Sunday, 29 January 2012

The dark side of revolution: Thugs on demand and the poorest of the poor

There are about one million children living in the streets of Egypt. They are among the poorest of the poor in the country. Some of them are orphans with no relatives willing to take them in; others are born in sin and then thrown into garbage pins. Most have escaped from broken homes and cruel parents or elder siblings. They survive on garbage and compete with stray cats and dogs for food and shelter. The girls grow up to be prostitutes selling their bodies for a loaf of bread and the boys become petty criminals and, if they are lucky, hired thugs.

When the revolution broke out one year ago, those street children flocked to Tahrir and other major squares in Egypt and threw their lot with the revolutionaries. They felt the common bonds of humanity, probably for the first time in their lives, and developed a sense of comradeship with those more affluent youth who lived rough with them for 18 days, until Mubarak stepped down. Since then, there were sustained sit-ins in Tahrir and elsewhere, and the street children continued to mingle with the revolutionaries, who treated them kindly and made them part of the common cause uniting all Egyptians. On their part, the children finally found vehicles to vent their anger at a society that had routinely ignored them and, particularly, a police force that had abused them and treated them as animals and criminals.

In November and December, street children were at the forefront of the crowds clashing with the police and the army, and many of them were among the dead and the wounded. But then the revolutionary tide ebbed. In Tahrir, the sit-in by the last remaining revolutionaries ended soon after the start of the elections. The only ones left behind, feeling betrayed, were the street children, who simply had nowhere else to go but back to the streets of the city. Some of them chose to remain in makeshift tents in Tahrir. They served everybody’s purpose. The state could point to them and say, look, here are the revolutionaries: soot-covered bastards, petty criminals and the lowest of the low. Two close friends of mine, with very little interest in politics, happened to pass through Tahrir square the other day, and they said as much. On the other hand, the revolutionaries could point to them and say, look, the people are still in the square until the objectives of the revolution are met. The few tents of the street children provided good photo opportunities for revolutionary tourists, and it kept the embers of revolution somewhat alive, attracting a few passers by who would form small circles of debate in the middle of the square.

Then the first anniversary of the revolution was approaching, and the square had to look pretty and neat for petty middle class celebrations. So, a few days before the 25th, newspapers reported in their inside pages that “thugs” attacked the last remaining tents in Tahrir with knives and sticks, burned down the tents and cleared the square from “the criminal elements” who had been occupying it. No one bothered. The middle class had their revolution and were now busy quarrelling over the spoils, not in the streets but in the cosier parliament building.

Now, the thugs. In a sense, they could also be considered among the poorest of the poor, morally speaking: I could never understand why the term poverty should be used exclusively in mainstream development circles to refer to the lack of material wealth only.

Simply defined, thugs are violent criminals and they do all sorts of things that criminals do: theft, murder, extortion, etc. There are, however, two key differences between them and normal criminals. First, they use violence as a first choice, unlike other criminals who resort to violence only as a last option, if they use it at all. For example, a normal criminal would steal a car late at night, in stealth, when no one is looking. And if about to be caught, he would instinctively run away. For a thug, this is dishonourable behaviour. If a thug, or rather a group of thugs, wish to steal a car, they would probably do so in broad day light, beat up the driver or even kill him or her and simply drive away with the stolen vehicle. In a recent incident not far from where my mother lives, they drove away with two babies in the back seat who were later found thrown at the side of the road, luckily still alive.

I am told that the Egyptian Arabic word for thug, baltagy, comes from Turkish and it means someone wielding an axe, or a balta. Thugs these days do not use axes that much. Their weapons of choice are knives, swords, clubs, a few carry pistols and some, especially in the countryside, machine guns.

The second key difference is that, unlike normal criminals, thugs perform political functions. Some thugs have been bred by the former regime and kept on a tight leash. They used to be let loose on the regime’s opponents, beating them up, destroying their vehicles, burning their homes, etc. During elections, they would be sent to terrorise voters for opposition candidates. In exchange, the security services would turn a blind eye on their crimes against the people, normally the poor. If they break certain red lines, for example turning against their masters or other well-connected persons, committing brutal murders or generally creating a bad smell around themselves, the government would mercilessly crack down on them, put them on trial in civilian courts and send them behind bars.

Thuggery has dramatically increased with the start of the revolution. A few days ago Tantawi lifted the state of emergency, imposed more than 30 years ago following the assassination of Sadat, except in the case of thuggery. Some criticised this as a dangerous loophole. But almost everyone I spoke with enthusiastically approved of this, which goes to show how serious this problem has become, and how insecure Egyptians feel due to the collapse of the state’s capacity for maintaining law and order. While the demonstrators were still demanding the fall of the regime, in early February 2011, the gates of some prisons were thrown wide open, many believe intentionally by the retreating police as an act of revenge on the society that dared to revolt against them and to undermine the revolution from within. Thugs and other dangerous criminals poured into the streets and until today the police, which is slowly regrouping, are finding it so hard to deal with them.

The market for thugs bloomed and I am told that prices have gone down, due no doubt to the explosion in supply and the lifting of the near monopoly exercised on many of the thugs by the former security apparatus. An unarmed thug, usually a young boy, most probably a former street child, costs only 200 Egyptian pounds (around 26 Euros). A thug armed with a knife or a sword costs up to 500 pounds and one armed with a machine gun costs 2500 pounds. I could hire a thug to commit a murder for 8000 pounds, to kidnap a child, 3000, and to cause a visible injury, 2500. Many thugs are their own bosses, mainly stealing cars that eventually end up in Gaza through the tunnels, as some claim.

Politically, thugs have managed to create an irreparable damage to the relationship between revolutionaries and army. Some of the youth of the revolution swore to me that they saw with their own eyes thugs shooting at the army from among the demonstrators during the sectarian clashes in Maspero last October. When the army shoots back, it hits demonstrators, and all hell breaks loose. No one knows exactly who is now hiring these thugs to perform such dirty political work. The major suspects are remnants of the old regime. Other suspects include foreign intelligence agencies and, more ominously, different organs of the state. A member of one of the revolutionary youth coalitions believes that different branches of the military are playing a dangerous game, competing for controlling domestic security with other agencies, which explains why the SCAF, as a whole, has so far been unable to control this phenomenon. No one knows the truth. The fact remains, thugs are on the loose and are a major source of headache for rich, poor and middle class alike.

Tahrir and other squares in Egypt started to fill up again as the anniversary of the revolution drew nearer. On the big day itself, the square was once more packed with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from all imaginable backgrounds: rich, poor, young, old, Muslims, Islamists, Christians, kids in western style baseball hats and ponytails and men in traditional galabiyas. The street children returned, and the thugs were nowhere to be seen. The revolutionaries were carrying mock coffins in remembrance of the “martyrs” of the revolution and shouting: down, down with military rule. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, built a stage and its leaders made self-congratulatory speeches celebrating the revolution.

For a day, the spirit was good, and Egypt looked like a harmonious, civilised place once again. But one could feel the tension and divisions beneath the surface. Next day there were some minor scuffles between the revolutionaries and some supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, accused of “stealing the revolution”, and some thugs harassed a foreign female tourist. But the anniversary on the whole came and went more or less peacefully. Some called it a celebration. Others called it the start of the second revolution. People are wary and confused, and none of the major social forces seem to know exactly where to go from here. The next period will see the potential for either further division or conciliation over explosive issues such as the drafting of the constitution, the choice of a new president and the transfer of authority to civilian rule. The revolution continues, and the people will at one point chose between the legitimacy the parliament, the legitimacy of the square or decide to ignore both and go out and create a new legitimacy of their own, anarchy.    

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