Dispatch

Day of the Hooligans

The tenuous relationship between Egypt and Israel is going up in flames.

CAIRO - Egyptians were rallied to the streets on Sept. 9 for protests that were dubbed as a step toward "correcting the path of the revolution." But anger over a political transformation that has been slow in coming turned into an attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo that dramatically altered the course of Egypt's domestic uprising.

The Israeli Embassy raid in Giza was caused by the convergence of multiple factors: a spike in anti-Israeli anger, which was already running high over the killing of five Egyptian soldiers just across the Gaza border following an Aug. 18 terrorist attack near the Israeli city of Eilat; the outpouring of anger at the Egyptian police that has accompanied the revolution; and even the hooliganism of some local soccer fans. But whatever the cause for the violence, it is clear that Egypt -- as well as Israel's other stalwart ally in the region, Turkey -- is looking to distance itself from its former partner, with potentially drastic effects on the entire Middle East.

The mood in Tahrir Square, around two miles from the Israeli Embassy, on Sept. 9 remained festive, until groups of pro-democracy protesters carrying hammers marched toward the embassy. They were intent on breaking down a concrete security wall that had been built a week earlier after previous protests threatened the embassy. Egypt's military rulers, who had previously moved to shut down popular demonstrations, had issued a statement the previous day that allowed protesters to take to the streets in Tahrir, as long as they didn't remain overnight.

"We will withdraw all our police and Army officers from the square for 24 hours to give way to a peaceful protest," Lt. Col. Amr Imam, the media spokesman of the armed forces, told me before the protest. "We urge political powers and organizers to control the crowds to avoid any attacks on public property, which we will not tolerate."

Imam would not get his wish, but then again, he didn't keep his promise either. Outside the embassy, hundreds of charged protesters hammered down and scaled the concrete wall as residents and bystanders cheered. As nighttime closed around 6 p.m., most of the wall was destroyed, and the sky lit up with celebratory fireworks. The protest seemed to have a momentum all its own: "Are we going to war?" Ashraf Nagi, one of many protesters watching the rowdy crowd in shock, asked me.

Violence erupted around 9 p.m. on a back street between the Israeli and Saudi embassies, when dozens of angry protesters attacked an anti-riot police unit stationed there. The police officers were outnumbered, and they fled, running toward the Giza police headquarters several hundred meters away and leaving behind two trucks filled with supplies. By the time the violence was over, 1,049 people had been injured, many from tear gas inhalation, and three were dead, according the Health Ministry.

The angry crowd was a combination of soccer hooligans and pro-democracy protesters who had two common enemies: the police and Israel. Ever since the first day of the uprising on Jan. 25 -- Egypt's Police Day -- one of the revolution's original demands was the end of police brutality. Now, almost eight months later, the police have remained committed to their old ways: On Sept. 6, they stormed the bleachers of a soccer match, attacking a faction of supporters of the popular Al Ahly club, known as the "Ultras." Post-match clashes spilled outside the stadium, leaving 133 people, including 71 security officers, injured.

On Sept. 7, dozens of Ultras showed up outside the trial of deposed President Hosni Mubarak and threatened the police, chanting, "We burned your trucks and took you down on the 25th, you rats; we'll do it again on September 9th."

The Ultras made good on their promise. Protesters burned the first two trucks they came across, and thick clouds of black smoke billowed in the sky. The demonstrators claimed their victory as they ran out of the trucks, waving two stolen machine guns, tear gas bombs, helmets, and protective gear.

The Giza police headquarters was the next target of the protesters. Outside the building, armed police stood in two rows, urging the protesters to refrain from hurling stones at them. One Army officer who had been attempting to negotiate with the protesters was struck on the head with a stone, which drew blood. Another police commander waved an Egyptian flag, but the growing number of protesters refused his appeal to patriotism as they chanted in defiance, "Our police are pimps; who do we go to? Forget your Mubarak; you only have us to teach you a lesson."

The provocative, organized tone and lyrical structure of the chants sounded a lot like one might hear in an Egyptian soccer stadium. "You don't want to involve football hooligans into politics, or piss them off," Adel Bassiouni, a civilian onlooker, told me as he shielded his head from the flying rocks.

