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[ID] => 4421
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[post_date] => 2019-12-20 09:00:13
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[post_content] => The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is at the centre of numerous investigations, which see international actors and policy makers tracking conflicts, resources and shifting alliances. Security and economic concerns generally identify territorial disputes, sectarian tensions, radicalisation and proxies as the key matters that explain general insecurity and authoritarianism in the region. However, there is a largely ignored matter that brings together all of these issues: drugs. Their production, usage, smuggling and criminalisation come with significant geopolitical concerns, and directly relates to state-society relations, porous borders, militias and dark economies. Yet, when it comes to the MENA region, this is still a remarkably unexplored topic. During the last decade, and especially following the worsening of the heroin epidemic in the United States (US), the Western-led ‘war on drugs’ has made a return to public and policy debates. There is a growing body of literature that focuses on a wide variety of drug-related challenges, ranging from their societal implications, the racial connotations of the war on drugs, Latin American cartels and smuggling channels. However, almost none of this research focuses on the MENA, or goes beyond identifying Afghanistan as a major opium producer and Turkey as a main harbour for transportation. This is surprising, especially given the growing European demands for cannabis and opiates. So far, the only region-wide study of drugs in the region is Philip Robins’ Middle East Drug Bazaar
which lays the basis for a more complete geopolitical understanding of their consumption and trade.
Therefore, this brief aims at taking a step towards filling this gap, proposing that drugs – and the multifaceted dynamics surrounding them – can indeed be used as an analytical lens to gain original insights into state-society relations, militias, non-state actors, and transnational dynamics.
Setting the Context
Drug usage, production and transportation has significant geopolitical, societal, security and policy ramifications. While there is extensive scholarship on Latin America and on the effects that drugs have on European Union (EU) countries and Western societies, the issues and dynamics they cause in the MENA is still remarkably under-researched. Yet, it is no secret that the region is a major source, transit point and consumer of illicit substances, which both influences and is negatively affected by drug abuse and production.
This is somewhat ironic, as Arab states also flaunt some of the harshest penalties for drug-related crimes globally, and have often openly allied with the US-led ‘war on drugs’. To put things into perspective, Saudi Arabia and Iran alone executed 1,218 people for drug-related crimes between 2014 and 2016, while all of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have capital punishment for drug-related offences and Egypt has recently announced the introduction of the death penalty for drug dealers.
Nevertheless, as a report by the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) notes, these trends are unlikely to shift anytime soon, because of the absence of alternative livelihoods for producers and the continuously escalating demand for illegal substances. Therefore, the insecurity and societal implications linked to the drugs ‘complex’ offer an innovative lens to look at the state of intra-states and state-society relations in the region, as drug trafficking and consumption have a mutually defining relationship with fragile areas and non-state actors.
Yet, despite the absence of focused research on these matters, it would be unfair to say that the importance of drug related issues in the MENA region is totally absent from the international radar.
Heroin trade is indeed understood as one key reason behind the US and UK ‘failure’ in Afghanistan, where opium has been the leading response to the devastation left behind by two decades of destructive warfare.
The heritage of geopolitical instability left behind by foreign intervention in the country has in fact allowed militia and non-state groups to thrive, building a parallel dark economy and essentially taking over the role of state institutions. Lebanon, and particularly Hizballah, have long been suspected of trafficking billions worth of drugs from Iran into the region and Europe, as a recently leaked CIA report reveals.
Meanwhile, drugs implication in Iran go beyond production and trade and have long constituted a growing societal concern, which is exponentially growing into an HIV crisis.
In Egypt drug abuse is double the international standards, with some 10.4 per cent of Egyptians using illicit drugs, a phenomenon that has steadily escalated in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings and the growing authoritarianism it has left behind.
Moreover, the recently released Arab Youth Survey 2019 devoted a whole section on drug use, for the first time, and found that the phenomenon is growing exponentially across the region. In particular, the survey reports that 76 per cent of youth in the Levant (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories) agree that drug use is on the rise, followed by the 59 per cent in North Africa and 36 per cent in the GCC states.
There are several reasons for the recent rise in consumption, and the region’s protracted instability is arguably the leading one. The destabilisation of decades old regimes, coupled with state failure and the escalation of proxy conflicts across the MENA, makes it considerably harder for governmental and armed forces to police drug production and distribution. In the case of Lebanon, while the country has always been at the centre of smuggling routes from the Af-Pak region through to Europe and neighbouring countries, it has also become a major producer of cannabis and opium in the aftermath of the civil war, with militia groups taking advantage of the unpatrolled porous borders with Syria.
