CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt’s market for the illegal drug hashish is going through a shortage that is stoking a wide variety of theories, many of them coloured by a sense of widespread distrust towards the government.
The authorities have very little tolerance for hashish, and are happy to take the credit for curbing the trade in a series of busts since the beginning of the year that have netted at least six tonnes of the drug.
A report on Saturday in the official Al-Ahram newspaper, headlined “The Interior Ministry imposes its control over the drug market,” announced the end of the hashish trade.
“A report by General Security confirmed… the complete destruction of the hashish trade in Egypt,” the state-owned daily reported.
When contacted by AFP, the ministry presented a more modest account of its efforts.
“There is no such thing as a crime being finished,” Deputy Interior Minister Hamdi Abdel Karim said. “We hope to keep restricting it,” he said, adding this year’s busts were “among the largest in years.”
Hashish has, by all accounts, become more scarce and costly in Egypt where an estimated eight percent of the population consumes drugs, mostly marijuana, according to a 2007 official survey.
Despite frequent arrests and harsh sentences handed down to those connected with the trade, the ancient drug has flourished until recently in a country where its consumption is something of a pastime, users say.
One Cairo resident described his difficulty in procuring a satisfactory amount for his wedding party last month.
“I bought 3,500 pounds (635 dollars) worth of hashish for the wedding party. The same amount a few months ago would have cost 2,600 pounds, and I had to search for months to get it. It finally arrived on the day of the party.
“I got dizzy looking for it. Everyone now says there’s nothing,” added the newly wed, who requested his name not be revealed.
Other users who spoke to AFP also reported difficulties in obtaining a supply of hashish, which is reportedly smuggled into the country mostly through Egypt’s porous western border with Libya and from Morocco.
Some smokers said they were even resorting to bango, a seedy, locally grown variety of marijuana, as an alternative. But its price has also skyrocketed.
“I prefer hashish. Bango drives me crazy — it’s too strong,” complained one.
The scarcity has stoked alternative theories to the government’s matter-of-fact explanation for the hashish trade’s apparent decline.
Some people believe a consortium of dealers is stockpiling the drug to raise prices. “The price of hashish has always been cheap and did not reflect inflation,” one user said.
Others blame corrupt officials who they insist also have a hand in the trade, a reflection of the general distrust many Egyptians feel towards the government, said a political analyst.
The analyst also requested anonymity because he did not want his name linked to the topic, which remains a taboo in polite society.
“In this atmosphere of opacity, there will always be wild speculation,” he said of rumours blaming corrupt officials.
“Police and the government are seen as corrupt generally speaking. There is a lack of trust on all sorts of issues,” he said. “And it is taking place at a time when Egypt is entering a period of profound uncertainty.”
The octogenarian Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled since 1981, has not yet said whether he will stand again in next year’s presidential election, and is widely believed to be grooming his son for succession.
Uncertainty over the post-Mubarak era and the backdoor dealing likely to decide the matter has permeated Egyptian society, with some analysts saying the lack of transparency provides fertile ground for conspiracy theories.
“In the event of a vacuum, conspiracy theories will fill it,” said the analyst.
Egypt is considered a transit country for illicit drugs bound for Israel and Europe. Drug trafficking can be punished by death.