Egypt's Antidrug Blitz: Heavy-Handed, Some Say
Critics say hard-hitting campaign has done little to curb drug use. TELEVISION CAMPAIGN
CAIRO — POLICE with cocked and loaded guns barrel down a hill, bashing into the locked, steel door of an old dilapidated building. In the next scene a row of scared, crouching men squat outside the building with hands on their heads, as police stand guard, nudging and shoving them with their rifle butts.
The television program then cuts to an official with Egypt's Anti-Narcotics General Administration (ANGA), who proudly explains how this live, televised drug bust was planned and executed.
Television, a favored pastime in Egypt, plays a major role in fighting drugs. These live drug busts are one of many programs shown several times a week on the three government-owned Egyptian stations, using fear to persuade the tempted to abstain.
``We are trying to say that drugs are very harmful, please don't use them,'' says Gen. Mohammad Fathy Eid, assistant of the Ministry of Interior for ANGA. The message of the live police raids, he says, is ``that there is no one more powerful than the government. Those who think they are immune from the law will only receive a more severe penalty.''
Malak Ismail, a well-known television personality, was the first to televize these regular anti-drug programs, begun in 1984 when the amount of drugs confiscated by the police and the number of drug-related crimes increased dramatically.
Financed by the government, the shows target young people, the group most likely to indulge.
Besides live drug busts, there are 10- to 15-minute programs of interviews with addicts, their families, and drug specialists filmed in hospitals, prisons, or immediately after an arrest. The interviewees, frequently skeletal figures with disfigured faces, mumble and slur their answers.
Ms. Ismail also goes into the streets to interview drug users. ``Do you ever get sick of yourself and want to stop?'' she asks one man, who is thin and downcast. ``Are you happy with yourself?'' she asks.
Religious people frequently appear on the programs. ``Drugs in our religion are forbidden. Anything that hurts the brain is forbidden,'' says a Muslim religious figure.
The television also shows tearful families whose son, sister, or father died from drugs. It goes into the morgue to show the dead bodies of drug users.
The success of this anti-drug campaign is difficult to determine. There are no surveys or polls to gauge its effectiveness. It is even difficult to estimate the number of drug users in Egypt. The Ministry of Health plans to conduct a comprehensive survey before the end of next year.
M.I. Soueif, a clinical psychologist at Cairo University, specializing in drugs, estimates there are 500,000 drug users out of Egypt's 54 million people. Since 1983, he says, the numbers have decreased. A survey of high school and university students showed the number of marijuana users declined from 10 percent to 5 percent between 1983 and 1988. But Prof. Soueif attributes the drop primarily to price rises and the fall in personal incomes.
Egypt's drug problem ballooned in the 1970s when the economy was healthy, and people had extra money to spend on drugs. Oil revenues were high and foreign debt was low.
For thousands of years, Egyptians have used hashish and opium, but after World War I synthetic drugs, including cocaine and heroin, began entering the country. In the 1970s, use of these drugs increased, including amphetamines, barbituates, and hallucinogens, such as LSD.
Male students and laborers are the most frequent drug users in Egypt, according to a 1983 study conducted by Soueif and other researchers at the National Center for Sociological and Criminological Research. Most indulge because of pressure from friends.
To fight the spread of drugs, harsh punishment is meted out in Egypt. Smugglers and traffickers get capital punishment or life imprisonment. Users face three to 15 years in prison. The court can also send addicts to a hospital for treatment, instead of to prison, but they must stay there from six months to the end of their sentence.
While harsh punishment might deter some from using drugs, there is debate over how successful Egypt's antidrug television campaign really is. The creators of these programs contend that this method is effective.
``We know the program is succeeding through our contact with the people,'' says Ferial Kattaria, the director of the ``For Youth Only'' program. ``We receive many telephone calls from viewers, asking to see it again.''
Young people disagree on the campaign's effectiveness.
``Their programs aren't working very well,'' says Samah, a student at the American University. ``They try to scare people, instead of showing them how to escape drugs. They say over and over, `don't use drugs. They are bad. They harm you.' Instead, they should tell people about treatment.''
Muhammad, of Cairo University, has used drugs for six years, smoking hashish every day and taking barbituates, amphetamines, and LSD. ``Sometimes I feel I'm convinced [by the television programs], but it doesn't stop me from using [the drugs],'' he says. ``I get scared for a time, and after that I forget all about it.''
The programs are shown too often and lack a well-planned strategy, says Soueif. ``I think the [television media campaign] is wrong. There is no philosophy behind it, except to make the kids frightened.
``One of our reoccurring findings,'' he adds, ``is a direct correlation between the kids that try drugs and their exposure to [anti-drug campaigning].''
Egypt is doing what it can to battle drugs, but a heavy-handed approach of threats and warnings may not be the best method.
The solution may lie deeper than a campaign's approach. ``This country is very poor,'' says Muhammad, an American University student, ``and young people cannot find a job. I have lots of friends who take drugs because they have nothing to do.''