It was the usual story: A group of men “discovered” by the police engaging in “acts of perversion,” rounded up and arrested.
On this occasion, the 10 defendants were alleged to have been taking part in a “gay party” celebrating Egyptian Valentine’s Day (November 4) in a villa on the Cairo-Alexandria Road.
The police caught some defendants red-handed dancing beside the villa’s swimming pool, privately owned daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported. Two minors were among those arrested, along with a dance teacher who, the paper alleged, has previous convictions for vice crimes. Women’s clothing, wigs and makeup were said to be found on the premises.
The men were remanded in custody for 15 days on charges of “practicing sexual deviancy” and “running an establishment for the practice of activities contrary to morality.”
The newspaper report contains the quietly sinister line, “the prosecutor’s office requested that the defendants be sent for a forensic examination” — code for a procedure carried out to determine whether or not their anuses have been penetrated.
This case came less than a month after a mass arrest of allegedly gay men on the other side of Cairo, in the working-class area of Marg. On October 12, an establishment described by the media as a medical center used by gay men was raided, and 14 men were caught committing “acts of immorality.”
The anonymous author of website gayegypt.com describes the establishment as a “hammam” in a narrow cul de sac, and in keeping with its location, the entry fee is “modest.”
The author says that on the occasions he visited, “there was never any sign of any sexual activity on site, although it was obviously ‘gay friendly’.”
“It was also regarded very much as a home for many regular gay customers who could find few places elsewhere in Cairo where they could be themselves and laugh and joke together,” he notes.
Why have police suddenly remembered the existence of an establishment tucked away in a small alley in an area that, like all poor districts, is largely ignored by authorities? Why has it remembered the existence of Egypt’s gay community?
When it is not being ignored, homosexuality in Egypt is treated as a disease, a threat to society’s moral fabric or a foreign import from the West.
A 2008 Al-Masry Al-Youm article provides tips for parents, warning them not to refer to their sons by effeminate nicknames “such as Soosoo, Tootoo or Mimi” because this can inculcate homosexual tendencies. It advises parents not to leave their children with babysitters for extended periods of time, as child abuse causes homosexuality. A quote from a psychiatrist says most homosexuals hail from the upper and lower classes, because these are the least religious.
There were dire warnings in 2009 from Mohamed Ashoub, head of the Makeup Department of Egypt’s Acting and Cinema Professions Syndicate, that “10 percent of those working in the makeup and hairdressing trades are deviants.” Quoted in Al-Masry Al-Youm, he called on the Interior Ministry to make security cards mandatory for the profession, whose gay members he said threaten national security and contribute to the spread of AIDS and hepatitis C.
Two months after the January 25 revolution, the Masrawy news portal promised its readers a “blacklist of the most famous deviant hangouts in Egypt.” The article is more a stream of consciousness about the habits of downtown Cairo’s homosexuals, interspersed with lamentations and imprecations from unnamed parents.
The last time homosexuality hit the headlines in Egypt was in 2001, when 52 men were charged with habitual debauchery and obscene behaviour. Most had been arrested on a floating disco known as the Queen Boat, but as gay rights activist Scott Long argues, the case had a political element.
Long, who wrote a report for Human Rights Watch on a police campaign targeting allegedly gay men between 2001 and 2004, explains that the lead defendant in the case was a highly connected figure related by blood to assassinated President Anwar Sadat, predecessor of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
“In late 2000, after Mubarak had promoted [son] Gamal Mubarak within the National Democratic Party, rumors about Gamal’s sexuality started circling and [widow of Sadat] Jehan Sadat made a veiled reference to Gamal’s sexuality during an interview with German television,” Long says, suggesting that this set in operation a plan for revenge.
Seventeen of the defendants had been rounded up in the two weeks leading up to the Queen Boat raid by police roaming the streets of Abdeen in central Cairo in a microbus with an informant who pointed out men he identified as gay. They were tried alongside the main defendant, Long says, to give credence to the prosecution’s case that he was a leader of a homosexual religious cult or sex-ring with Zionist tendencies (clearly photoshopped pictures of the defendant in front of the Israeli flag were entered into evidence).
In addition to this revenge element, Long notes that the Queen Boat case took place at a time of social and political flux, “when there was a lot of anxiety over the liberalization of the economy, increasing income inequality and the Internet.”
“The pattern of a moral panic is that you look for a scapegoat,” Long says, noting that prior to the case, “a bunch of middle-class kids were arrested and more or less charged with satanism for listening to heavy metal music.” Men using gay websites had also been entrapped by the police.
