Who are the ‘Shabiha’?

The sucession of Arab uprisings, has led to the spread of otherwise local colloquial language or pronunciations. For example, events in Egypt gave rise to the term ‘baltajia‘, which finds its roots in Turkish and originally meant ‘axe carrier’. In the context of colloquial Egyptian, the word ‘baltajia‘ was used for thugs and the word ‘baltaja‘ for thuggery. However, in the context of the Egyptian uprising, it was used for groups of thugs that the regime hired to disperse protesters and create civil unrest.

In Libya the word ‘zenga‘, used by al-Qathafi, found itself in protests in other Arab countries – in Syria, protesters sometimes chanted “alley (zenga), alley (zenga), house, house! We’ll uproot you, oh Bashar!”. While the word is found in classical Arabic (the meaning of the word being a narrow street or alley), the protesters would often use the Libyan pronunciation of the word in their chants.

After protests began in Syria, the word ‘shabiha‘ appeared. Originally, it was a known designation, in the Syrian coastal areas, for armed gangs or militias run by members of the al-Assad family, consisting of very loyal individuals from the Alawite community. These gangs were known to operate a network of illegal activities e.g. robbery, arms and drugs smuggling.

The term found itself across the Arabic news reports, after demonstrations were put down violently in Lattakia, with the ‘shabiha‘ accused of this role. Later, the word ‘shabiha‘ would find itself used in very similar ways to the word ‘balatjiya‘ and ‘baltaja‘, pointing to thugs and outright thuggery. Burhan Ghalioun (a prominent Syrian opposition figure), for example, extended the term to the regime’s propaganda spokespersons, after becoming known for their rudeness in their interviews. In this way, a term restricted to the Syrian coastal areas, found itself in popular usage across Syria and possibly the Arab world. In this video, a man, from the city of Hama, identifies the regime’s security personnel as ‘shabiha‘, again denoting to regime thugs, responsible for the violent quelling of demonstrations and protests. Another video, showing security personnel and armed thugs assaulting protesters, is titled with ‘shabihat an-Nitham‘ or the ‘system’s/regime’s shabiha‘, again pointing to thuggery in its more general usage. From its original and very narrow usage in the Syrian coastal areas, the term is now being used to point to regime thuggery.


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