Democracy Lab

Plague of Thugs

Why Mideast dictators use hoodlums to suppress dissent.

Bashar al-Assad has plenty of ways to kill people. He's unleashed helicopter gunships and tanks against rebels in the streets of his own capital. The White House is warning Syria against the use of chemical weapons. The International Committee of the Red Cross recently declared the conflict to be a "civil war." And now a bomb attack in the center of Damascus has killed Assad's defense minister and three other high-ranking officials.

But even as the violence in Syria ratchets up, the most vicious weapon in Assad's arsenal is likely to remain one that is decidedly low-tech. Over and over again the same deadly pattern manifests itself: First the regular army bombards rebellious villages into submission with its heavy guns. Then the government sends in the Alawite militias, ragtag fighters in makeshift uniforms or civilian clothes, to do the real killing, up close and personal. No one in Syria is deceived by their casual dress code.

They're known as the shabiha, a word derived from the Arabic for "ghost," and one that has already become indelibly linked with the primal brutality of the Assad regime. That's because the pro-government militias seem to crop up with ominous regularity wherever the worst atrocities are committed. The shabiha are said to have been involved in the fighting in the village of Tremseh that left hundreds of dead there late last week (though the precise circumstances remain murky. The United Nations has accused them of direct involvement in the massacre of 108 people in Houla in May, around half of them children. Assad's paramilitaries have also been implicated in the bloodbath at Mazraat al-Qubeir, near Hama, two weeks later. Organized loosely according to their places of origin, the shabiha stand outside the regular chain of military command. It's assumed that they answer directly to the Assad family.

The picture that emerges from numerous videos of the shabiha at work is chilling. (Given the difficulties involved in confirming information from Syria, it's hard to know whether all of these videos are authentic; reports from people on the ground inside Syria confirm many of the particulars. The image above is taken from a video purportedly showing shabiha beating one of their prisoners.) But while Assad's irregulars might seem unique in their savagery, the phenomenon they represent is widespread throughout the Middle East.

Indeed, while the world wrings its hands over Syria, the regime in Sudan -- largely out of the international limelight -- is deploying its own bands of civilian "thugs" (known locally as rabattah) against anti-government protestors in the streets of Khartoum and Omdurman. Iran's government routinely deploys its vast force of basij volunteers against dissidents there. In Yemen, pro-government militias acting on behalf of ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh were known as the baltajiya, a word still used in Bahrain; the Egyptians refer to the thugs-for-hire who worked for Hosni Mubarak as the baltageya. The words may differ, but the political strategy of using loosely organized hoodlums to suppress discontent is strikingly similar.

The phenomenon begs a question. Middle Eastern dictators typically spend lavishly on weaponry. (Just take a look at Assad's arsenal.) They command large conscript armies and multiple security services. So why do they need to "outsource repression" by recruiting street gangs as well?

Adel Iskandar, a lecturer on Middle Eastern politics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., puts it this way: "They're hired to do the dirty work the police can't do." When suppressing dissent, official institutions have their limits. What does a despot do, for example, when his police force and conscript army draw many of their recruits from the same ethnic and confessional groups that are protesting against the government? One answer is to hire extra muscle from the criminal world. Activists in Sudan, for example, say that the poorly paid regular police are notably reluctant to crack down on protestors. So most of the violence used against demonstrators has come from local thugs, who are richly rewarded for their efforts by the government.

In Syria, the shabiha evolved from gangs centered in the city of Latakia, a stronghold of the minority Alawite religious group that has long ruled the country. Latakia was the base of an organized crime network headed by Bashar al-Assad's uncle, Jamil, who made a fortune from smuggling and prostitution. (Earlier this year, the European Union imposed a travel ban on Jamil's sons, Fawaz and Mundhir, specifically citing their close involvement with the shabiha.)

Unlike their counterparts in Egypt, these Alawite toughs enjoy a fairly high standard of living from their state-sanctioned criminal activities. What welds them together is a paranoid awareness of their minority status; opponents of the regime are automatically viewed as sectarian enemies. "The Syrian army is mixed," notes Ahed al Hendi, a former Syrian political prisoner who now works for the Syrian American Council. "The soldiers can be Christians or Sunnis. So the regime doesn't trust the soldiers to deal directly with the rebels and the protestors."

