Middle East

How 'thugs' became part of the Arab Spring lexicon

Free Syrian Army fighters detain suspected member of Shabiha in Aleppo (file photo)
Image caption Syrian rebels have captured and killed people suspected of being shabiha

Since the onset of the Arab Spring, "Baltagiya" and "Shabiha" have played prominent roles in the fights between embattled leaders and opposition supporters. But what do these terms have in common and what do they mean?

When Egyptian police raided the fancy villa of one of Egypt's most notorious baltagi - Sabri Helmi, who is also known as "Nakhnoukh" - they confiscated a huge cache of weapons, money, drugs and most interestingly, wild animals including five lions.

Nakhnoukh, who was living in an expensive neighbourhood of King Mariout in the suburbs of the northern city of Alexandria, was accused of being the leader of a criminal network which carried out "thuggery" and "intimidation of citizens" on behalf of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak.

The term "baltagi" is Turkish in origin. "Baltaci", which means "axe-man", was adopted into Arabic during Ottoman rule.

In modern day Egypt, baltagi came to mean "thug". But after mass anti-government unrest erupted in January and February 2011, it began to be used to describe regime supporters who were used to disperse and attack protesters.

Egyptian newspapers reported that even before the revolution, Nakhnoukh was used by some politicians linked to Mubarak to intimidate voters and political opponents.

Image caption Many Egyptians blamed baltajiya for the deaths of 74 people at a football match at Port Said

In return for working as informants for the security forces, baltagiya - who numbered between 100,000 and 500,000 according to official estimates - were allowed to operate outside the law.

Using this formula, drug and arms dealers were used by the Egyptian authorities during the 1990s to fight violent Islamist groups in Upper Egypt.

The security apparatus would then get rid of these criminals once the mission was accomplished.

This relationship was dramatised in the 2007 film, Al-Jazira, which recounted the life of an Egyptian criminal, Ezzat Hanafi.


Shabiha is the plural of Shabih, which in the Levant region is slang for someone who lies by embellishing their actions.

But the term more commonly refers to a person who forces someone to stand against a wall and then bullies or tortures him. This is widely practiced in many Arab prisons and detention centres.

The former Syrian ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, the first senior Syrian diplomat to defect in July, 2012, in an interview with al-Jazeera TV on 12 August said that the shabiha phenomenon in Syria started in the late 1980s in al-Qardaha, the hometown of the family of President Bashar al-Assad.

According to Mr Fares, who also served as mayor of al-Qardaha for 10 years, members of the Assad family, particularly the president's cousin, Munzir and others in the family, started to intimidate people and get involved in various kinds of illegal activities along Syria's Mediterranean coast, including smuggling goods from Lebanon.

Image caption The Saleh regime reportedly recruited poor youths from marginalised areas and brought them to Sanaa

Before Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, he was tasked with reining in the shabiha, and restoring law and order to the city. He is said to have curbed the worst of the shabiha's excesses, but they kept working underground.

After pro-democracy protests erupted in Syria in March 2011, the regime began to use groups of its supporters to assist in the crackdown on protesters. But unlike the baltajiya in Egypt, the shabiha were armed.

They were also accused of committing atrocities on behalf of the regime, such as the massacre of dozens of women and children at Houla in May 2012.

Shabiha were initially drawn from Syria's minority Alawite community, a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, but as the conflict intensified non-Alawites are believed to have been recruited.

Yemen's version of baltagiya, the "balatija", were also accused of assisting the crackdown on protesters during the rule of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

According to a Yemeni journalist who follows the balatija closely, the Saleh regime used poor youths from marginalised areas and brought them to the capital, Sanaa, to suppress dissent.

In return they received a daily wage, a meal and the promise of being hired by the security forces later.

Pro-government thugs in some Arab countries have quite different names, for instance they are called "voyous" in Algeria.

In Sudan, where unrest has been increasing lately, protesters call individuals in plain clothes who attack them the "rubata," which carries the same meaning as baltagiya, balatija and shabiha.

More on this story