Last edited: December 18, 2004

International Pressure Dilutes Cairo’s ‘Witch Hunt’ for Gays

Mubarak weighs political capital against damage to foreign alliances

The Star, June 17, 2002
Marine Tower 6th floor, Rue de La Ste Famille,
Gemaizeh, Achrafieh, Beirut, Lebanon
Fax: 00961-1-561333

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 homosexuality.

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 were released.

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 voluntary.

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 Times.

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