure of the different wielders
of power to spread ideological hegemony, where their power would be manifest on
the minds rather than bodies of their subjects. Instead we see non-hegemonic
order based on force rather than consent.

This is clarified in
the below quote by Joseph Marie Servan de Gerbey, a French revolutionary
general:

“A stupid despot may
constrain his slaves with iron chains; but a true politician binds them even
more strongly by the chain of their own ideas. It is at the stable point of
reason that he secures the end of the chain; this link is all the stronger in
that we do not know of how it is made and we believe it to be our own work.
Despair and time eat away the bonds of iron and steel, but they are powerless
against the habitual union of ideas, they can only tighten it still more, and
on the soft fibres of the brain is founded the unshakable base of the soundest
of empires.”

The use of extreme
violence by different actors in the Arab world is due to their failures to
create these durable bonds of servitude, namely the power to dominate the mind
of the citizenry. As such, the only way for the sovereign, or in some cases the
‘would be’ sovereign, to establish power is through violence on the body of his
subjects. Thus, repression becomes more severe with the goal of displaying
power rather than directing social behavior.

This pattern of
repression is a symptom of the nature of Arab political order, where the
different political actors have failed to build a hegemonic vision they can use
to control the citizenry. As the chains of the mind dissolve, the chains of
steel replace them as the only possible way to subdue the citizenry. But as
time passes, these chains are bound to dissolve as well, breaking the power of
the despots once and for all.

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