Egypt’s Free Pass
Bush officials stand up for Afghan women. So why do they say nothing as
Egypt jails and tortures gay men?
March 23, 2002
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By Cliff Rothman
What is the difference between a persecuted Afghan woman and a persecuted
Egyptian gay man?
The first rightfully elicited an urgent denunciation via first lady Laura
Bush in a special radio address Nov. 17. The second has elicited ongoing
silence by the administration since the campaign of arrests and prosecution of
gay men solely on the basis of sexual orientation was launched in Egypt last
And while the quick trials, hard-labor prison sentences and reported
torture of gay Egyptian men have elicited an international outcry, the White
House has been jarringly silent. But George Bush’s indifference to the civil
rights and human rights of gay men has a long, unblemished history going back
through his governorship of Texas, where his record on AIDS and civil
liberties was a source of rancor to gay activists and the state health-care
infrastructure. That apathy has continued up to and including the
administration’s recent denial of compensation to same-sex partners of
victims of Sept. 11.
It has been left to an ad hoc group of Congress members to take the lead as
American human rights watchdog—in its most enlightened, as opposed to
grandiose, posture. Last August, 35 members of Congress issued an urgent
appeal to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to stop the crusade in his country
against homosexuals. "People are being arrested because they’re gay,
they’re being charged because they’re gay and they’re being sent to
prison because they’re gay," says Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, one of the
letter’s co-signers, and head of the Progressive Democratic Caucus.
"This is something that Congress ought to be speaking out on."
There was no response until January, when openly gay Rep. Barney Frank,
D-Mass., who had spearheaded the letter, was invited to an Egyptian state
dinner—and refused to attend. In a letter to the Embassy Ambassador Nabil
Fahmy, Frank noted that his presence would be "a betrayal of men very
much like me who have recently been brutally arrested and imprisoned by your
government for no other reason than the way in which they choose to express
affection to other human beings in a mutually consenting relationship."
The Egyptian Embassy responded immediately, denying that the actions were
on the basis of sexual orientation, and insisting that it had responded to the
earlier letter, but the response must have gotten lost amid anthrax-heightened
security precautions. "All 52 of the accused are charged under article 9
(c) of law number 10/1961 which prohibits public lewdness irrespective of
sexual preference," wrote Fahmy in the reissued letter, dated Nov. 6,
Finally, two weeks ago, on March 5, the State Department acknowledged the
persecution of Egyptian gay men. The 2001 Human Rights Report issued by the
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor catalogs arrests on the basis of
"debauchery," the refusal of the government to try the men in
criminal court, confessions reportedly elicited under torture and a prison
sentence meted out to a juvenile. The next day, when Mubarak and Bush met at
the White House in a highly visible state visit, there was no public
discussion of the Egyptian campaign still under way. A week later, five gay
Egyptian men received hard-labor sentences in a hearing that lasted 15
minutes, according to witnesses. The men were charged with "habitual
practice of debauchery," a provision commonly used in Egypt to penalize
consensual homosexual behavior. The same law was used to sentence 23 men to
one to five years of hard labor on Nov. 14 of last year, in the notorious
Queen Boat case.
But spurred by the new State Department report, and the Egyptian
ambassador’s belated response, a consortium of 37 Congress members delivered
another letter this week to Mubarak, rejecting their explanation and
continuing to put pressure on Egypt. "We are encouraged that Ambassador
Fahmy in his letter officially denies that the 52 men in Cairo were prosecuted
because of their perceived sexual orientation. We say we are encouraged
because this denial recognizes that such actions are essentially
indefensible," notes the letter.
The embassy has privately shared that international attention is causing it
grief, however much a domestic hard-line against homosexuals benefits
Mubarak’s standing with the conservative constituency. Bush walks a similar
But on the larger world stage, it is in the best interests of the White
House, which has regularly been a target of criticism for ignoring the human
rights violations of strategic allies, to publicly encourage the equality of
all Egyptian citizens, regardless of sexual persuasion. That Egypt is the
second largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance gives the White House
additional leverage to request compliance with its human rights standards.
"Egypt is an important ally of the United States, and yet the United
States remains silent on this issue," says Sydney Levy, spokesman for the
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Campaign, based in San Francisco.
"President Bush must remember that against torture there should be no
immunity, and there can be no neutrality." When Laura Bush spoke out
against the persecution of Afghan women last November, she noted that
"all of us have an obligation to speak out." The president also
positioned himself squarely as the guardian of international human rights last
December when he proclaimed both a Human Rights Day and Week, analogizing
"human rights around the world" as an extension of the American Bill
of Rights, and enlisting "all Americans to celebrate the universal
principles of liberty and justice."
This applies to gay men everywhere, including Egypt, as much as women in
Afghanistan, or anywhere.
- About the writer: Cliff Rothman reports on politics and culture for the
New York Times and several national magazines, including Vanity Fair, GQ
and Harper’s Bazaar.
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