Morsi Deals a Blow to Egypt's 'Gangster State'

By arresting the country's most notorious crime leader, Egypt's new president has gained widespread respect at home.

Ever since Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi came into office, he has been publishing a monthly report describing his activity in every area. The report details his meetings with leaders of foreign countries, his talks with heads of unions and organizations and the topics discussed in these meetings, the benefits he has granted farmers who owe money to the state and also the identities of the top military officers he has decided to send out to pasture.

At the end of the report, as though it were an invoice, there is a numerical summation of the president's meetings, classified by topic.

Just one week into September, Morsi can already start writing some of the important items in the report to be published at the end of the month.

This past week, for example, he retired 70 generals, changed the personnel of the Supreme Military Council, appointed 10 new provincial governors, changed the makeup of the Supreme Press Council and appointed new chairmen of the government newspaper boards. Morsi never thought that one day he would become a candidate for the presidency and had to run in the elections under orders from the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, yet in less than two months he has become the strong man of Egypt. As president, he enjoys unprecedented freedom of action. He has been spared contending with the parliament because the parliament was disbanded and now Egypt is awaiting a new date for elections; the new constitution has yet to be formulated and thus Morsi can enjoy authority similar to that wielded by deposed President Hosni Mubarak. The army has returned to its bases following the dismissal of Supreme Military Council head General Hussein Tantawi, and Chief of Staff Sami Anan.

The United States views him as a worthy partner, and in two weeks he will meet with President Barack Obama, who apparently will agree to forgive $1 billion of Egypt's debt, which amounts to $3.6 billion. Morsi's visit to China last week gave rise to the latter's willingness to invest about $2 billion; Saudi Arabia has deposited half a billion dollars in Egypt's coffers, which it will increase to $2 billion, and Qatar has done the same.

The "Sinai campaign" in which the Egyptian army was sent to fight World Jihad groups and their Bedouin supporters in the peninsula has redoubled Morsi's political strength. He has proved he is more determined than his predecessor when it comes to fighting terror in Sinai and he has also made it clear to Egypt's citizens that when the need arises their country is able to "impose its sovereignty" over all parts of the state. In this way he has blocked the criticism to the effect that Egypt's pride and security had become hostages to the Camp David agreement with Israel.

According to the reports on the formulation of the proposed constitution, the president will have broad authority in the military field. He will be the supreme commander of the security forces and will no longer have to consult with the army and get its approval before declaring war.

In the spirit of the revolution

The revolution Morsi is fomenting in the civil service is advancing without fear of constitutional oversight. Leftist organizations and liberals are indeed expressing sharp criticism of him, but thus far this has not coalesced into real opposition and there is hardly any threatening protest in the streets.

The reason for this is that despite the fear of Egypt's transformation into a "Brotherhood state," Morsi is still perceived as someone who is acting in "the spirit of the revolution." He is fulfilling the desires of citizens who aspired to get the army out of politics and he is fulfilling the expectations of those who demanded purging the government ministries of the previous regime's barons. No one can complain that Morsi is not keeping his promises; the problem is that keeping them means introducing Muslim Brotherhood activists into government institutions.

Morsi is proving that in contrast to Mubarak, who paid little mind to public opinion, he knows how to win the public's heart. Recently, for example, the complaints regarding domestic security have multiplied. Many citizens have complained of the rising incidence of robberies and rapes, about increasing attacks on women and especially the surging gangsterism in the streets. Morsi demonstrated his capabilities in this area in a very impressive performance. Two weeks ago, at 5 A.M., the inhabitants of the King Maryout neighborhood in Alexandria, a luxurious quarter that is home to Egypt's wealthy, witnessed an unprecedented scene. About 20 armored vehicles, hundreds of security and special forces personnel and dozens of police cars carrying top police officials deployed near the palatial home of Sabry Nakhnoukh, known as a notorious crime gang boss. Nakhnoukh and his bodyguards were led, shackled, to one of the armored vehicles, which drove them straight to jail. A little while later all the television and radio broadcasts reported the news of the historic arrest that "put an end to the gangster state in Egypt."

