Drugs and Thugs in the New Egypt

Drugs and Thugs in the New Egypt - Page 2

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.

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Ehab El Kharrat via author

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Egyptian activists cite other factors in the country’s drug epidemic that lie beyond the purview of police: a culture of denial, traditional views of addiction as a “sin” calling for “repentance,” and a woefully inadequate infrastructure for harm reduction and recovery. In this sometimes volatile, strategically pivotal Arab country in which millions have a drug problem, the total number of rehab beds is 600.

Forty-two-year-old Yasir Gabr, a native of Giza with cuts on his face, is one of the lucky addicts—he has one of those beds. Gabr had a lost weekend of hard-core heroin addiction that lasted 15 years, starting in 1997 when he first lit up in a straw hut near the Sphinx, and proceeding through a drug haven in Qaddafi’s Libya, prison in Cairo, and finally the streets of Alexandria—where last year he sold “Chinese Tramodol” to Arab Spring demonstrators on behalf of one of Egypt’s most vicious drug lords.

“I never got to work with Israelis,” he says, “but I would have loved to. They’re straight shooters, and their white powder is the purest.” Gabr’s wild ride ended at a Heliopolis detox clinic in June 2012. Since then he has been in recovery at a facility in Wadi Natrun, a gentle desert in the Nile Delta, not far from the ruins of an ancient monastery. He cleans his room every morning, picks olives in the afternoon, and spends the rest of his time working through a version of the 12-step program tailored to Egyptian Muslims. “I prefer to do things that make me notorious,” he says—but admits that a quiet period of rethinking his life is better for him now.

Iskander is known in the slums of Cairo, where he has extracted some junkies by force, as “the Dean of Quitters.”

The Freedom Drug Rehabilitation Center, where Gabr has been staying, is the largest rehab center in the Middle East, with 120 beds and a grove of 6,000 olive trees. A nongovernment organization, it serves Christians and Muslims from all walks of life. Roughly 80% of the clients are young addicts from the middle class whose families pay for the service. They effectively finance the other 20%, drawn from the country's poor.

The center was born out of tragedy in 1985: Ehab El Kharrat, a Presbyterian, had taken the son of a fellow church member into his care, improvising a treatment for the young man’s heroin addiction. The boy relapsed and died from an overdose in a public toilet. Kharrat blamed himself, and vowed to bring professional rehabilitation practices to his country and heal as many addicts as possible. He earned a PhD in the “Philosophy of Treatment” at Kent University in the UK, traveled in Europe and the United States to study rehab programs, and returned to Egypt a few years later with seed funding from the church group Tearfund to start an organization of his own.

Back then, little more than detox facilities were available in Egypt, in a handful of public hospitals. One government care center in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Ataba had been tasked to offer counseling for addicts—but according to ex-heroin junkie–turned–addiction activist Ghattas Iskander, who used to frequent the center, “it was more a place for addicts to go to learn about the best deals on their favorite drugs.” Neither churches nor mosques had organized modern programs to help people with drug problems; approached for help, priests and imams generally counseled prayer.

Iskander had been on heroin for 36 years by 1991 when he met Kharrat through a friend in a Cairo church. “I thought he was hopeless,” Kharrat recalls. “He couldn’t concentrate and could barely speak.” But he took Iskander through the 12 Steps—first in a series of meetings and then in a small Cairo apartment that Kharrat had rented and established as the first “Freedom Center” rehab facility. Newly clean at 53, Iskander made a vow of his own: to give the rest of his life to the cause of rescuing other addicts. Today he is known in the slums of Cairo, from which he has extracted some junkies by force, as “the Dean of Quitters” (“Amid al-Mubattalin”). 

Kharrat believes that making a dent in Egypt’s drug epidemic will require a network of rehabs with at least 8,000 beds and sustained support from media and political elites. He built the Wadi al-Natrun center not only to rehabilitate addicts but also to train and certify ex-addicts (and others) to create rehab facilities of their own. His intentions were so unprecedented that initially they were mistrusted by the Mubarak government: In 1997, Egyptian soldiers were ordered to raze his newly built desert complex to the ground before it could open.

The Social Democrats are the only party calling for a strategy to fight addiction as part of its political platform.

“They saw that our center was owned by Christians and concluded it was a monastery,” he explains. “They didn’t want any new monasteries in Wadi al-Natrun.” A similar error had led the military to demolish a language school for the mentally handicapped on the Suez desert road a few weeks earlier. With a fleet of tanks a stone’s throw away, Kharrat’s Christian and Muslim supporters gathered to plead on the center’s behalf. They managed to win a two-week deferral, and later a permit to function indefinitely.

Fifteen years later, Kharrat has become a fixture on Egyptian television—the go-to guy on the nation’s drug problem for liberals in the media increasingly keen on smashing taboos. In 2009, both the Freedom Center and Kharrat’s larger cause received a priceless boost: Amr Khalid, the country’s best-loved Muslim televangelist, devoted several episodes of his show to raising awareness about addiction—and money for Kharrat’s work. After the 2011 revolution, Kharrat cofounded the center-left Social Democratic Party and won a seat in parliament representing northeastern Cairo. It is the only liberal party with a substantial number of seats—the fourth largest in parliament after the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi “Nour” party, and the decades-old conservative “Al-Wafd.” The Social Democrats are also the only party calling for a comprehensive strategy to fight addiction as part of its political platform.

But Christians like Kharrat number less than 10% of Egypt’s population, and among the country’s Muslim majority, the most powerful social movements today are Islamist. It is difficult to imagine modern rehabilitation practices taking hold on a sufficiently large scale in Egypt unless the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis lend their support—through the government they now control and the vast network of mosques and charitable institutions they have long maintained. Yet the 12 Steps and “evidence-based practices” pose an ideological challenge to the more rigid interpretations of Islamic law. Whether religion and rehab can be reconciled is for now an open question.

This is the first part of our investigation into addiction, treatment and political stability in Egypt. The second part will run on Tuesday.

Joseph Braude, a Middle East specialist, broadcasts a weekly commentary in Arabic on Morocco’s Radio MED network. He is the author, most recently, of The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World (Random House: Spiegel & Grau, 2011). 

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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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