Last edited: January 01, 2005

Gay Marriage Results in Prosecution

When The Press Is Aflame, The Authorities Abandon Their Practice of Looking The Other Way

Cairo Times, April 20 - 26, 2000
Egypt’s on-line English language newsmagazine

Mariam Fam and Mandy McClure report

Society may frown on homosexuality, but the state rarely interferes in relations between gay men. However, when the Egyptian press discovered that two men in Zaqaziq had gotten "married" by drawing up what the press called a private "urfi" contract, the state was forced to act. Both men were taken into custody. Thirty-eight year old Mumin S.—as he was called by the press—was charged with a "violation of honor by threat," while Amir Mohammed Saber Abduh Ali, 18 or 19, was initially held on charges of practicing immoral and indecent behavior before being released on 13 April.

While local press coverage carried somewhat conflicting information, all reported that the relationship between the two men had been going on for approximately one and a half years, during which Ali worked for Mumin at the latter’s computer game store. Ali’s father reportedly took his son to the police station to file a complaint against Mumin for threatening his son after neighbors allegedly told him something was fishy in the relationship between the two men. Al Maydan of 11 April reported that the youth at first denied that there was any sexual contact between the two men, but later confessed that indeed they had been carrying on a relationship for some time. He subsequently testified that he had been tricked into the relationship.

When police searched the premises of Mumin’s business, they discovered love letters from both parties and a makeshift marriage contract, which stipulated that one party could leave the other only by paying LE1 million in compensation. Despite speculations in the press on whether the two men would be "divorced," the contract itself has no validity in the eyes of the law.

If Ali’s father had not become involved, it’s doubtful that the case would have progressed this far. In general, the police are content to let Cairo’s gay community exist in relative peace, subjecting members to occasional harassment but making no effort to close down gay hangouts or drive the subculture underground. This case, however, had received too much publicity not to progress further. In the initial hearing before the court, the defense requested that the case be dropped since both parties had agreed not to press charges and since the event in question does not constitute a crime. Judge Hisham Dayf refused to accept the plea, claiming the case had become a social issue in which the two defendants had offended religious and moral standards.

Although sensational cases of gay relationships have reached the press before, this seems to be the first time that a marriage contract has entered the picture. Mohammed Al Sawi, an attorney who works with the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary, points to a similar case that occurred in Luxor a couple of years ago, where two men were discovered living together as a married couple. Neither party was subject to a criminal prosecution, however. Ironically, it is the marriage contract in this case that provides the basis for a criminal case. Although the law does not have a statute criminalizing homosexual acts, the wide-ranging obscenity and indecent behavior statutes are certainly applicable here, and Al Sawi argues that the contract provides incontestable proof of indecent behavior.

If convicted of forcing the youth into a sexual relation against his will, Mumin may spend up to six years in prison. Would a defense that argued that the relationship was consensual be effective in this case? Sawi has his doubts. "I can’t really think of a defense that’s going to benefit him," he says. "No matter what is argued, he’s sure to be convicted now that the story has reached the public."

While it is unclear from reports whether Ali was forced into the relationship or consented, the story unleashed violent reactions in the press that were not directed solely at the two charged parties. Religious figures and prominent sociologists and psychologists were called on to explain and discuss the phenomenon of homosexuality, many of whom spoke of it as an illness that needs to be rooted out of society. Several specialists interviewed recommended executing both parties, while Mohammed Abdel Moneim Al Barri, former head of the Azhar Scholar’s Front, called for burning homosexuals. The most moderate views suggested merely isolating proven homosexuals until they could be rehabilitated to live "normal" lives according to society’s rules.

The most prevalent feature of all the uproar, however, was how the press treated the case as a completely isolated incident, denying the indigenous existence of homosexuality in Egyptian society and treating it instead as a recent phenomenon introduced through increased contact with foreigners and the Western media.

Wahba Ghali, former head of the AIDS section at Caritas and now director of the New York-based MENTORS, an HIV counseling and referral service for Arabs in the US, says that in his work with Caritas’ HIV Counseling Center and the HIV educational campaign, denial and ignorance were the biggest problems the center initially faced in dealing with HIV awareness among the gay community. "Nobody wants to admit that gay relationships exist in this society... when we first began the educational campaign, people told us we’d be stoned on the street or beaten up," he says. "But it didn’t happen."

Ghali believes that the Caritas campaign, which still continues, has been quite effective. In 1998, the center published a booklet aimed at raising HIV awareness that dealt with same-sex relationships in a straightforward, non-judgmental manner. They were also able to begin a Narcotics Anonymous group for drug users, what Ghali calls "one of the most successful programs run by the center."

But when he wanted to repeat the success of Narcotics Anonymous with a gay awareness and support group, with the goal of promoting safe sex practices, he couldn’t make it happen. "Actually, it was not all my idea," says Ghali. "An official at the Ministry of Health wanted to establish the group, but was unable to do it through official channels. He got in touch with me and we decided to try and set it up through Caritas." The plan was not implemented, according to Ghali, because it was met with firm resistance both inside and outside of the organization. While his superiors in Caritas did not want to touch such a risky subject, some would-be participants were equally reluctant to get involved, for fear of being outed or otherwise attracting unwanted attention.

Could a gay advocacy or support group be on the horizon in the near future? "I don’t think so," says Ghali firmly. "The pressure against it is too great...Just look at the recent case. The society as a whole is still in denial about the very existence of gay relationships."

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