Note: Hossam Bahgat, author of this article, was dismissed from his position at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights two days after it was published. EOHR’s secretary-general has commented in the Egyptian press that he won’t defend the 52 men arrested on the Queen Boat because he doesn’t “like the subject of homosexuality.” MERIP urges EOHR to respect and defend the rights of all people, in accordance with international standards and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The trial of 52 suspected gay men on charges of immorality, which opened in Cairo on July 18, signaled an end to long years of discreet and quietly tolerated public activity by the Egyptian gay community. Standing in a cage in a small, crowded courtroom, the defendants were testament to a deep political crisis faced by an insecure regime, a threatened gay community, a mediocre press and a shattered rights movement.
The 52 men, along with three others who were released without being officially charged, were arrested May 11 on the Queen Boat, a tourist boat moored on the Nile in Cairo. The boat has long been a known gathering place for the Egyptian gay community. What motivated the sudden crackdown? Although the Egyptian regime has been utterly unpredictable lately—most notably with the strangely harsh sentence for human rights advocate and dual Egyptian-US citizen Saad Eddin Ibrahim—observers agree that something must have impelled state security forces to raid a tourist discotheque at a time when Egypt’s economy, which depends heavily on tourism revenue, is still struggling to overcome the fallout from the 1997 Luxor massacre.
Distracting the Public
One motive is certainly to divert public attention from economic recession and the government’s liquidity crisis. According to official statistics, at least 23 million of Egypt’s 65 million people live under the poverty line. Last year, poor Egyptians watched their purchasing power sink due to devaluation of the Egyptian pound. The huge media frenzy over the Queen Boat case has distracted people while the government introduces additional sales taxes, despite private sector complaints about a severe drop in sales. Two other sensational cases have also crowded out economic issues. Days after the Queen Boat raid, a businessman was referred to the criminal court for having been married to 17 women. Shortly afterwards, a banned videotape that shows a former Coptic priest having sex with women who came to his monastery to seek healing was leaked, many think by state security, to the press, leading to Coptic demonstrations, clashes with security forces and a series of newspaper articles and state security trials.
According to lawyers for the 52 detainees, state security arbitrarily arrested many men who were not on the Queen Boat on May 11, to inflate the numbers arrested for the press. After the July 18 court session, a beleaguered mother screamed: “He went out to buy me medicine when [the police] arrested him.” This would explain the almost identical news reports published in the two weeks that followed the raid. The reports, probably issued by state security sources, described rituals of a Satan-worshipping cult and public orgies allegedly taking place on the Queen Boat every Thursday night. By the time the public prosecutor issued a statement denying these reports, the goal had been achieved: the public was attentive. “The case involves religious beliefs and morality, two elements that have always succeeded in keeping people engaged for a long time,” says Taher Abul Nasr, a lawyer from the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which represents four of the defendants.
The semi-official Egyptian media has always shown willingness to be used by the security services in their fight for publicity. The heavy coverage of the Queen Boat case brings to mind a similar case in 1997, when 78 teenage men were arrested on charges of establishing a Satanic cult. They were released after two months of detention, and the case was never brought to the courts. Newspapers came under harsh criticism for printing the names and pictures of the suspected devil-worshippers, tarnishing their images despite their release. But in May, official, opposition and independent newspapers published the names and professions of the 55 Queen Boat defendants; some front pages carried their pictures with the eyes crossed over in black.
On July 18, families of the defendants punched and kicked photographers who tried desperately to take pictures of the men before, during and after the court session. “Filthy press. You fabricated the whole story,” relatives shouted at journalists. Fathers and mothers who came to see their sons could not, since the handcuffed defendants were covering their heads with scraps of newspaper, plastic bags and towels to avoid the flashing cameras. Publishing details concerning an ongoing investigation or trial that might influence the course of the proceedings is prohibited by both the Press Law 96/1996 and the Code of Ethics issued by the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate.
