Who are Egypt's thugs?

Salma Shukrallah , Thursday 7 Jul 2011

From the beginning of the January 25 Revolution, thugs were deployed by the falling regime against the people. Now, however, the term is so widely used it has almost lost all meaning, with activists also labeled thugs

Thugs story
Demonstrators hold banners with arabic words that reads " Open strike there is retribution" center, " I'm a thug" ridiculing official accusations that protesters are violent thugs, right, and " Revolutionaries but they call us thugs." left, as they protest in the Martyrs Square in Suez, Egypt, Tuesday, July 5, 2011.(Photo: AP)

In anticipation of Persistence Friday, when millions are again expected to occupy Tahrir Square to revive the revolution’s demands, National Security has been warning of a plot that would unleash hundreds of thugs, threatening the country’s stability.

News is that a secret organisation mobilises thugs, or 'baltageya' as they are referred to in Egypt, collected from across Egypt’s governorates, especially from shantytowns, to spread them throughout Cairo and particularly direct them to Tahrir Square where the Friday sit-in will be staged.

Baltageya (singular, 'baltagy'), according to writer Fahmy Howeidy, stems from the Turkish word 'balta', which means ax. Baltagy, then, simply refers to the person who wields the ax. What Howeidy argues in his article published in Al-Shorouk newspaper is that during the Egyptian revolution the term 'baltagy' appeared referring to any third party outside of the protesters, peaceful citizens or the police. When clashes occur, the baltageya get the blame, not coincidentally because the baltageya, or thugs, are there to attack the revolutionaries or demonstrators.

Therefore, according to Howeidy, those referred to as thugs are defending and belong to the regime, though not in formal security clothing. An infamous example was the clashes which took place on 2 February, known as the Battle of the Camel, when thousands attacked Tahrir demonstrators using horses and camels, and wielding weapons. The attackers were referred to as thugs and were widely recognised as being linked to the Mubarak regime. Some former National Democratic Party (NDP) MPs are now charged with hiring thugs to attack the revolutionaries that day.   

After Mubarak’s ouster, the term baltageya extended to others. Some arrested during demonstrations in Tahrir Square have been dubbed thugs and others arrested during clashes between citizens and the police were also labelled thugs. The term was also used to refer to those arrested for stealing or other petty crimes. With the term so widely used, its definition became unclear.

The Thuggery Law, issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in March 2011, is applied to anyone who “shows off strength or that of a third party to threaten or conduct violence against a victim or a victim’s spouse or relative with the intention to scare or harm physically or financially or with the purpose of influencing the victim’s decision or action. A thug is also that who shows off strength or that of a third party to threaten or conduct violence with the purpose of hindering the application of laws or resisting authorities or disturbing national security or harming a victim’s peace of mind, or to cause damage to property.” The punishment for being judged a thug ranges from a one year prison to the death sentence.

Rights lawyer Ahmed Fawzy says “there is no such thing as a thug by law. The Thuggery Law is just another law added to the set of laws that are used for the authorities to gain a stronger grip. The law is too vague it can be applied to anything and it is unneeded because every crime has an equivalent punishment. Whenever there is a need for the authorities to gain a firmer grip, a new law is issued or older laws are modified and amended.”

Activists have criticised the term 'baltageya' and said it is used to criminalise anyone who defies the authorities, the poor being those most often accused. The Facebook status of one political activist read: “Those whom you call thugs just because they walk wearing only their undershirts and are bruised in the face are heroes who have lost their fear.”

Following a crackdown on a Tahrir Square sit-in on 9 March, several were arrested and their pictures were screened on Egyptian national television labeling them as thugs. Amongst those arrested was actor Aly Sobhy. His arrest angered many in the art community who launched a campaign for his release.

Following his release, Sobhy participated in a theatre project called “No Time for Art” where he narrated his arrest with the Egyptian television picture labeling him a thug screened behind him. In Sobhy’s scene, another actress answers him, “and of course, they took you in the front because of your long hair and fallen teeth,” implying that a person is labeled a “thug” based mostly on looks.

However, several strikes and demonstrations have also been attacked by what were labeled as thugs. For example, Suez trade unionists said they were attacked by thugs when they tried to attend a general assembly meeting in mid-March. One of them claimed that the board director of the Suez Group for Cement hired thugs who attacked them because they protested the board’s decisions.

Even before the January 25 Revolution, 'thug' has often been a term used to describe those hired in political conflicts. During the 2005 and 2010 parliamentary elections, a large percentage of campaign expenditures went to hiring thugs. According to an Ahram Online investigation conducted during the 2010 elections, the price spent on thugs ranged between LE500 ($87) and LE 50,000 ($8,756) and depended on the service and its difficulty, including its level of violence. Thugs' jobs included falsifying papers and giving licenses or revoking them for candidates to put up banners in the streets. The result of the 2010 elections was a landslide for Mubarak’s NDP.  

Away from political rivalry, many people complain that after the revolution thuggery increased. While some believe this is due to a lack of policing, others believe reports that former ruling NDP members opened jails and prisons unleashing thugs on purpose on 28 January.

Amal Ali Othman, a mother of two, says on 28 January she left her mother’s place in Maadi at 5pm after she heard that a curfew would be set starting 6pm. As Otham was approaching the beginning of the ring road, with her two children with her in the car, a group of thugs attacked.

“None of them was older than 20 years of age. They were carrying sticks and one of them had a long knife. Some were not wearing any shirts. One of them started knocking on my window, but I didn’t open, and then they started hitting the car until the back window broke and all the glass fell in pieces on my children sitting in the backseat. After I drove away we met another group and throughout the way back home I was directed by passersby on how to avoid the gangs of thugs standing on almost every corner,” says Othman.

“They did not want money; they did not steal from anyone, and they did not target expensive cars. Their only aim was to scare people for no reason,” she added.

On the other hand, the current interim government blamed recent clashes between citizens and the police on an orchestrated conspiracy, although it did not specify who was behind it. The violence that took place on 28-29 June after citizens and families of the revolution's martyrs clashed with police, leaving more than a thousand injured, was said to have been premeditated.

According to a fact finding investigation, confrontations were instigated by unknown thugs and were escalated by the families of the martyrs. The report claimed that unlicensed cars were seen transporting rocks to the Tahrir Square.

However, the next day photos and videos of thugs taking the side of Central Security Forces were widely circulated on the internet, raising suspicions that the ministry of interior was behind the violence. Investigations also showed that the police used excessive force on both days, and even arrested some protestors while they were being treated by paramedics. During the clashes a known activist, Loay Nagaty, was arrested for being a thug and is currently facing a military tribunal.

Many activists, in response to statements that 'balatgeya' had stormed Tahrir Square, held banners during the following Friday protests, dubbed "Retribution Friday", reading “I am a thug”. Prior to the clashes of 28-29 June, many Twitter comments and Facebook statuses were also mocking the term.

An article published by Yousef Rakha for Ahram Online following the events asserts those “systematically marginalised and abused but also regularly deployed, slave-like, by the police and electoral candidates” are often labeled baltageya, especially by the middle class. These so-called 'baltageya', he adds, have often been recruited by the regime, but many of them were also on the side of the protests. 

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