Hunting for Guns and Drugs in Upper Egypt

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
May 9 2014 5:05 PM

Tea and Guns in Upper Egypt

The country’s southern rural stretches are said to be awash in guns and drugs. But if you go looking, what you will find is something far older and more entrenched.

(Continued from Page 2)

The next day, Bassem and I decide to seek out the notably absent police. A visit to Qena’s security directorate is in order. We squeeze into a microbus and travel eastward toward the capital. At the directorate’s gates, we are met by two sagging, plain-clothed individuals with no obvious connection to the police headquarters. After a brief examination of our IDs, the two policemen let us inside the gates.

We wander around the sleepy corridors until we find our man, who rings his man, who promptly forgets us. Eventually we find ourselves drinking coffee, waiting to speak to the province’s security chief. We eventually fall in with a high-ranking security official who decides to humor us.

“They’re both dirtier than the other,” he exclaims as he examines us, no doubt wondering what we are doing so far from home. The official, who sees no point in giving us his name, was referring to the inhabitants of Hamradroum and neighbouring Abu-Hizam.

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“We just leave them inside to kill each other off. We’re not willing to martyr ourselves for them … we steer clear of these villages.”

We are eventually told to return the following night, when documentation of recent security crackdowns would be ready.

The next night we again cram into a microbus to make the desert journey. Lurching forward then backward, the bus makes its way to the desert road. The metal coils of the seat grind against me.

We greet the same sagging guards at the gate and proceed. No one is expecting us. Instead we are led about from one dimly lit office to the next. Low-ranking policeman either linger, regarding us curiously, or run back and forth with cups of tea for their superiors, who sit in their garishly furnished offices watching the latest chat shows and mouthing affirmatives to fellow “beks” and “pashas,” the showy Ottoman-era titles they like to indulge each other with.

After several cups of tea and plenty of awkward exchanges, relaying our story ad nauseam, my colleague Bassem is called into the security director’s office. His official accreditation trumps my inquisitive expression.

Several hours later we walk out of the directorate’s doors with a sheet of paper. On it, in a few scrawled lines, is a list of seized arms. They also decided to throw in a list of seized drugs for good measure. But they had neglected to specify when, where, or how the weapons and drugs were collected.

The document had been put together in front of us by two officers who had batted around dates and numbers, apparently attempting to recall the various operations from their memory. They managed to attain a remarkable degree of specificity.

According to the paper, security forces—over roughly the last eight months—seized one Goryunov machine gun, 114 automatic rifles, five semi-automatic rifles, 20 pistols, 11 shotguns, 123 homemade pistols, and 4,797 bullets.

We were unable to get the beks and pashas to give us any comment about the smuggling routes from Sudan or Libya, or the claims, which locals bandied about, of police collusion with arms traffickers.

Our man Abdallah, the cabbie-turned-arms mule, had mentioned these supposed ties, fiddling with a lump of hash as he had told us: “Of course the government doesn’t want to completely crack down on arms traders. They’ve got common interests. … I’ve got no doubt there are informers within the major families. … Even at the top.”

Another myth perhaps. There is certainly no trust here, I think. Not between the different players and not with two interlopers from Cairo.

The police and political bosses regard the villagers with callous indifference, happy to write them off as crooked and savage. With little more than impassioned rhetoric, it is the easy narrative. But there is something more unusual, more real about the villagers.

Egyptian landscape.
The railway back to Cairo.

Photo courtesy Yassin Gaber

Before boarding the train to Cairo, we sit down for a last coffee with the omda and his pals.

A man in a karakul hat—a favorite with Soviet party leaders and Bond villains—strides up to our table and sits next to the omda. He regards us with a rather unctuous smile, revealing his coffee- and nicotine-stained teeth.

Before he arrived we had been talking about government negligence. He offers us a curious anecdote. We’re, it seems, in the company of a kidnapper.

He is a kidnapper armed with what he and the omda’s pals think is unassailable logic. That is, without loans from agricultural banks—who refuse them on “security grounds”—he and other farmers are left without a steady income. Kidnapping, being a very lucrative trade, allows him and others like him to purchase property and build.

“Some ask why we target Christians and not Muslims,” he says with a smirk, looking at my colleague and me. “Because our [Muslim] men are not worth as much.”

He turns to one of the omda’s friends, a Christian who is seated at the table. “It’s nothing personal.”

The Christian man sniggers. I turn uneasily in my seat and think of the 13-hour railway journey to Cairo.

It has all been a bit disquieting, although mostly curious. I have met all the notable members of this bizarre bunch: the outlaw, the political boss, and the lawman.

The omda and the village elders are mostly concerned with their world and their conflicts. The sanctity of the family, they say, trumps all the factions that are fighting for power in Cairo. Here there is a different power dynamic and a different set of hostilities.

Cairo’s press may be looking southward and seeing the arrival of waves of weapons from across the border, but in Hamradoum and Qena, it looks like business as usual. The guns are old, the dynamics older.

These characters, though not particularly forthcoming, are happy to talk in exaggerated terms over coffee. But there is never any urgency in their words. But even that could be an affectation. I leave for the train thinking that, despite everything, perhaps that bazaar, the one that houses the growing weapons market, is indeed just one more town over.

Yassin Gaber is a Cairo-based journalist and the former managing editor of Egypt Independent. He has written for the New Statesman, Foreign Policy, and more.