The Egyptian government is embroiled in an international political scandal over a recent spate of brutal crackdowns on alleged homosexuals in the nation. Sean Maher explores the controversy.
Shortly after the shock 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian government moved to establish a hardline, single-judge tribunal to try terrorists and citizens considered to be a threat to Egypt’s national security.
At the time, the founding of Cairo’s State Security Court (SSC) was a decisive move by the nation’s government to stamp out a growing problem of militant fundamentalism in Egypt from armed extra-parliamentary forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
However, last year the role of the SSC took a sinister turn. Appearing before the SSC in the early afternoon of 18 July 2001 were 52 men accused of the vague, yet obviously heretical crime of being enemies of Islam.
In fact, their sole crime in what was to be known as the Cairo 52 trial focused on a perception by Egyptian authorities that the 52 men were homosexual. By 14 November last year, amid claims from the accused that they had been beaten and tortured by police for six months, the Cairo 52 trial drew to a close with 23 of the men receiving sentences of between one and five years in prison with hard labour.
Last Tuesday, a further five men were sentenced in the SSC to three years’ hard labour over similar charges. They had been arrested on 15 January this year in the Nile delta town of Damanhour.
In line with all decisions handed down in the SSC, no right of appeal was allowed to those convicted.
The Cairo 52 trial was to become undoubtedly one of the most internationally infamous cases associated with the Egyptian government’s new approach to the country’s increasingly visible gay male population.
The trial would be known as the launching point of a wide-scale attempt by the Egyptian government to banish from public visibility all men suspected of being gay -“ a move that has thrust the nation’s human rights record into the eye of an international political and human rights storm.
To date there is a clear distinction between nations that have chosen to denounce, or at least censure, the Egyptian government over its approach to homosexual citizens, and those nations that have turned a blind eye to the Egyptian situation all together.
Arguably the most obvious example of indifference towards the plight of gay men in Egypt lies with the American government.
An alliance of human rights groups, including the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Committee (IGLHRC), Muslim gay and lesbian rights group Al Fatiha and the American branch of Amnesty International, have joined forces in denouncing the recent attitude of the US government to the Egyptian situation.
During a visit to the US earlier this month, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was entertained in the White House by US president George W. Bush and US Secretary of State Colin Powell. During a press conference in the White House on 5 March, Bush referred to the Egyptian government as my good friend, adding that he valued his close friendship with president Mubarak.
Bush’s attitude came as a slap in the face to the humanitarian organisations that have publicly voiced their disgust at the state of human rights in Egypt.
The groups have pointed to the hypocrisy of the Bush government in ignoring its own US State Department annual report of last year, which remarked on the absence of due process in the Egyptian military courts and suggested serious human rights violations were taking place.
Despite the report -“ and amidst the flurry of arrests and alleged disappearances of gay men in Egypt late last year -“ the American government announced its decision to grant a multi-billion-dollar aid package to the country.
According to London-based rights website Gayegypt.com, the attitude of the US government towards Egypt is directly linked to America’s current strategic military interests.
The United States is now so obsessed by the logistics of continuing its war on terrorism that it is willing to overlook grave human rights violations in Egypt, including the almost year-long clampdown on the gay community, convenors of the site claimed in an article posted last week.
And not only does [the American government] overlook [these violations], but by calling Mubarak a personal friend and expressing his gratitude to the regime, the president is encouraging the Egyptian regime to think of itself as above and beyond the reproach of international law.
Meanwhile, UK prime minister Tony Blair came under similar fire from international rights organisations for joining with the US government in granting further aid to Egypt under the EU’s trade and accord Association Agreement with Egypt.
In response to the fact that the Agreement should be subject to the recognition of fundamental human rights, British celebrities, including Emma Thompson, Elton John, Eddie Izzard and Michael Cashman, launched a campaign this week for the EU to cancel its aid agreement with Egypt until all 23 men arrested in the Cairo 52 trial are released.
On the other side of the political divide to the US and the UK over rights abuses in Egypt are the French.
In what could be described as the world’s strongest display of unity against Egypt’s treatment of gay men, hundreds of protesters gathered in the Place de La Concorde in Paris in the first week of February this year to denounce the arrival of Hosni Mubarak for a two-day New Partnership For African Development (NEPAD) conference.
The demonstration swelled throughout the day, eventually spilling into the Tuileries Gardens. According to a report in The New York Times on 14 February, protesters brandished placards that included the declarations Mubarak The Homophobe and Sexual Orientation is a Fundamental Freedom.
The French government also refused to remain silent over the controversy. President Jacques Chirac reportedly astonished dinner guests gathered at a reception in ?ys?Palace in early February by announcing that he had directly expressed concern to Hosni Mubarak about the sentencing of the 23 men in the Cairo 52 trial. Chirac said he was not seeking to interfere, but he hoped those decisions might be overturned.
Meanwhile, openly gay mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe reacted to Mubarak’s arrival in Paris by demanding the immediate release of those convicted in the Cairo 52 trial.
To further reinforce the point, musician Jean-Michel Jarre delivered a petition to the Egyptian embassy in Paris with 6,000 signatures calling for release of prisoners detained in Egypt for their sexual orientation.
While the Australian government has so far avoided passing comment on Egypt’s human rights situation, Amnesty Australia told Sydney Star Observer that the organisation calls for the immediate release of any prisoners of conscience including those imprisoned for their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
However, Amnesty International’s Australian campaign coordinator Kathy Richards told the Star that the question of whether foreign governments should grant aid to Egypt is a more complex issue than may it first appear.
