It was just after Friday prayers, the warm winter sun hesitantly promised serenity once more to the cabinet sit in that had been attacked by ‘thugs.’ A makeshift hospital was hastily, and unwisely, set up on Sheikh Youssef street next to the American Embassy. I lingered around the hospital, making sure the injured were patched up and stitched, but there was something not right about the horrifying silence I noticed in the rubble that surrounded me.
The heaps of furniture thrown on protesters from the roof of the parliament building indicated that more violence was on the way. War drums started to beat hard on the green iron bars, signaling an attack. I was still on a side street of Sheikh Youssef, so I had to visualize the assailants before I got a chance to face them. In all honesty, I was blown away by the appearance of the aggressors and their attitude this time round. I had not seen this bunch in any of the previous clashes I had survived.
I was trying to make the life or death decision of whether to run or just stay put. Everything in me froze the moment I saw that the attackers were actually a troop of Armed Forces special officers. I am used to sympathizing with the regular poor and skinny conscripts, but these oddly dashing, muscular army men, showing off their strength, orderly discipline and thirst for blood just pushed my “you have to run” button.
Just like the rest of my comrades and fellow protesters, I have been over time “conditioned” into being calm when clashing with central security forces, or even the military police. Each confrontation resulted in victims and martyrs from our side of course, but I was under the impression that we had broken the fear of confronting these two groups of uniformed thugs. But this was the first time I faced a “mazalat,” or a “777” unit attack, and I must admit they seemed more complex in nature, more lifeless and less vulnerable and human.
I watched them beat every person in sight and deflect stones thrown at them with strange looking baseball bats, as if they were in some sort of tournament. They ganged up on women and dragged them in a parade to honor their role model and boss, who headed the Supreme Council of Military Forces. They finally reached the hospital, flattening it to the ground.
My mind could not help but drift to the Maspero massacre and the red caps of the military police that crushed and killed more than 27 Christian protesters. The word “Kafara” (infidels), as they dubbed us that bloody night of October 9, was ringing in my ears, when all of a sudden it was replaced by a new tag: “Whores of enemies of the state.”
Approaching me, he kept on repeating this to my face before he reached my hair. I could hear the phrase, “whores of enemies of the state,” echoing all over the street, since there were many women protesters that afternoon. The assailants appeared to be conditioned to label us all with this phrase.
Each clash was unique in its verbal abuse and threats, even before the firing began. A “kafra” in one, “whores” in another, military haters, Muslim Brotherhood terrorists. These are only some of the tags that dehumanized us and made us legitimate targets. Luckily, I resisted the violent response these tags were meant to trigger.
I reflected a lot about the use of labels with every round of clashes. Dehumanizing us and portraying us as targets made a lot of sense. The use of such phrases are necessary to aid the police and military personnel in demonizing their opponents, making us seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment.
Dehumanization is a psychological process whereby opponents view each other as less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration. De-humanizing the other can result in their moral exclusion, so those excluded can be viewed by society as criminal, evil or inferior, and these beliefs can in turn permit and perpetuate violence.
Society typically thinks that innocent people should not be murdered, raped, or tortured. International law suggests that people should be treated justly and fairly, with dignity and respect. Everyone deserves to have their basic needs met, and to have some freedoms and autonomy in making decisions. Even in times of war, at the height of hatred, parties must take care to protect the lives of innocent civilians on the opposing side, according to International Law. But Israel has gotten away with the killing of children in Gaza, perhaps by excluding Gazans from the moral context of International Relations and Human Rights by tagging them “Hamas.”
For individuals viewed outside the scope of morality and justice, meeting basic needs and standards of fair treatment often seem inapplicable and even irrelevant. Any harm that befalls such individuals seems not only warranted but even morally justified.
In the lead up to the Maspero massacre, Abasseya clashes, Mohamed Mahmoud and Rabea, the regime successfully de-humanized the target group protesting and excluded them morally, so that the atrocities committed against them could be justified. Many believed it was the Christians who attacked the army and therefore deserved being flattened to the ground.
Whenever we yelled: “But what about human rights?” we were usually told that those who died are by definition excluded from such a notion. Both Al-Azhar and the Church have often given their blessings to such atrocities in the name of nationalism. Recently, Pope Tawadros has attacked the concept of human rights itself, dubbing it “selfish.” Despite his own theological belief that Jesus was sacrificed for the rights of humans and out of love, he went as far as saying that Human Rights don’t apply while fighting terror.
