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.

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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