Performing Torture / Torture as Performance: The Egyptian Case

The political transformation in Egypt during 2011 and 2012 did not only happen in within the regime, the government and therefore the concept of the state. The citizens also transformed their political roles towards each other and their rapport de force within the society. One model of this transformation is the use of force, physical aggression and torture.

For decades, the Egyptian society was living under a police state that employed systematic torture in order to preserve its power and control over the citizens. Torture was a methodological political tool for the preservation of the regime. A culture of fear ruled. With a social and cultural background that allows, or even stipulates, physical force, beating and general aggression as an educational tool within the family institution and even at school; The Egyptian society refused only the extreme forms of torture practiced by the police. There was not a consciousness of human rights of the citizen, or of citizenship, until the tortures extended to brutal killings. Those brutal killings were one of the triggers of the revolution. Yet, there are no traces whatsoever to those realities within the Egyptian performing arts or the arts in general. Political torture and killings were absent from the scope of representation, mainly because of the state controlled censorship. Nonetheless, they were also – and beyond topic and content – absent from the aesthetics and the temperament of our performance culture because it has been a culture tending to “beautify” reality, to elevate it, to filter it from the ferocity of the daily life. Staged performances were considered as composed and polished facades that do not really convey the emotional, psychological and sensorial realities of the citizens who watch. For several years it was an alienated and alienating theater but maybe this will be soon ending due to the extreme impact that the transformations of reality – and of consciousness – will have on any artistic expression that wants to be grounded within a strong spectatorship.

In 2012 and 2013, the torture extended to the streets, this time by the doings of citizens against each other. There was a massive phenomenon of street violence and torture – and even killings – especially under the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and mainly directed towards those who were “different”. For the first time, and on a massive scale, the citizens broke the monopoly of state torture. One of the most horrible events was the torture next to the presidential palace, where MB friends and allies volunteered to torture and mutilate other citizens who were demonstrating against Morsy. Other events include series of street torture, mutilation and slow killings by neighbors towards each other: The scenes of a body stabbed to death against a tree over two hours of slow killing by several perpetrators, or of another stabbed and burnt and shot, then suspended on a tree, or of another cut from the arms and legs, then stabbed and exhibited on the roof of car, were new “scenes” of what the public perception was receiving, and of what the human consciousness was open to. We can use the events of public torture or outdoor torture in 2012 and 2013 as an example of a public “performance of power”. The expression “performing torture” says it all.

The events/crimes of torture in the public sphere can be seen as scenes and performances offered to an audience. An organic part and necessary condition of public torture and mutilation is that it should be directed towards spectators; It is made to be seen, and scripted in a way that it will hold the attention and create the necessary effect. Even the duration of the act is of extreme importance, hence the reason to delay the final killing and extend the torture. Whether the initial motivation is revenge or exhibiting power, or both, the perpetrators through the act acquire a new superior status within the community, one that is very close to the status of the regime or the state. Torture becomes not only a challenge to the law, but also a challenge to the human conscience. It is both, a transgression of the human conscience and a transgression of order. This transgression establishes a new order when witnessed/accepted by the community/spectators. The act of performance becomes a collective ritual of resurrecting the beast within everybody, a ritual where “watching” is “accepting”, and where “accepting” is “legitimizing”. It is a “performance” because the spectatorship is a prerequisite to achieve the aim of public torture: Without this spectatorship the act of torture looses its value and impact. The exhibition of power cannot be implemented without these two conditions: public sphere and spectatorship. The spectatorship here takes a totally new level; it becomes the legislator of that new conscience. In that case “performing torture” in public sphere would have a historical effect on the conscience of the community, their collective dynamics, and ethics. Torture, mutilation and killing as a public performance are always based on the loss of a human life, a life that is offered as a “sacrifice” for the rising of the collective human beast. It is also important to note that the performance of torture in the public sphere makes that public sphere go under the power of the perpetrator/performer because when a person performs acts of torture he/she acquires supremacy towards the public sphere. It is the supremacy of having control over the human body and soul, a control practiced in public and, therefore, dominating the public sphere and dominating the spectators. The spectators are also transformed into “followers” who are partly threatened by the act and tamed and partly giving approval and becoming allies with the torturer, probably to avoid becoming the next victims. The torturer will always be aware that he/she is “performing”. The focus of the act is not the victim because the victim is not the center of the torture; the center of the torture is the spectator. The victim is just an offering for the completion of the performance/ritual and of the practice of power.

In a culture that is used to the scene of blood and of the slaughtering of sheep and cows in the streets as a religious ritual in the feast of sacrifice (the Islamic Adha feast) – a culture where people do not find it disturbing on the day of the feast to walk on a red ground and to smell blood everywhere – the public and collective acceptance of human torture and slaughtering can be negotiated. If part of the pedagogy of children is to watch the slaughtering of animals and to connect it to religiosity, then we can easily see this pedagogy as an early “training” for future human torture and aggression. Depriving the other from his/her life becomes also a ritual to prove manhood, power, and superiority. The meaning and impact of “public performance” takes a whole new dimension.

The act of torture has become a ritual of passage towards superiority and power under the expense of human life. Yet, the most important consequence of those acts is that the Egyptian consciousness and sensitivity was transgressed, the daily videos and images of street torture are about to change the Egyptian sensibility forever, changing with it the limits of violence, aggression and transgression. The millions of viewers of all the filmed and recorded torture events expand the impact of the street violence to an unimaginable spectatorship.

This impact will be very visible in the performing arts production within the next few years. On one hand, the taste of spectators will be shifting towards topics that connect with their daily issues of power dynamics, victimization, domination, and survival. On the other hand the stage aesthetics will be forced to communicate with that growing culture of cruelty and torture. The traditional tendency to “beautify” reality on stage, or to stage a false consciousness of the Egyptian contemporary culture, will not stand any longer. The staging of the human body in the Egyptian theater will have to take into account the images of the tortured and mutilated bodies that might be calling out for their right to dignity and to justice. The stage can also become a public space to retrieve that justice.

Nora Amin, Egyptian writer, performer and director, is currently IRC-Fellow at the Center.