Every repressive regime has relied on a team of paid goons to instill fear in its citizens. In Egypt, under Hosni Mubarak, these unofficial security forces were called Baltajia and they were particularly active during the Arab Spring uprisings in cracking down on demonstrators. 

Every repressive regime has relied on a team of paid goons to instill fear in its citizens. In Egypt, under Hosni Mubarak, these unofficial security forces were called Baltajia and they were particularly active during the Arab Spring uprisings in cracking down on demonstrators. 

But 50 year-old Muhammad Khalifah, a longtime Baltaji in the Serabium area in Ismailia— in eastern Egypt—drew the line during the revolution and refused to participate in violence against demonstrators.  Today, however, Khalifah believes that the newly elected Islamists have practiced worse forms of criminality.


Muhammad Khalifah

Mutual back scratching

Baltajia rarely worked alone, according to Khalifah who says that he, like other Baltajia, had good relationships to the police and followed their orders about when and where to appear.

Khlaifah’s job as a parking fee collector for microbuses at the Ismailia stops also fostered friendships with city administration officials who turned a blind eye to the fees Khalifah imposed on drivers, in return for having a share thereof. This job also brought Khalifah closer to the chief of detectives of the Fayed area. An official in the city administration once told Khalifah, “Stealing from the government is no sin.”

Khalifah spent time in prison, however, for facilitating prostitution; which, he considered a framed case that was brought up after a dispute he had with the chief of detectives of the Fayed area, where he was arrested in his house with a girl he says was his maid. A statement was made after two people filed a complaint and Khalifah was sentenced to six months in prison.

Nevertheless, Khalifah says that his relationship to the police was based on “equality and respect” and that some workers in the police sought his friendship to get women. Moreover, he once asked for the help of two police officers and a police driver to set-up a fake trap for a girl whom he personally antagonized because she refused to surrender her body to him.

Khalifah’s relationship to the police allowed him to commit many illegal acts that went unpunished, due to loopholes in the law. After the revolution, he still holds a great deal of respect for the police.


Islamists “the real criminals”

Khalifah says that he was one of the biggest supporters of the revolution when it started but now he holds  Islamists accountable for the current deteriorated economic conditions. He describes the Salafists and all those affiliated to the Islamic current as criminals. “They wear the masks of religion to dupe the naive people,” he says.

Khalifah gives no concrete proof to support his negative view of Islamists, but it is most likely that the Islamists represent the new forces in the street, who now work there in broad daylight with no need for any prevarications as it used to be under the previous regime. In such circumstances, Khalifah might have found himself in competition with these forces to control the street.

He explains how he refused, having been ordered by the chief of detectives of the Fayed area, to destroy a Muslim Brotherhood PC during the 2005 parliamentary elections. Today, however, he says he wouldn’t hesitate.  “They have inflicted bad economic conditions on me and millions of Egyptians. They have caused the current insecurity and even though the National Party was worse, I didn’t feel fear for my family before the revolution.”

He says that before the revolution he could go to any official and find a solution even after some suffering. “Now,” he says, “you should be a Salafist or a Muslim Brother in order to solve your problems. The country is turning it into their own estate.”

Troubled childhood

Khalifah was born in the 1960s in Mansoura. His father was an office worker at the education directorate and his mother was exactly like Amina–the wife and mother in the famous Egyptian triology by Naguib Mahfouz—as Khalifah himself describes her.

Khalifah says that his entire family was not accustomed to problems and disputes; they even disliked violent movie scenes. He describes himself as “an abnormal situation” which has formed given that his father didn’t follow-up or bring him up in a sound manner or intervene to protect him or stand by him in his fights with his peers when he was a child.


Looking back at a troubled childhood

The greatest shock his life, he says, was when his father went to the police and falsely accused the nine year-old Khalifah of attacking him with a knife. Despite his young age, the police beat him severely. This, Khlaifah, says marked his entrance into the real world of crime.

Khalifah believed the Baltajia would free him from the constraints of injustice and humiliation and make him dominate and control those around him. He insists that he never intentially sought a life crime says that he has been working in legitimate professions throughout his life as he sought to work for many restaurants and other professions, but he was repeatedly fired.

Changing his ways

Getting older and having been married for seven years, Khalifah has tended to what he calls “a lawful livelihood”. Yet that doesn’t prevent him from resorting to devious methods. The first confrontations between him and the Islamists have already taken place in recent months. He admits that he is one of those who caused the gas crisis in his village and that he and three others, including a supply directorate employee, used to get 100 cylinders illegally then sell them on the black market.

He justifies his criminal acts due to his low salary as a parking fee collector; which, is no more than L.E. 350 (US$ 75). He used to buy a cylinder at L.E. 6 and sell it for L.E. 20 for those who didn’t want to stand in queues.

Winning only in times of crisis, Khalifah suffered when some young Salafists contributed to solving the crisis through receiving and selling the cylinders, especially when they rejected his offer to take the responsibility of selling in one of the areas on permanent basis.

Khalifah knows that some citizens didn’t want him to participate in the selling for fear of his bad reputation and the loss of their cylinders. However, he emphasis that if he had wanted to follow unorthodox ways, he could have easily stolen two cylinders from each package and bought them for $100 each day, but he now wants a “lawful livelihood”.

Now that he has two children, Khalifah finds it especially important to change his ways. He was recently offered L.E 500 a day for being a Baltaji at demonstrations on Mamar Square in Ismailia but he refused. Even though a number of his old cohorts accepted the offer, Khalifah resists the return to his criminal past.