Who you calling a ‘thug’?

Today’s crackdown in Tahrir Square is horrific, but can anyone truly claim it’s surprising? Journalistic parlance seems to have settled on the word “thug” to describe the attackers, but that seems to me to obscure more than it clarifies: I’m skeptical that a group of mercenaries spontaneously assembled early this morning and instructed itself on ...

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
558404_110202_Thug2.jpg
558404_110202_Thug2.jpg
An Egyptian supporter of President Hosni Mubarak raises his hands in victory while facing a crowd of fellow supporters clashing with thousands of anti-government protesters at Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 2, 2011. AFP PHOTO/MARCO LONGARI (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

Today's crackdown in Tahrir Square is horrific, but can anyone truly claim it's surprising? Journalistic parlance seems to have settled on the word "thug" to describe the attackers, but that seems to me to obscure more than it clarifies: I'm skeptical that a group of mercenaries spontaneously assembled early this morning and instructed itself on the finer points of counterinsurrection. Mubarak's Egypt was a security state, after all. In all likelihood, these are the people who held Mubarak's regime together in the dank corridors of the Interior Ministry, and this is the brutal manner in which they worked. Under Mubarak, menacing peaceful Egyptians had become a promising career path.

Today’s crackdown in Tahrir Square is horrific, but can anyone truly claim it’s surprising? Journalistic parlance seems to have settled on the word “thug” to describe the attackers, but that seems to me to obscure more than it clarifies: I’m skeptical that a group of mercenaries spontaneously assembled early this morning and instructed itself on the finer points of counterinsurrection. Mubarak’s Egypt was a security state, after all. In all likelihood, these are the people who held Mubarak’s regime together in the dank corridors of the Interior Ministry, and this is the brutal manner in which they worked. Under Mubarak, menacing peaceful Egyptians had become a promising career path.

If it’s hard to imagine that the “thugs” are motivated by ideological conviction — Mubarak had no basis on which to indoctrinate a Basij or Revolutionary Guard — it’s easy to imagine they’re acting out of self-interest and fear. The Egyptian military seems to have a place reserved for itself in whatever new order emerges. But who can say the same for the country’s security services? When Egypt’s emergency laws are eventually rescinded, who will have use for people practiced in torturing their fellow citizens? The people wielding machetes in Tahrir Square probably have a hazy vision of a future Egypt in search of scapegoats. And they know that there won’t be a plane waiting to bring them out of the country, like there will be for Mubarak.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.