As pointed out above, there are obvious advantages in using drug-related activities as an analytical lens. Doing so would offer a fresh perspective on porous borders, corruption and on the ever-evolving role of militias and non-state actors across the region. However, even more importantly, there is a lot that such an approach can tell us about state-society relations in the region. This is the case as there are clear class and racial connotations inherently linked to drug production and usage, which certain communities and societal groups being more discriminated against than others. In a region plagued by the remnants of sectarianisms and struggling to cope with almost 11 million of internally displaced people,
these nuances become incredibly significant.
While the recreational use of hashish seems to cut pretty consistently across all societal groups, party-goers and middle class citizens are known to routinely enjoy coke and ecstasy. This is particularly evident in any of Beirut’s clubs, with the city living up to its reputation as the Middle East’s ‘party city’, but is a widespread phenomenon across the region. On the other side, cheap opioids and methamphetamines are becoming increasingly common within the lower and working classes, as well as in refugee camps. Captagon, a lower-grade methamphetamine, is reported to have been used by fighters in Syria to enhance alertness and is referred to as ‘chemical courage’.
In Iraq, a country not usually associated to drug-related issues, crystal meth has increasingly afflicted thousands of users in the aftermath of the 2003 American invasion. Such a sudden escalation is a clear manifestation of the fragmentation of the social order that has plagued Iraq over the past few decades. Basra and Baghdad are the two most affected cities, with a recent investigation by the New York Times reporting that only in 2019 approximately 1,400 people were convicted on drug-related offences in Basra alone.
This phenomenon is exacerbated by state’s failure to care for their citizens, especially in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings. Rising rates of unemployment, regional instability and the growth of authoritarian measures are all disintegrating the already fragile state-society relation at the core of many regimes. In such a context, alienation and the lack of opportunities are directly linked to escalating rates of drug abuse, which also assume a further sectarian connotation in refugee camps across the MENA. Even more importantly, the money flow generated by drug production and trafficking has grown into a parallel dark economy that is directly linked to corruption and ruling elites, which makes this phenomenon even harder to eradicate.
Therefore, it is evident that including drugs into the analysis of rising insecurities in the MENA region would offer a fresh analytical perspective into national as well as regional dynamics. This is not an easy task, as to do so would require a significant qualitative shift away from long established ‘lenses’ such as sectarianism, proxy conflicts and radicalisation. Nevertheless, drug-relates issues arguably cut intersectionally across societal, security and geopolitical matters, making their inclusion in the analytical framework incredibly valuable.
From the socio-political perspective, the recorded rates of growing drug consumption across the region during the past decade reveal that alienation, discontent and structural inequalities remain a feature of several Arab states. As corruption, authoritarianism and the gap between the general population and ruling elites continues to grow, several Arab states are being confronted with a drug-related societal crisis that they are unequipped to deal with. To put things into perspective, there are only 22 rehab facilities in Egypt, most of which are private and therefore inaccessible to those who need them the most.
Iraq, where the abuse of crystal meth is now a recognised as a crisis by international institutions such as the World Health Organisation, still lacks specialised rehabilitation centres and and suffers from a severe shortage of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.
This state of affairs is widespread across the region, with states relying on an unequipped criminal justice system to deal with this phenomenon, furthering social stratification and inequalities.
Economically, drug production and trafficking have come to constitute a parallel dark economy across the MENA, enriching both local and ruling elites, as well as constituting the only source of livelihood for a growing part of the population. As this phenomenon become more entrenched, its transformation into a structural issue will make it significantly harder to eradicate.
To conclude, carefully tracking drug production and smuggling would also offer new insights into the role of militias and non-state actors, enriching our understanding of the developing geopolitical dynamics across the region. Therefore, in the wake of renewed popular uprisings and instability in MENA, drugs and its related issues should be integrated into analytical and policy discussions.
Robins, Philip. 2016. Middle East Drugs Bazaar: Production, Prevention and Consumption. London: Hurst Publishers.
