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    First Published: Before August 2002
       This is an OutUK Archive Item and so some of the links and information may be out of date.
I took a journey back to Egypt, writes an OutUK Correspondent whose name has been withheld to protect his identity. I had been there some fourteen years ago, prior to this brief visit. My memories were heavy with the images of the ancient world, the dust, the constant battle to avoid beggars and pestering hawkers and the elusive beauty of a seemingly, exclusively bisexual (and very handsome) male population. But this visit was not inspired by any reconnection to the Pharaonic past or to indulge in pseudo-colonial, romantic images of 'third world' charm, nor was it to be an erotic adventure. Stories of homophobia, a clampdown by the modern government, the systematic persecution of the gay male population, these things had drawn me back to Cairo. I wanted to taste for myself a little of what life was really like, and I wanted to find out what the feeling was, among gay men in Cairo in these fear filled days and nights.


With all my meetings and Internet correspondence, as well as the news stories I had read in preparation several things became clear. The police are using the Internet as their tool to entrap gay citizens. They enter chat rooms, chat to find out what a person's preferences are and then send in an irresistible match. Numbers are exchanged, email addresses… Then phone calls are made, dates for a rendezvous set. This process can happen over several days so as to imbue the scenario with trust. The gay man arrives at the date to find… not the one perfect match he had hoped for, but four or five policemen ready to abuse and arrest him. This scenario raises two questions, though. What crime have they committed? And why do the police go to so much trouble and expense to arrest single 'offenders'?

To answer the first one we must look more closely at the convictions of the Queen Boat and others. Prior to the Queen Boat, obscenity in Egyptian law was defined as sodomy with more than one person. This would indicate that sodomy with just one person was not criminalized and may, in fact, be the evidence to support the widely held but taboo view that many Egyptian 'straight' men do act as the active partner with other men, when women are not available. The fact that men have been arrested and convicted without proof of their having committed obscenity under Egyptian law means that a precedent has been set for criminalizing homosexuality per se. Frightened Egyptian gays tell of how the police had the men raped by soldiers so as to literally plant evidence in them, humiliating medical examinations then took place to ensure a conviction. The crime, it seems, is defined as prostitution, pornography or obscenity - but is making a meeting with a fellow chat roomer enough of a solicitation to warrant a charge of prostitution? The police evidently think so.


So why are individuals being targeted in this way? Again, there are two possibilities. Looking at the bigger picture, it is all too easy to blame the rise of the Islamist movement in Egypt - and there is no doubt that it has played a part in the crack down on issues of morality. What has also happened in Egypt is perhaps the diversion of attention from the unpopular leadership, as well as a degree of appeasement towards the Islamists. On top of that, one only has to look at how any mass demonstration or movements are being crushed in Egypt. Even pro-Palestinian demonstrations are forbidden; recently in Alexandria, a student was shot by police while demonstrating in support of Palestine. As an Islamic Republic there can be no doubt that Egypt has sympathy for Palestine and yet has to balance that with their "good relations" with the US in the fight against terror. But the crushing of demonstrations may not be because of an allegiance to either side but just a way of making sure that no mass (and potentially threatening) movements occur. So, is the idea of a 'gay' movement also a threat? Perhaps. The Queen Boat allegations certainly included the threat to order and religion that the men posed. They were accused of trying to start a new religion that allowed homosexuality and questioned the existence of one God. Liberal thinkers with alternative lifestyles were made to look like counter-revolutionaries.

On the other hand, individual gay men are a soft target for the 'sex' police squad, who also handle cases of prostitution. One hypothesis, which I heard from more than one source, is that pimps running prostitution rackets are paying off the police to leave them alone in return for also handing over new prostitution rings (the competition). But to keep case-loads up, the 'sex' police have to make arrests of individual gay men to meet their quota. Certainly some degree of racketeering and corruption must be taking place or none of this information would be getting out.


Speaking to human rights activists in Egypt, an equally precarious picture becomes evident. Only one of the seventeen NGO's that offer legal aid were willing to take on the issue of gay men who are being arrested. There is an uneasy compromise with government. Strictly speaking, many human rights organisations are operating illegally, without the permission of the government. But the government are not cracking down on them, so as to seem (to other countries and international organisations) to be allowing human rights activism. In return, organisations are very cautious about which issues they tackle so as not to incur a possible government crackdown. Getting gay issues onto the agenda when the rights of women and religious minorities are flagrantly ignored or denied, seems almost impossible.

As with any crack down that occurs in Africa, it often stimulates a movement rather than crushing it. There is talk of new groups, new organisations starting up to deal with individual's rights - and that can include the rights of sexual minorities. Where, as in many developing nation's gay communities, there was division between the lower classes and the moneyed middle classes, this particular campaign against the gay community knows no class and is therefore creating solidarity where it may not have flourished before. The authorities may well have spread fear for the time being, and made it difficult for people seeking sex to meet, but they have not yet succeeded in breaking down the community - any meeting, any contact, is at once subversive and victorious. The resistance is already beginning - how long before the weapon of the Internet can be turned on the authorities? How many times will police be sent to 'no show' rendezvous before they give up this tactic? What can they do about Egyptians cruising in virtual space, which is not labelled, 'Egyptian'? They cannot have the resources to cover every Internet chat room in the world. What can they do about foreigners cruising in Egyptian rooms, exposing their tactics and flooding the rooms until there is an uncontrollable critical mass? Anyone, anywhere in the world, with Internet access can join this kind of passive resistance if it were to occur. Inconveniencing the Egyptian authorities to a point where they would rather arrest someone else may be the short-term solution - at least until the light of human rights (rights enshrined in Islam's doctrine) once again rests on Egypt.



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