Who are the “pro-Mubarak” protesters who have been engaged in running battles with democracy activists throughout Egypt? Why did they come to the demonstration carrying not placards and tracts, but machetes and sulphuric acid? And why were some of them riding on camels? Frederick Bowie explores the murky world of the counter revolution
As Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal has pointed out, the news media have been getting it tragically wrong these last few days. Even granted the uncertainties that abound in any revolutionary situation, it is clearly not accurate to suggest that the gangs of young men who have been assaulting protesters in Cairo and other Egyptian cities are themselves 'protesters' who simply happen to have a different agenda from the people who have been occupying Tahrir Square since the beginning of the week.
Of course, there are people in Egypt who genuinely feel, or at least felt until last night, that to continue with the protests after Mubarak's speech on Tuesday was an act of provocation. But most of them are latte-drinking BMW-driving parents with semi-respectable office jobs who are mainly worried about when they can get the kids off their hands and back to school. They are not the people who appeared out of nowhere onto the world's TV screens on Wednesday morning, riding into the crowd on camels, swinging machetes, and throwing Molotov cocktails at groups of women and children.
Conversations with observers on the ground support what is being reported by protesters and the better journalists, and can be read uncensored on the #jan25 Twitter streams, before newsrooms and editors have moved in to censor it and give it 'balance'. The violence we are witnessing is unilateral, and it is highly organized.
A friend who spent two hours in Tahrir yesterday, told me:
"You know that they are thugs as soon as you see them. They are all the same age, they all look the same, they all have the same physique. They come into the square, trying to look as if they are just more protesters, and then suddenly they produce knives and guns out of their jackets, and start attacking everyone in sight. I heard them threatening women they saw that they were going to rape them."
Her observations are corroborated by Democracy Now's Sharif Abdel Kaddous, who wrote: “These were not the same kinds of protesters that have occupied Tahrir for the last few days. These crowds were made up mostly of men, in between 20 and 45 years old. Many wore thick leather jackets with sweaters underneath. They chanted angrily in support of Mubarak and against the pro-democracy movement. They were hostile and intimidating.”
My friend was in shock when she got back to her office. "You know me," she said, audibly shaken by what she had been through. "I was brought up to be a moderate. I don't have an ounce of revolutionary blood in my entire body. But what I just saw out there is completely intolerable. They're unleashing their thugs against unarmed civilians – against these people who are no threat to 'him' at all!"
Twitter abounds with reports of the confessions of the unlucky thugs who have been caught by the protesters. Many of them have apparently revealed how much they were paid, and even who they were paid by, in order to go and attack the pro-democracy crowd.
But it is equally important to realize that just as this is this not a spontaneous outpouring of genuine feeling, it is not a spur of the moment, ad hoc arrangement, either. The violence we have witnessed in Tahrir square and elsewhere in Egypt yesterday and today is simply the modus operandi of the Mubarak regime laid bare.
One of the reasons I first went to live in Egypt was because I felt there was less chance of my getting beaten up walking around Cairo than there had been in my home town in the North of England. It took me a while to realize that this was not necessarily the case for all of my Egyptian friends. In Egypt, particularly over the last decade, thuggery is not so much an 'unwanted' by-product of high unemployment acting on decades of working class self-hatred and machismo, as it is a structural tool of social control.
While this has certainly been the case for a long time, at least as long as Mubarak has been in power, and possibly even longer, the first decade of this millennium seems to have witnessed a runaway spiral of violence, operating at a level where it has remained largely invisible to the outside world. This violence stems from the nature of the NDP regime, in which politics exists simply as the means to appropriate, and ultimately privatize, the power and resources of the State. The classic example is the thugs that gravitate around the NDP itself, forming the ruling party's own most immediate, most visceral biotope.
Every NDP politician and power-broker has his own gang of enforcers, recruited largely from the country's overcrowded prisons. Granted an early release from gaol, offered 100 Egyptian pounds (LE) a day – for many Egyptians, a King's ransome – to act as on-call muscle for their patrons, and provided with the funds to recruit others to their cause, these baltagha (thugs) have come to play an increasingly important role in the systematic intimidation that is one of the lynch pins of electoral fraud, in particular since the timid gesture towards democratic openness of 2005 led to such humiliating results for the NDP.
