“Everybody needs a weapon,” said Mahmoud, a 23-year-old Egyptian arms dealer, as he displayed his inventory of pistols, machetes, and switchblades on the living room floor of his family’s apartment in the crime-ridden Cairo neighborhood of Ain Shams.
With Egyptian government statistics indicating a 300 percent increase in homicides and a 12-fold increase in armed robberies since the 2011 revolution, Mahmoud and other black-market entrepreneurs are capitalizing on a growing obsession with self-defense and civilian vigilantism among Egyptians who have lost patience with their government’s inability to restore security. Frustration with lawlessness is among the numerous grievances that will drive antigovernment protesters to the streets on June 30, the one-year anniversary of President Mohamed Morsi’s inauguration.
Mahmoud is one of many post-revolutionary lawbreakers who were victims of crime before they became perpetrators. When I asked him how he made the decision to start selling black-market weapons, he replied sarcastically, “What decision? I had no choice.” Over lukewarm Pepsi served by his mother, Mahmoud explained that he used to earn a living as a taxi driver. But shortly after the revolution, his car was hijacked at gunpoint by a local gang. Like many of the amateur black marketeers responsible for Egypt’s current crime wave, Mahmoud is a far cry from the hardened criminal I had been expecting; he is just a young man hoping to earn enough money to move out of his parents’ house, marry his fiancée, and replace his stolen taxi.
Mahmoud’s neighborhood is home to one of Cairo’s most active black markets in unlicensed weapons, where vendors hawk a variety of small arms -- stolen police pistols, locally made shotguns, knives, switchblades and Tasers -- at below-market prices. Although Egyptian law prohibits the sale of unlicensed weapons, these informal markets have thrived since the early days of the revolution. They operate openly and often in plain view of the police, who until recently showed little interest in regulating the illicit trade, despite soaring crime rates.