In Iran, the basij are often recruited from shantytowns and the impoverished countryside, a background that predisposes them to ill-will against dissidents and political protestors. "Basij members who do not have any social bonds to the city dwellers -- and against whom they feel strong class and cultural resentment -- are expected to be capable of violently suppressing urban, middle-class uprisings," says Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute. In Egypt, the baltageya usually hail from the vast slums of Cairo and other big cities. In these areas, the combination of long-ingrained poverty and petty criminality spawns a defiant sense of local identity that can easily be channeled against selected outsiders (assisted by strategic infusions of cash).

Gangsters usually don't deign to wear uniforms -- but this can be an advantage to a government that wants to disassociate itself from the violence stirred up by its proxies. "They [the Egyptian baltageya] can easily be mistaken for ordinary civilians," says Iskandar. "The whole idea is that this is supposed to look like civilian-on-civilian violence, so that the state isn't directly implicated." In Iran, the basij wear uniforms or not as the occasion demands, a calculated ambiguity designed to keep opponents off balance. (Dissidents victimized by anonymous attackers can only suspect government involvement.)

The Syrian militiamen, who cultivate a gangsta ethos through a shared culture of bodybuilding, long beards, and tattoos, are certainly much more conspicuous, and take an ostentatious pride in their own penchant for violence. Even so, their mix-and-match dress code (white athletic shoes are a trademark) makes it hard to distinguish them from the equally motley rebels, giving Assad's government an element of deniability that his allies in Moscow and Beijing are only too happy to exploit.

By now, the fate of the shabiha is inextricably linked with that of their patron Assad. If he somehow manages to survive the current unrest, his thugs are likely to emerge from the fray energized and empowered. But if his regime should fall, the Alawite militias will be the first to feel the wrath of the country's long-suppressed majority.

Thugs, in general, make excellent scapegoats. A few months ago the post-revolutionary government in Cairo issued an "anti-baltageya law" that essentially suspends even the most minimal protections for anyone suspected of membership in "gangs." The problem is that the lawmakers never troubled to define what constitutes a "gang" -- leading civil rights activists to worry that the powers-that-be can all too easily deploy the law against random political enemies.

For the moment, though, many of the real baltageya seem to have weathered Hosni Mubarak's end relatively well. Crime rates have risen sharply in Egypt since the revolution, and many of the same people who once terrorized anti-government protestors are finding new jobs as bodyguards and drivers for the anxiously wealthy. This should not really come as a surprise. In the Middle East, especially, a thug's work is never done.

Democracy Lab

Talking a Great Game

So far, Washington's pivot to Asia has included a lot of work on security and trade. Democracy, not so much.

Hillary Clinton is approaching the final phase of an astonishing 13-day tour of the world. She's spent much of her trip in Asia, including stops in Mongolia, Vietnam, and Laos. And that, of course, is entirely in keeping with the Obama administration's interest in re-orienting U.S. foreign policy to that part of the world as part of the famous "pivot."

The pivot, of course, is motivated by the realization that it's the rise of China (and certainly not a bunch of ragged Islamist revolutionaries) that poses the greatest challenge to U.S. dominance in the 21st century. It is Asia that is the new fulcrum of the global economy, and it is Asia that is home to some of the world's most pressing global security challenges -- especially now that some states in the region find themselves directly confronting the Chinese over territory and resources.

So it's no wonder that Washington policymakers describe both trade and security as central to their new Asian agenda. But in the meantime a lot of people have forgotten that the pivot was always supposed to be based on a third ingredient: support for democracy.

"If the secretary is serious that the values we hold are an important part of the pivot, then the administration needs to advance them alongside -- or ahead of -- security and trade," says Ellen Bork, a longtime Asia expert at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative Washington policy group.

Interestingly, Secretary Clinton has used her trip as an occasion to remind us of precisely that point. During her visit to Mongolia, she gave a stirring speech about U.S. efforts to bolster open societies in Asia -- even going so far as to describe "support for democracy and human rights" as the "heart" of the new American strategy. She also attended a high-profile meeting with a number of other leaders from the Community of Democracies, the club of democratic countries established in 2000 for the express purpose of furthering their common values. Their choice of venue for this particular meeting might seem a bit odd, but it was actually pretty appropriate, considering the remarkable progress that the Mongolians have been making with their own democratic system over the past two decades.