During the course of conflict, our perception of the other is shaped by feelings of fear, anger and distrust. We start attributing negative traits to our opponent, to the extent that we start viewing them as an evil enemy lacking moral value, or even as an ultimate danger to our existence. This is how an “enemy image” of our opponent is created in the lead up to the dehumanization process.
Prior to the gassing of the Jews by the Nazis, their propagandists and mass manipulators worked on creating an “enemy image” of Jews, so that, by the time the real atrocities took place, many regarded this as a “nationalistic” need to defend the father-land, or a war between good and evil that must end in the eradication of this evil race.
“De-individuation” is a process that aids dehumanization simply by grouping or categorizing individuals. Once de-individuated, a person seems less than fully human and can be viewed as less protected by social norms against aggression than those who are individuated. Following the toppling of Mubarak, revolutionaries faced de-individuation, making contentious moves and severe actions taken against this group easier to rationalize and accept.
De-individuated revolutionaries are constantly subjected to demonizing through the smearing of the group’s influential figures. The surfacing of the private calls of activists on pro-regime television channels, the blackmailing of other activists with the threat of leaking their private conversations and even life-style choices. The character assassination of prominent activists, such as Alaa Abd El Fattah and Ahmed Doma, are just a couple of examples of the tactics used by the regime to de-individuate activists into a target group worthy of prosecution.
Once the regime succeeded in stigmatizing us as evil, morally inferior, and not fully human, our persecution became more psychologically acceptable, even permitting people to do things that they would have regarded as morally unthinkable before. The sexual assaults on male and female activists has become more institutionalized than ever, due to the demonization, allowing society to morally exclude them from basic human rights.
Dehumanizing Muslim Brotherhood and Rabea sit-in protesters led to a mandate to kill and a carte blanche to cleanse around a thousand Egyptians. Dehumanizing the Maspero protesters would have lead to a bigger sectarian massacre, if people had not seen for themselves that the military lied and that television channels incited violence. I recall meeting a Salafist the night of October 9 who told me, “I came to Maspero fueled with anger towards Copts and to aid the military against the protesters, but ended up aiding the Copts instead and I helped move the wounded and the dead to the Coptic Hospital.” This same night, the hospital itself was attacked by thugs and many Christians were chased in the streets and were beaten up, but luckily it all ended by the morning, as the truth came out and people discovered they were being played by their military and its media.
Killing a dehumanized target is obviously easier than killing a person with a story, a life and a face. Assailants, however, just like their victims are also prone to becoming traumatized. Many of those who pulled the trigger have been haunted by the faces of those they killed once they started seeing them as human again, whether subconsciously, consciously or following a revelation. One of the low-ranking officers involved in the Rabea massacre told me: “I opened fire and I don’t know who of those traitors I killed, however, in the months that followed I started dreaming of Asmaa al-Beltagy and it terrifies me to even think I could have been the one who killed such an angelic looking soul. It was seeing her picture on Facebook and it triggered my flashbacks and nightmares.”
Conditioned to kill the dehumanized me
When people are frightened or angry, they will do what they have been conditioned to do reflexively without rationalizing, analyzing or questioning. In fire drills, we learn to file out of a building in orderly fashion. One day there may be a real fire, and we may be frightened out of our wits. But we will do exactly what we have been conditioned to do. It is in such situations that acting reflexively saves our lives. This type of conditioning that involves matching a particular stimulus to a particular response is called “operant conditioning.”
Conditioning military or police, by subjecting them to repetitive stimulus-response patterns, produces subjects who shoot reflexively and even shoot to kill. Repetition will condition anyone to act in a certain way when they are subjected to fear or the need to act without thinking, more so if the environment is viewed as hostile and if they have already learned to de-humanize their fellow humans.
At the cabinet sit-in, the officers and conscripts were informed that we were the “enemy of the state.” Such a belief appears to have been the stimulus to which they had to respond reflexively. The phrase was used to dehumanize us and help them identify us as a target, triggering an automatic response. For the past couple of years, targets were tagged as infidel Copts, thugs of Mohamed Mahmoud, Salafis of Abbaseya and terrorists of Rabea, and it seems all these tags were associated with the same response: “Shoot to kill!”
