Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 June 2011
Issue No. 1051
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sticking to one's guns?

With firearms still circulating in much of Egypt, 30 June remains the deadline to hand in unlicensed weapons, writes Dena Rashed

Click to view caption
Unlicensed weapons about to be banned

For some days after the 25 January Revolution, particularly after 28 January when the police withdrew from the streets of Egypt's towns and cities, it could appear that it was a case of each man for himself, with many people forming local watch groups to guard their neighbourhoods and arming themselves with the right weapons for the job.

Those who had arms licence were the privileged ones, and they remain so until today. However, even people who didn't have arms licence started asking around for firearms, at times finding their targets.

There has always been a black market for guns and pistols, argues Ahmed (not his real name) in speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, but after the revolution the scene changed drastically. With an increasing crime rate and a slow comeback by the police, criminals were not deterred as they had been before in Egypt, even as the country still awaits its transformation from a police state to one based on the rule of law.

Living in a remote area with his family, Ahmed was encouraged by those around him to buy a small gun for safety years ago, in addition to the guard dogs he already owns. Never in a million years, he says, would he have thought of using his unlicensed weapon, but he had no other choice when intruders broke into his house during the revolution.

After hearing about the ruling Higher Council of the Armed Forces' deadline to hand in unlicensed arms or face court proceedings, Ahmed remains unfazed. "If the police provide us with security, I will hand in my weapon right away. I think they should be targeting the thugs that have unlicensed weapons, not people like me who just want to safeguard their families and their houses," he said.

Although he has applied for a gun licence at the Ministry of Interior, Ahmed won't be giving up his unlicensed weapon until he can guarantee this legal channel. His gun was neither stolen nor previously used when he bought it. There is an abundance of unlicensed weapons in the country, though some of these are sold at very high prices.

The black market is not kind to anyone, whether the thugs who terrorise others or the family men who seek security. "I bought the machine gun for LE16,000 some years ago, and now it costs LE60,000. Even the bullets that used to cost LE4 have now reached LE14, even for purchasers with a licence," Ahmed comments.

What are being circulated now are new weapons, together with used, smuggled (usually malfunctioning) and stolen ones. The latter are the most dangerous type, as well as the least expensive, though being caught with a weapon stolen from the police is a serious felony.

According to Ahmed, who has become interested in the market since the revolution, a stolen police pistol is worth about LE300. According to Nabil, another source who lives in a low- income area, prices have sometimes been lowered to LE200 since people want to off-load the weapons quickly.

"Those selling stolen police weapons are infamous thugs known to all," he said.

While the prices of weapons have gone up, there is still a high demand. "Now there is a demand for lighter weight pistols," Ahmed says. "The number one in the market is a Sig- Sauer German gun, the second is a Browning -- not because it is good but because it can be easily fixed -- and then there is the Smith, which is also in demand."

Even locally made guns like the Helwan have increased in price from LE4,000, when bought new prior to the revolution, to 16,000 today.

Getting a weapons licence has never been easy, and it has always been off limits to anyone with a police record or looking even remotely suspicious. As Ahmed says, at the police station where he applied for a weapons licence, almost 40 applicants try to acquire a licence every day.

For Mohanad Kamal, an engineer, it was time to get an arms licence because he couldn't bring himself to buy an illegal weapon. "It is a hassle and a crime to purchase one from the black market, but at the same time I take long road trips and I don't feel safe enough with my family."

To ensure that he gets his licence Kamal has presented a list of his assets as a token of his respectability.

Although there is an unspoken rule that warns newcomers to the arms club that you shouldn't get a gun out unless you are planning to use it, Kamal believes otherwise. "At times, it can help to show you have a weapon, even if you don't intend to use it. I have seen that happen, and it saved a man's life."

Kamal explained that after checking online, he has found that a Heckler gun that could cost $550, and used to cost around LE9,000, now costs around LE80,000. As the more expert Ahmed says, it is not just a matter of the weapon itself. Many of the smuggled bullets sold have expired.

For someone who hasn't yet applied for a firearms licence, like Khaled Salah, buying a weapon on the black market is worrying as it could be a stolen police weapon. Salah was offered a machine gun for LE16,000 during the revolution, but turned it down as too expensive.

However, he still does not feel safe and can't get the idea of insecurity out of his mind. "I have always been against violence, but now I feel like I have no other option but to purchase a weapon until the police force is back on the streets. I travel all the time on the roads, and I hardly ever see the police," he said.

While weapons remain high on many men's agendas, women have gone for softer forms of self defence, favouring pepper spray and electric shock devices that average around LE200 for the former and LE600 for the latter.

Guns customised with rubber bullets at a cost of LE1,600 are also popular. Times have changed drastically in Egypt, and so has the purchase of personal security devices. These can now be shopped for online and delivered to one's doorstep by messenger.

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