From Briguglio to Engerer, the battlescars of political enmity are on parade

The wounds on the Maltese political battlefield reveal a diseased society that basks in toxic rivalry

Michael Briguglio (left) and Cyrus Engerer
Michael Briguglio (left) and Cyrus Engerer

After the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, the language of micro-aggressions but even that of plain aggression, may have been lost in translation.

66-year-old Emmanuel Navarro was charged and remanded in custody without bail for insulting and threatening Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola whom he called a “traitor” on Facebook and that she should be burnt alive.

The vitriol freely exchanged on social media has opened a new arena: for Opposition figures, “shock” and “shivers” and umbrage to be found at every ‘insult’ traded on Facebook, that cesspit of inner monologues given free vent. For those in government, an opportunity to turn that umbrage into brownie points, prosecuting the perpetrators of bad language.

Incitement of this sort surely is a police matter once reported, even though the thick-skinned politico knows well enough how the uncouth partisan is prone to unsympathetic language and little else.

As always, gauging whether an insult can transmogrify into moral and physical violence, or whether what’s needed is to starve the boor of attention, is for the injured party to assess. Whether such words are truly rooted in deep hatred, the kind that would wish such violence upon another human being, is also what is at stake here.

The Maltese football stadium is perhaps the prime exemplar of the kind of cauldron where aggressive language, blasphemy, and threats of violence cannot be resisted. Police do intervene when someone acts out in a solitary display of maniacal loathing for the opposing side. But nobody can stop the entire team support chanting “F’ghoxx il-Valletta” or complaining that the referee is “demel” or “liba”.

Terrace culture can be a ‘safe space’ to release this implied hatred for a football rival, even though a chant does not a hooligan make. Outside on the public pavements we share, our expectations of safety are different: threats like the one hailed at PN local councillor Michael Briguglio – “spittle” (bzieq) – are unwelcome and can invite fear, but they still open a debate on the vernacular of Maltese aggression.

Threats can be par for the course in the life of any journalist. Fascist Norman Lowell enjoys entertaining the prospect of hanging the press by a lamppost, but is given short shrift. Ignored, insults can be starved of the power to impart fear, or else publicised as examples of ignorance and disrespect for those who do their job well, journalists and MEPs alike.

But when weaponised, as politicians enjoy doing, any insult can easily be turned into a prelude to a death threat. Such glibness is a staple of Maltese political discourse.  

To Briguglio, writing on the experience in a Times column after first announcing it on Facebook, the rant he endured on the Sliema seafront was redolent of the violence of the 1980s. Why? Not because of the insult per se, which ranks low on the spectrum of umbrage. Briguglio says his aggressor displayed a “sense of entitlement”, reminding him of the days his father, expelled from the Labour Party, endured insults as he campaigned for the small Democratic Party in 1987, “coming home reporting mob rule and violence”, being personally insulted by a school beadle over his father’s allegiance, and even beaten up as a kid for not fitting in politically.

Nobody can dispute Briguglio’s feeling of insecurity triggered by insults and threats, especially now that he leads the Civil Society Network. Whether his unripe experience of the 1980s is being conjured up for maximum effect, is up to the more mature reader to discern. 

Labour supporters in Malta have a different story to tell, of course: “I can understand Briguglio’s shock reaction by someone who calls him ‘spittle’… it’s not a Labour attitude as he erroneously attributes but the Maltese character on display as it is in so many cases of political, footballing and festa rivalry,” said Cyrus Engerer, the former Labour candidate whose MEP candidature was dropped on a conviction for revenge porn.

“I’ve been treated this way since 2011,” he recounted on Facebook, mentioning a similar assault to Briguglio’s. After being kicked up to a Brussels post by Joseph Muscat, Engerer claims staff at the Permanent Representation “brought up under Richard Cachia” would tell them ‘yuck’ and ‘fucking idiots we’ll tell Daphne about your every move’.

It’s always facile to whip up “the 1980s” for the emotive trope that it is in Maltese politics, and likewise the RCC-DCG friendship will always be a red rag for Labourites.

But whoever you choose to believe or even empathize with, this ingrained partisanship and divide of island life, both onshore and offshore, is a Maltese disease. Engerer says he was eating with his partner at a Gzira restaurant when it had to be a fellow diner, Mario De Marco – the PN grandee – to intervene when the couple was being “constantly insulted” by another table.

Whether or not the assassination of an investigative journalist has unleashed some Golem of unrequited hatred in Malta is a moot point: solidarity should be forthcoming to anyone in public life who endures the caustic put-downs in the press or the virulent odium in social media by its lobotomised practitioners.

What’s happened after the Caruana Galizia murder is that the dualist view of life in Malta has become even more razor-sharp. In such a battle-hungry arena, watch out for the easy gains to be made by those who seek to exploit these polarised allegiances.