‘Thug Life:’ Exposing Egypt’s disturbing revenge attack industry

For years, Egypt's thuggery culture existed to fill a power vacuum in areas where weak political and administrative institutions failed

Shounaz Meky

Published: Updated:

A new take on thuggery has sparked uproar in Egypt this week after a Facebook page gaining prominence across the country appeared to promote violent revenge attacks.

For years, Egypt's thuggery culture existed to fill a power vacuum in areas where weak political and administrative institutions failed to apply law and justice.

Last week, Egyptian authorities said they had taken down the Facebook page claiming to offer acts of thuggery and bullying to “recover rights” for those who believe they were mistreated or victimized.

In a tone that may indicate sarcasm, posts on the page offered packages ranging from 500 to 1,500 Egyptian pounds to retrieve stolen cars from robbers, fight back abusive taxi and microbus drivers by damaging their cars, in addition to deriding university teachers who mistreated their students.

The page, which according to local reports had more than 80,000 followers, is believed to be a hoax.

Nevertheless, it didn’t fail to attract followers, who clearly felt the phenomenon of thug-hiring wasn’t a hoax.

Thugs, or “Baltageya” as they are known, existed in Egypt in the absence a competent justice system, due to political and non-political reasons alike, said Cairo-based Sociology Professor Said Sadek.

“They always existed in Egypt, especially in areas where government control is weak. When no law is being applied or enforced, the people will look for somebody to enforce it.”

They are known to be able-bodied and usually hail from shantytowns or slums, Sadek said. They also know how to use weapons and can be rented to do such tasks for money.

The term “Baltageya” originates from the Turkish word “balta” which means an axe, Egyptian writer Fahmy Howeidy once wrote.

So the word “Baltagy” (singular for Baltageya) refers to the person who wields the axe, Howeidy suggested, in an article published in Al-Shorouk newspaper.

Has Egyptian pop culture glamorized thuggery?

Since the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak, portraying the fierce and shadowy lives of thugs has become more prevalent in Egyptian television and cinema.

Decades ago, writings by Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz portrayed the life of an alley’s thug. But an uncanny resemblance between thuggery then and now remains.

Several well-known Egyptian actors played leading roles portraying thugs as heroes who take matters into own hands to avenge themselves.

For example, prominent actor Mohammad Ramadan plays the character of a "baltagy" in one of this year’s highly popular Ramadan TV series.

Howayda Mostafa, a media professor at Cairo University, said the Egyptian media is playing a significant role in popularizing thuggery and promoting violence as “a role model for people to follow.”

“The phenomenon of a ‘baltagy’ who uses violence to take back his rights, acting against the law, has been promoted in dramas, which have contributed to expanding its fan base,” she told Al Arabiya English.

“It is being portrayed as a symbol of power” during a time when an adequate justice system is absent, she added.

Thuggery and protests

Off the silver-screen, the term has extended to other groups of people.

Following the 2011 uprising the term was often used to refer to anti-revolutionary secret agents that supported his regime.

It was then when Egyptians began to hear about infiltrators aiming to sabotage peaceful demonstrations, such as the “thugs sent on camels and horses” to break up a protest in Cairo. The incident later became known as Egypt's 'Battle of the Camel.'

Instead of fighting the phenomenon, Sadek argued that many Arab governments would “cooperate” with thugs when they didn’t want to be seen as disrupting peaceful protests with security forces.

In 2011, a council of top Egyptian army generals who were in power at the time issued a decree to combat thuggery, which they believed to be increasing at the time.

But human rights activists argued that the laws were used to justify a crackdown on many activists who were being arrested on thuggery charges.