Last edited: December 08, 2004

Cultural Struggle Finds Symbol in Gay Cairo

Arrests of 52 Men Reflect Tension Between Islamic Traditionalists, Secularists

Washington Post, September 9, 2001
1150 15th Street NW, Washington, DC 20071

By Howard Schneider, Washington Post Foreign Service

CAIRO—In the cautious world of gay Cairo, the Queen Boat had become a well-known haven, a floating disco on the Nile with a frayed decor but a lively crowd.

Too well known, perhaps. Internet sites such as had taken to describing "handsome youths" to be met in Cairo bazaars. Against the background of an Islamic fundamentalist campaign against erotic literature and other signs of what devout Muslims see as moral decay, security officials raided the boat May 11 as part of a crackdown that has landed 52 men in prison.

Facing sentences of three to five years for "practicing immorality" and offending religion, the suspects have been subjected to medical examinations and had their names, photographs and addresses published in Cairo newspapers. Human rights groups have expressed "grave concern" the detainees could have been tortured. Brought before an emergency court usually reserved for terrorists or others who have run afoul of the country’s extensive national security apparatus, the men are at the center of what prosecutors contend is a broad assault on Egyptian morality and religion.

Some of the Egyptian media have speculated that the problem has roots in American, European and Israeli plotting, with headlines such as "Become a Pervert to Please Uncle Sam." Human rights groups and the families of those arrested, however, see it as symptomatic of a broader cultural struggle between religious traditionalists and advocates of a more secular and tolerant society. After taming a violent fundamentalist uprising in the mid-1990s, they argue, the Egyptian state is ever more willing to ban books, jail dissidents and prosecute those seen as deviants in an effort to undermine fundamentalist arguments that the country is becoming too Westernized.

"This is a battle between the modern and the old," said a brother of one of the defendants, who would identify himself only as Maged. "The problem is that the old has the power."

Amnesty International and a collection of gay rights activists have staged protests in several cities condemning the arrests and trial. The U.S. Embassy and European embassies are sending observers to the state security court. More formal protests have been lodged, including a letter to President Hosni Mubarak from 35 U.S. House members.

Egypt, one of only two Arab countries that have signed a peace treaty with Israel, receives nearly $2 billion annually in U.S. economic and military aid. But the United States rarely issues direct criticism of human rights abuses, restrictions on free speech or the arrest of political opponents by Mubarak’s government.

"For a number of years now the public space for freedom of expression and association has been narrowing in Egypt," said Hanny Megally, head of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group. "Both the state and the extremists are making it difficult."

Neither as liberal as Lebanon nor as strict as Saudi Arabia, Egypt maintains a social conservatism tempered by "don’t ask, don’t tell" permissiveness. What is not too public or has not drawn the attention of religious critics, for example, is generally ignored. Homoerotic art is sold in upscale galleries, even as classic Arabic books are yanked from the shelves because of newspaper complaints that they are licentious.

Belly dancing remains a staple entertainment, but its public practitioners often come from Eastern Europe while Egyptian performers dress with increasing modesty. A woman without veil and full body dress is rarely seen on the middle-class beaches of Alexandria while bikinis—and even less—are common in upscale spots such as Sharm el-Sheikh and other resorts catering to a largely European clientele.

The Egyptian government forbids its citizens to enter hotel casinos, but largely overlooks a prostitution and "temporary marriage" trade that is regarded as a draw for summertime tourists from more conservative and wealthier Persian Gulf countries.

The gay scene was ignored because it was small and unobtrusive, centered in a handful of hotel taverns and venues such as the Queen Boat. The May arrests, according to diplomatic analysts and others who have followed the case, apparently resulted from a more systematic investigation, perhaps triggered by the gay Web sites, and a sense that the country was being touted as a destination for gay tourists.

Gay Muslim groups in several countries have established support groups and Internet sites, such as the "Queer Jihad" page created by "Sulayman X." But those in Egypt struck some sensitive chords, discussing the "rough trade" available at the Khan el-Khalili, a tourist bazaar and site of one of Cairo’s most important mosques, and offering a guide to hangouts in tourist spots such as Luxor.

Workers at the Queen Boat—the name derives from its owner’s friendship with the late Egyptian King Farouk’s wife, Nariman—say that nothing untoward was happening the night of the arrests. There was, they insist, never any public sex or debauchery of the sort hinted at in the media.

The three-level craft, moored permanently near the Marriott Hotel in Cairo’s downtown Zamalek neighborhood, had several dozen customers on each floor, a top-level restaurant, mid-level nightclub and bottom-floor disco. Police went straight to the disco and arrested only Egyptian men. Foreigners and women were let go. About half of the 52 were arrested there, and the others elsewhere, over several days.

Although early reports painted those involved as belonging to a quasi-religious sex group, court testimony indicates the police may have been more concerned with homosexuals in general.

"Egypt has not and will not be a den for the corruption of manhood," prosecution lawyer Ashraf Helal said in court Wednesday. "Homosexual groups will not establish themselves here."

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