Georgios Barzoukas, Drug trafficking in the MENA: The economics and the politics, EUISS Brief Issue 29, 2017, https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/Brief%2029%20MENA%20drugs.pdf
Middle East Monitor, Substance abuse in Egypt double international levels, April 2019, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190409-substance-abuse-in-egypt-double-international-levels/
Alfred W McCoy, How the heroin trade explains the US-UK failure in Afghanistan, The Guardian, January 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/09/how-the-heroin-trade-explains-the-us-uk-failure-in-afghanistan
Josh Meyer, The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook, Politico, 2017, https://www.politico.com/interactives/2017/obama-hezbollah-drug-trafficking-investigation/
John Calabrese, Iran’s War on Drugs: Holding the Line?, MEI, December 2017, https://www.mei.edu/publications/irans-war-drugs-holding-line
 Ibid. 3
Sunniva Rose, Arab Youth Survey 2019: Drug use rising in Middle East party capital Lebanon, The National UAE, April 2019, https://www.thenational.ae/uae/arab-youth-survey-2019-drug-use-rising-in-middle-east-party-capital-lebanon-1.855195
This happens especially in the Bekaa region, a fertile agricultural valley bordering Syria.
Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 11 million people displaced within their countries across Middle East and North Africa [EN/AR], Relief Web, May 2019, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/11-million-people-displaced-within-their-countries-across-middle-east-and-north-africa
Alissa J. Rubin, Iraq Faces a New Adversary: Crystal Meth, New York Times, September 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/14/world/middleeast/iraq-drug-addiction-meth.html
 Ibid. 3
The New Arab, Basra: The epicentre of Iraq’s drug problem, January 2018, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/society/2018/1/2/basra-the-epicentre-of-iraqs-drug-problem
[post_title] => Tracking drugs in the MENA: proposing a new analytical lens
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[post_name] => tracking-drugs-in-the-mena-proposing-a-new-analytical-lens
[post_modified] => 2019-12-20 09:25:53
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 => WP_Post Object
[ID] => 3115
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[post_date] => 2018-12-13 10:49:19
[post_date_gmt] => 2018-12-13 10:49:19
[post_content] => At the beginning of December 2018, Egypt-based news outlet Mada Masr revealed that sources from the office of Egyptian President al-Sisi’s office had disclosed the existence of plans already underway to amend the Egyptian Constitution. The proposed ‘reforms’ are scheduled to be implemented in the first half of 2019, and reveal a worrying move towards the seizing of extra-judicial and constitutional powers by the Presidency. Among other proposed changes, key amendments that would significantly reduce the authority and size of the Parliament (cutting the number of MPs from 595 to 350) and retrospectively extending the Presidential term of office to 6 years, meaning that President al-Sisi could be in power until at least 2026, rather than 2022.
In addition, the ‘reforms’ would oversee the creation of a ‘High Council for the Protection of the Constitution’, a new body with far reaching powers aimed at ‘protecting the identity of the state’. The creation of this council also comes with an interesting catch: Al-Sisi would be appointed as its head for life, regardless of whether he remains President.
The exposure of these constitutional changes come at the same time as another set of puzzling speculations: rumours have it that on December 23rd
a Cairo Court will hear a citizens’ petition asking for the amendment of Article 140 of the Constitution. This article specifically deals with setting a limit to Presidential terms, which the petitioners claim should be extended, as “Art. 140 (…) is ‘unfair to the great Egyptian people´”, for eight years in office give a President little time to deal with the economic and security challenges facing the country.
If adopted and implemented, these measures would not only add to the long list of al –Sisi’s extra judicial incursions aimed at expanding his authority, but also reveal the extent to which these practices have become normalised in Egypt.
The proposition of significant amendments to the Constitution aimed at extending the powers of the Presidency does not come as a surprise in itself. In fact, various regimes in modern Egypt have relied on the seizing of extra judicial powers to crack down on dissent and hold onto power despite crumbling legitimacy. This has historically been done through the routine imposition of Emergency Statuses and the consequent normalization of regimes of rule by extraordinary powers, meaning that Egyptian citizens have existed under de facto
emergency conditions for the majority of the country’s history as an independent state.
The permanence of almost 30 years of Emergency rule under former President Hosni Mubarak was one of the core grievances at the heart of the 2011 popular uprisings, and although briefly lifted during the transitional period, it has since been re-instated as a paradigm of rule. Under al-Sisi, Egypt has existed under an uninterrupted state of emergency since the Alexandria and Tanta’s church bombings in April 2017, with emergency legislations being routinely renewed every three months ever since. Together with the escalation of increasingly restrictive measures targeting journalists, NGOs and media usage, these conditions further stress the normalization of the Presidency having to rely on the seizure of extra judicial powers as a governance technique.
