A Cairo misdemeanour court on Monday sentenced three men to eight years in prison “for committing homosexual acts”. A fourth defendant in the case was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour.
The men were allegedly found dressed in women’s clothes and wearing make-up when they were arrested last month, following a police raid on a private apartment in Cairo’s northern residential suburb of Nasr city. The apartment had been a meeting place for some members of Egypt’s gay community, who had been attending a party there when the raid occurred.
During Monday’s court session, prosecutors said one of the defendants had rented the apartment to receive “sexual deviants” in his home and host parties for them. While there are no laws banning homosexuality in Egypt, “debauchery” or breaking the country’s law of public morals is outlawed. Egyptian courts use legislation on debauchery to prosecute gay people on charges of “contempt of religion” and “sexual immorality”.
The severe sentences the four men received on Monday have raised concerns among rights campaigners of a widening crackdown on Egypt’s long-oppressed and marginalised gay community. Youth-activists expressed their dismay and disappointment at the verdicts on social media networks. In a message posted on her Twitter account on Tuesday, Shadi Rahimi, a journalist and photographer working for Al Monitor described the verdicts as “outrageous”. Blogger Nervana Mahmoud meanwhile said: “The verdicts demonstrate that the current regime is as conservative as their Islamist predecessors.”
In Egypt’s conservative, predominantly Muslim society, homophobia is deeply embedded, with 95% of Egyptians sharing the conviction that “homosexuality should not be accepted”, according to a 2013 poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre.
The recent crackdown on Egypt’s gay community is highly reminiscent of the security clampdown in the spring/summer of 2001 when authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak was still in power. In May 2001, 52 people suspected of being gay were arrested on charges of immorality during a raid on a tourist boat moored on the Nile in Cairo. Twenty three of the men were sentenced to up to five years in prison with hard labour. The highly-publicised “Queen Boat case”, named after the discotheque-boat that for long had been a known meeting place for Egypt’s gay community, signalled what rights campaigners feared might be an end to long years of discreet and quietly tolerated public activity by the country’s threatened LGBT population. Some analysts said at the time that the sudden crackdown was a means of diverting attention away from the regime’s failures, including a political crisis and a looming economic recession. Critics of the 2001 crackdown also believed it was an attempt by the then-autocratic regime to present an image as “the guardian of public virtue so as to deflate an Islamist opposition movement that appeared to be gaining support every day”.
Not surprisingly, many of Egypt’s gay men and women were at the heart of the January 2011 protests demanding democracy, freedom and social justice. They had hoped that the revolution would usher in a new era of change including greater freedoms and tolerance, allowing them to better integrate into mainstream society. Karim, who requested that only his first name be used out of concern for his safety, told Index: “We had a lot of hope then but the last three years have only brought disappointment. There has been no change in people’s attitudes. In fact, we get insulted more often now, as people feel emboldened knowing that the authorities are siding with them.”
Rights campaigners agree that life has gotten worse for Egypt’s gay citizens since the Arab Spring. Adel Ramadan, a legal officer at the Cairo-based Egypt Initiative for Personal Rights told NBC News last year that “after the fall of Mubarak, the criticism of revolutionary groups has always contained a sexual element. Women who participate in protests are often called prostitutes or ‘loose’ women, while male revolutionary activists are called homosexuals”.
Meanwhile, the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt in the post-revolution era fuelled fears among rights groups and Egyptian gay citizens over greater restrictions on the gay community. They anticipated an even harder crackdown under Islamist rule and worried that the Islamist-dominated parliament would pass anti-gay legislation. Whether or not their fears were justified is uncertain, for Islamist rule in Egypt was short lived, lasting only one year. President Morsi was toppled by military-backed protests on July 3, 2013 and the People’s Assembly (the lower house of Parliament responsible for issuing legislation) was disbanded by a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling in June 2012, only a few months after its members were elected. However, in their time in power, there were signs indicating a potential tightening of restrictions on Egypt’s gays. In August 2012, a man was arrested for allegedly leading a “gay sex network” while later that year, vigilantes beat four men suspected of being gay before handing them over to the police.
“Many of my gay friends fled the country when the Islamists came to power; they were terrified of what would happen to them under Islamist rule. They knew they would not be able to live freely so they emigrated,” said Karim. “Those who stayed behind, participated in the 30 June mass protests demanding Morsi’s downfall. We were overjoyed when he was toppled and hoped there would be fewer restrictions on us from then on,” he added.
Paradoxically, since Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, there has been a rise in the number of arrests of people based on their sexual orientation, according to the US-based Human Rights First group. The group says the surge in arrests and prosecution of gay men and women is part of the military-backed regime’s efforts to reassure Egyptians that the current regime is as conservative as any Islamist party.
In October 2013, state-owned Akhbar el Youm reported that at least 14 men were arrested for “practicing homosexuality” after a raid on a health club in El Marg district in northeastern Cairo. According to the weekly newspaper, police found the men “in positions that were against religious precepts”. Less than three weeks later, police arrested ten more people on “homosexual-related charges”. The arrests occurred during a police raid on a private party held to celebrate Love Day (Egypt’s equivalent of Valentine’s Day) in Cairo’s western suburb of 6 October. The men were subjected to humiliating anal examinations before being convicted of prostitution and sentenced to between three and nine years in prison. Mohamed Bakier, one of the defence lawyers in the case, said the charges against them were “political rather than criminal”. He added that the harsh sentences they received were meant to deliver a message that the society is still conservative.
Similarly, the severe sentences handed down to the four men on Monday may be an attempt by the military-backed authorities to appease a sceptical public and win over conservatives in the deeply polarised society ahead of upcoming presidential elections in which the former defence minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi is the lead contender.
The verdicts, meanwhile, coincided with another court ruling upholding three-year jail terms imposed on three secular revolutionary activists convicted of organising or participating in unauthorised protests, prompting rights campaigners to concur in opinion that this is all part of the wider, ongoing crackdown on personal freedoms.
Whatever the motives are behind the harsh sentences, one thing is certain: The verdicts have increased anxiety over the insecurity of Egypt’s vulnerable gay community. “We no longer feel safe,” said Karim. “We know we are being targeted by the police and sooner or later, they will come after us.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 52 Egyptians were arrested in May 2010. The incident took place in May 2001.