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Who Are the Baltagiyya Anyway and Where Do They Come From?

May 18, 2011

Enter the baltigiyya: On Feb. 2, camel drivers apparently paid by members of the regime were directed to attack protesters responsible for the tourist slump that has cut off their income.

After each act of violence one hears that baltagiyya (“hired thugs”) are to blame. Usually they are said to have been hired by “counterrevolutionary elements,” or by the government, or more recently by Salafis, or the Muslim Brotherhood, or by the Copts themselves.

The word derives from baltagy (“an axe wielder”) with a vernacular suffix. It has been used since the Ottoman period in Egypt to refer to members of criminal gangs who can be hired as enforcers, agents provocateur and for other activities in which someone inside the law needs people to act as their agents outside the law.

An extremely intelligent column on the symbolic role the baltagiyya are playing in Egypt by Adel Iskander appeared in Al-Masry Al-Youm 16 May.

Baltagiyya, he points out,

has become what linguists call a “floating signifier,” a word that doesn’t point to any actual or agreed upon meaning. The term itself undermines any other identity since it does not communicate any sociological, political, cultural, economic, ideological, or religious meaning. The only common usage for the term suggests absolute opportunism outside of any basic humanitarian principles, values or ethics. Yet it is precisely this absence of a denotative meaning that makes the term most dangerous.

In the absence of a fixed referential meaning, anyone can simply accuse any opponents of being baltagiyya–including the state:

The new authority in Egypt today and only institution above the law, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), has appropriated [the term] to critique and sentence anyone it sees fit. Extrajudicial military court sentences have been handed down for blogging, public expressions and calls to demonstrate and strike. Today, the newly-activated “Law of Baltaga” can be used in a manner akin to the Emergency Law and the Penal code against anyone who might be perceived as a threat to the security of the state even in the cases of so-called “online baltaga!”

This is not to say that there aren’t real baltigiyya, tough, underprivileged pragmatists who put getting by for a few more weeks ahead of political and social ideals. These real baltagiyya (who are unlikely to ever be prosecuted under the state’s new law)

are a product of the failing neoliberal economic project and its polarization of the rich and poor. They are those who were forced into a life of commissioned crime by the disappearance of the middle class and the state’s need to maintain order despite the drastic disequilibrium. Furthermore, the NDP had effectively institutionalized them to facilitate the conditions necessary for its consolidation of power — from intimidation of opposition election candidates to maintaining conformity in Cairo’s combustible and underprivileged slums, to protecting the physical assets of the powerful and wealthy, to instilling a general state of fear. Take the infamous “Battle of the Camel” where poor, desperate and misinformed camel and horse riders were transformed into baltageya with food, money and the instructions to attack what they were told was a demonstration responsible for the tourism slump that cost them their livelihoods. This goes to the core of the baltageya phenomenon. Rather than being seen as natural-born criminals whose intent and conviction is for violence, they must be viewed as tools not perpetrators, the product of a socioeconomic catastrophe.

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