12 February, 2009

Costs and Benefits of Repression

After the release of Philip Rizk, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information is rightly calling for Egyptian security to be held to account, describing the mental abuse Philip was subjected to while being held captive:

Interviewed by ANHRI, Philip said, “I was repeatedly questioned about everything and I was terrified. Although I was not abused physically, I was blind-folded all the time. Officers kept saying to me: "Do you know what we can do to you?", and I was threatened with long term imprisonment. They asked me if I supported Hamas, was working for Israel, and, being Christian, if I was an evangelist. I was never informed of any charges against me.”

Besides these threats directed towards Philip, there was also the disturbing refusal to give any information to lawyers, friends and family members about his location, health condition, or why he was being detained. This was a deliberate tactic, of course. The act of "disappearing" someone, whether it's for a short period of a few days, or permanently, is in itself a calculated and cruel method of torture and intimidation, targeting family, friends, and other activists. It leaves them in a painful state of uncertainty, which also amplifies the effect of further threats. As Sarah Carr writes in a powerful post on her blog:

It is remarkable how little effort the footmen of a police state have to put into intimidation. The mere suggestion of a threat, of danger, is enough. The invisible scarecrow.

The strategy works because of the not knowing, the waiting, which entirely consumes novices. Every act, every decision, every word is suddenly imbued with a new significance. Immediately after the threat is received, things seem to speed up somehow, and the outside world retreats – or is blocked out - a little. External sounds become distant as the deafening fear courses through the bloodstream from the stomach and the heart until it reaches the head, where it sits like spilt oil on seawater, choking hope and happiness and normal thought. And in that moment they've won.

The Egyptian regime is clearly displaying an amount of irrational paranoia regarding anything related to Gaza. But it also seems to me that the tactics of State Security during the last few days has been carefully calculated in order to have maximal intimidation effect, especially on the foreigners who took part in the Gaza solidarity March on Friday, while causing the least possible amount of international criticism. As many others have suggested, this may have been why they singled out a dual national from the participants in the March.

This balancing act, weighting the costs and benefits of repression, is something the Mubarak regime has spent almost 30 years mastering. This time they may have miscalculated, since they could not imagine the amount of solidarity and media attention directed to the case. But in the long run, the discouraging effect this episode may have on foreigners otherwise inclined to join protests or political media-stunts in Egypt under the cover of the protection granted to them as holders of European or US passports, might still be regarded as a benefit that outweights the short-term political cost.

And needless to say, the fact that the regime can arrest thousands of opposition activists or try people in military courts merely for visiting Gaza in solidarity (leaving and returning to your own country beeing a basic Human Right) withouth causing any international uproar, shows that the cost-benefit analysis still works to the advantage of the regime. If change is to happen in Egypt, this equation need to be altered.

1 comment:

  1. Regardless if the International Solidarity Movement will take root or not, there is something to win by building on a succession of campaigns like the one Philip had--would be nice to show solidarity to all detainees--, or by having strong international solidarity. Non-Egyptians are at an advantage here. I have taken part in a couple of demonstrations in front of State Security, but I have to say that 20 people deciding to go there without much thinking and getting away easily is certainly an advantage. More of this is useful.