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Drug Addiction Making Inroads Among Egyptian Elite

December 19, 1985|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — Mustafa was typical of Egypt's upper-class youth. Affable, affluent and well-educated, he came from a good family, went to the best schools and, after graduation, started what might have been a rewarding career with one of Cairo's most respected newspapers.

Mustafa (not his real name) was in love with a girl who loved him, and he was only 22 when everything he had going for him started going the wrong way.

For Mustafa was also typical of what doctors and law enforcement officials say is an alarmingly large and growing segment of Egypt's affluent youth: He was, and still is, a heroin addict.

Drug abuse is not a new problem in Egypt. But until recently it was limited to opium and hashish, the use of which was widespread but more or less confined to peasants, manual laborers and others whose jobs demand long or hard physical labor. Thus, it was a problem largely ignored by all save the police and a handful of doctors who treated addicts.

In the last few weeks, however, drug addiction has become the focus of an intensive, nationwide debate in Egypt.

The ministries of health and the interior have undertaken an anti-drug campaign. Drug abuse is being talked about at cocktail parties, debated in Parliament, inveighed against in newspaper editorials and warned about in television commercials that interrupt popular programming with the grim image of a skull and crossbones.

The Interior Ministry has proposed legislation to impose death sentences on convicted drug smugglers.

The heightened concern is prompted by two developments. In the past year, police officials say, there has been a sixfold increase in the quantity of drugs such as heroin and cocaine being smuggled into Egypt. Secondly, drug abuse is moving up-scale. To the alarm of legislators, law enforcement officials and parents, drug addiction is spreading among the young and educated elite.

"The pace of the problem is alarming," Dr. Fathi Loza, a Cairo psychiatrist who treats addicts, said the other day. "Heroin addiction is spreading like fire among the young, especially the well-to-do."

Statistics has never been a strong point in the Egyptian bureaucracy, and no reliable figures exist on the number of drug addicts in the nation. Because of this, and the fact that heroin addiction is relatively new, experts differ in estimating the problem. But on the basis of figures that do exist, most experts agree that the problem is growing rapidly and may already be out of hand.

According to figures compiled by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which maintains an office in Cairo that works closely with the Egyptian police, the amount of heroin confiscated at entry points in Egypt has increased from a little more than two pounds in 1982 to 50 pounds in 1984 to well over 250 pounds in the first 10 months of 1985.

The number of reported cases of heroin addiction has increased at roughly the same pace.

"The first reports we received of heroin addiction came to us in early 1984, from a mental hospital in Alexandria, which reported one or two cases," said Dr. Ahmed Nayer Kotry, director general of the Mental Health Department of Egypt's Ministry of Health. "In the past six months, that same hospital has reported 200 cases. And this is only one hospital."

Loza and other psychiatrists treating addicts in private practice estimate that Egypt has as many as 100,000 users of hard drugs, but Nayer thinks this figure is high.

"The problem we face in dealing with drug addiction is that we have no figures and no system to compile them," said Dr. Anwar Entreby, another psychiatrist who has been treating addicts, including Mustafa, for several years. "For sure, there has been an increase in the number of addicts, but without exact figures we cannot know the extent of the problem."

This is not Egypt's first experience with heroin. In the years between the two world wars, British soldiers in Palestine used the drug as a painkiller for horses. Egyptian workers, noticing its tranquilizing effect on animals, tried some themselves. But as supplies dwindled and the price rose, heroin became prohibitively expensive and the problem gradually disappeared.

Sociologists and psychiatrists put much of the blame for the re-emergence of the problem on the sudden and imbalanced influx of wealth that came with the late President Anwar Sadat's open-door economic policies.

"There was a large class of young and uneducated people who suddenly found themselves with more money than they were emotionally prepared to handle," Nayer said. "These people--drivers, waiters and other workers--had no responsibilities other than to work, make more money and gain more leisure time. This was the first group to be struck by heroin."

As the problem grew, it began to climb the social ladder. Entreby said the seven heroin addicts he is treating are, like Mustafa, all young and educated Egyptians from good families.

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