“Beltagia, beltagia,” were words that once struck fear into the hearts of Egyptians trying to vote in elections under Hosni Mubarak, as they heralded the arrival of hired thugs with sticks, swords and sometimes guns, bent on intimidation.
The beltagia, an extension of the security apparatus in the deposed leader’s rigged polls, used to be hired by candidates from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and some others, ready to bully anyone who might vote for a rival.
Renting such gangs was embedded in Egypt’s electoral landscape but they were notably absent this week in the nation’s first free election since army officers ousted the king in 1952, Reuters reports.
“There’s a huge difference between voting before and after the revolution,” Yasser Abdel Moneim, 47, an English-language teacher, voting for the party of the Muslim Brotherhood, said.
“Before there was thuggery and people were passive. People used to ask, ‘why should I go vote? It’s rigged anyway’,” he said, adding:
“People had anticipated these polls would be marred by thuggery and massacres … but actually it’s a very flowery and democratic picture that is extraordinary.”
The near-absence of thugs from this week’s election may be partly due to the disbanding of Mubarak’s NDP and the low profile that many of its former politicians have adopted.
But thugs have sought to intimidate protesters opposed to army rule, just as they tried to break up demonstrations during the revolt against Mubarak in January and February.
The ruling generals have blamed recent violence on “hidden hands”, but many Egyptians question why thugs were so conspicuously absent from an election run by the military.
One joke circulating on social networking sites summed up what many thought: “We would like to thank the Egyptian army for securing the elections and proving to us that the security breakdown was fundamentally a political decision.”
After polls closed on Tuesday, dozens of youths caused mayhem near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where protesters are staging a sit-in to demand military rulers quit now. The Health Ministry said more than 100 people had been hurt in the fracas.
“Thugs are now attacking the protesters in Tahrir,” tweeted reformist politician Mohamed ElBaradei. “A regime that cannot protect its citizens is a regime that has failed in performing its basic function.”
TAHRIR CAMEL CHARGE
Near the climax of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak on Feb. 11, the world watched as beltagia on camels and horses charged into demonstrators, flailing whips and sticks.
Mubarak’s increasingly desperate government sent in riot police against the protesters, then F-16 fighter jets to buzz them, tactics that only hardened their resolve. In Egypt and abroad, it seemed a crude attempt to bully the demonstrators.
“The regime gave the impression that it was strong, but it was weak,” Khaled al-Sheikh, 45, recalled. “They had weapons and power, but we were victorious because we had principles.”
Under Mubarak, armed gangs in civilian clothes were used, particularly at election time, to frighten citizens.
Egyptians gave lurid stories of people being assaulted to persuade them to change their minds about opposing Mubarak.
One witness to the rigged 2010 poll, recalls how one woman wearing a face veil demanded to be let into the polling station in the Delta province of Kafr el-Sheikh. She argued angrily with a security officer, only to be interrupted by a female thug who grabbed her by the scarf and dragged her outside.
The officer followed them outside and calmly said: “Kick her in her stomach, so it doesn’t bruise.” The beating didn’t stop even while her friend screamed: “She is pregnant.”