There is no doubt that there are important differences in cultural structures and historical heritage in every Arab country. But despite these differences, totalitarian regimes across the region repeat and reproduce the same mechanisms of repression they subject their people to. This is because the very structure of these regimes and the power apparatuses, which maintain them, are informed by the same processes of development and growth and share a similar psychological foundation. Totalitarian regimes are incapable of making sense of all that surpasses their means and tools of repression.
In another sense, there is little doubt that there are radical differences between revolutions in terms of structure, degree of intensity, causes and effects and such other factors. However, it is possible to find common denominators and some similarities in the generic causes, which promoted them in the first place, and in the primary goals that they aim to achieve.
Revolutions that have taken place in different parts of the world and in different historical periods were generally speaking the outcome of a conscious fermenting effort bottled up as a result of a collective experience of diverse hardships and sufferings. If we look carefully into the underlying mechanism of revolutions, we can deduce that such events take place following different stages of unconscious buildup.
Individual subjects begin first of all with the silent but conscious observation and survey of their social problems. They try to find the best ways to resolve them through the institutions of civil society where applicable and whenever they are found in countries that enjoy a minimum degree of freedom. But in case such institutions are lacking or when intellectual diversity is repressed the condition of conscious observation and the channeling of unrest caused by social ills into institutional reform become difficult. In the latter condition, individuals find themselves dealing with a political system controlled by a totalitarian vision and a singular orientation to the exclusion of diversity in thoughts and feelings.
Totalitarian regimes derive their strength (and shall I add weaknesses) from the systematic repression of any individual attempt to develop an independent line of thinking or individual initiatives to find solutions to social problems without appealing on the intervention of governmental institutions. Totalitarian regimes usually reward such initiatives with severe physical and psychological punishment.
Individual expression seeking to make things better through active agency and independent initiative can easily become so marginalized in totalitarian regimes to the point that it is confused with another form of general frustration and outbursts of anger caused by the systematic repression of libidinal forces and drives. Individual subjects trapped in the iron grip of a despotic regime suffer from acute psychological pathologies. Their frustration may even express itself in perverse forms and striking contradictions. On the one hand, subjects try to convince themselves that there is no way out of their current situation and that they have to surrender to fate in order to survive. Their surrender is a form of apathy, partly conscious and deliberate. These subjects can even adopt the same slogans disseminated by their repressive governments as a form of compensation for their feeling of lack and the impossibility of self-fulfillment and realization.
With such apparatus of repression and systematic marginalization, despotic regimes seek to destroy individual identity and intellect. They perversely fortify the individual against his or her own desires, and aspirations. In this context we can note the importance of religious institutions, which are effectively used to cultivate religious extremism. Despotic regimes are well aware that their very existence is linked to the systematic stifling of individuals intellectually and psychologically.
If we take the Syrian regime as an example to illustrate this phenomenon and look into its relentless effort across numerous decades to attract fundamentalist religions to Syria, we can see how its relative success in maintaining its grip on Syrian society is indeed based on this double game whereby it presents itself as a secular government and limits the freedoms of selected fundamentalist Islamic groups that openly disapprove of its policies. But on the other hand, the same regime contributes actively to the propagation of the culture of religious fundamentalism on a wider popular scale. By doing so, the regime can legitimize the exclusion and repression of religious groups with anti-governmental agenda.
The same double standards and duplicitous policies are pursued by the Syrian regime in its foreign policy and contributed actively to the dissemination of information and ideas that could not be further from the reality on the ground or the hidden agenda of its policies. The regime has succeeded in convincing its people and other countries in the region that it is on the side of the repressed and colonized people of the region and that it is the beating heart of Arab nationalism. Its propaganda consists in the propagation of slogans supported by a few media stories and official statements. But the truth is that the same regime does not bat an eyelid when it comes to presenting any necessary concessions and compromises (to its real or imaginary enemies) in order to remain in power.
The regime has also worked hard on reinforcing the idea of conspiracy and magnified the external threat from neighboring countries to compensate its people for their repressed desires. A Syrian citizen is fooled into thinking that they have a great importance in the region, that their usurped ego is collective rather than individual. This collective ego is represented in total harmony with the identity of the regime. The idea of conspiracy and external threat is a psychological sedative, which account for the general condition of surrender and complacency among many Syrian citizens.
