There’s now a lot of coverage (too much, too late) on the protests in Cairo and the subsequent ‘pretexts’ by state lackeys dressed up as pro-Mubarak supporters. Despite the general sentiment towards the protesters, however, there’s a problem of language that disguises the actual mechanisms of what’s happening on the ground.Particularly in the symmetrical usage of the term ‘violence’ to describe actions by both protesters and thugs. Doing this seems to level the playing field in a false and dangerous way, giving the impression of trading blows between pitched armies or perhaps even two groups equally culpable for their actions. Even the presumption that the same actions, throwing stones for instance, bear the same meaning when done by thugs as protesters seems intolerable in the face of the aggression, hostility and aura of death that the pro-Mubarak lackeys brought onto the camp on Wednesday. The word ‘clashes’ is similarly abhorrent in the face of the siege raised against protestors and their attempts to barricade the very space they have peacefully occupied. This brings up another point about symmetry of rights, as one particularly apathetic army officer was overheard to say “why should i stop [the pro-Mubarak crowd], what gives you any greater right to be in this square than them?”. To describe the attacks on protesters as clashes presumes some sort of ineffable, sectarian sort of sporadic violence, skirmishes on an already named front. What we saw today was a peaceful protest being borne down on by horses and camels, then later thousands of thugs armed with white weapons, rocks, Molotov cocktails and guns. Moreover the thugs had a plan, they came at the square like it was a castle or hilltop to be besieged and overtaken, amassing at all sides of the square and waging simultaneous assaults on people who had been, this whole time, checking their own to ensure there were no weapons in the camp. To describe these military tactics (and paramilitary weaponry) with the same words as the protesters’ attempts to resist the state’s violence shows either ignorance or callousness, or both. As this continues, one is heartened by the sympathies of the international media towards the Egyptian people standing against the mess that government tactics have thrown them into. Nonetheless, it should be considered imperative that we be watchful of the languages used to describe these events, and ensure that our vocabulary suits our politics.
The most recent story in this lamentable chain of media reports is that of “protestors” in Alexandria turning on one another — internecine violence tainting otherwise peaceful, festive demonstrations of the Egyptian people. This story is, of course, patently untrue. To see the enormity of this falsehood and the many others like it (e.g. “protests turn to looting”) one truly has to understand the reach and extent of the Egyptian security services, particularly the notorious Baltagayyah. Loosely translated to “thugs”, Blatagayyah are more than just your run of the mill voyous. The word has a special relevance for just about everyone in Egypt: that of the paid paramilitaries of the Egyptian state. There are a lot of these fuckers, and they are the prime agents provocateurs of the Egyptian state. Conspiratorial stories of security services actually perpetrating looting, attacking peaceful protestors, or destroying property, too often turn out to be true. Many have been apprehended by ordinary citizens who have discovered state security IDs on them (they appear to have been ordered to carry such IDs in case they are stopped by the army).
Let’s get this straight, this is not the worry about a few bad seeds on the murky fringes of the para-state. The Mubarak regime has maintained a concerted policy of introducing plainclothes thugs into protest situations, sometimes armed with weapons, but always with the impunity to violently quash even the slightest dissent (and the presence of these baltagayyah is inevitably in addition to the obscene amount of uniformed security officers the government will usually deploy to any demonstration, no matter how small). It’s not always certain whether these thugs are full time employees of the regime or simply bored individuals with a penchant for violence and a hankering for a few extra bucks and a chicken sandwich in exchange for a day’s work of beating the hell out of some demonstrators. What is certain is that rarely does any political protest or demonstration go down in Cairo without a healthy dose of baltagayyah violence.
As far as the current protests in Egypt are concerned, we’ve seen them setting fire to cars, destroying small businesses, terrorizing protestors and ordinary citizens alike and looting neighborhoods. All this while disguised as “ordinary Egyptians.” This has been enough to confuse and distort much of the international reporting of protest events. What must be understood is that the baltagayyah are sowing fear and violence to deliberately frighten and terrorize ordinary people. They work by making Egyptians and the outside world question who is perpetrating this violence, but this gruesome charade must be known and publicized because the only result of such fear and doubt is further violence against demonstrators.
One would have to be a fresh-off-the-boat international correspondent to be fooled by the pitiful attempts to stage “pro-Mubarak protests” on the streets of Egypt today. Egyptians know these people too well. It’s always the same middle-aged men with death in their eyes. Most of them dress casual; not too shabby, but nothing fancy either, for their Interior Ministry paychecks are nothing to brag about. If any of them ever believed in what they were doing then the look in their eyes shows that such illusions have long vanished. They always arrive in coordinated groups just in the nick of time to stage a “pro-government protest” wherever an actual protest has been planned. They are often armed with sticks, and sometimes stones, and their usual role is to beat people with impunity.
Today these state security thugs (Baltagayyah) were ordered to appear on cue to cheer Mubarak’s pre-recorded speech on the streets of Alexandria, Suez and Cairo. In Alexandria they attacked the crowds who had amassed in Mahatit Masr Square with stones, and the crowd fought back. To break up the fight two army tanks drove between the groups and fired shots in the air. The “pro-Mubrarak protestors”, outnumbered and fearful of the army, withdrew. We have not yet had confirmation, but it appears that something similar occurred in Suez.
However, contrary to reports in the international media, the goon squad never got to Tahrir square in Cairo today. The estimated three hundred of them, many arriving on motorcycles, were no match for the thousands who had remained in the square following this morning’s two million strong rally. Nonetheless they tried to access the square twice, once coming from Talat Harb, just as the speech began, and once from Qasr El Ainy street. Both times they were successfully stopped by blockades of soldiers and citizens.
Meanwhile Mubarak’s speech, which people watched on a giant screen that had been set up in the square, was greeted with fury by the crowds, who hurled projectiles at the dictator’s face. In addition people from all around the neighborhood who had seen the speech on TV came flooding back to the square in earnest, chanting “leave, leave” and “get out”. Mubarak’s desperate attempt at derailing the movement by tempting people with his future retirement has only hardened the resolve of protestors and reinforced the numbers who are camping out here. People now say they are refusing to leave until the whole government resigns.
Nobody in Egypt has ever seen so many people in one place. The idea of marching seems to have been dropped as all the streets around the square are packed full of people. The atmosphere is generally joyous, but with intermittent cries of mourning for the dead of the past week.
— phoned in from Tahrir square, 5:15pm