One of the disturbing aspects of Egyptian politics pre-revolution has been the use of paid thugs to intimidate and disturb the democratic process. Violence had been a recurring feature; counter-thugs were sometimes hired to defend ballot boxes, even as others were used to ensure manipulation.
Thugs also feature prominently in the life of Upper Egyptian tribal relations. An underclass exists within each tribe which will do the dirty work requested by more prominent members. This was one aspect of the murders in Nag Hamadi last year, when six Christians and a Muslim police guard were gunned down exiting Christmas Eve mass. Some say there were political forces at work here also; others allege it was a revenge killing for illicit sexual relations between a Christian man and a Muslim girl. Regardless, it was a well known thug who was convicted and sentenced to death. Did he operate under orders? It is not known, but thugs usually act only under behest – there is no money otherwise.
Certainly poverty plays a role in allowing this underclass to exist; so does the failure to extend fully the rule of law. Will the practice continue post-revolution? It was certainly employed during the ‘Battle of the Camel’ at Tahrir Square at the height of the demonstrations.
The Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm (English edition) published a very informative interview with two thugs who were involved in those events. The first, actually, was a volunteer on the pro-Mubarak side, but had the wisdom to withdraw before implicating himself. The second claims he along with many others was paid by a local politician to scatter the demonstrators and remove them from the square. He gives an account of the unexpected resolve they encountered, and how quickly he fled once met with resistance. The article can be accessed here.
While these testimonies can be taken at face value, there needs to be care taken that ‘thuggery’ not become the accusation in vogue. When sectarian violence engulfed a Christian neighborhood in Cairo, some blamed it on thugs hired by the now discredited security forces in order to stoke tensions and resist the revolution. This is entirely possible. Or, it could be an effort to preserve the revolution notion, true in its essence, that Muslims and Christians have been at peace during these times.
Others, particularly democratic activists, are accusing the Egyptian military of thuggery. Demonstrations, while allowed on the whole, have at times been broken up by thugs, who have then been arrested by military personnel. Some claim that these ‘thugs’ have been demonstrators themselves, labeled as such to preserve a now known narrative in which the army protects the right of protest. Meanwhile, the arrested complain of torture in military custody. This story has been reported here on CNN.
Is there any credibility to these reports? Or are they invented in the service of competing interests in this transition period? Is the army discredited in order to speed a return to civilian rule and democratic elections, through early elections in which Mubarak’s old National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood may make gains? Or is thuggery blamed on old regime security forces and political apparatchiks in order to extend military rule, so that new liberal political parties can coalesce and win power later?
Will there be thuggery during the March 19 referendum?
Old habits die hard. It may be that the purity of the revolution may transform Egyptian politics. Or, will the newly politicized population become infected by a longstanding virus? Will they adopt its tactics, or fall away disillusioned? Instead, may they have the strength to do what is right and build credible institutions of transparent democracy, even if the results move against their interests. Even if this is their will, does the power exist to make it happen?