"To be a gay man in Egypt is quite perplexing, tough, stressing, dangerous and thrilling at the same time," Mo (not his real name), a 27-year-old gay man who works in media and communications in Cairo, told The Advocate in an interview conducted just before a recent late-night raid on a bathhouse in the capital city.
That raid has changed everything, Mo said in a follow-up interview. Though he did not frequent the bathhouse, an LGBT advocate whom we will call "Ahmed" did.
"I am terrified," says Ahmed. "I could easily have been there."
The besieged bathhouse was by no means a new development in Cairo's community, all three sources interviewed for this piece tell The Advocate.
"The security forces have always known about the bathhouse," Ahmed says. But, he adds, the police weren't interested in raiding it until a reporter from a pro-government news channel "told them she would put [the raid] on TV."
That reporter, Mona Iraqi, hosts El Mostakbai (The Hidden), which airs on the pro-government network Al-Qahira wal Nas (Cairo and the People). She has since faced growing international criticism for her alleged role in orchestrating the raid and recently saw her contract with a Swiss film festival canceled after organizers condemned her professional and ethical practices surrounding the December 7 raid.
But Iraqi's report, which she has defended as an attempt to expose sex trafficking and the spread of HIV in Cairo, is just the latest twist in the ever-tightening vise-grip of LGBT oppression being helmed by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's regime.
The current government crackdown on LGBT Egyptians has been amplified by hyperbolic media coverage, helping to foster an increase in antigay sentiments within society — which arguably serves el-Sisi's need for a scapegoat community upon which to blame Egypt's woes under his rule.
Victims of el-Sisi's 'More Muslim Than the Islamists' PR Campaign
To be sure, there was never equality or real acceptance of LGBT people in Egypt, or any other staunchly Muslim country in the region, for that matter. But according to sources inside the country and expatriates interviewed for this article, there was a time not so long ago when to be gay or trans wasn't as terrifying as it is today. That was before el-Sisi's quest to appear "more Muslim than the Islamists."
The first media report of a concerted public relations policy on the part of the el-Sisi government aimed at making it appear more Islamic than the the regime it overthrew may have been by The Daily Beast, quoting Dalia Abdel-Hamid of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Activists like Abdel-Hamid believe el-Sisi is trying to create a sheen of legitimacy following his brutal coup against the equally (but less proactively) homophobic and transphobic Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi was democratically elected to Egypt's presidency. It was a historic election because never before in this long-established nation had a leader been elected by a majority of the populace.
Led by General el-Sisi, the military watched for a year as Morsi consolidated power. As the new president overreached and began making decrees that negated the very democratic ideals laid out in the country's new constitution — the ideals the got him elected in the first place — the Egyptian military began warning the president to stay true to the revolution by acting democratically.
But even under the rule of Morsi and his fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood party, LGBT people could rely upon a modicum of predictability about how to get by being lesbian, gay, bi, or trans, according to numerous sources.
"I can say it depends on where you live if you live in a big city such as the capital, or in a small town, village or the countryside which is definitely more conservative," Mo says. "It also depends on the place you hangout in the capital itself, your neighborhood, etc."
Abandonment of Democratic Ideals in Favor of Economic Stability
Many hoped there would be a reset back to the democratic ideals of the revolution of 2011 in Tahrir Square when the military and el-Sisi finally ran out of patience with Morsi and overthrew his government in July of 2013.
Perhaps even more so, they hoped there would be a return to the economic stability that had vanished since former president and longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was deposed. Hope that two years of protests might create enduring democracy and tolerance for dissent has been all but abandoned in Egypt. However, hopes for stability and even economic growth in el-Sisi's Egypt are slowly being realized. According to the World Bank, Egypt's economy grew at a rate of 2.5 percent (similar to the U.S.) in 2014. It predicts an economic growth rate of more than 3 percent this year in Egypt.
Still, unemployment in Egypt is at more than 13 percent, with more than 3.6 million people looking for work. Meanwhile, inflation in 2014 hovered between 8 percent and 12 percent, according to the Central Bank of Egypt.
The modest economic rebound Egypt is currently enjoying would not be happening without massive support in the form of loan guarantees, investments and infusions of cash from wealthy gulf states. According to news outlet al-Aribya, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have buttressed the al-Sisi regime and the Egyptian economy to the tune of $10.6 billion during the country's past fiscal year. All three monarchies have interests in both the stability of Egypt's military regime and the suppression of democratic uprisings, such as the one that appears to have been crushed or abandoned, depending on how you look at it.
Yet the persistent stain of having overthrown a democratically elected government, albeit an Islamic-fundamentalist regime, by way of a military coup that came with a death toll in the thousands, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, means that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has designated Egypt's LGBT population as an easy, yet high-value scapegoat community.
LGBT Egyptians: 'Perfect Scapegoats'
"We are a scapegoat that both distracts Egyptians from the president's failings and embellishes his rule with the trappings of being more Islamic than the Islamists, [i.e., more Muslim than Mohammed Morsi]," says a source who is a gay man working at a prominent nongovernmental organization in Cairo, who asked to be attributed by the initials "R.K.," which do not abbreviate his real name.
Meanwhile, "Mo" says the situation on the ground for gay and transgender Egyptians has always varied from person to person, situation to situation, and locale to locale.
