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Egyptians' Stockholm Syndrome

Egypt's former President Hosni MubarakThe condition of incompleteness of the Arab Spring must have acquainted readers and observers with the Turkish concept of “deep state”. For a reminder, the concept refers to the idea of a state within a state or, in other words, to the existence of hidden remnants of the old state within the new one.

The nature of the deep state is antagonistic to popular revolts and radical change. Its structure makes the shift from dictatorship to transparent democracy difficult and complex. Here, rather than analyzing the many deep forces at work in safeguarding the benefits and interests of the old state within the emergent one, I will take a look at the main psychological factor that is driving a lot of Egyptians away from the spirit of their revolution, namely nostalgia for the abuser or, more formally, the Stockholm Syndrome.

The Stockholm Syndrome refers to situations where victims end up sympathizing with their victimizers. History has seen many such situations. In the American Civil War, for instance, the slaves of the South fought against the North which had passed the law of the emancipation of Slavery. In 1933, in Missouri, Mary McElroy was abducted at the age of 25 by two brothers asking for ransom money. The ransom was paid and she was returned, unharmed. Later, the brothers were discovered and brought to trial. The older brother was sentenced to death but Mary went to court and publicly defended him, pleading successfully for clemency. After the trial, Mary suffered many nervous breakdowns. Leaving a suicide note in which she stated that her captors were the only people who treated her well, she took her own life in 1940.

Yet, the case that made renowned criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot coin the term Stockholm Syndrome is just some 40 years old. Back in 1973, a Stockholm bank was besieged and a number of its employees were kidnapped by a group of masked men. A few of the hostages were indeed killed. Ironically, at the end of a six-day captivity, several of the hostages resisted attempts to rescue them by the police and later refused to testify against their captors. They had somehow developed a kind of empathy and sympathy towards the source that threatened their personal safety. From then onwards, the term Stockholm Syndrome has been used to explain the behavior of those who feel positively towards the hand that beats them.

Without going too much into the details of psychology, the Stockholm Syndrome happens when one becomes conditioned or brainwashed through emotional trauma. If a person makes us feel strongly emotional in some way or if we become dependent on them during a time of intense emotions, then those strong emotions may glue an attachment in place between us and the person, a connection that tips over into sympathy or even love. In the same way, we can misinterpret the importance of someone who appears to be indispensible for us—through the power they exercise over us or the control of our basic needs—and an inevitable intimacy with and dependence on them are forced upon us. We forget that our efforts to obey are due to our helplessness and we attribute them to the importance we feel someone has for us.

Social scientists have identified cases of the Stockholm Syndrome among concentration camp prisoners, prisoners of war, cult members, abused children, pimp-procured prostitutes, incest victims, battered women, hostages and other individuals involved in intimidating relationships. To this, we can add the case of iron-fisted rulers. When an autocrat has total control over our basic needs such as food and safety, we develop warm feelings towards them. However brutal they might be, they become “parental” to us and we find excuses for their tyranny and manipulation all the while becoming hooked on the intensity of the relationship.

The Stockholm Syndrome is particularly relevant to describe how a large portion of Egyptian society feels towards its ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak these days. Let’s not forget that the man has always been in the black list of Amnesty international, Human Rights Watch and many other non-governmental organizations. His era is mostly remembered for The Emergency Law that provided a legal basis for illegal detentions and unjust trials. He allowed the police and security forces to use torture and brutality at police checkpoints, on the streets and in people’s homes. He issued laws that restricted freedom of expression and that punished by fines or imprisonment those criticizing the president who always won the elections by an absolute majority. Reporters Without Borders recorded many cases of continued harassment and imprisonment of journalists under his rule. In addition, he is currently facing charges of complicity in the killing of nearly 900 protesters during the 2011 uprising that toppled him. When public funds were expected to alleviate the suffering of the critical masses of Egypt, he turned their course to known and hidden foreign bank accounts belonging to him and his family.

However, on the day of Mubarak’s first trial, crowds of people gathered in front of the court insisting on his innocence and bursting into tears after the announcement of the life sentence, a verdict that enraged the revolutionaries who were expecting no less than a death sentence. Now, two years after the revolution that overthrew him, but not his legacy, Mubarak is released from prison and placed under house arrest. And you have to see the happiness of the crowd of well-wishers that gathered outside the prison to hail the release of the man who caused them thirty years of extreme poverty, injustice and marginalization.


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