However, while it is convenient to draw parallels with Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the current developments in Egypt require a deeper analytical look. Though there is an undeniable element of historical continuity, what we are witnessing is the trialling of new experimental practices of power-building, as the regime attempts to circumvent the rule of law to institutionalize authoritarianism. The proposed Constitutional reforms are part of a wider trend that sees the current regime slowly enforcing a hardened version of autocracy since the 2013 coup
that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power and witnessed the return of military rule. While there are clear historical precedents, under al-Sisi, these techniques are being taken to unprecedented levels.
The timing of this is also telling - as the 8th
anniversary of the January 2011 popular uprisings approaches, Egypt is under increasing scrutiny by several human rights organizations that are prepared to openly condemn the gross abuses coming out of the country. The recent waves of arrests against human rights defenders reveal a further escalation of crackdown measures that go beyond the targeting of opposition forces, and is slowly eroding what little pockets of activism left.
Moreover, the recent ban on the sale of yellow vests – a direct reference to the popular protests currently enveloping France— showcases the depth of the Government’s concern with security as the anniversary of the revolution approaches on January 25th
However, despite Egypt’s rich history when it comes to civil society and opposition movements, there is barely any political space left in the country. From this, the message that these proposed constitutional amendments send to Egyptians, regardless of whether they are implemented or not, is: this is the new normal.
These moves towards a rapid institutionalization of authoritarianism also offer an insight into what the internal preoccupations of the regime really are. As insurgency in the Sinai continues, Egypt is seeking to reposition itself within the broader power alliances across the region. Al-Sisi’s ongoing support of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite the backlash that followed the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, demonstrates that Egyptian-Saudi ties are closer than ever.
Internationally, while the country’s strategic position historically made it a valuable ally to the US, the result of the recent midterm elections might lead to a re-think of the annual US$1.3 billion military assistance aid.
Moreover, while Egypt’s economy is showing some signs of recovery, al-Sisi’s attempts to reduce public debt through austerity measures risk ignoring the structural reforms that would be necessary to confront the growing crisis.
In the long term, as discontent grow, protests against austerity are likely to increase.
This is why it is fundamentally important to keep an eye on international and domestic reactions towards the rapid institutionalization of authoritarianism in Egypt. So far these measures have not been publically denounced - arguably because the preservation of the current military regime serves the interest of both international and regional actors. However, as political space continues to steadily disappear, it remains to be seen what will be harder to uproot: the state’s deep unwillingness to relinquish power, or Egypt’s long history of political activism and resistance.
Egypt’s new political order in the making, Mada Masr, 4 December 2018 https://madamasr.com/en/2018/12/04/feature/politics/egypts-new-political-order-in-the-making/
Egyptian court to hear petition to cancel presidential term limits, Reuters, 8 December 2018 https://mobile.reuters.com/article/amp/idUSKBN1O61EN?__twitter_impression=true
Revolution and Counter-revolution in Egypt’s Emergency State, Oxford Human Rights Club, 9 March 2018 http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/revolution-and-counter-revolution-in-egypts-emergency-state/
Egypt: At least 19 arrested in alarming escalation of crackdown on human rights workers, Amnesty International, 1 November 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/11/egypt-at-least-19-arrested-in-alarming-escalation-of-crackdown-on-human-rights-workers/
Egypt bans sale of yellow vests in fear of gilets jaunes copycat protests, The Guardian, 11 December 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/11/egypt-bans-sale-of-gilets-jaunes-yellow-vests-in-fear-copycat-protests?CMP=fb_gu&fbclid=IwAR2bpClTsnri7u4afTCPIgfRuaRBvhLwT_fMBRd3R8J6XvErc-3AN-EqXGI
Saudi Prince Woos Mideast Allies Ahead of Tougher Test, The Wall Street Journal, 27 November 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-prince-woos-mideast-allies-ahead-of-tougher-test-1543341198
US midterm elections: Bad news for Sisi?, Mada Masr, 15 November 2018 https://madamasr.com/en/2018/11/15/feature/politics/us-midterm-elections-bad-news-for-sisi/
Sisi’s Debt Crisis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 20 November 2018 https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/77756
[post_title] => President al-Sisi’s Expanding Authority: Rule by Extra Judicial Powers
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