The Syrian people are not the only nation in the region or across the world that is controlled by the trick of conspiracy and external threat. The same political strategy is used by other totalitarian regimes and more specifically by groups with religious affinities whose ideologies go against the principles of life, change and progress. Conspiracy theory is the only cure for a people who have nothing new to contribute to humanity and who can no longer understand that which is different from their system of knowledge and beliefs. There is no doubt that there are conflicting interests among nations and countries that are seeking to extend their power and control over one another but totalitarian regimes usually resort to the systematic repression of their own citizens in the name of such pursuits at the level of foreign policy.
In order for us to understand the intricate psychological mechanism whereby oppressed people adopt and embrace the oppressive slogans and vocabulary of the regimes that rule over them, we can refer to the theory of Robert Zajonc on the ‘mere exposure effect’. According to Zajonc, repeated exposure to a given idea can turn this idea into a stimulus with a lasting effect. The brain dictates the act of choice of this or that stimulus. In other words the mere repetition of an idea makes it more acceptable to its receiver and can even turn it into a truth and a reality for them and especially when it coincides with their emotional impulses and other psychological motivations (as in punishment or reward). At this point, the individual mind loses its ability to see the reality with detachment and clarity.
The deeper a totalitarian regime sinks into its despotic practices, the more it resorts to imitating the strategies and apparatuses of religious systems of beliefs. This strategy allows totalitarian regimes to enslave all the constituent elements of the society it rules. The Syrian regime is a good example on how this logic works. The attempt to turn the head of state into a symbol and a cult figure worshipped by individuals who live through and for the ‘leader’ is in reality grounded in psychological foundations. The aim is to dissolve the individual ego in the symbolic image of the leader and to unite the latter with his subjects in the same structure of feelings subsequently reproduced and reinforced through media propaganda. At times, and rather paradoxically, a feeling of individual identity comes as a perverse result of this mechanism of identification. This false identity is at times reinforced through rewards and privileges, which in reality are nothing, but trifles compared with the unlimited wealth and privilege the regime reserves to itself.
Let us go back to the preliminary unconscious stages, which precede and then lead to revolutionary outbreaks. After outlining a sample of mechanisms of psychological repression to which individuals are subjected, we deduced how such repressive apparatuses can reach a degree of perversion whereby the repressed subjects willingly and consciously embrace the slogans and logic of their oppressors to become instruments of their own and others’ repression.
However, the individual’s unconscious remains unaccepting of this alienating condition and tries to find a way out of this psychological crisis. This is the stage of unconscious fermentation, a violent inner struggle between the individual’s ego and the individual’s unconscious desire. This struggle can become a shared condition among several individuals who belong to the same cultural context. This unconscious struggle becomes a collective drive that takes the shape of a group therapy and a collective attempt to find a solution and a cure to an unbearable situation. As we know in psychoanalytic theory, the unconscious is constantly striving to find ways to alleviate its suffering and to deal with negative impulses and drives bottled up by a mechanism of repression and lack. This highly tense condition can erupt into a violent event with the slightest external incident. At that point, repressed and accumulating impulses burst out gradually and then take a collective and conscious form of action seeking a radical change.
Revolutions are then initially an unconscious effort whose driving forces and shared psychological desires of individuals have gradually accumulated to unite at a later stage and take a more conscious shape in pursuit of a radical change without any prior political or social structures to accommodate the desired changes.
At this crucial stage the role of intellectuals and experts becomes essential in order to fortify and guide this collective a-political and a-social desire for change. A theoretical framework needs to be developed in order to support revolutionary social movement and help them overcome the turmoil of the revolutionary period and its ensuing stages. The aim of such intellectual intervention is not to contain the revolutionary impulse, but rather to provide a forward-looking vision and to prepare the grounding principles of diversity for future political and social activities.
It is doubtless that revolutions are also capable of releasing counter-revolutionary impulses, which go against its founding principles and initial goals. We have seen similar issues arising in the aftermath of the Tunisian and then Egyptian revolutions. The striking offensive and general mobilization of religious fundamentalism in both countries shows how revolutionary movements in the region are still under the threat of being hijacked and how their aspirations towards democracy can easily be jeopardized. Political Islam can easily compromise the true reasons, which fomented the revolutionary impulse in the region and can pervert the popular movements seeking individual freedoms of choice and expression into new means of repression not very different from the ones used by their ousted despotic governments.