Drugs and Thugs in the New Egypt

By Joseph Braude 09/03/12

After the Arab Spring, drug abuse has exploded in Egypt. In this two-part investigation, The Fix reports from Cairo about the influx of drugs and drug traffickers—and the threat to a fledgling democracy.

Ehab El Kharrat via author

Here in Cairo, the five-story “Molotov building,” which overlooks Tahrir Square—ground zero of Egypt's Arab Spring in 2011—earned its name when thugs supportive of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak occupied the top floor and threw flaming Molotov cocktails down at the revolutionary protestors. Dozens of young men charged five flights, assaulting office workers and looting property along the way. But their zeal proved short-lived: within a couple of hours, many were lying on the roof, pupils dilated, gazing into the smog-filled sky.

“They were totally stoned,” recalls Ehab El Kharrat, director of the Freedom Drugs and HIV Program, whose office happens to be on the fifth floor. “When young people from the [Muslim] Brotherhood finally broke into the roof, it was very easy to subdue them...and in our centers right now we have several former thugs in rehab.” Kharrat, a psychiatrist, found that many were on Tramodol, a highly addictive analgesic—and that their supplier had been the Mubarak regime itself.

“The government has been working with drug lords,” says Ghattas Iskander. “As for the addicts, they’ll work with anybody.”

For decades in Egypt, drugs, drug traffickers, and addicts have served as tools of social control for the state and sources of funding and fighters for terrorist groups. Now 18 months after the overthrow of Mubarak, substance abuse has mushroomed into an unprecedented health epidemic. Its effects pose a security threat both inside Egypt and beyond its borders, and the challenge of addressing it has begun to affect the political direction of the country.

For a glimpse into the murky history of drugs in Egypt, rewind to March 2004, when global interest in the Middle East was focused elsewhere, on Iraq. A drug lord named Izzat Hanafi had built a cannabis plantation and fortress spanning a small peninsula in the Nile Valley—complete with 400-foot guard towers and an ex-con militia armed with rocket-propelled grenades. The regime’s campaign to arrest Hanafi took 3,000 special forces and police, 50 armored vehicles, and 60 gunboats. But more bewildering than the magnitude of the standoff was how a man had been allowed to create his own enclave on the sovereign territory of a dictatorship.

With rockets firing in the background, Hanafi spoke to this question via his mobile phone in a live interview on Arabic satellite television. He claimed that in the 1990s, on behalf of the regime, he killed scores of fighters from the Egyptian “Al-Jihad” group, an organization led by Ayman al-Zawahiri that later morphed into Al-Qaeda. He also claimed that he spearheaded a campaign to intimidate Mubarak’s political opponents prior to the 2000 parliamentary elections. The regime was hanging him out to dry, he said, hinting that he had fallen on the wrong side of an internal conflict within the security apparatus.

“The government has been working hand in glove with drug lords since the days of [former Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat,” says Ghattas Iskander, a leading anti-drug campaigner based in Cairo. “As for the addicts, of course they’ll work with anybody.”

Iskander believes that the Mubarak regime’s provision of Tramodol to thugs in 2011 typified a longstanding practice of using narcotics—in addition to the gangsters who traffic in them—as an instrument of social control. Similar views, widespread in the Arab world, help explain former Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi’s bogus claim last year that his own country’s rebels had been drugged by foreign powers—“in their coffee with milk, like Nescafe,” in his words. Often, to be sure, such theories prove unfounded.

But where these practices have occurred, they have only exacerbated a culture of addiction that, in turn, stokes political violence. Some of the jihadists whom drug lord Izzat Hanafi claims to have attacked in the 1990s, for example, turned out to have been addicts themselves: desperate young people, vulnerable to manipulation, who might as easily have become criminals as terrorists.

“If we don’t invest in serious drug rehabilitation integrated with vocational training,” says psychiatrist Kharrat, “we’ll never have political stability in Egypt, because we’ll always have a reservoir of thugs.” 

“If we don’t invest in drug rehabilitation,” says Ehab El Kharrat, “we’ll never have political stability in Egypt.”

The case for rehabilitation programs need not be justified in terms of politics, to be sure, and Kharrat’s argument only speaks to part of the pathology that connects drugs to organized violence. Most counter-terror assessments emphasize that terrorists fund their operations through the global drug trade’s lucrative supply side—while addiction treatment, even in developed democracies, has not proved adequate to substantially reduce demand. But the volatile situation in Egypt today adds urgency to every aspect of the struggle against drugs, if only due to the sheer volume of the problem. A 2007 Egyptian government study found that 8.5% of the population were addicted to drugs, mostly males between the ages of 15 and 25. (The population today is estimated at 83.7 million.) Specialists in the field believe drug use has dramatically increased since the revolution.

At the time of the 2007 study, the most popular narcotic was a locally produced form of hashish called “bango.” But after the upheavals of January 2011 caused many police, security officers and border guards to abandon their posts, foreign-made drugs as well as weapons flowed freely into the country, both through Libya and from Gaza and Israel across the Sinai peninsula. The glut of product, in turn, sharply reduced prices—it no longer pays to grow cannabis on a grand scale in Egypt—and transformed consumer tastes. “Chinese Tramodol,” a cheaply made tablet form of the analgesic substance, has probably eclipsed bango as the most popular drug in urban Egypt, with an average daily fix costing less than two packs of local cigarettes. Addicts with whom I’ve spoken think it induces self-confidence, peace of mind and sexual virility. But as the lucky ones go on to learn, the drug brings painful withdrawal symptoms, including brain “zaps” and seizures, and takes considerably longer than other opioids to leave the body.

Though the post-Mubarak government has begun to rebuild the security services since last year, drug traffickers are more heavily armed than before. New enclaves have cropped up which police do not enter. Some are in urban areas. Witness the town of Kom al-Samn, population 7,000, only 13 miles north of Cairo, where robed men sporting AK-47s patrol a virtual strip mall of narcotics and weapons. This filmed exhibition of firepower in Kom al-Samn was posted to YouTube last year, possibly intended as a warning of sorts. Similar drug enclaves have developed near Alexandria, the second largest city. They are tiny compared to Latin American drug enclaves, but they contribute to urban weapons proliferation, maintain an open-door policy with jihadists, and appear to be growing in size.

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Joseph Braude, a Middle East specialist, broadcasts a weekly commentary in Arabic on Morocco’s Radio MED network. He is the author of The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World. Find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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