In the military or the police, you are immediately confronted with a role model who personifies violence. Along with military heroes, these violent role models have always been used to influence impressionable minds. A conscript or an officer would copy the role model in an attempt to become closer to being special and not just a number. There is even the dream of becoming a hero like your role model. This aids the conditioning process, as one slowly lets go of any instinct to resist the conditioning or rationalize the response.
Another type of conditioning that plays an important role in killing by making it pleasurable or permitted is “classical conditioning.” It is like the famous case of Pavlov’s dogs we learned about in school. The dogs learned to associate the ringing of the bell with food, and, once conditioned, the dogs would salivate reflexively at the sounding of the bell.
The Japanese were masters at using classical conditioning in training their soldiers. Early in World War II, Chinese prisoners were tied up and placed in a ditch on their knees. One by one, Japanese soldiers would go into the ditch and bayonet a prisoner to death. Up on the bank, other soldiers would cheer them on in their violence. By making the others watch and cheer, the Japanese were able to use these kinds of atrocities to classically condition many into associating pleasure with human death and suffering. Immediately after watching and cheering for blood, the soldiers who had been spectators were treated to the best meal they had had in months, and so-called “comfort girls.” As a result, they learned to associate violence with pleasure.
If operant conditioning teaches you to kill, it is the subtle but powerful classical conditioning that teaches you to enjoy it. Combining both mechanisms ensures reflexive killing with a belief of being on a moral high ground. Those conditioned to kill the de-humanized are under the impression that the nation is under threat and that they are at the front line of protecting the nation, just like their role model. They also believe people will be grateful for what they are doing. However, they themselves become de-humanized in the process and transformed into machines. Such a cycle is perpetuated by the explicit public approval of such actions, and, of course, the blessing of the media and the men of religion aiding the state and ensuring the death of morality.
Maged Boulis, the army officer dubbed by many the “Lion of Tahrir,” defied his masters and protected the square on February 2, during the epic Battle of the Camels. Many protesters spoke of how he helped them escape torture in the museum on March 9. Some of those closely connected with a group of officers, who protested against the military rule in April 2011, known as “April 8th officers” have told me that Boulis will never see the light of day again, as he is being punished for going against what he was conditioned to do. He has not appeared in public since and an investigative piece on what happened to the lion who defied the master, in my opinion, is long overdue.
One of the greatest Egyptian movies of all time is Al-Bareei (The Innocent). It tackles the uprising of January 1977, known as “The Bread Uprising,” focusing on the transformation of man into a killing machine that serves the regime. It explores the notions of de-humanization, conditioning and the possibility of unlearning it. Ahmed, the conscript has been conditioned into torturing and killing the “enemies of the state.” He was forced to question the process and the master. The phrase that once stimulated him into such violent responses was the same phrase that de-conditioned him.
The newcomer to the political prison where he was posted was his childhood friend and mentor, the one who taught him everything about loving his nation. But now his superiors and master were telling him otherwise. He was being told that his role model deserved torture because he was one of the enemies of the state he was taught to hate. Ahmed thinks there is some mistake, that they had the wrong guy. He tries to reconcile these thoughts, between his master and his mentor. He tries to convince his superiors they’ve made a mistake this time, but when they’re adamant, he finally stands up to his conditioning. He resists obedience, starts questioning the master and declares himself and his targets human once more.
One indeed can unlearn what one once learned. The movie highlights the notion that refusing to obey and to dehumanize others means that you yourself are likely to become the target: the stimulus to a response. Even if such an end is inevitable, however, then Ahmed, at least, chose to save his soul instead of his life.
The dehumanization of the nation means we become both the target and the shooter. We are the condemned victims as we engage in this circle of blood. We alternate between roles, but whichever we become in this cyclic dehumanization is still part of the game, and once you’ve started, your life may be the price you have to pay if you want out.
The only path I can see out of this game, the only way for redemption, would be not to engage or start playing to begin with, but in order to break the whole cycle we must all collectively embrace resistance and rebelling. This remains one of the few possible paths to our nation’s salvation from the demise bestowed upon us by obedience.
Hope remains for an uprising against conditioning and dehumanization, to an alternative and more hopeful ending to the story. The masses have risen time and time again to end this deadly game that we have all been conditioned to play, but only through understanding that both the oppressor and the oppressed are part of this game can we crawl out of it.