Egypt and Syria have been “disappearing” their citizens. This is why countries do it

Human rights organizations recently reported that activists in Egypt have disappeared after they were stopped at government checkpoints. In Syria, the regime has disappeared thousands in the midst of its brutal civil war. Repressive states in the Middle East have increasingly added the “disappearing” of regime opponents to their means of violence.

Enforced disappearance is the state’s refusal to acknowledge that it is holding a person it has detained or to disclose the fate of that person. The United Nations has documented more than 55,000 disappearances in 107 countries since 1980, with the practice spreading across countries over time.

Disappearing opponents may seem like an effective means to squash a threat to the regime — especially for regimes under the watchful gaze of human rights organizations that might disappear citizens to hide their repression. But it is not that simple. Regimes known to have inflicted disappearances, such as in Guatemala and El Salvador, flagrantly used overt forms of violence at the same time.

Countries also differ in how they use this tactic. Despite facing similar opposition to their 1970s military regimes, Argentina disappeared at least 10,000 citizens, while Uruguay disappeared only a few dozen. Why are some regimes willing and others unwilling to disappear opponents in carrying out violent repression?

My research shows that states use disappearances — as opposed to other forms of repression — when they cannot “read” the nature of their opposition. States use disappearances when they see their opponents as having wide but shallow support, making it difficult to identify who supports or might join the opposition. The regime are attempting not only to coerce a few activists but to broadly demobilize the opposition.

This is not just punishment for lawbreakers. It is intimidation of broad sectors of society to demobilize them. To achieve efficient and enduring intimidation, states apply the rationale of hostage-taking to coerce opponents. They disappear citizens to gain the family’s and acquaintances’ compliance with their demands. Just as in kidnapping, the state holds coercive leverage by physically holding the victim, cutting off other avenues to free the victim except compliance — and having leverage as long as the victim is believed to be alive.

Families often cannot accept that the victim is dead without proof. Uncertainty keeps the family’s hope alive, preserving the state’s coercive leverage over time. Because the family is left in the dark as to the victim’s fate, relatives tend to believe that the victim might be alive and could still suffer. They are reluctant to resist the state.

Family members of victims often live in a culture of fear and avoid politics. Disappearance is efficient because one disappearance can intimidate many opponents. It is enduring because the victim’s family and friends remain intimidated as long as the fate of the victim remains undisclosed.

State repression in Turkey can illustrate these dynamics. In the 1980 coup, the Turkish military attempted to violently crush the opposition but did not carry out systematic disappearances, with only six documented during 1980 and 1981. By contrast, in the broad repression in the early 1990s to crush the PKK insurgency, the state carried out systematic disappearances of at least 850 people during the peak of the conflict from 1992 to 1995.

The coup in 1980 came in response to the political instability and violence of the late 1970s, waged by a multiplicity of radical leftist, ultranationalist and separatist urban guerrilla groups. Between 1976 and 1980, 5,042 people were killed as a result of violence among these groups and between them and the security forces. The years preceding the coup saw an extraordinary level of political and economic instability.

The Turkish state’s repression in the Kurdish provinces increased in the 1990s as it struggled to contain the insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK first attacked the state in 1984, leading to emergency rule in the predominantly Kurdish provinces in 1987. The majority of the human rights violations occurred between 1992 and 1995. In addition to the 850 disappearances, there were 2,241 unidentified killings, 1,373 extrajudicial killings, and 403 deaths in custody during this decade.

What differs between the two periods of repression is the clarity of opposition to the regime. In the 1980 coup, it was easy to see the opposition. The political violence in the late 1970s grew out of radical Marxist and nationalist university student groups. The leftist groups’ backing remained confined to university circles, without broad party support. The nationalist groups enjoyed broader support, but they were really the military’s ally. The military relied on lists of members to target the opposition, demonstrating that it understood its opponents. They were clear to the state, so it did not need to intimidate student groups with disappearances.

The counterinsurgency against the PKK in the early 1990s looked different. The Turkish state faced a movement whose support was broad but blurred in its contours, as many Kurds supported the PKK but did not join the armed wing. There was substantial soft support for Kurdish nationalism — as demonstrated by large protests in support of the PKK, which shut down cities and allowed the PKK to establish authority in many towns. The state was unable to accurately understand the opposition, so it turned to using the “efficient and enduring” intimidation of disappearances.

The Turkish case implies that states use disappearances when they struggle to quell the opposition. In the current Middle East, we can expect more disappearances as states face the continuing turmoil from the Arab Uprisings and weaker states contend with more diffuse opposition.

But disappearances can backfire. They can increase resistance and draw attention to the state’s violence. By targeting the family for intimidation, states can inadvertently mobilize stronger resistance against the state because of the shocking effects of the violence on families, changing the calculus of repression.

Jason Scheideman is a lecturer in politics and assistant dean at Bates College.

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