When a crime occurs in the part of Cairo near Tahrir Square and American University, people here have no one to call for help, a police officer explained to me Friday night.
Mohammed (not his real name) joined the police in 2003 when he was 19 and says the job was more dangerous than he expected. After the Egyptian revolution two years ago, it's gotten so dangerous he can't even do his job.
That's why he's at my hotel at all, on the community balcony watching the gunfire in Tahrir Square, pointing out known troublemakers to us with a green laser pointer that had been making me very jumpy on the street when I'd been down there moments before.
A friend of my translator, Mohammed supposedly smokes a lot of marijuana, like many Egyptians.
A small group of us walk from the balcony to the hotel's small lobby, drink tea, and I start asking questions through my translator to Mohammed who does indeed have the red, glassy eyes of a classic stoner.
But who can blame him for a little bit of weed, when, without support from the government or the military, the police lack the strength to fight the anarchy sweeping the city. If they arrest someone, he explained, the person's family, friends, or associates will storm the police station and release them.
The outlaws of the city have so much power over the police that Mohammed doesn't even carry his gun with him after he leaves the station, he drops it off with a friend who owns a clothing store. Though the 9mm FEG Hungarian pistol is a 55-year-old antique with half the serial number scratched off, if it were stolen it would mean his job.
And it would take little to steal a police officer's gun here. He could be overwhelmed by a small group of men at any time, he says, and have no recourse at all but to hand it over or be killed.
Mohammed's most dangerous moment, he says, occurred a few weeks ago during his unit's response to gunfire a couple of blocks away in the shopping district.
His van pulled into a street and criminals blocked them off at each end. They engaged in a protracted gun battle that ended with the police running out of ammunition and receiving no support or back up. The police got to safety, but he says it's the last time he'll put himself in that situation.
My translator offered to provide some marijuana for me to smoke with Mohammed. I thanked him and instead asked if we could see the drug that is helping tear apart Cairo and driving the violence around Tahrir Square: Chinese Tramadol.
Despite media reports that the square is filled with protesters and revolutionaries, it's not. Tahrir Square is a criminal epicenter, a camp from which to operate and coordinate prostitution, theft, and the flow of illicit goods throughout the city.
It's also a major distribution point for Chinese and Indian-made Tramadol, a drug that is sweeping the city. Unlike Egyptian Tramadol, this street-level variety from China and India is supposed to be packed not only with painkiller, but amphetamines as well. I'm told the drug is creating many addicts and fueling a vast black market network.
Mohammed tells me the police know all this but do nothing. They know of the prostitution, thefts, beatings, and shootings that occur on a regular basis in the square. The police have a network of confidential informants but do nothing with the information.
"Morsi could clear the square in 10 minutes," the police officer tells me, referring to Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. And from what I'm told he has. During special visits by foreign dignitaries or meetings, the square is empty, and stays that way until someone drops off a load of expensive canvas tents and it gets rebuilt again.
"A lot of people benefit from the square," Mohammed tells me, and to prove it I ask if he can get us some Tramadol. "No problem," he says without expression.
The LA Times reports the rising level of Tramadol addiction affects children as young as 11 in Cairo, and drug use by those aged 15 and older is as high as 30 percent. I've already been violently threatened by a man my translator claimed was high on the drug. The man had been selling t-shirts on the street that he'd supposedly gotten on credit from the Muslim Brotherhood who smuggled them into the country from China.
I've read that Tramadol sells on the street for as cheap as two Egyptian pounds or thirty cents apiece, but the police officer wants me to buy a pack of ten for 150 Egyptian pounds or about $22 U.S. dollars.
I give him the money and he hurries off to the square to make the deal. Even the lucky people with jobs here make very little money. The desk clerk at my hotel makes 750 pounds a month ($110) and a journalist about 2,000 pounds ($294).
Sweaty and a little out of breath from the six flights of stairs up to the hotel lobby, Mohammed returns with the strip of pills. They're packaged as described, but the language on the back is in English and they have a street quality logo called Fox Dol, with what looks more like a wolf than a fox, in mid-stride across the back.
I give him a moment to sit down and light a Marlboro, the expensive brand of cigarette here, and he's the only person I've met in the city so far who smokes them.
When I ask him if he feels the police system in Cairo is corrupt, he says, "Yes, President Morsi was a prisoner himself until the revolution and the head of internal affairs is a Morsi appointment."
That means the man policing the police is from the Brotherhood. Though the cop doesn't say it, many I've talked to suspect the Brotherhood of smuggling in shipping containers filled with the knockoff clothes, electronics, and drugs.
"A lot of people benefit from Tahrir Square the way it is," he says again.
I thank him and explain through my translator we have a 10 p.m. appointment and must go.
The group of us leave the hotel, down the fatally uneven, ancient, curved marble steps to the street, my translator, Mohammad, an Egyptian who emigrated to Japan and his 16-year-old daughter with dyed pink-and-orange hair, and me wearing a winter shell to hide the camera strapped around my back.
We walk the same way as Mohammed, who's fetching his pistol, and the girl's father invites me to his family's home in the most criminal section of Cairo on Sunday. If I want to see what the city is becoming, that is where I should look, he says. It's a neighborhood whose population is exploding, and there isn't an honest soul among them he claims.
I thank him, get his number, and with a glance from my translator, tell him I will let him know as we all shake hands and say good night. It'll take some convincing, but my translator will eventually agree to come.
Ten minutes later Mohammed calls and says he wants fifty pounds for the interview. My translator asks if that's okay. I ask if he thinks it's smart not to provide the police officer who just sold us illicit drugs the fifty pounds he's asking for.
They're friends and all, but he smiles and tells him no problem. Mohammed and the Japanese emigrant went to a cafe known for its inexpensive, five Egyptian pound prostitutes, and we never met up for that payment.
Which gives me a great reason to stop by the station on Sunday and see what that's like.
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