The military war on alcohol

Just before the Ahmed Hamdy tunnel, which links Egypt’s main bulk of land to the Sinai Peninsula, there are two consecutive checkpoints. One of them is run by the military, and the other by the Ministry of Interior. This weekend, on a trip to Sinai with a group of friends, we were stopped at the military checkpoint. The conscripts insisted on searching us, and a mere inquiry as to what the purpose of the search was made them adamant on going through every bag.

The search uncovered a cheap bottle of tequila I had purchased earlier from the duty free shop upon arrival from one of my trips abroad. They laid it out on the side of the pavement and continued searching through our bags. While the search was ongoing, a conscript would pick up the bottle, stare at it and then place it back on the pavement. This happened two or three times. In the end, having found nothing but the bottle, they informed us that we would have to smash it, since we had no receipt for its purchase, even though the labels on it indicated it was from Egypt’s duty free shops. They wrote up some sort of paper to the effect that the bottle was found and would be destroyed. I objected that there was nothing illegal about a bottle I had purchased under the state’s stringent alcohol laws. In response, the officer present at the time threatened to file a case against me. I said I would go back and get the receipt or my passport from the house but the idea seemed preposterous to the officer who suggested it was easier if I go ahead and destroy the bottle. The seven others who would have been needlessly held up agreed that the US$25 bottle was just not worth it.

The officer, two stars on each shoulder, gave me instructions that I was to throw the bottle on the rocks behind the nearby cafeteria. The alcohol bottle graveyard included smashed green bottles of Heineken, as well as beer bottles produced locally, indicating the level of absurdity the checkpoint was enforcing every day. I threw the bottle in the air as high as possible but it didn’t land on the rocks. I told the officer that if something goes wrong during an execution, they don’t attempt to kill the person sentenced again. Incredulously he looked at me and asked, “What did you say?” I repeated what I had said and he got annoyed, “No, you didn’t throw it properly towards the rocks.”

I did it again, throwing it high up in the air trying to aim for it to land on the rocks the second time around. Again, it didn’t break. I smiled at him and said, see? This only made him more uneasy. One of my friends who was eager to get on with the trip then said he would do it. He took aim and threw it, this time horizontally, at the rocks, but only after his second attempt did it break.

After it was all over and done with, I told the officer that I was addressing him as a human being, not as a military officer, and that I found that the whole event did not make sense. I told him that he had taken something that belonged to me and undermined the authority of the state, which allowed me to purchase the bottle. He said he was under orders, and that he would have to change his suit in order to talk to me about the matter. I said, “sure, but I’m not talking to your suit, I’m talking to you.”

In less than fifty meters we encountered another checkpoint, this time run by the police. The plain clothed policeman with the handle of a sidearm sticking out of his belt asked the male members of the group to get out, while the women remained where they were. The young policeman acted as though he knew something was off. He found a folded pamphlet and started sniffing it, saying, “Who has been doing ‘powder’” — a reference to heroin. The driver said there was nothing of the sort in our company. He then found another paper with some white precipitate and said, “See! This is heroin.” The driver responded that it was just detergent left over from the car wash. He then took all the males to a search booth and asked us to empty our pockets and frisked us. He said he could have brought the dogs to sniff for drugs and I said it would have been a more efficient method instead of this lengthy process. He responded that, if there were drugs, they would be with the women, but that he was just doing his duty and going easy on us. He said that if we had a criminal record the treatment would have been more harsh and intrusive. He pretended to know more than he actually did, which was sad because we had nothing on us. We proceeded through several other checkpoints manned by what seemed like untrained, incompetent conscripts who had instructions but no sense of purpose. They examined our identification cards with much scrutiny.

Perhaps not a lot can be inferred from anecdotes like these on their own and indeed they cannot even be considered anecdotal evidence upon which a more general conclusion can be made. But, they can serve as a reflection of general policies and attitudes already in existence, which are now prevalent in Egypt’s government and security sector. I’ve heard similar stories about “alcoholic destruction” in Saudi Arabian airports where alcohol is banned.

What we can conclude, however, is that there is something very wrong with Egypt.

Military role in civilian life: The military’s involvement in every day life is not within its scope of work, yet increasingly it has become so. Its role was never to search civilians for alcoholic bottles or execute the law in such a manner.

Undermining the state: By executing a law that confiscated something purchased legally, state institutions are undermining one another.

Incompetence: The bottle that the military found after searching all the bags was only a quarter of what we actually had. It is not that they were not thorough; they looked through women’s underwear and their facial cream containers.

Lack of rationale:  It is not clear whether making a citizen smash a bottle against the rocks is a procedure that is followed consistently.

War on terror: The military’s primary mandate for getting involved in politics and security is the “war on terror.” How is confiscating and destroying alcohol relevant to this?

The incompetence of security forces is not something new. The security sector functions by executing orders rather than having an understanding of the mandate of its institutions. Unfortunately, this mode of operation applies to non-security ministries as well, whose policies are mandated primarily by the security sector. Many ministers are unable to change existing policies because of security reasons determined by the apparatus.

It is also important to realize that these practices are very similar to those during the era of ousted president Mohamed Hosni Mubarak. It may be impossible to challenge a police or military officer if they decide to falsely accuse someone of carrying drugs or other illegal items and present it as confiscated evidence.    

The underlying problem in Egypt is that no institution seems to be doing its job in the right manner. Politics is controlled by the security apparatus, and security forces are motivated by business interests, and are linked by family ties and loyalties; thus no real reform will be possible until these chains are broken.

Our inability to challenge the security apparatus in any way gives them dominance over other citizens, thus creating a sense of ownership of the country by members of security institutions. The expansion of the apparatus’ responsibilities to cover what is beyond their mandate, and their impunity when they commit crimes, is a reflection of an imbalance in Egypt that once lead to a popular revolt, and which in the future can lead to catastrophic results.

On the way back to Cairo, we had prepared ourselves for hours of searching, as Sinai is known for its high availability of drugs. But, we were not searched once, possibly because it was raining!

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Wael Eskandar