All fine and good. It's certainly important to talk about democratic values. It boosts the morale of activists and raises the blood pressure of despots. Beyond that, though, what has the shift in U.S. policy brought the region's would-be democracies so far?

Secretary Clinton cited several achievements:

So we speak out against repressive laws and harassment of civil society. We've created an emergency fund for NGOs and individuals who come under threat. We have strongly supported a Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Assembly at the UN Human Rights Council. We have created a new global forum, the Open Government Partnership, to promote transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. And we speak out on behalf of marginalized people -- racial, religious, ethnic minorities, LGBT people, and yes, still women.

An emergency fund for NGOs sounds like a worthy initiative -- even if there is only a few million dollars in the kitty. The Open Government Partnership is admirable, too, at least in theory. But a new position at the U.N. Human Rights Council? Let's just say that I'm not holding my breath.

What else? While Hillary was in Ulaanbaatar, she also attended the launch of a new international initiative called the LEND Network, a State Department-assisted effort that aims to use personal contacts and state-of-the-art technology to provide leaders in places aspiring to democracy with urgently needed know-how. The idea is to let aspiring democrats schmooze with people from countries that have recently gone through their own democratic transitions. This seems eminently sensible. Nowadays, Egyptians or Sudanese are much more likely to listen to Turks or Indonesians lecture them on the values of democracy than to Americans or Europeans. But it is ultimately pretty modest stuff.

It's worth noting that none of the initiatives she mentions apply specifically to Asia. She cited the progress in Burma as evidence of the success of resolute American support for democracy there, and perhaps that's true. But I doubt that she scored many points. Many in the region continue to argue that it was precisely the engagement policies of regional organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that bore fruit there, and not any grand strategic design on the part of the United States. (What if it was the combination of both approaches that finally had an effect?) The discussion, at any rate, continues.

And what about speaking out on behalf of marginalized people? Hillary's speech in Mongolia did send a barb in the direction of China, Asia's biggest human rights abuser. "We need to make the 21st century a time in which people across Asia don't only become more wealthy," she said. "They must also become more free." Yes. But I doubt that this gentle rhetoric really caused any sleepless nights in Beijing -- especially considering that she never mentioned China by name in her speech.

Equally revealing were the remarks she made in Vietnam, her next stop after Mongolia. Facing the cameras after her meeting with the Vietnamese foreign minister, she spoke about the importance of "economic growth," and regional security cooperation, and then some more about economics and trade. Finally, near the end of her speech, came this:

Democracy and prosperity go hand in hand, political reform and economic growth are linked, and the United States wants to support progress in both areas.

So I also raised concerns about human rights, including the continued detention of activists, lawyers, and bloggers, for the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas. In particular, we are concerned about restrictions on free expression online and the upcoming trial of the founders of the so-called Free Journalists Club. The Foreign Minister and I agreed to keep talking candidly and to keep expanding our partnership.

So she "raised concerns." It's good to hear that somebody is talking candidly about these things in Vietnam -- a country that remains under one-party rule just as onerous as that in China. Yet you can bet that her hosts carefully noted the order of priorities in her speech. As Hillary mentioned, trade between the two countries now amounts to $22 billion a year. Vietnam, with an eye to China's increasingly aggressive play in the South China Sea, is eager to rev up its military cooperation with Washington. With monster deliverables like these in play, surely even the Politburo in Hanoi ought to be ready to endure some serious lectures on human rights.

"We're always complaining that we don't have leverage in these countries," says Bork. "But here's a perfect case of one where we do. It makes sense for us to introduce us some respect for reforms, for human rights, demands for qualitative change, into our negotiations with Vietnam. But I don't see it happening." Human Rights Watch, for its part, has called upon Clinton to make human rights the centerpiece of her discussions at the ASEAN summit that she'll be attending in Phnom Penh beginning on July 11.

So what, in the end, is the United States specifically doing to support democracy in Asia? I can't really point to much that's substantial or concrete. Talk is cheap (particularly when you compare it with the billions, say, that Washington continues to send to the militaries in Pakistan and Egypt every year). How about some large-scale funding for civil society groups in Burma, for example? That's just the kind of thing that could really make a genuine difference in one of Asia's most strategically situated countries. But so far there's no sign of anything comparable in the offing.

Luong Thai Linh/AFP/GettyImages