Nakhnoukh was known as "king of the baltajiya." This has its origin in the Egyptian term baltaji (apparently from Turkish). Literally, this means a man who carries an axe or a woodcutter. In Egypt, the term came to refer to a goon who intimidates a neighborhood and by extension to the goons acting in the service of the regime, imposing its will everywhere.

The baltajiya, the collective name for the goons, became notorious at the start of the revolution when violent gangs armed with swords, axes and live ammunition attacked the demonstrators and wounded them. They acted under orders from top people in the previous regime, headed by the fearsome Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, who is now on trial.

Nakhnoukh, 46, built himself an empire of goons when he was still a young man. As the son of a junk dealer, he quickly realized that he would earn a lot more money from gangsterism than from scrap iron. He started frequenting the area of al-Haram Street, which leads to the pyramids and where most of the nightclubs, discotheques and drug dens in Egypt are located. He enlisted young bodyguards, paid their salaries, got them released when they were arrested, and looked out for them with the devotion of a Mafia godfather. He found ways to purchase weapons, made the acquaintance of nightclub singers and offered them personal security services. Nakhnoukh used a building that belongs to his father as a center for training bodyguards and from there he set out on rampages of robbery and exacting protection money throughout the country. According to reports in the Egyptian press, there was not a city or a village in the country that had not heard of Nakhnoukh. Frightening legends were associated with his name. According to one such legend, one of Nakhnoukh's people shot a young boy, only because he did not use the respectful address muallem (boss ) when mentioning Nakhnoukh's name.

Nakhnoukh's empire

Nakhnoukh bought up villas and vacation homes, where he would park his Mercedes and Hummer vehicles. A restaurant boat he owns is anchored on the bank of the Nile. He also owns the Honda vehicle agency in Egypt and at his palace in Alexandria he nurtured a menagerie of wild animals with impressive lions. In 2008 he was even given a license to establish a newspaper, Al Dowla (The State ), in which he published his words of wisdom. The newspaper pages included advertisements for nightclubs and bars and mourning notices from families of police officers who have passed away.

Most of the private business people in Egypt under Mubarak did not receive a license to establish a newspaper. The law prohibited this. But Nakhnoukh was canny enough to create a close relationship with the regime and especially with Interior Minister el-Adly, who realized the tremendous potential of the shady tycoon's empire.

In 2005 Nakhnoukh was asked to use his organization to help the regime achieve a victory in the general elections. His people were asked, quite simply, to cause disturbances at the voting centers in order to make it possible to call in the police. When the calls came in, the police were urgently dispatched to the problematic polling stations, stopped the voting there and sealed the ballot boxes. Later the police were able to replace the contents of the boxes they had seized.

In one of dozens of other incidents now under investigation, Nakhnoukh was asked to help a friend of el-Adly's against a rival. Nakhnoukh's people swung into action immediately and imprisoned the rival in a storeroom of one of the Honda sales points. The compensation for the help was not always paid in money. Nakhnoukh, for example, received from the Interior Ministry certification that he served as an adviser to one of the countries of the British Commonwealth, enabling him to affix diplomatic license plates to his cars and avoid tickets and interference from traffic police. He also received a license to purchase five firearms.

Nakhnoukh's arrest has afforded Morsi considerable benefit. Putting the kingpin behind bars symbolizes not only "the end of the age of gangsterism" - the headline of one of the government newspapers. It is also a manifestation of impressive settling of accounts with the previous regime and its symbols, and proof that the new president is afraid only of Allah.

The surge in crime that came in the wake of the revolution led ordinary citizens to voice the complaint that "the state has lost the citizens' respect." Nakhnoukh's arrest has brought "Morsi's state" a lot of respect.

Mohammed Morsi