An opium crop in the Sinai
When spring-time dusk falls in Egypt's Sinai mountains, the opium share-croppers leave their gardens – a profusion of pink, purple and green against the arid landscape – and light fires for the evening.
Clusters of young men or families gather round the embers to make bread and brew tea outside makeshift shelters with low stone walls and roofs of tarpaulin or palm. They sleep early, rise early, and tend to their plants while the light lasts. My hosts for the evening say this remote, illegal work isn't their profession of choice, but with precious few jobs available there aren't many other ways to make a decent living. Their story is emblematic of that of Sinai Bedouin as a whole: a community which has been all but shunted out of official economic development by the government and private developers, and survives with one foot in the black economy, smuggling cars, guns, people, petrol – and drugs.
I first heard about the opium fields of South Sinai last spring in a smoky bar in downtown Cairo. The story intrigued me because while the Mujahideen of North Sinai get plenty of attention for blowing up gas pipelines, killing conscripts and the like, not a lot is heard about the less populous south. The extent of the region's drug economy has barely been reported – when it does make the news, it's mostly due to NGO schemes to tempt drug farmers into herb gardening, whose impact relative to the industry as a whole can only be extremely limited.
But, I found on my visit, the decline in tourism and retreat of the police since the January 2011 uprising has occasioned a bloom in the opium crop that is changing the society of South Sinai, and flooding the country with cheap opium.
Mohammed Khedr, coordinator of the South Sinai Community Foundation, which researches the local economy, estimated last spring that the production of opium and marijuana has doubled since 2010 to provide some 45 percent of South Sinai’s Bedouin men with employment at some point during the year. Other locals put the figure higher.
An opium farmer checks a young crop
Although there have been both private- and state-led developments in Sinai, they almost entirely exclude Bedouin – as do the police and army. Delta Egyptians are imported to staff the factories, government offices and coastal resorts; a form of economic apartheid which leaves Bedouin scrabbling for jobs at the fringes of Egypt's tourist economy. Tourism was hit hard by the start of the global economic crisis in 2008, and even harder by the revolution. One of my hosts in the opium fields used to be able to get work a few times a week at a local attraction, but since the revolution it's all but dried up.
According to a report published by the American University in Cairo, 81 percent of South Sinai Bedouin experience food poverty and their children are three times more likely to be malnourished than Egyptians as a whole. Half live below one dollar a day. I asked one farmer what he would do if they destroyed his crop: "Sit inside and not eat," he said.
"If the government just found a way to [incorporate] Bedouin into the development of Sinai, of course the Bedouin would leave the drugs behind," Mohammed told me. "Because for us, drugs are forbidden but it is also forbidden to let the children starve."
When revolution broke out in Cairo, Sinai Bedouin saw a chance to play their part and take revenge against the repressive security apparatus. Police stations were attacked in some places, and police driven out of town. Back in Cairo, I met with a veteran anti-drugs squad officer who had worked in Sinai until the revolution. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press.
Even before the revolution, he said, police surveillance planes were fired on; in those days there would be a "huge retaliation operation" on the ground. But with heavy weapons flooding in to the peninsular from Libya, operations to retaliate or destroy crops became inordinately dangerous, "a tightrope between fighting drugs and sustaining casualties". For a year, the operations entirely stopped, and have only resumed on a much reduced scale. He said that drugs were smuggled into mainland Egypt through several routes, including boats with loads of opium roped underneath, Junker-style.
A man shows off the gun he brought with the opium cash
Crouching round the fire in the narrow valley, the young opium farmers passed round photos on mobile phones showing pictures of the things they had bought with the proceeds of their work, which they said they would not otherwise be able to afford: pickup trucks, a new house to raise a family, a few guns.
“Of course I’m afraid [of prison],” said one. “There was a man [who] wrote his name in rocks above his field, State Security took him and tore out his fingernails. The army and security are not doing anything now at all, in the future... maybe they will.”
But they aren't the big winners in this business. Most of the land that drugs are grown on is technically owned by the army, but those who own the land in the eyes of local tribal law take half the crop, workers take the rest. The opium season lasts from November to May. In other months they might do casual work or work on the summer cannabis harvest.
Aside from an injection of extra cash, the industry has two predictable side-effects on the community: addiction and the threat of violence.
In at least six of nine instances in which foreigners have been kidnapped in Sinai since 2012, kidnappers demanded the release of prisoners held on drugs-related charges, according to local news reports at the time. Most recently, in April 2013, a Hungarian member of the UN's Multinational Observer Force was kidnapped for precisely this reason.
All the kidnappings have ended swiftly, often under pressure from local tribes, and the captives report excellent, if nervewracking, hospitality. One kidnapper made dire threats about “scorpions, snakes and monsters”, but then released his captives after being reminded that he would not like to be kidnapped himself.
There have also been a spate of armed attacks on checkpoints in the vicinity of the major opium-growing areas. No one has claimed responsibility, but locals believe that gangs involved in drugs trafficking are once again the culprits.
On my way back down the valley, I saw a teenager harvesting opium behind his father and older brother. He wielded a scraper fashioned from an old tin. Looking up briefly, as if to check they weren’t watching, he scooped a little gum with his finger, and licked it. There is a local saying: "He who grows poison will eat poison."
What raw opium looks like once harvested
Addiction is a growing problem locally, not only to opium itself, but to a byproduct, jurouz, made from the dried and crushed sufoof [orb]. It gives a cheap hit and is often passed around freely on social occasions.
My guide cheerfully explained that men also take it before sex in the belief that it improves their performance: “They take it for the first time they sleep with a woman if they want to do something good. Then they keep on taking it. For two years, they are like a donkey. And then it doesn’t work, so they look for something else.”
But in fact the community's women often bear the brunt of men's addiction. The drug tends to make men lethargic, and often they borrow to sustain their use. Very few women are financially independent, making them wholly reliant on the income and spending of their husbands. One woman married to a Bedouin man told me that men's social lives revolve around opium, "where taking opium... is as normal as smoking a cigarette". There are no reliable statistics on usage or addiction, but several locals I asked thought that between 60 and 90 percent of men used some form of the drug.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated in 2010 that 60 metric tons of opium was consumed in Egypt annually, indicating the presence of 1,000 hectares (nearly 2,500 acres) of production. It isn't clear whether the opium grown in the desert mountains of Sinai is being converted into heroin. The police officer I spoke to said that virtually all heroin is imported, but a contact in North Sinai told me that smugglers claim raw opium is trafficked into Israel and heroin brought back the other way, suggesting that the conversion might be done in factories inside Israel. I haven't been able to confirm this.
The young men camping out in the mountains don't know, and they don't ask the brokers who buy their product. For them, it's just a way to make a living.
“There’s no work, I don’t have any qualifications,” said one. He threw his arm in a wide gesture over the opium fields and grinned, continuing, “but in this, I’m a professor.”
Follow Tom on Twitter: @tom_d_
More from the Sinai – Sinai and the Bedouins in Post-Revolutionary Egypt