Cultural Struggle Finds Symbol in Gay Cairo
Arrests of 52 Men Reflect Tension Between Islamic Traditionalists,
September 9, 2001
1150 15th Street NW, Washington, DC 20071
By Howard Schneider, Washington Post Foreign Service
CAIROIn 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 GayEgypt.com
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 countrys extensive national security apparatus, the men are at the
center of what prosecutors contend is a broad assault on Egyptian morality and
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 Mubaraks
"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
Neither as liberal as Lebanon nor as strict as Saudi Arabia, Egypt
maintains a social conservatism tempered by "dont ask, dont
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 bikinisand even lessare 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 Cairos most important mosques, and offering a guide to
hangouts in tourist spots such as Luxor.
Workers at the Queen Boatthe name derives from its owners friendship
with the late Egyptian King Farouks wife, Narimansay 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 Cairos
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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