Off a major desert highway connecting Egypt’s capital to the coastal city of Alexandria, drug addicts meet their dealers away from the prying eyes of the authorities.
Yasser, 25, does the 20km drive to ensure his almost daily supply. With his foot on the pedal, he stays focused on his destination keeping one thing in mind – the way it will feel after he gets his fix of some of the best imported heroin the country can offer.
Upon arriving, he finds a man dressed in Bedouin clothing armed with a rifle guarding two cars, one of which has an open trunk filled with bricks of heroin.
Yasser parks his car alongside 10 others, some of them packed with men mostly his age, stoned off their last hit.
“The place where dealers and users meet changes every month or so, and when they do, people learn about a new meeting point by word of mouth … so this stuff [heroin] is really not that hard to find,” he says.
Trap of addiction
Yasser represents a growing number of Egyptian youth who have fallen prey to drug abuse; he began using heroin three years ago after experimenting with other drugs such as hashish, ecstacy and cocaine.
According to Egypt’s National Council on Fighting and Treating Addiction (NCFTA), at least 8.5 per cent of the country’s population (six million people) are addicted to narcotics. The majority of them are between 15 to 25 years old and the number of users is growing rapidly.
“I don’t know how to physically function without it,” Yasser says, describing his drug rush as a pervasive, warm and pleasurable feeling. But the sensation is temporary and comes at a price.
Shortly afterwards, he will succumb to the usual symptoms that heroin addicts experience during withdrawal – nausea, itching, constipation and emotional emptiness.
“If I don’t take it, I’ll spend the whole day aching and sweating in bed. That’s why, sometimes, I’ll increase my next dose to avoid the pain that comes with withdrawal… and besides, it’s not like I have to travel that far to obtain my supply anyway,” he says.
Yasser tried his best to hide his addiction from family and close friends, often making up any excuse in the book to avoid getting caught. But it was only a matter of time before his loved one would catch on.
His parents grew suspicious of his unusual sleeping patterns and too many trips to the bathroom that he’d secretly abuse to crush and sniff the drug. One day, they surprised him with a drug test and to no one’s surprise, the results came out positive.
Yasser began to attend weekly Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings where other young Egyptians, men and women, are able to freely share their experiences with drug abuse and relapse without social judgement – a stigma they say originates in Egypt’s conservative society.
In one NA meeting taking place in one Cairo suburbs, a 25-year-old recovering addict who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Al Jazeera that rehab efforts fall short because of the social barrier that prevents many from seeking professional help.
Another pitfall facing recovering addicts is the ease with which illegal drugs can be obtained.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), hashish or bongo, a type of marijuana found in the Middle East, is the most popular drug in Egypt. Cocaine, heroin and chemical drugs like ecstasy and methamphetamine are also widely available on the local market.
“When I was just a kid in middle school, I used to be able to walk into any pharmacy and ask for prescription drugs without a prescription – it cost nothing more than my lunch money. Maybe now the government has clampped down but that example proves to show just how easy it is to get drugs around here,” the recovering addict said.
In the Arab world’s most populous country, widespread drug-dealing is a fact of life, making the road to recovery longer and more gruelling than most addicts imagine.
Yasser says he is aware of the obstacles he must overcome in order to ‘get clean’, but neither his family nor his friends are convinced by what they call his empty promises.
His last few years have been blurred by drug abuse, codeine (found in cough medicine) overdoses, failed attempts at rehab and expulsion from more than one university.
Bite against crime
|El-Kharrat believes that most of Egypt’s anti-drug campaigns are ineffective|
Last year, Egyptian police arrested at least 50,000 users and dealers and seized several tonnes of hashish, but experts say that applying punitive measures alone will not solve Egypt’s drug problem.
The country has set up several anti-drug campaigns in an attempt to control the growing number of addicts, but they have so far proven ineffective.
Ehab el-Kharrat, a psychiatrist and director of a number of rehabilitation centres in Egypt, says the government is failing to stem the tide of drug abuse because it is following the wrong priorities.
“They need to focus on kids who take up smoking cigarettes at the age of eight, school drop-outs or those who share a history of violence in their family … they are not targeting the [delinquents] who fit that category,” he said.
Ultimately, rehabilitation from drug abuse depends on the person’s will power, no matter how much therapy they receive. But there are success stories.
Regretting the addiction
Mostafa, a 30-year-old recovering addict, started his 10-year heroin addiction when his former employer sent him on assignments to Sharm el-Sheikh, a tourist resort located at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula.
“The first time I went, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw people dressing differently, girls and boys dancing and dining together, even kissing in public. It was a whole new world I had never been exposed to before and I was eager to be a part of it.”
A few trips later, Mostafa was offered a chance to try heroin.
“I was hesitant at first but my curiosity led me to trying the drug and after a few times, I knew the habit had really gotten a hold of me,” he said.
“Instead of taking a gram [of heroin], I’d take three. Instead of paying 400 pounds [$73] I’d pay triple that. As long as I got my fix, that’s all that mattered. People even started warning me about how much longer I had left to live.”
During a period he calls the darkest of his life, Mostafa met a Polish woman whom he later married.
“Things were good in the beginning but then my addiction got in the way and she threatened to leave if I didn’t kick the habit,” he said.
“She gave me an ultimatum – ‘either pick me or the drugs’ but I told her I wanted both and the next night I came home from work and all her things were gone. Till this day I have no idea where she is.”
Now two years clean, Mostafa is a success story that other addicts hope to emulate.
Combating the phenomenon
|Points of entry such as the Gulf of Suez were used as transits for illicit drug flow [GETTY]|
UNODC reports that only a few hundred people in Egypt are currently being treated in rehabilitation facilities because most addicts do not seek assistance from professional help groups.
Instead, experts warn, they take matters into their own hands.
“Sometimes, they just medicate themselves with other drugs they can easily buy off the counter from any local pharmacy, but they have no idea what they are doing,” Kharrat said.
Although drugs like hashish have been available for centuries, the problem ballooned in the 1980s with the introduction of Sadat’s Open Door policy, an economic initiative designed to increase cash flow into the Egyptian economy through more relaxed, less government controlled, trade agreements.
But it was not only cash that flowed over the borders.
Locations such as the Sinai peninsula, the Northern Mediterranean Coast, the Gulf of Suez and other points along the borders of Sudan and Libya became main entry points for illegal drugs.
And as supply increased, the price began to drop.
“Twenty or thirty years ago, heroin used to cost something like $275 a gram, but now it’s as cheap as $20 and that’s because of instability in Afghanistan which produces 90 per cent of the world’s heroin – so this is what’s fuelling the problem beyond the government’s control,” Kharrat said.
The government started to shift its focus on to counter-narcotic efforts, establishing the NCFTA in 1986 to work alongside the existing Anti-Narcotic General Administration(Anga). But the problem is still spiralling out of control.
Anga reports indicate that the narcotics problem costs the Egyptian economy approximately $800 million annually, including the amounts spent on illegal drugs and government’s expenditure to combat the problem.
Kharrat says drastic action must be taken.
“To combat this worsening phenomenon, Egypt would need to wage its own war on drugs,” he says. “But that’s not economically feasible.”