The journey begins in Port Said, at 6:00 am. A layer of fog hangs over the harbor, concealing the secret smuggling deals conducted from the eyes of authorities. Haj Ali inspects his shipment of sex toys—a banned commodity in Egypt—from China. He lights his cigarette and begins discussing his plan. Port Said, one of Egypt's largest port towns, receives hundreds of shipment every day. The goods are stored in containers on the berths. A state employee inspects the shipments to ensure that they match the description in the paperwork. The inspector opens one side of the container and picks a random sample, to make sure the container does not contain illegal substances, comparing the item to the specifications in the paperwork. Nonetheless, a variety of contraband items, including sex toys, find their way into Egypt. In the capital, Cairo, in one of the largest toy shops in the upscale neighborhood of Maadi, sex toys and other paraphernalia are sold to well-known and reliable customers. At the entrance to the two-story store, Hind Abdel Rahman, 24, the store-owner, greets customers and offers her help and services. Down the stairs to the basement, there is a wing hidden behind coloured curtains. Inside, shelf after shelf is filled with an assortment of sex toys and tools, with price tags ranging from 3,000 Egyptian pounds ($165) all the way up to 20,000 pounds ($1,100). On the first shelf are various silicone dildos, and realistic replicas of female genitalia. Another shelf is full of handcuffs. Other shelves are full of gifts in the form of household utensils and pens emulating male and female bodies. Yet, how do these contraband items make their way into children’s stores in Egypt in the first place?
The journey begins with striking an agreement with suppliers abroad to forge the product description, usually labeling them as children’s toys.This is the most vital factor in operating a successful contraband smuggling business. On the ground in Egypt, another agreement is struck with the customs officer to unload the container with the smuggled products quickly, before the arrival of the inspection committee. Sometimes, deals are struck with the committee itself but this could set the smuggler back a hefty value of 150,000 to 200,000 Egyptian pounds, according to one importer, speaking to Raseef22 on condition of anonymity. Subsequently, the staff will facilitate the passage of the goods and supervise their transportation via roads with low security presence, until they reach Cairo. When they receive word that a particularly meticulous committee will be conducting the inspection, they claim that their warehouses are full and leave the shipments at the port until the inspection committee is replaced. Another importer says that Port Said is their main gateway, as, unlike other ports, inspection is conducted using primitive methods.
Another trick is to pack products in containers with hard-to-inspect goods, such as glassware, toys, and household items. An official source in the Central Administration of Port Said Customs confirms this to Raseef22, also speaking on condition of anonymity. He says that the goods are sometimes hidden in tires, as a shipment of tires enters the port. Meanwhile, Hassan Fikri, director of the department in charge of countering the smuggling of contrabands, says that most shipments of sex toys enter the country disguised as sterile medical packages, which most smugglers know will not be opened. Under Article 51 of the Egyptian Customs Regulation Law, parcels are not to be opened for inspection for any purpose, except in the presence of the importer, who is usually not present, and so the shipment is passed. If there is suspicion of illegal substances in the parcels, the customs may open them with written permission from the head of the local department. However, obtaining such a permit is a complicated and lengthy procedure that is rarely performed by the customs inspector, creating a loophole through which various forbidden products make it into the market.
Hind: The Sex Toy Seller
Unable to land a job after graduation, Hind and a her friend launched a business of selling adult toys to their close friends. Not satisfied though, they wanted to tap into a wider customer base, and so they launched a Facebook page, focusing on sex education posts and sex toys. Hind tells Raseef22 that she began corresponding with a Chinese supplier to import sex toys to Egypt. The company would send the products in sterile medical packaging to evade inspection at ports. Hind is well aware that the law bans the trade of such products, so she opened the children’s toy shop. Behind closed doors, she has resumed her sex toy trade. “After we met with a Korean supplier who can smuggle the toys with ease, we opened the toy store. We sell our sex toys and products to trusted customers, and we quickly earned a reputation in the area,” she says. She notes that they sometimes exploit some loopholes in Egyptian airports’ international lounges to smuggle the goods, where electronic scanners are almost always broken, particularly in Borg El Arab International Airport and Cairo International Airport. The customs officer does not inspect the bags and only scans them quickly for weapons. The devices used do not detect the sex toys hidden in the bags. Hind is partially driven by the surrounding culture and social environment, which she says continues to obstruct the natural progression of many sexual relationships. She is happy to be part of the movement that is introducing small changes in people’s mindsets, as evidenced by the steadily growing demand on the sex toys.
The Egyptian Customs Authority has identified a list of contraband products that include sexual stimulants and any products that are deemed “contrary to public morality”. This includes sex products and toys, such as pornographic pictures, films, magazines, and sex toys, according to the head of the legal affairs department at the Egyptian Customs Authority, Ramadan Qarni. Regarding the penalty for smuggling such goods, lawyer Nasser Amin says that the Egyptian law has criminalized smuggling, highlighting Article 2 of Law 623/1955, which was amended in 2002. The law stipulates that the penalty for customs officers who knowingly permit contraband items is imprisonment for a period ranging between two and five years, in addition to a fine valued at three times the tax value for importing the goods. The penalty imposed on a traveller or importer, in the case of finding contraband products, is a fine equal to the tax imposed on the good or double its value, as well as confiscating the good.
Demand Peaks During Holidays
In a quiet area of the fashionable upper-class island of Zamalek, a few lingerie shops are scattered between the many cafés, restaurants, and shops. The owner of one of these stores, who sells both lingerie and sex toys, says that the market for these toys has always existed, silently growing, and particularly peaking during holidays. She condemns the secrecy surrounding this market, noting: "Everything is permitted in Egypt, except for sex shops. It’s crazy! Most travelers can buy these goods from abroad and bring them back to Egypt." Most of these goods are imported from China, she says, and she distributes them to some stores that she trusts and knows in person. Other popular outlets for such products are social media pages and personal networks of acquaintances, indicating that demand outstrips the covert operations conducted in the dark. In a country where illegal businesses only flourish under the “protection” of police officers, could this be the next cash cow for Egypt’s security forces?