Last edited: January 04, 2005

Gay Egypt in the Dock

The Big Crackdown Might Reflect Cairo’s Own Insecurities

Newsweek, February 11, 2002
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By Joshua Hammer, Newsweek International

Harassment of homosexuals is hardly a new problem in Egypt. But in recent months an unprecedented vilification campaign against gay men has drawn international opprobrium—and cast new light on the often violent collision between traditional and Western values that is convulsing the developing world. The crackdown began last spring, when 52 allegedly gay men were arrested at a Cairo discotheque and in nearby apartments and hauled before Cairo’s State Security Court, normally reserved for trying terrorist suspects. There they were accused of crimes ranging from contempt of religion to false interpretation of the Qur’an. After a highly publicized trial, 23 were sentenced in November to prison terms of up to five years; the rest were acquitted. Then, two weeks ago, security forces arrested eight men in the Nile Delta town of Damanhur on similar charges. Described in the local media as a "network of perverts," the men are being held without bail. The crackdown has been a severe embarrassment for the government of President Hosni Mubarak, which has sought to present itself to the West as a bastion of moderation in a region fraught with radicalism.

It also appears to be a calculated gamble by an insecure regime. The crackdown on gays, as diplomats and political analysts see it, reflects government concern about growing freedom of expression in Egypt—fueled by the proliferation of Internet chat rooms and Web sites beyond the regime’s control. The government may also have contrived the prosecutions to bolster its Islamic credentials at a time when Egyptians are angered by an imploding economy and the arrests of fundamentalists. The strategy may be working. Although condemned abroad, the trial of the "Cairo 52" has met with nearly universal approval at home. "Being gay is not a fundamental right in Egypt," says a Western diplomat in Cairo. "It’s seen as a perversion."

Until recently, it was also buried deeply in the Egyptian closet. The media and the government pretended that homosexuality was a Western "disease" that hardly existed in Egypt. As a result, many gays grew up in self-loathing and isolation, desperately searching for soulmates. "When I first had these feelings, I believed I was the only one," says Ramzi, a 24-year-old Cairo lawyer. "Then I met someone, and we thought we were the only two. Slowly we found our way into the community." That community has maintained a vibrant yet fragile existence in urban centers such as Alexandria and Cairo. The capital’s affluent neighborhoods offer a handful of nightclubs, discos and bars where gay men can fraternize, although police harassment occurs regularly. Last summer Ramzi was picked up with 150 other gay men in a sweep of hangouts in central Cairo; he says he was punched, tortured with electric shocks and held in a cell, without charges, for three nights.

In the last two years, activists say, gays in Egypt have become more assertive. Dozens of Internet chat rooms have started up, allowing gay men to establish support networks, organize parties and arrange dates. (Online dating can be perilous: last year, gay activists and diplomats say, one man was lured to a Cairo rendezvous by a date who turned out to be a security agent; he was arrested and spent time in prison.) Overseas-based Web sites such as poke fun at Egypt’s autocratic regime with an irreverence no domestic site would dare express. One photograph on the site shows Mubarak pinning a medal on the uniform of a young soldier; the caption reads that the president is "choosing the prettiest gay cadet."

Then came last year’s bust. The target was the Queen Boat—a three-deck floating discotheque and nightclub moored on the Nile whose Thursday-night parties attracted a sizable gay clientele. Police had raided the boat several times, usually releasing suspected gay men in a matter of hours or days. This time it was different. In the early hours of Friday morning, May 11, security agents rounded up dozens of men on the Queen Boat. After releasing the foreigners, the police jailed the Egyptians, then tracked down other gay men at home, using confiscated mobile phones and address books. Arguing that their actions defiled Islam and thus constituted a risk to the state, prosecutors tried the case in State Security Court, a tribunal established by the emergency laws passed after Anwar Sadat’s 1981 assassination. In the past, the one-judge tribunal has been primarily used to try fundamentalist militants from the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian Islamic Jihad; the tribunal traditionally hands out stiffer sentences than ordinary courts. Verdicts must be approved by the head of state, and defendants have no right to appeal.

The case laid bare the revulsion felt toward homosexuals by Egyptian society. Local human-rights groups refused to provide support to the accused men, arguing that their ability to defend other victims of government abuse would be fatally compromised. "We’re already vilified as fifth columnists who take money from abroad to ruin the country’s image," says Hisham Kassem, director of the Egyptian Human Rights Organization. "If we’d taken this on, we would have killed the concept of human rights in Egypt for 10 years." A respected professor of medicine in Cairo suggested a "sure cure" for homosexuality: castration. Many lawyers refused to touch the case, and those who did based their defense on denying that their clients were homosexuals. Prosecutors forced all the defendants to submit to anal examinations; Sherif Farahat, a health-club masseur who was described as the "ringleader" of a homosexual "network," drew a five-year prison term; 22 others were sentenced to between one and three years.

Why did the government crack down so heavily? With about 15,000 Islamic militants in prison, and the government stranglehold over Egypt’s mosques becoming ever more extensive, some experts believe the prosecution was intended as a sop to the country’s conservative masses. The Egyptian government regularly doles out severe punishments for "defiling religion," although the Queen Boat trial may be the first time sex was involved; last week a young man went on trial in central Cairo for, among other offenses, describing the house of the Prophet Muhammad as a "pile of stones." Other observers speculate that the government wanted to intimidate Cairo’s increasingly visible gay population. Western diplomats believe that Egyptian security forces learned through the Internet that several activists were contemplating launching a gay-rights movement in Egypt and applying for Western funding; a gay activist in Cairo confirms that he and several others have discussed such a project. "It’s possible that the security forces said, ‘Oh no—we won’t let that happen’," says the Western diplomat.

Whatever the cause of the crackdown, the consequences for Egypt’s gay community have been drastic. Gays are avoiding their old public gathering places, including the Queen Boat. Many members of the community stay away from private parties as well, fearing they’ll be turned in to the police by informers. "Everybody is terrified," says "Horus," a ponytailed 34-year-old who runs an Internet chat room and monitors government abuses of homosexuals for international human-rights groups. Gay Web-site users, fearful that their real identities will be ferreted out by eavesdropping security agents, are logging off in droves; the number of subscribers in Horus’s chat room has dropped from 400 to nine since the Queen Boat convictions. Horus, one of a tiny handful of gay Egyptians who have "come out" to their parents and friends, regards the anti-gay crusade with a grim sense of irony. "We’ve spent years just trying to prove that we exist," he says, smiling wearily. "Now everybody knows that we exist—but they all think we’re monsters."

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