Smugglers and state-builders : opiate trafficking and institutional development in interwar Egypt and Turkey

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Bacci, Mitchell Alan

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During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Turkey and Egypt constituted the world’s largest producer and consumer of opiates respectively. Throughout this period, tons of heroin and morphine flowed across the Eastern Mediterranean, triggering an unprecedented epidemic that swept through Egypt and claimed nearly four percent of the country’s population as addicts. However, the immense impact of the interwar opiate trade and epidemic on the societies, economies, and institutions of interwar Turkey and Egypt remains largely absent from Middle Eastern historiography. Drawing on Egyptian and Turkish state records, memoirs, and periodicals, this research incorporates the complex networks of opiate traffickers, distributors, consumers, law enforcement agents, bureaucrats, and diplomats into the narrative of regional history. It contends that Egyptians, by participating in the opiate trade, formed profitable networks that helped relieve local economic pressures resulting from the Great Depression, which devastated the national cotton economy and, with it, the Egyptian middle class. While the interwar opiate trade generated considerable illicit economic activity, government responses to the epidemic created opportunities for local bureaucrats and politicians to overcome the stringent fiscal austerity of the semi-colonial Egyptian state, build enforcement institutions like the Central Narcotics Intelligence Bureau, and provide public health services such as drug treatment. Simultaneously, Egyptian journalists and diplomats responded to the epidemic by contributing to a growing tide of international diplomatic, economic, and popular pressure that prevailed upon Turkey to introduce narcotics regulation in the early 1930s. Turkey’s subsequent move to regulate the opiate industry by creating the Narcotic Substances Monopoly transformed this illicit trade into a major source of government revenue that fueled an emerging program of statist development.


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