The headquarters went up in flames and burned for approximately a half-hour before firefighters contained the fire. Police forces fired tear gas, and warning gunshots echoed in the air nonstop in a 13-hour battle.

Back at the Israeli embassy, the situation escalated around 11 p.m. as protesters breached the offices and removed the Israeli flag off the building, replacing it with the Egyptian tricolor. Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon followed the situation nervously from his residence in the suburb of Maadi, imploring Egyptian authorities to contain the situation and arrange for the rescue of the six Israeli security guards trapped in the embassy.

Col. Islam Jaffar, an Egyptian armed forces officer in charge of the military unit in Giza, told me that several protesters had entered the embassy's 16th floor, which was reserved for non-Israeli staff members. "They could not enter the 17th or 18th floor, which is fortified by electronic bolted doors and guarded by six Israeli security personnel from inside," he added, while attempting to regroup his forces outside the burning police headquarters.

Anti-Israeli sentiment has been running high ever since Egypt's revolution began. Canceling the export of Egyptian gas to Israel was one of the revolution's core demands. Following the killing of the five Egyptian soldiers, activists staged a sit-in on Aug. 22 outside the Israeli Embassy, in which they called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the closing of the embassy. They chanted anti-Israeli slogans, such as, "Israel, we won't sell you gas anymore, but we'll set the Jews on fire."

The Egyptian authorities' failure to deal decisively with acts of incitement during that protest no doubt contributed to the Sept. 9 attack. During the Aug. 22 protest, for example, Ahmed el-Shahat, a 23-year-old Egyptian, scaled the embassy and removed the Israeli flag, replacing it with an Egyptian flag. Shahat quickly became a national icon for his actions and even met with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf afterward.

"The prime minister received him like a hero, and the governor rewarded him with an apartment," retired Gen. Sameh Seif al-Yezen told me. "The protesters who stormed the embassy might have thought they would get a mansion for that."

The diplomatic and domestic fallout from the embassy attack was immediate, and drastic. Levanon, along with 70 members of his staff, family, and security personnel, fled Egypt, arriving in Israel on a private jet. Imam, the Egyptian armed forces spokesman, added that the deputy ambassador remained in Egypt "to keep some sort of diplomatic presence."

The Egyptian military has signaled its intention to crack down on those responsible for the Israeli Embassy attack. More than 70 people were arrested for both the attacks on the embassy and the Giza police headquarters, according to Alla Mahmoud, the Interior Ministry's spokesman. They will face military tribunals.

But these incidents are a worrying sign of just how far Egypt -- and the region, writ large -- is turning against Israel. On Sept. 2, Turkey expelled its Israeli ambassador over Israel's refusal to apologize for the killing of nine Turkish activists aboard a Gaza-bound flotilla last year.

The Egyptian people made evident their delight at Turkey's hard line on Sept. 13, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Cairo to a hero's welcome. "Erdogan, welcome to your second home! Egypt and Turkey, one hand," chanted thousands of people, many of whom were Muslim Brotherhood members.

Erdogan did not disappoint his admirers. "Our Palestinian brothers should declare an independent state," he announced to an assembly of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, signaling his support for the Palestinian leadership's upcoming bid for statehood at the United Nations this month, which Israel bitterly opposes.

"Israel must pay for its crimes," he yelled, as the crowds in the assembly applauded.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

New Jack Rio

Six years ago, crack cocaine was virtually unheard of in Brazil. Now it's out of control.

RIO DE JANEIRO — An adult man with dirt clods on his face stares silently at the perforated tinfoil lid on his plastic juice cup, a makeshift crack pipe. Behind him, Rio de Janeiro's postcard-green hills shimmer above this battered favela slum, a 15-minute motorcycle ride from Brazil's iconic Maracana soccer stadium. On a weekday afternoon, you can see young boys riding horses bareback next to a trashed former soccer field, now home to pigs, chickens, and hundreds of crack addicts clutching their own cups with tin lids.

Two decades after the United States saw urban centers like New York and Los Angeles devastated by the spread of crack, Rio de Janeiro and cities across Brazil are facing their own crises, threatening the gains against poverty and organized crime that have spurred Brazil's recent sense of optimism and growth. A comprehensive study in the works by the government-linked Oswaldo Cruz Foundation has offered early estimates that Brazil has 1 million crack cocaine users, far more than was expected (this in a country with just under 200 million inhabitants).

