A Clash of Cultures in Egypt
The trial of 52 alleged homosexuals pits traditional values against
calls for secular tolerance.
Monitor, September 18, 2001
"Readers Write, " 1 Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115
By Philip Smucker, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
CAIRODozens of men stand shivering in a rusty
black cage along a wallthe way defendants are usually held here during
trial. Alleged homosexuals, most of the men cover their faces in white
scarves, some fashioned into masks with slits for the eyes.
Waiting some two hours for the judge and prosecutor to arrive, some
prisoners faint from the cramped, steamy conditions. Fellow defendants slap
For Egypts homosexuals, the so-called "Queen Boat" trial is
likely to signal the end of a road to a new openness, which had begun to
emerge in recent years.
In the trial, being seen by some observers as part of a clash between
Islamic traditionalists and proponents of a more tolerant, more secular
society, it is unclear what laws were broken.
It is also unclear how many of the 52 accused are actually homosexuals.
Some observers say the proceedings are a government attempt to display what
it sees as as corrupting Western influences and spread fear.
"If the government wants this trial to be a deterrent, they will
succeed," says a European diplomat who is among several Western observers
monitoring the case. "This trial is sure to drive gay foreigners away and
gay Egyptians underground."
The trial is unfolding amid a broader Islamic fundamentalist campaign
against erotic literature and other manifestations of what many Muslims
interpret as Western-inspired moral decay.
The chief prosecutor has repeatedly pointed to Western nations, which he
says accept and tolerate what "Islam considers a crime."
"Egypt has not and will not be a den for the corruption of manhood,
and homosexual groups will not establish themselves here," said
prosecutor Ashraf Helal, addressing the courtroom and the cage of defendants
earlier this month.
Most of the 52 defendants were arrested in May on a Nile cruise ship called
the Queen Boat, a well-known haven in the world of Cairos homosexuals. No
sexual activities were observed on the boat, but police say they have photos,
medical reports, and confessions to back their charges that all the men are
The governments main target is Sherif Farahat, an outspoken homosexual
who was on the boat. Mr. Farahat is also being charged with authoring a book
found in his house that dubs Egyptian homosexuals as "soldiers of the
Lords army" who would fight for a future Kurdish messiah. The
prosecution has tried with some difficulty to link all of the 52 men with
their alleged "ring leader," Farahat.
"There is no crime called homosexuality in Egyptian legislation, so
the government really doesnt know what to charge these people with,"
says Gesir Abdul Rezk, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo.
As in other, much smaller, cases in recent years, Egyptian prosecutors are
relying heavily on a 1961 antiprostitution law that outlaws fouger, a vague
term that means little more than "shameless bad behavior."
Since the trial is being held under the auspices of Egypts emergency
lawsin place since 1981 to fight militant Muslim violencedefendants are
expected to have no right of appeal if convicted on the charges, which could
send them to prison for up to five years.
In its campaign against homosexuality, the government is using what Western
diplomats and human rights groups characterize as "dubious tactics."
During one of several heated court sessions in the trial, which continues
this month, the accused men alleged that authorities were using electric
shocks and beatings to secure confessions and punish them in prison.
One man, who gives his name as Hatem Ibrahim, says he has been physically
abused during so-called medical exams as well as severely beaten by an
Many Egyptian homosexuals, who have vanished from their usual gathering
places since the trial started in July, say the risk of further government
crackdowns on their community is too great to mount any mass protest.
Ahmed, a gay student at Cairo University willing to give only his first
name for publication, said the crackdown on Cairos gay community began
early this year with a series of government sting operations directed by the
State Security Intelligence Office. The government acknowledges that the
intelligence office conducts such sting operations.
An associate of Ahmed, who asked not to be named, said he had met with an
undercover policeman after answering an Internet query. When he was
subsequently thrown in jail, he said he was raped repeatedly be cellmates.
Homosexuality, while still taboo in modern Egyptian society, is partially
accepted in many circles, particularly in the lower classes but increasingly
in the middle and upper classes, says Hashem Bahri, an Egyptian psychiatrist
and fellow at Johns Hopkins University in the US.
"We had gone from a society of dont ask, dont tell, to
people asking their friends if they were gay and many gays openly admitting
it," he says.
Dr. Bahri says he is concerned that the Queen Boat trial may force Egypts
gay community underground and make information on AIDS less available, putting
homosexuals in greater danger of contracting the HIV virus through unsafe sex.
But conservative Egyptian judicial officials, backed with the moral
authority of the countrys Islamic leaders, fear that that Western
influences on Egypt are undermining traditional gender roles, family values,
and sexual morality. Government prosecutors in the Queen Boat trial say that
homosexuality is mostly an outside Western influence that cannot and should
not be tolerated.
Homosexuals in Egypt vehemently dispute claims that homosexual behavior
derives from outside influences. They argue that gay lifestyles have a history
in Egypt as old as the writings on the walls of its ancient tombs. While the
Koran condemns homosexuality outright in several passages, Muslim societies
have shown through much of their history a tolerance for same-sex relations.
[Home] [World] [Egypt]