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Could Some of Egypt's Pro-Mubarak Crowds Have Stockholm Syndrome?

With more and more pro-Mubarak supporters clogging Egypt's streets, we have to ask what's motivating them to support a clumsy autocrat.


As pro-Mubarak demonstrators and anti-government demonstrators continue to clash throughout Egypt, many have been guessing at the identities of these pro-Mubarak hordes, who had been practically invisible until Wednesday morning.

New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof said he had no doubt that the Mubarak supporting “thugs,” are government plants, people paid to storm the streets with weapons and unified chanting. CNN agrees, with several reporters having been told by protesters that they’d been ordered to support Mubarak by their bosses.


This explanation—that Mubarak is actually funding his own counter protests—is probably accurate, and it makes sense that few Egyptians not forced to support Mubarak would. But what about that few?

As politics go, trying to get a unanimous vote on presidential elections, especially ones in Arab states, is next to impossible. Just as there’s no way many of the pro-government protesters aren’t paid, there’s also no way that all of the 80 million citizens of Egypt are ready to see Mubarak step down. It’s overreaching to say that every government supporter is a paid thug, and it's unfair to people with real pro-Mubarak beliefs.

Because as it turns out, Mubarak supporters run the gamut. Many are middle and upper class, of course, folks fattened off the rigid class system that made Mubarak a billionaire while millions of Egyptians struggled to buy food. One Yahoo reporter said he spied Mubarak supporters in one middle-class neighborhood “in designer sunglasses and women with expensive hairdos.” More interesting, however, were the pro-Mubarak demonstrators he found in Tahrir Square:

The pro-Mubarak crowds in Tahrir Square were mainly working-class men in their 20s and 30s. Many said they were street vendors and occasional laborers. A smaller number were professionals and shop owners. One group carried pieces of cardboard proclaiming them to be residents of the lower-income neighborhood of Dweika who had come out in support of Mubarak.

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A factory worker said he “feels humiliated” by the protests. "[Mubarak] is the symbol of our country. When he is insulted, I am insulted."

As impossible as it seems, there are poor Mubarak supporters; there are people struggling to pay for food who are still willing to stand up for the man who put them in squalor for decades now. If it sounds shocking, it’s not.

Since the 1970s, psychologists have know about Stockholm syndrome, the psychological phenomenon in which captives learn to appreciate and even like their captors. It’s a well-known affliction, and famous instances of it happening to kidnapping victims are numerous. And while it’s never been applied to explain entire swaths of nations before, perhaps it should be.

Consider the book Revolution on My Mind, a collection of diary entries culled from the journals of people in Stalin’s Russia. Terrified of the totalitarian state, impoverished Russians took to the privacy of their diaries to get out their thoughts. And while you’d probably assume those thoughts would be ones of revolt and violence, in fact, they were anything but:

Rather than protect themselves against totalitarianism, many men and women bent their will to its demands, by striving to merge their individual identities with the collective and by battling vestiges of the old self within. We see how Stalin’s subjects, from artists to intellectuals and from students to housewives, absorbed directives while endeavoring to fulfill the mandate of the Soviet revolution—re-creation of the self as a builder of the socialist society.

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The fact of the matter is that some people like autocrats and dictators and fascists. Some people like regimes that put their heels on citizens’ necks and don’t relent. That may be because those people have been indoctrinated beyond repair, but it’s not always because they’re being paid for their affinities. That reality certainly flies in the face of the American ideal and its unyielding passion for democracy, but it’s the truth.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user efouché

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