The first and largest success story of the region -- a third of Latin America lives here -- Brazil has become a majority middle-class country that recently got a vote of confidence from risk agency Standard & Poor's at the same time the United States' assessment was lowered. Quality of life in Brazil is on the rise by nearly any measure -- be it the expanding middle class, the government's plan to eradicate extreme poverty through the much-touted "Bolsa Familia" cash-transfer program, a zooming currency that is allowing middle-class Brazilians to travel abroad like never before, or impressive public-works projects as the country prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. In Rio de Janeiro, its second-largest city and beating cultural heart, a new policing program slated to spread to other Brazilian cities is garnering praise for apparently achieving the unthinkable -- beginning to place the hundreds of favelas long controlled by drug traffickers back under state control. Both Brazil's and Rio de Janeiro's staggering homicide rates have began to edge downward in recent years (though the national murder rate still puts the country in the top 5 percent worldwide).

But the rapid rise of crack use could turn these gains on their heads. The drug, virtually nonexistent in most Brazilian cities before 2005, has captured hundreds of new users in Brazil's cultural capital ever since Rio's largest drug-trafficking faction ended a de facto ban on selling the cheap cocaine derivative six years ago. While users are still concentrated in crime-ridden favelas like Jacarezinho, Coreia, Mandela, Morro do Cajueiro, and the Complexo da Mare, they are increasingly visible in Rio's wealthy "asphalt" neighborhoods, like the downtown Centro and Gloria. Arrests related to crack jumped fivefold between 2009 and 2010 in the state of Rio de Janeiro, according to the state's public safety ministry.

The drug has meanwhile infiltrated other Brazilian cities, such as the capital, Brasilia, and Recife in Brazil's coastal northeast, where the state governor claims that 80 percent of murders are linked to drugs, mostly crack. It predominantly affects the young: A recent analysis by Rio de Janeiro's Institute for Public Security estimated that, based on crime reports, 57 percent of users are under 24.

And where crack use has spread, violent crime has followed. In Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state neighboring Rio de Janeiro, a recent study linked crack to a quadrupling of the percent of drug-related homicides in the decade leading up to 2006. Belo Horizonte's murder rate more than doubled between 1998 and 2008.

The study's author, Luiz Flavio Sapori, says the lethal violence surrounding crack use comes from both dealers and users. In his Belo Horizonte case study, for example, he found that homicides stemmed from drug trafficking more than any other motivation, such as crimes of passion, revenge, or bar fights. He writes that crack's particular danger comes not from the physical sensation the drug provokes but from its extreme addictiveness, which creates a habit of continual use and a cycle of urgent need and debt, leading to robberies and conflicts with dealers if a user can't afford to pay.

If one visits Jacarezinho and Manguinhos, two of Rio's cracolândias, it's easy to see how debilitating the drug is to both users and a community. Almost one in five adults in the communities of Jacarezinho and Manguinhos have either used or are associated with the drug trade. The area is locally called the "Faixa de Gaza" (Gaza Strip) after the constant battles between traffickers and police. The influence of the drug's short high is obvious in the public spaces here: Whereas a cocaine user would buy from a dealer and bring the product back to his home, crack users come from all over the state of Rio de Janeiro to huddle in parking lots and street corners to continually use the drug, causing increased tension between residents, traffickers, and police in these favelas. On a Friday evening in Jacarezinho and Manguinhos, between 500 and 1,000 users congregate on the sidewalks and soccer fields of the two small neighborhoods.

Within the cracolândia, with its soccer field and lines of addicts, are multiple bocas de fumo -- literally "mouths of smoke," the colloquial term for where drugs are sold -- guarded by young men with firearms, covered with tarps to shield them from the sun and helicopter view and lined neatly with thumb-sized bags of marijuana (selling for 10 to 100 reais, or $6 to 60), cocaine (5 to 50 reais), and crack (5 to 50 reais). Crack users will split smaller rocks for as little as 50 centavos each. A female crack addict with a concave stomach and a fresh black eye rushes toward a neighborhood nurse. Kids in blue and white public school uniforms pour out of a crowded grade school nearby as a crowd of anxious parents waits to walk them home past exhausted groups of users on the sidewalks. Easy access to drugs at gang-organized dance parties -- called "baile funks" -- gives young children the chance to experiment and become addicted. Drug-addicted children as young as 10 meander through the bailes on the hunt for crack, willing to prostitute themselves to get it.