But the state’s motivations to raid the Queen Boat may run deeper than the pursuit of photo opportunities for the police. The May 11 assault on gay men fits into the regime’s efforts to present an image as the guardian of public virtue, to deflate an Islamist opposition movement that appears to be gaining support every day. Last November, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood sent 17 new members to parliament, outnumbering the representatives of all the official opposition parties put together. Earlier this year, the Brotherhood’s list of candidates swept the elections for the Bar Association’s board. To counter this ascending power, the state resorts to sensational prosecutions, in which the regime steps in to protect Islam from evil apostates. Article 98 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes “contempt of heavenly religions,” was used by the state prosecutor twice last year, against writer Salaheddin Mohsen and female preacher Manal Manea. This June, prominent feminist writer Nawal Al Saadawi was interrogated by the public prosecutor under the same law, regarding views she expressed in a press interview. The charge was dropped, though a maverick Islamist lawyer is still trying to divorce Al Saadawi from her husband.
Last month, the front pages of official local newspapers carried headlines hailing Egypt’s position “in defense of Islamic values” at the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS. At the session, Egypt led several other Islamic countries in a failed attempt to ban the only representative from a gay and lesbian organization, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, from taking part in the official roundtable on HIV/AIDS and human rights. Later, the Egyptian delegation to the UN succeeded in deleting a sentence from the final declaration of the session, which mentioned gay men and lesbians as a vulnerable population at high risk for HIV infection. These “Islamic” positions raised the eyebrows of Egyptians accustomed to a foreign policy which had only stressed “Islamic values” at the low-profile, and mostly meaningless, meetings of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The regime seems to have realized that suppression and persecution of Islamists will not uproot the Islamist threat unless it is combined with actions that bolster the state’s religious legitimacy.
Going With the Flow
Egyptian human rights organizations have found themselves in an awkward position during the Queen Boat case. Activists felt bound to take a stand, especially after international groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued statements condemning the Queen Boat arrests. But instead of playing the vanguard role in explaining the rights dimension of the case, most of them chose to go with the flow to avoid being attacked in the local press. Moreover, many human rights activists volunteered to express homophobic views to the press, and attacked the international organizations who took more positive positions (one has even decided to write a book about how gay rights are not really human rights). They deliberately chose to ignore reports that the suspects were tortured and ill-treated to extract confessions that they were homosexuals and were on the Queen Boat at the time of the raid. Even the fact that police officers broke into a public place and arrested all the Egyptian men inside, while pointedly leaving foreigners and women alone, did not bring any response from local rights groups.
Most human rights activists in Egypt are former political activists, who took up human rights work when it became clear that legal and illegal opposition groups would not shake the powerful state. Since human rights groups are accused by the state of following a Western agenda, they are often more anxious to gain popular support than to take up controversial rights cases. Asked about his position on the Queen Boat case, a leader of one legal aid association spoke of “red lines” that human rights groups should not cross in their defense of civil liberties. By toeing these self-imposed “red lines,” some human rights groups try to send a message to the regime that the rights movement will stand by the state against foreign pressures.
More Monitoring Ahead
When asked for an explanation of the May 11 assault, members of the local gay community refer to the recent establishment of the Internet Crimes Unit at the Interior Ministry. Gay men recount several incidents that took place in the two months preceding the Queen Boat event, in which gay men were set up for arrest through fake dates from the Internet. Several gay websites were closed down, and most Egyptian gays now avoid gay chat rooms and matchmaking websites. Gay men believe that the government has decided to step in after months of monitoring their sites and clubs. The cyber-interaction of Egyptian gay men with their Western peers seems to have led the former to become more vocal about their rights. Given that any potential for citizen organization is considered a threat to national security by the government, the Queen Boat case could presage greater surveillance of the mounting number of young Egyptians who use the Internet—now more than 1.5 million.
Lawyers for the defense sound optimistic as they wait for the next session to begin on August 15. But the local gay community has chosen to keep an even lower profile until the storm passes overhead. Initial speculations that the Queen Boat incident would turn into the Egyptian Stonewall have proven unwarranted. Egyptian gay men lack the motivation to challenge a societal and religious taboo, at the risk of losing their jobs, families, friends and social status, as well as spending up to five years in prison, knowing that nobody will support their struggle.