Bring in the thugs. Mediterranean sovereignty in times of uprising.

While the impact of popular uprisings on Mediterranean international relations is crucial, we must not overlook the important rearrangements in domestic sovereignty that are happening within different subnational contexts. The domestic use of political violence to manage civil dissent – last but not least across Turkish cities of Izmir and now Istanbul – is increasingly characterised by hybrid configurations of state and irregular non-state actors.

Renegotiating what constitutes legitimate or illegitimate violence is a common dynamic of state formation[1]. In post-civil war Lebanon, for example, the numerous disbanded militias (with the exception of Hezbollah) were re-absorbed into the newly reformed Lebanese army. In Italy, the Carabinieri went from being a royal police force during the Savoy kingdom, to anti-opposition force during Fascism; they were then disbanded once some of its ranks joined the irregular partisan resistance and were finally re-embedded in the armed forces of the Republic. Irregular armed forces and their role in politics and state formation, a volume edited by Diane Davis and Anthony Pereira, illustrates these dynamics through historical and contemporary examples spanning Greece, Colombia, France and Vietnam.

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The hybridisation between state-sanctioned and irregular violence in the contemporary Mediterranean is, however, distinctive for the crucial questions it poses about the state of democracy in the area. The appearance of government-sponsored thugs in Greece, Egypt, Syria and Turkey shows similarities in the management of internal dissent that are shrinking accepted perceptions of a politico-cultural distance between democratic (EU)rope and authoritarian Arab Mediterranean.

Hybrid sovereignty is a type of control of territory and of political violence in which the state has no monopoly over either. The state can still be present, but classic dichotomies between state and nonstate, official and unofficial, legitimate and irregular are blurred. Cairo and Athens are two cities where, during and in the aftermath of protest, hybrid sovereignty is particularly apparent as the state delegates its monopoly of legitimate political violence to metamorphic nonstate actors. These, depending on the situation on the ground, disguise themselves as plain- clothes police, protesters or other agent provocateurs paid either by the state itself or by legitimate political actors. In Greece – the boundary between state-sanctioned and irregular violence has become particularly blurred since the extremist right wing party Golden Dawn have been using violent squads across Athens since it raised in popularity in the last elections

In Cairo, Hosni Mubarak’s government has made use of baltaghiye squads to curb the revolutionary movement encamped at Tahrir Square in early 2011. Baltaghiye is not a new violent actor in Egypt. In Arabic it means “hatchet men” and indicates “thugs” or “gangs” hired by the regime to attack political targets or exercise coercion in Cairo’s popular quarters: collecting protection money, controlling access to neighbourhoods, confiscating property. Since the 1980s, the regime outsourced baltaghiye brutality against protesters and detainees. Paul Amar[2] notes how the regime used baltaghiye post 9-11 to suppress or wreak havoc during protests. This shifted perceptions of the protester to that a masculine, islamist radical, thus reinforcing post-9/11 Western geopolitical fears and repositioning the role of the Egyptian regime as the actor keeping religious extremists at bay.

During the 2011 uprising, the wide but still tacit links between baltaghiye and the state became blatant. From 28 February, at the start of Mubarak’s demise, the police officially retreated from the streets of Cairo leaving the army in charge of maintaining the status quo[3]. What we then saw in Cairo was a clear delegation of state-sanctioned coercion from the uniformed police to the armed militias, who acted either as plain clothes police or as pro-regime protestors – famously charging the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square riding camels and horses.

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Athens is showing a similar outsourcing of coercion from the Greek police to what in Greek is known generically as kukulofori (hooded thugs/hooligans). The sentence Kukulofori ke astinomiki, mia parea (hooded thugs and cops are as one) has become common in protests. Post-dictatorship Greece is knowingly characterised by a constellation of both far left and far right violent political movements. But the situation has radicalised in the light of Greece’s soaring social inequalities. The soaring presence of vigilantes became clear in late 2008, during the protests following the killing of teenager Alexis Grigoropolous by the police in central Athens. While protests took place in the wide streets surrounding Syntagma square, in the side streets kukulofori holding sticks were filmed convening with the police after confronting protesters and before going back to confront them again[3]. As protest have spread in Athens and other Greek cities since 2008, often seeing police brutality against protesters, an ambiguous relationship has now clearly developed between police and various vigilantes or agents provocateurs generally drawn from the far-right. Delegation of coercion has resulted in the frequent victimisation of immigrant communities and protesters by thugs and the heavy securitisation of portions of the city associated with their presence by the police.

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With the uprisings we are witnessing an increasing number of renegotiations of the boundaries between state-sanctioned and irregular violence across the Mediterranean. While infiltrating protesters is not a new police tactic, the delegation of coercion to thugs is becoming increasingly widespread. States both within and without the EU are increasingly merging with the nonstate and outsourcing political violence and coercion for the management of internal dissent.

While the War on Terror has shaped domestic and urban security in the past decade, in the present decade uprising and protest – and the responses to these – is shaping the way domestic sovereignty is practiced on the ground.  We are seeing hybrid forms of state and non-state violence: baltaghiye, kukulufori, the Shabiha militia in Syria, the thugs that have recently appeared in the streets of Istanbul and Izmir and possibly other, less structured, groups seem to hint at a new form of state response to domestic dissent, one that is stirring the waters all across the Mediterranean.

Sara Fregonese


[1]Pereira, Anthony W. 2003. “Armed Forces, Coercive Monopolies, and Changing Patterns of State Formation and Violence.” In Irregular Armed Forces and Their Role in Politics and State Fomation, edited by Diane E Davis and Anthony W. Pereira, 387–407. Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Amar, Paul. 2011. “Turning the Gendered Politics of the Security State Inside Out?International Feminist Journal of Politics 13 (3) (September): 299–328. doi:10.1080/14616742.2011.587364.

[3] Trombetta, L. 2013. “More Than Just a Battleground: Cairo’s Urban Space During the 2011 Protests.” European Urban and Regional Studies 20 (1) (January 7): 139–144. doi:10.1177/0969776412463373.

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