With the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games looming, the Brazilian government has fought back -- though many accuse the government of simply stamping out addiction when it gets too close to the stadiums and infrastructure projects that will host the upcoming games, not treating the underlying problems. The country has historically been progressive on drug reform, recently taking steps to legalize marijuana and generally prescribing an educational rather than a penal response to drug users. Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso leads the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which promotes a debate on drug legalization.

Crack, however, has inspired more hard-line solutions on a national level: police opening fire against drug gangs in the middle of densely populated favela neighborhoods and rounding up dozens of underage crack users to intern them in shelters (actions the Brazilian Bar Association has called unconstitutional), and a new fleet of unarmed drones monitoring the long western border with the Andean countries where cocaine originates, something President Dilma Rousseff has touted as a crucial tool for tracking drug shipments.

Pro-reform experts say the country's police response to crack users and sellers has been too heavy-handed across the board. Even Rio's innovative and widely praised "Units of Pacifying Police" program, which stations human rights-oriented officers in underserved favelas, has been criticized for only covering the slums that border on wealthy "South Zone" neighborhoods like Ipanema and future international games sites. With the rise of crack, "we're seeing today a sort of backlash, a return, we'll say, to a more repressive model with respect to this issue," says Leonardo Pecoraro Costa, a technical advisor on drug treatment and research in Rio de Janeiro's state ministry for social assistance and human rights.

"We are still repeating practices that are not good, that lead the users farther from the state," says Rita Cavalcante, a professor at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro's School of Social Service who works with drug users. She argues that Brazil's policy toward addicts, despite including promising elements like Rousseff's plan to train 15,000 new health professionals this year focused on treating addiction, is too heavily weighted toward law enforcement and public safety. For Cavalcante and others in her field, the "harms reduction" approach to drug use -- which seeks out users to offer help proactively, rather than waiting for them to check into clinics -- is the most effective method of countering the disease and malnutrition that follow drug use. Harms reducers can claim a victory with Brazil's creative 1990s needle-exchange program, which was credited, among a host of other measures, with subduing what threatened to be a national HIV epidemic. A similar program in Portugal has implemented drug decriminalization and harms reduction programs with many signs of success: The number of hard drug and intravenous users has dropped by half since 2001. The United States banished its own crack problem by focusing on health-related interventions in addition to tough drug-sentencing laws. At the drug's peak in the middle of the 1980s, the number of U.S. crack and cocaine users was close to 6 million, but it dropped by 75 percent over the following 10 years.  

Harms reducers in Rio distribute condoms to counter unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases and teach addicts to keep pipes to themselves in order to prevent passing communicable diseases like tuberculosis. But the Brazilian government doesn't yet offer broad funding and support for this approach, which is still viewed as experimental.

At an early September meeting in Brasilia of the parliamentary Special Commission on Public Policies to Combat Drugs, policymakers and specialists said Brazil's new focus will be fighting crack and that new legislation to counter drug use will be drafted in the coming months. But both the commission and the ruling government give little indication they will expand harms reduction programs or turn away from the more repressive stance the administration has adopted.

Brazil is maintaining the status quo with drug policy -- combining repression and traditional care -- rather than looking for creative approaches, according to psychologist and drug policy researcher Fabiana Lustosa Gaspar of the Rio de Janeiro-based social services NGO Viva Rio. "Politically, it is not easy. Many prefer to maintain the conservative side that's always been done rather than innovate," says Gaspar.

Back in the favela, however, it's clear that solving Brazil's crack problem is going to take more than an evolution in drug policy thought. A psychologist interviewed users for a study at the nearby clinic to assess which state services addicts would willingly utilize. One group included two mothers, each of whom said they prostituted themselves to pay for the drug and used during their pregnancies; a trash-picker; and an out-of-work motorcycle deliveryman. 

The interviewer began the session: "The last time that you used crack, did something happen that you didn't like?"

"That it ended!" several shouted in unison. Another added: "It's the hour of sadness."

VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images