In light of potentially making a political point about human rights violations in Egypt, it would be asked if ceasing this aid means that others are denied access to urgently needed medical care, food or clean water -“ all of them basic needs to survive -“ then it cannot be justified. It cannot be justified that in order to defend one human right, another must be denied, Richards said.
However, if the aid was being used to fund transfer of military weapons, or hold up a corrupt judicial system that prevented fair and impartial trials, that would be grounds for considering that ceasing aid would in fact defend further human rights.
Sadly, Egyptian men accused of crimes relating to their sexuality are receiving virtually none of the same support from home.
At the forefront of the campaign against homosexuals have been the Egyptian media, who have labelled those accused of being gay as a network of perverts, often backing up their aversion to homosexuals by listing the names and occupations of those arrested together with their photographs.
The pro-government weekly publication Rose El-Youssef brushed off the international controversy as a mere cultural difference between East and West, describing complaints by the international political and human rights community as an international homosexual campaign against Egypt.
There are also claims from Muslim rights organisations such as Al Fatiha that the crackdown on homosexuals is a strategy by the Egyptian government to bolster its Islamic credentials in the face of an imploding economy and a spate of arrests of fundamentalists that has been angering conservatives in Egypt.
If this is true, claims Al Fatiha, then [the strategy] has been a political success in Egypt.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the current anti-homosexual climate in Egypt comes from the reaction of Egypt’s largest human rights organisation, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), to the plight of gay men.
The zero tolerance approach to homosexuality under Islamic law has intimidated the organisation, which is currently willing to defend the rights of women, prisoners and Egypt’s minority Coptic Christians. Gay men, on the other hand, have been left out in the cold.
What could we do? Nothing. If we were to uphold this issue, this would be the end of what remains of the concept of human rights in Egypt, Hisham Kassem, director of the EOHR, stated in an AP report from 11 February.
We let [gays] down, but I don’t have a mandate from the people, and I don’t want the West to set the pace for the human rights movement in Egypt.
Currently, there is no clear figure on the number of men arrested in Egypt for their sexual orientation. Gayegypt.com claims that police operations against gay networks often go unreported in the country.
The cases we know about are undoubtedly only the tip of the iceberg and the probable number of gay men in prison must number in the hundreds if not thousands, the site claims. But even so, the ever mounting evidence of human rights abuses is shocking.
THE CAIRO 52 STORY
Moored on the banks of the Nile River as it passes through the Egyptian capital of Cairo sits a three-deck floating nightclub called the Queen Boat. As of last year, the venue had steadily been attracting a reputation for hosting Thursday-night parties that were attracting a large following of allegedly gay men.
For a nation such as Egypt, where the predominating public opinion condemns homosexuality as a perversion, the Queen Boat’s repute as a meeting point for homosexual men was creating a dangerous environment for its patrons.
Already Egyptian police had conducted regular raids on the venue, often arresting numerous men on the grounds that their perceived sexuality branded them enemies of Islam.
Because these men were typically released within hours of their arrest, the incidents passed largely unnoticed by international human rights organisations.
But it would not be long before this relatively simple pattern of harassment was to explode into a brutal and wide-scale crackdown on men accused of being gay in Egypt.
In a police sweep of the Queen Boat in the early hours of Friday morning, 11 May last year, security agents rounded up scores of Egyptian men. According to eyewitness reports, those on the Queen Boat carrying foreign passports were virtually overlooked by the police.
But the Egyptian men arrested that morning were not handled so lightly. Dozens of Egyptian nationals were jailed soon after their arrest, with the fallout from the Queen Boat raid spreading across the city as more gay men were arrested by police who had tracked them down at their homes using confiscated mobile phones and address books from those arrested on the Queen Boat.
Prosecutors hauled 52 of the men before Cairo’s State Security Court on 18 July 2001, with the families and relatives of those accused denied entrance to the court.
The argument used by prosecutors focused on the assertion that homosexuality involved actions that defiled Islam and therefore constituted a risk to national security.
On 14 November 2001, at the end of the highly publicised trial, 23 of the 52 arrested men were sentenced to prison terms of up to five years with hard labour. The remainder were acquitted.
THE ARRESTS WE KNOW ABOUT
11 May 2001. Cairo 52 -“ 52 men arrested on the Queen Boat in Cairo and subsequently jailed following police questioning. The men first appear in Cairo’s State Security Court on 18 July. On 14 November, 23 are sentenced to between one and five years’ imprisonment with hard labour.
July to December 2001. Gayegypt.com and the International Gay and Lesbian Rights Committee claim sources have revealed that covert mass arrests are being conducted by police in the areas of Heliopolis and the Pyramids. Organisations also claim that police are stepping up a campaign of entrapment through internet chat rooms.
10 November 2001. Boulak 4 -“ four men are arrested in what is described by the press as a den of perversion in the Cairo suburb of Boulak. At a preliminary hearing the judge asks the court officials to bring the four men into court by allegedly proclaiming, Bring in the faggots. (The actual word used, khawalat, is the most derogatory term applied to gay men in Egypt.) In February of this year all four men were sentenced to three-year prison terms.
5 December 2001. Two students known as Sherif A and Islam A received sentences of three months and one year respectively after being lured to a location just outside the Ramses Hilton Hotel in Cairo by Egyptian police working the Yahoo chat room.
15 January 2002. Damanhour 5 -“ eight men are arrested in Damanhour, a town south-west of Alexandria. All of the men were forced to undergo anal examinations and, according to a World Organisation Against Torture report from 8 March, were savagely beaten by other inmates under the supervision of guards at a reception party in Damanhour Prison. Five of the eight men were sentenced to three years’ prison with hard labour on 12 March this year.