For centuries, Egypt's drug dealers traded mostly in hashish grown by local producers.
Today, however, new synthetic drugs, many of which are much more harmful than hashish, have made their way into the country.
Relatively cheap and easy to produce, drugs such as Captagon, crystal meth and El Madda – a crude, so-called designer drug made from ketamine mixed with insecticides – are transforming the drug market and fuelling crime.
Captagon in the Middle East
The Egyptian government is cracking down on drug use and invests significant resources and manpower to combat the spread of narcotics in the country.
President Abdel Fattah El Sisi recently introduced a new law that will mean government employees who are found to be using narcotics will be dismissed.
Parliament approved the law in May after Transport Minister Kamel El Wazir decided to toughen penalties on train drivers who were found to be using drugs, after an investigation into a deadly rail accident in the city of Sohag in March revealed drug abuse had played a role in the crash.
Captagon, mainly shipped in from Lebanon, has become a key concern for drug authorities trying to counter smuggling in Egypt. It is one of several synthetic drugs that have gained a foothold in the country.
“Many people in Egypt buy synthetic drugs, depending on their budget and whether they have a taste for them,” said one dealer in the Egyptian capital, who did not want to be named.
“Of course, the newest drugs to arrive in Egypt are crystal meth and Al Madda. The past two years witnessed a marked rise in their consumption in Egypt.”
Crystal meth in particular has risen in popularity in recent years, creating room for more suppliers, he said.
“Every day, crystal meth acquires new users. Once people try it they quickly become addicted, which drives up consumption.”
The high demand for crystal meth has also increased the number of suppliers who deal in it.
"In the past, there were only two or three suppliers, now there are 15 in Cairo alone," he said.
Rising consumption has also brought prices down. A few years ago, he said, a gram of crystal meth cost about $190. But that price has now fallen to about $50 as producers and suppliers compete.
The arrival of large quantities of synthetic drugs in the space of just a few years has had a significant impact on Egyptians' drug addictions.
For one long-time dealer, today's market is unrecognisable from the one in which he started out.
“I grew up with drugs, many of my family members used to sell on a small scale. When I was a kid, it was mostly hashish that we sold, maybe some opium every now and then if someone had a contact in Upper Egypt. Today, I make most of my money from selling Tina and other uppers,” said Moamen, 45, a drug dealer, using a street name for crystal meth.
Moamen has been operating in Cairo and a few popular Egyptian beach resorts for about 20 years.
He said that the drugs market has changed dramatically over the course of the past 10 years, changes he linked to Egypt’s changing political and economic landscape, which also transformed in the same period.
“Egyptians didn’t know anything during my father and grandfather’s time. They hadn’t seen the world, that’s why there was only hashish in Egypt, because people didn’t know that anything else existed,” Moamen said.
“But it was only a matter of time before Egyptians tried other kinds of drugs, and developed a taste for them.”
Some drugs are more popular than others, he said, which can affect the way they are smuggled into the country.
“I sold ecstasy for a while. But that’s not as popular as hashish or meth. It’s only consumed by rich kids attending those raves with DJs either in Cairo or in some Red Sea resorts,” Moamen said.
Because the market for ecstasy was small, he said, he was able to get an ample supply from one man who regularly smuggled it in from abroad.
“I used to get my supply from this guy who lived in a really ritzy gated community. I was apprehensive when I went to see him for the first time as gated communities usually have a lot of security. But things went smoothly and every time the rave season came around, he would be ready with a fresh batch of ecstasy,” he said.
Moamen would buy his supply of pills from this man and then sell it to customers at a marked-up price.
He believes that because each batch of ecstasy was only small, especially when compared with other drugs that are smuggled in by the tonne, the supplier could use his connections to smuggle the drugs into the country without getting caught.
Large scale imports
Synthetic drugs that are imported on a larger scale, such as meth or Captagon, are a much larger problem for the authorities, he said.
“Tina is the thing nowadays. It started gaining popularity about 10 years ago, before that nobody really knew about it. Now all kinds of people buy it from me. One of my clients is a pretty prominent banker, I have another who is a university professor.”
The highly addictive nature of meth means customers keep coming back for more, he said.
“People get addicted and they call you for deliveries literally anywhere, any time. One time I delivered a gram of Tina to a guy who was with his dying mother in the hospital. Those kinds of addicted clients rely on you and find other dealers if you’re out of supply.”
Moamen said that throughout his years as a dealer, he has worked with dozens of different suppliers, and most of them smuggled their drug shipments through Bedouins living by the Red Sea..
“Most of it comes through Yemen. Tribes there ship it across the Arabian Sea and co-ordinate with Bedouins living in Sinai,” he said.
Bedouin communities live outside the rule of law in Egypt, often striking deals with local authorities to allow them to go about their business – within limits, Moamen said.
In a line of work where run-ins with Egypt’s security forces could mean a long time in prison, dealers and users rely on their Bedouin suppliers, who drive shipments through the mountains under the cover of darkness, on routes unseen by security forces.
“What you have to understand is that these Bedouins know their homeland like the backs of their hands. They are unrivalled in their navigation skills. They drive the drug shipments through the mountains at night.
“It’s inevitable that they will stumble on a police checkpoint at some point. But they know which checkpoints are more lenient than others,” Moamen said.
Moamen also worked with several suppliers bringing their cargo in through Libya, but that was before the uprising that spiralled into civil war.
“The Libyan border is in too much trouble now. The military has been extra vigilant there because of all the political instability over there. Slowly over the course of the last decade, suppliers are using that route less and less,” he said.
Moamen has been a drug dealer during the rule of three Egyptian presidents: Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in a popular uprising in 2011; then Mohamed Morsi; and now under President Abdel Fattah El Sisi.
“Morsi’s presidency was great for business. There was so much chaos, there were no police officers focused on the old vices. But then Mr El Sisi came into power and tightened security.
"After a couple of close calls with the police, I ended up taking a break from dealing for a few months. Just to see how things were going to be,” said Moamen, who pointed out that the country is a lot more stable than earlier in the 2010s.