"Gays and especially the obvious-looking ones, [you] name it feminine, 'lady boys,' transgender guys, could alway be subjected to a wide range of discrimination in terms of their place in society and their personal security," he tells The Advocate. "There has always been harassment in the streets; catcalls or verbal and physical assault. Beatings are always possible, but they have been mostly rare."
He recalls a particular incident that disturbed him from a few years back.
"I once saw a group of macho guys stalking an effeminate boy in the street, cursing him and when he ignored and kept walking," Mo says, "he was grabbed, bullied, and slapped on the face, and no one gave a damn until two police informants intervened."
Mo says his position of privilege has insulated him from a lot of the travails other men experience growing up gay in Egypt.
"I think I am more privileged due to my education, my opportunities, chances, social lifestyle, and my environment and where I hang out," he says. "But I am still not excluded from the category of minorities under risk of discrimination and violence. I have been verbally harassed for being gay a couple of times, but I just ignored it."
Mo has experienced what he calls "sexual harassment" twice, though he stops short of calling those experiences rape. He believes those incidents were perpetrated by a closeted, severely repressed gay man rather than a straight homophobe.
But there has been a fundamental change in the order of things for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people in Egypt since el-Sisi took the reins of power by force, according to LGBT people inside the country. More than ever, semi-out LGBT people in Egypt stay close to one another. For many, that means their worlds are growing smaller as they seek to evade informants, members of the media, and police officials who are encouraged by the government to expose LGBT people as "deviants."
"I have my own group of gay, queer, liberal friends, and it is OK so far in terms of the places I go to with my friends," says Mo. "But if the police decide to arrest a guy or entrap him one day, or raid a gay party, then you are unlucky and your life would be ruined. Even if you get away with it or get acquitted, the media will speak about it and you will be ashamed forever."
But, he says, things could be much worse.
"So it is tough, but not that bad compared to other Arab and Muslim countries," Mo tells The Advocate. "Downtown Cairo is filled with gay [cruising areas], cafés, and bars where gay guys usually gather and chill."
Although homosexuality is technically not illegal in Egypt, LGBT people are regularly prosecuted for crimes such as "debauchery," "perversion," or "sexual practices against Islam." That was the case after the December 7 bathhouse raid in the Ramses neighborhood of Cario's Azbakeya District. Dozens of allegedly gay men were arrested on camera as security forces were led to the "hammam" by television journalist Mona Iraqi.
When the 26 men who had been arrested along with the bathhouse owner appeared in court two weeks later, many hid their faces, wept, and implored the court to believe in their innocence lest they and their families be destroyed. "I am innocent," Agence France-Presse quoted one man as saying. "I was in the hammam for therapy, I swear in the name of Allah."
The men's attorney noted that the bathhouse has been open for 100 years in Cairo, according to AFP. He also reminded the court that it is natural for people inside of a bathhouse to be dressed only in towels, as reporter Mona Iraqi told viewers in her "exposé" of the bathhouse — as if the arrested men wearing only towels indicated they were engaged in debauchery.
The men were acquitted this month — such an acquittal is rare, and the government has appealed — but LGBT Egyptians remain in danger.
Grindr, the ubiquitous gay hookup app, had to disable its GPS function in Egypt in September because authorities were using it to entrap gay men.
That same month, Egyptian police hunted down as many as 16 men who allegedly appeared in a viral video that purported to show a same-sex wedding that took place on a riverboat on the Nile. Despite "testing negative" for homosexuality and claiming the whole thing was a joke, eight of the accused were sentenced to three years in jail, found guilty of "spreading indecent images and inciting debauchery."
"The reaction to their sentencing by quite a few human rights organizations was condemnation of the regime for the recent crackdown," Mo says. "Of course it was met with shock, fear and concerns by the [LGBT] community in Cairo. However, the guys appearing in the video didn't get the solidarity and support needed from nonhomosexual communities or ordinary citizens. If you read the comments on the video that was leaked, they were full of homophobia and incitement against them. Some people called for their killings; the media was tarnishing them. Very few [regional] outlets were objective and didn't incite [harm] against them."
Mo is quick to point out that the deposed Muslim Brotherhood is no more innocent regarding the oppression and arrests of the men in the "gay wedding" video than the military government that toppled them from power.
"Some members of the Muslim Brotherhood politicized the issue and blamed the so-called military coup for the 'gay-wedding' video," he says. "They say it wouldn't have ever happened during Morsi`s presidential term."
Defiant LGBT Activism Growing Online, Underground
Yet despite the crackdown and the dangers for LGBT people that have existed for generations in Egypt and the Mideast moreover, some LGBT Egyptians are organizing. Ahmed is one of them.
"Naturally, I'm sure how aware you are of the situation in the Arab world in general and Egypt concerning the homophobic society we are living in," he tells The Advocate. "Scattered and working individually, I realized that in order to have a powerful LGBT lobby in the Arab world, we will need to first unify ourselves, and create a solid front of LGBT Advocates. I started with Twitter and managed to get in touch with tens of Arab LGBT activists, some of [whom] I had the opportunity to meet in person."
The key to change, says Ahmed, is opening a conversation about an off-limits topic.
"We are finally starting to align ourselves to be able to work as a network in the region, with an objective of encouraging and supporting those who support LGBT, which is the first step that needs to be remove the topic from being a taboo in the culture or media," he says.
Find out how the LGBT community in Cairo is trying to mobilize against all odds in the second part of The Advocate's inside look at life for gay men in Egypt under the repressive el-Sisi regime. Future reports will explore what life is like for lesbian, bi, and transgender Egyptians.