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Egypt's famous canal city symbolizes country's struggle for calm

SUEZ, Egypt — After a bullet narrowly missed his head during last year's anti-government uprising, criminal defense attorney Khaled el Dakroury used his underworld connections to buy a Turkish-made 9mm handgun, just for peace of mind.

These days, however, the gun is little comfort, because Dakroury feels jumpier than ever in his hometown of Suez, the city that is the southern terminus of the Suez Canal. Suez is a powder keg, its many ills emblematic of the unrest that's become a defining feature of Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak a year ago.

Suez residents, lawyers and police officials describe a city overrun with mafia-style overlords, drug traffickers, arms dealers, warring political factions and feuding clans. The crime rate has shot up, and authorities make daily raids in search of weapons smuggled in from Libya.

Workers at several major factories are on strike. An explosive trial of police officers accused of killing protesters had to be moved to Cairo — the victims' families threatened to shoot up the courthouse if there were an acquittal. Meanwhile, high school students shut down Paradise Street, a main thoroughfare, for a week last month in riots over the death of a popular 18-year-old student.

Business is brisk for Dakroury and other criminal defense lawyers, but they're also vulnerable to the prevailing street justice. Representing the wrong client could draw lethal revenge attacks. And their firsthand dealings with shady characters offer them a rare glimpse into the arsenals Suez gangs are amassing.

Dakroury, for example, said he bought his gun through an arms dealer who had a stunning variety of weapons for sale.

"The market is flooded by arms from Libya, so the price is going down," Dakroury, 40, explained. "I saw heavy-caliber machine guns mounted on tok-toks," the motorized carts used here as cheap transportation.

The gun Dakroury selected came in handy when Bedouins blocked a road in an attempt to seize hostages for prisoner swaps; Dakroury said he fired madly as he revved his car through the bandits' checkpoint.

"I shot my way through and kept shooting even on the other side," he said, still rattled by the memory. "It surprised them enough that they hit the ground and couldn't fire back until I was gone."

The close call, however, left Dakroury "paranoid." On a recent night, he heard a noise and peeked out of his apartment to find a shadowy figure fiddling with the lock on a neighbor's door. Dakroury said he grabbed his gun and aimed at the figure, ready to fire if necessary, when he heard a woman's voice on the other side of the door welcoming her husband home.

He'd nearly shot his neighbor.

"Now I use my gun so often I'm afraid I'll start using it for minor things, like in traffic," Dakroury said. Nevertheless, he's teaching his wife and three children how to shoot.

At the Suez regional police headquarters, which is ringed by coils of razor wire to prevent protesters from besieging it as they've done in the past, officers at first insisted that they'd filled the security vacuum that all but paralyzed the city last year.

"Security is totally stable in Suez," Gen. Hassan Eid, a senior deputy to the police chief, said confidently, only to contradict himself moments later in descriptions of cases involving ruthless murderers, big-time drug traffickers and Libyan weapons.

Eid said the police force, only a year ago in shambles after being routed by protesters who'd suffered years of officers' brutalities, is easing back onto the streets, albeit only in joint patrols with the military for now. He said the patrols help on two fronts — the visible presence of security forces reassures the nervous residents and also keeps the increasingly brazen criminals on their toes.

"Yesterday, we found three pistols, today two machine guns. In Ismailia, they just captured a shipment of anti-aircraft weapons," Eid said. He chuckled at the memory of a particularly shameless drug dealer they'd raided earlier this month: "We found the guy with 16 kilos of marijuana — he told us it was for a wedding."

Police assertions of a greater street presence are at odds with the accounts of residents, who tell of purse-snatchings, car-jackings and gunfights occurring regularly in broad daylight, with neither the police nor the military in sight. It's common knowledge that some Suez slum districts are totally off limits to outsiders, including the police, without a local escort.

"Our parents used to tell us, 'Don't come back late,' but now it doesn't matter. The attacks happen day and night," said Radwa Adel, 18, who shared a pizza with some college classmates, the only patrons at an outdoor cafe on a recent afternoon.

"We always see fights and thugs inside our university," added Mai Ahmed, also 18 and a student at Suez Canal University. "There's no security, no ID cards, and the gates to the campus are open to anybody."

None of the residents who recounted witnessing violent crimes said they'd bothered to alert police. Even if they were able to respond, which they aren't in most cases of petty crimes, the police are still viewed as tools of the old regime, their main goal protection of the rulers, not the people.

Suez residents are still so distrustful of the police, whose violent legacy is evident in torture scars on many young men here, that warring families seek arbitration instead from militia-like neighborhood watch groups or respected religious and community leaders.

Maj. Ashraf Fawzi, the senior spokesman for the Suez police, said the department was addressing the problem by sending batches of officers to Cairo for courses on human rights and the rule of law. Police officers also visit local schools as ambassadors for what Fawzi described as an improved force that's eager to reclaim the city's trust.

"We say, 'Yes, there were bad from our ranks, but that doesn't mean all of us were bad,'" Fawzi said. "We also do a lot of good work in the community, and we should get credit for that."

Police across Egypt are struggling with the same credibility problem, and Egyptians complain that the ruling military council hasn't done enough to rehabilitate the police force and restore order to the streets.

In February, the issue of lawlessness exploded onto the national stage after a violent riot at a soccer stadium in the city of Port Said left at least 74 dead and hundreds wounded, most of them young men who belonged to Egypt's popular soccer fan clubs.

Among the dead was a widely beloved Suez high school student known by the nickname "Karim Junior." His death galvanized the local soccer clubs and the entire student body at Suez Progressive Technical School, which is covered with portraits of Karim Junior and graffiti promising revenge.

Furious at the slow pace of investigation into the Port Said tragedy, the youths shut down the typically bustling Paradise Street for a week as they demonstrated outside nearby government buildings. The ensuing rock throwing and tear gas made the evening news, with Suez appearing to many as a harbinger of wider unrest if the central government didn't act quickly in the case.

Mahmoud Nabil, 18, one of Karim Junior's closest friends, led the campaign to order 3,000 black T-shirts for students to wear at their demonstrations, which they say will continue until they feel justice prevails.

With tears in his eyes, Nabil called up a photo of the shirt on his cellphone and zoomed in on the message emblazoned across the front: "We're not afraid of death anymore."


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