• 20:04
  • Thursday ,09 October 2014

The Crackdown on Gay Men in Egypt

By Ernesto Londoño; The New York Times



Thursday ,09 October 2014

The Crackdown on Gay Men in Egypt

In some ways, Egypt’s new government has become even more repressive and intolerant than the regime that was overthrown in early 2011. One disturbing example is the incarceration of dozens of gay men, a crackdown that has vilified a community that had hoped the popular uprising in 2011 would bring minorities greater freedom.

After the widely condemned 2001 raid of a party at a popular venue in Cairo called the Queen boat, and a flurry of sting operations that followed, there was a relatively quiet period. Since 2004, there have been a smattering of arrests, but no concerted effort to go after gay men.

Scott Long, a gay rights activist who is in Cairo researching a book about sexual politics in the region, said that the new wave of arrests began a year ago.

Since then, said Mr. Long, more than 85 men have been detained. At least 70 of them remain locked up. Because homosexuality is not explicitly outlawed under Egyptian law, prosecutors have typically charged gay men with “debauchery” under prostitution statutes. As they build cases, investigators subject defendants to “forensic anal exams,” a reprehensible and unscientific means that ostensibly determines whether they have had receptive anal sex.

What’s particularly disturbing about the new crusade is the galling invasion of privacy for those who get ensnared. In many cases, after the arrests are carried out, officials have leaked photos and lurid allegations to government-friendly media outlets, ruining reputations and career prospects in a country where homosexuality remains taboo.

The first big roundup happened on Oct. 11, 2013, when police officers took 14 men into custody at a gym in El-Marg, a Cairo suburb. The following month, authorities raided a party at a villa in another suburb of the capital and locked up 10 people.

Sensational cases featuring allegations of prostitution and cross-dressing made headlines over the next few months. Then, in April, a YouTube video depicting a gay wedding on a boat floating down the Nile, sparked a national outrage. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political movement that was ousted from power by a military coup last year, blamed the generals for condoning immorality.
One of the men featured in the video said that the whole thing had been a joke, but the authorities went ahead and charged several people who were visible in the footage.

Mr. Long said that the YouTube case defendants were subjected to the anal probes by medical examiners who found no evidence the men had had sex. That didn’t stop them from filing charges of “incitement to debauchery” and pornography, even though there was nothing sexually explicit in the video.

Compared to the international outcry that followed the Queen boat trials, there has been relatively little global condemnation about the latest wave of arrests. That silence, combined with widespread repudiation of homosexuality in Egyptian society, has given the government free rein to go after gay men, driving a discreet community further underground.

There have even been unsubstantiated reports that the authorities could start entrapping gay men online, as they did years ago. Grindr, the popular smart phone app that allows gay men to connect with other men whose profiles appear listed in order of proximity, recently disabled the feature that discloses how far other users in Egypt are. The app also sent all users there a message urging them to careful about setting up meetings.

“My message to users in Egypt has been to be as discreet as you can, as savvy as you can and to be very careful,” Grindr founder Joel Simkhai said in an interview. “As I say the word discreet, it hurts me. I am a proud gay man. But we’re at a point in some countries where this is a life-and-death issue, it can mean imprisonment.”