The near-total impunity from which the baltagha benefit encourages them to lord it over their own domain, however small it may be. They know that they can steal their neighbour's new car, or beat up their wife while the whole street listens, without having to worry about the consequences. The result is a culture of licensed brutality which has progressively poisoned and corrupted everyday life throughout the country, and which is intimately bound up with the factional hypertrophy of the NDP apparatus over which Gamal Mubarak has presided, and which Amr El-Shobaki has termed, "the privatization of fraud".
Alongside this standing army of NDP thugs, there are several other groups who have also been involved in the assaults on protesters these last few days.
First, there are the plainclothes policemen with whom Egyptians are all too familiar, thanks most recently to their massive presence at every reformist demonstration held in recent years. Low-ranking, at best sergeant grade, they can be seen openly taking orders from uniformed officers, and are notorious not simply for their physical intimidation of activists, but for their habit of molesting any women who may be present, both verbally and physically.
Reports from the Tahrir democracy protesters confirm the massive involvement of plainclothes police in the current violence. Many of the counter-revolutionaries who have been captured have been found to be carrying police IDs. The Ministry of the Interior has counter-attacked, claiming that these ID cards must have been "fakes". But that only begs the question, if the thugs are not working for the Minstry of the Interior, then who are they working for? In other words, who in this country is sufficiently well organised to try and pass themselves off as the Ministry of the Interior, to the point of printing up several thousand fake IDs well in advance of the day they would be needed?
The second group recognized by protesters is made up of practicing criminals who work as paid informers for the police. Every district intelligence officer runs a team of CIs, whom he relies on not only for intelligence stricto sensu, but also for creating a general atmosphere of harassment and suspicion among local residents. In this way, he is able to keep the neighbourhood he oversees on edge and submissive. This reserve army of hoodlums can also be deployed in other, more partisan contexts, including, of course, electoral intimidation, where they regularly operate alongside the NDP's house thugs.
The final category that we have seen at work over the last days, and that which has perhaps done most to confuse the picture most for foreign observers, are the casual or piece-work thugs. These are otherwise ordinary citizens, whose poverty, past misdemeanors, or simple lack of moral character, means they can easily be recruited on an opportunistic/clientelist basis by their local political overlord. And this is where the camels come in.
For the guys who rode into Tahrir Square on Wednesday morning looking like extras from a low-budget Syrian historical TV drama are perhaps the best example of this demographic. Reliable sources indicate that they were recruited from the stables that serve the tourist trade in Giza by the NDP MP for Nazlet El Simman. (A friend saw them processing leisurely down Pyramids Road that morning, as he was getting ready to leave his flat to head for Tahrir, and wondered where they were going). In other words, some of the hoodlums you saw attacking the democracy protesters with whips and razors were probably the same people who extorted money from you the last time you tried to visit the Pyramids in peace, and failed.
This is all common knowledge among Egyptians, and again it has been confirmed by explicit reports from the protesters who have captured these people and talked to them. Under questioning, many confessed to having received sums of between LE50 and LE200 to join the wrecking gangs. Some of them even named the NDP politicians whose agents had paid them for their services.
If we put all these four categories together, and add in the staff of both state and privately-run enterprises who have been bussed in to give the edges of the "pro-Mubarak crowd" a slightly more civilian look for the cameras, it is clear that we are not dealing either with a popular counter-revolution, nor with a simple last-ditch attempt to bribe or strong-arm the more vulnerable sections of the Egyptian population into defending an indefensible regime.
While we cannot really estimate how many people there are available for the regime to call on from all these categories, what is clear is that what we are seeing on the streets is not a disorganized mob, or some sort of self-motivated crowd, but the human infrastructure of repression which has been assembled over decades by the Mubarak regime, and which is now finally displayed in all its tawdry horror before the entire world.
Get our weekly email