Last edited: February 13, 2005

Egyptian Gays Living—and Fleeing—in Fear

They say a rise in arrests that began with a boat raid in 2001 points to increasing intolerance. Egypt denies targeting them.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 16, 2003
P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101
Fax: 215-854-4483

By Elise Ackerman, Knight Ridder News Service

CAIRO, EGYPT—For gay Middle Easterners, the nightclubs along the Nile in downtown Cairo were once as much a tourist destination as the Pyramids. But during the last three years, Egypt has become as famous for its persecution of gay men as it once was for its tolerance of them.

Nightclubs have been raided, cruising areas have been placed under surveillance, and Internet dating services have been populated by undercover police officers posing as lonely hearts.

An appeals court judge on June 4 reduced the sentences of four men convicted of debauchery in the notorious Queen Boat case to time served and ordered them to spend a year sleeping each night in their local police stations. Seventeen other defendants feared they would receive more prison time and did not appear in court. They are fugitives.

“This is a trial that should never have taken place,” said Hossam Bahgat, program director for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a legal activist group. “It is still outrageous to see people being convicted when they have committed no crime.”

For the nation’s gay community, the largest in the Middle East, the case of the May 2001 raid on a floating, Nile-side disco known as the Queen Boat was a frightening turning point in government treatment of homosexuals. For Western lawmakers and human-rights activists, it was a wake-up call that the police powers of Egypt—the closest U.S. Arab ally—could be used against others besides Islamic terrorists.

The Queen Boat case and the recent court ruling are a sign of a “bigger tyranny” by an authoritarian government that has been in power for almost 23 years, said Maher Sabry, an Egyptian activist who helped bring international attention to the Queen Boat arrests. “Gay men are just a scapegoat to distract people from real problems and to portray the government as the protector of morality and society,” he said.

The year before the arrests, Egypt’s highest court ruled that the country’s election laws were unconstitutional, essentially invalidating the nation’s parliament and vindicating opposition charges of rigged votes. Though parliamentary elections in the fall of 2000 were judged to be significantly fairer, they were accompanied by the sweeping arrests of thousands of supporters of a peaceful, and widely popular, Islamic political movement. Sabry and others contend that the subsequent crackdown on gays helped appease the conservative, predominantly Muslim electorate.

In the 1990s and 2000, venues such as the Queen Boat provided gay men places they could dance, hold hands and even hug without risking their reputations. Then, in May 2001, police raided the disco, detaining 38 men and picking up about a dozen others apparently at random, their lawyers said.

Eyad, a gay man who asked that his real name not be used, was hauled off while hailing a cab near the boat.

The suspects were taken to a downtown police station and asked to confess to being “faggots.” If they protested, they were beaten and kicked, according to interviews with four men and dozens of testimonies taken by human-rights researchers.

Two months before the trial, the names of the men and their places of employment were published in state-controlled newspapers, along with allegations that they were Israeli sympathizers who held orgies, and satanists who practiced perverted religious rituals.

Judge Mohamed Abd el Karim, who presided over the first Queen Boat trial in a special emergency court used to try threats to national security, made clear his views on gays. In an interview, he said he believed homosexuality is criminalized not only by Egyptian law, but by “the three heavenly religions,” a reference to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Gay sex “is not acceptable,” he said. “It is not logical.”

Abd el Karim found 21 of the men guilty of debauchery, based on his belief that they had had homosexual intercourse with more than one person more than one time during the previous three years. A subsequent trial in a regular misdemeanor court increased their sentences from two to three years. (Two defendants who also were found guilty of contempt of religion were not retried and received three-year and five-year sentences.)

Since January 2001, at least 140 Egyptian men have been arrested on vice charges ranging from debauchery to “inducing passersby to commit indecent acts,” according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

“It is very difficult to be gay in Egypt,” Eyad said.

Human-rights activists say the Queen Boat case heralded a shift to longer sentences and routine violations of privacy, particularly with regard to Internet entrapment.

Human Rights Watch has documented 32 Internet arrests since the beginning of 2001. Scott Long, a researcher who has done extensive work in Egypt, said he is sure the total figure is much larger. Posing as gay men seeking relationships, Egyptian police have posted profiles on Internet dating sites popular with gays. Several men who were later arrested said they became infatuated with a man who called himself “Raul,” who turned out to be an undercover officer.

“The really heartbreaking thing is how Raul plays on people’s emotions,” Long said. “People are scared after the Queen Boat. They don’t know how to meet people. And they meet this person on the Internet who is actually curious about them and their lives.”

In an official response to international criticism of the gay arrests presented to the United Nations Human Rights Committee last fall, Egypt maintained that it did not criminalize sexual orientation per se, and that gays were prosecuted under laws prohibiting male and female prostitution.

Paralyzed by the prospect of returning to prison, Eyad skipped his appeal hearing. While he and others had been freed on bail, they have been expected to turn themselves in and begin serving the two years remaining on their sentences since their second trial ended in March. Instead, Eyad recently quit his job and moved out of the apartment he shared with his family to avoid arrest. The appeals judge’s decision surprised him, and now he says he wishes he had gone to court.

“I’m so confused,” he said.

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