International Pressure Dilutes Cairo’s ‘Witch Hunt’ for Gays
Mubarak weighs political capital against damage to foreign alliances
June 17, 2002
Marine Tower 6th floor, Rue de La Ste Famille,
Gemaizeh, Achrafieh, Beirut, Lebanon
By Steve Negus, Special to The Daily Star
CAIRO—Several weeks ago, a visitor to Cairo’s
Queen Boat floating nightclub witnessed a raid by the Vice Squad. A number of
suspected prostitutes, familiar with the drill, lined up against the wall in
an orderly fashion and were led off to the station. The handful of gay men in
attendance were allowed to continue with their evening.
Suspected gay men in Egypt continue to be arrested, prosecuted, and
convicted. Activists estimate that dozens, if not hundreds, remain in prison.
However, the political will behind the year-long crackdown appears to have
ebbed since President Hosni Mubarak in late May overturned the 21 convictions
of allegedly gay men sentenced to prison in the so-called Queen Boat case for
"habitual debauchery" in the case. Twenty-nine others have been
acquitted, while two defendants convicted of "contempt for religion"
remain in prison.
Mubarak had apparently accepted a defense brief arguing that the State
Security (Emergency) Court did not have jurisprudence over a routine criminal
matter—"habitual debauchery" is a euphemistic legal expression
normally used for prostitution, as Egypt lacks specific laws against
Mubarak’s decision was undoubtedly the result of international pressure.
International gay and human rights groups had mounted a sustained campaign
against Egypt following the Queen Boat prosecutions.
In February, French President Jacques Chirac told a visiting Mubarak of his
concern about the trial, while in March, 37 members of the US House of
Representatives sent a letter to the Egyptian president protesting what they
said appeared to be a policy of persecution. Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA)
has told visiting Egyptian delegates that he would make congressional approval
of a hoped-for free trade agreement a gay rights issue unless imprisoned gays
Mubarak himself is not known to be personally hostile to gays, and despite
allegations that the crackdown was an attempt to appease the Islamists, it
does not appear to have been politically motivated.
Activists say the crackdown began in early 2001 when the Vice Squad became
aware of Egypt’s growing gay subculture through the internet. The first
reported cases were of gay men who responded to liaisons arranged over the
internet, only to find their partners were undercover agents.
The politicized State Security branch elbowed their way onto the case after
police reportedly seized pseudo-religious literature owned by one of the
defendants. Religion is a State Security remit (secular writers, heterodox
Islamic cults, and allegedly Satanic heavy metal fans have all fallen victims
in the past); misdemeanor morality charges are not.
Nonetheless, the involvement of State Security in the case, and its
referral to the exceptional State Security (Emergency) Courts that admit no
appeal, gave the impression of regime involvement, and at first the regime
appeared to dig in its heels when subjected to pressure.
In the long run, however, Mubarak seems to have concluded that the fairly
minimal political capital that could be obtained from a crackdown on gays
surely could not be worth a harsh word from a personal friend like Chirac
(probably the Western leader with whom the Egyptian president feels most
comfortable)—let alone an agreement aimed at boosting much-needed exports.
Nonetheless, gay men continue to face arrest by the Vice Squad and
prosecution in the criminal courts, the most recent example being a three-year
prison sentence handed down by a south Cairo court on June 7 on a man who
responded to an internet ad. Vice Squad chief General Abdelwahhab al-Adli told
the Associated Press recently that his department had prepared 19 such cases.
However, prosecutors have also suffered a number of legal reverses in recent
months, most notably in the case of five men from Damanhour convicted in March
for "sexual practices contrary to Islam" and released by an
appellate court in April.
Gay activists have cited skepticism among judges about evidence used in a
half-dozen trials of allegedly gay men in the past year. Normally prosecutors
make use of confessions, which may have been obtained under torture, or
forensic examinations which determine whether or not a defendant has been
"used," which may indicate "debauchery," as far as the
court is concerned, but not necessarily that it was "habitual" or
In short, international pressure has fallen short of creating a situation
where gays in Egypt can thrive in the open. However, it appears to have lifted
the climate of fear that has prevailed over the past year, wherein men could
be swept up in dragnets and convicted in mass trials on scanty evidence.
Gays will continue to be wary of a police force that tries desultorily to
enforce traditional morality, but the worst of what activists have termed the
"witch hunt" may be over.
- Steve Negus is a Cairo-based journalist and former editor of the Cairo
[Home] [World] [Egypt]