The switch to the targeting of Egypt’s gays, Long quips darkly, “was just an experimentation with different sort of demons.”
In the public (and police) imagination, these “demons” are often interlinked. As Ramy Youssef — who in 2012 became the first Egyptian to come out on Twitter — puts it, “if you’re gay then by default you must be an atheist. And if you’re atheist it means that you’re a pervert in sexual ways as well.”
Writing about the Queen Boat case in a 2007 edition of the Review of International Studies, Nicola Pratt notes that the “construction of national security threats such as homosexuality are inextricably linked to the ways in which gender and sexuality are inscribed within power relations at the interpersonal, national and international levels.”
Pratt, a reader in International Politics of the Middle East at Warwick University, argues that norms around sexuality and sexual behaviour become markers of national identity. “Through the Queen Boat case, strictly enforced heterosexuality is characterized as inherent to an ‘authentic’ national culture,” she writes.
Egyptian society, sent spinning overnight in January 2011 and then caught up in three years of political flux, responded to uncertainty by clinging to the familiar, reasserting an exaggerated version of this “authentic” national culture. While those who were different from the collective had always been regarded with suspicion, in this new iteration they came to be seen as an active threat.
This manifested itself most clearly during the final chaotic days of the tenure of deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the weeks leading up to the forcible dispersal on August 14 of two sit-ins set up by Morsi supporters, a day on which hundreds were killed.
While the sit-ins were ongoing, the media led a campaign in which it alleged that Syrians and Palestinians formed a significant contingent of protesters. This directly contributed to an increase in xenophobia directed at Syrian refugees, accused of meddling in domestic affairs. After the Rabea and Nahda Square clearings, the margin for dissent further narrowed and those who publicly questioned the state narrative were dismissed as either Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers or traitors, to a soundtrack of jingoistic pop songs and a media largely silent about the crackdown on the Brotherhood and its supporters.
A central component of this nationalist fervor is chauvinistic rhetoric centered around a hyper-masculinity: Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi is frequently referred to as a “lion” and video tributes to the military feature images of musclebound young soldiers engaging in challenging physical feats.
Little wonder then, that notions about what precisely constitutes a “man” persist despite the advent of the Internet and the existence of a generation of young straight men who challenge these notions, albeit only sartorially, with markedly feminine outfits and hairstyles.
Youssef followed the case of seven men arrested in Heliopolis, Cairo last year following a police raid on a gathering in a private home.
Two were very obviously gay, Youssef says. As usually happens in such cases, the police divided them into “tops” and “bottoms” on the basis of physical build and general demeanor: the more effeminate-looking men receive worse treatment than those declared tops.
The Heliopolis seven were held for 47 days, during which time Youssef says they were sexually abused and physically assaulted by both police and fellow cellmates, the more hardened of whom are often in the employ of jailers who do not want to incriminate themselves by directly abusing prisoners.
Charges were dropped and the group released, Youssef thinks because the media wasn’t interested in the case and there was no public reaction: it therefore offered little political capital to the authorities.
The fortunes of Egypt’s gay community vary little with the country’s changing political landscape, rarely veering from a pattern of quiet, ignored oppression. Some Brotherhood opponents had been concerned that a Brotherhood presidency would mean the propagation of their version of conservative Islam. This, they feared, would have consequences for the right to privacy, and might chip away at what sexual freedoms existed before Morsi’s election.
This was never a concern for Youssef, who says that when he is verbally or physically attacked in the streets for being gay it is never by obviously religious individuals.
The Brotherhood largely ignored Egypt’s gay community, Youssef says, because the pious have no need to prove their moral credentials through guarding public virtues, unlike the military.
In fact, the Brotherhood’s only public statement about homosexuality was in March 2013, when it objected to a declaration by the UN Committee on the Status of Women that it said would give equal rights to homosexuals and, as a whole, “lead to the complete disintegration of society and would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries.”
Members of Cairo’s gay community, strongly divided along class lines, never visible, never able to publicly protest the latest police violation of its own, seek each other out in the few public venues that allow them to gather. Youssef says there is an unspoken agreement that cafe owners allow them to frequent their establishments in return for their not “acting out,” not being too obviously gay.
Like other minorities and those Egyptians who do not conform to popular views of what is “normal,” the gay community lingers in the margins, avoiding the state spotlight that periodically seeks them out.
“[Popular] attitudes are like bits of a kaleidoscope that keep shifting into new configurations,” Long says. “One of them is anti-feminism, one of them is protecting the morals of the youth, one of them is policing sexuality. I’m afraid that all of these configurations will be turned into police action.”