Egypt’s gay community fears it is the latest target of the country’s authoritarian government, after a series of recent raids on gay people.
Activists interviewed by the Guardian said they had collectively documented up to nine raids across the country since October 2013 – an unusually high rate of arrests. Most significantly, at least seven raids have seen people arrested at home rather than at parties or known meeting places, raising concerns that the community is facing the start of a targeted crackdown.
The latest and most concerning raid saw four men seized from their east Cairo apartment on 1 April, within hours of signing the lease, according to activists. Within a week, the four were given jail-terms of up to eight years – sentences unusual for both their length and the speed of their application.
Interviewees warned against exaggerating the oppression levelled at a flourishing underground gay community. But almost all agreed the recent arrests had frightened and perplexed many of its members.
One experienced activist, who identified himself as Mohamed A, said: “It has struck fear within many of us. I could be sitting with a couple of friends [at home], and these arrests could happen at any moment.”
While homosexuality is technically legal in Egypt, citizens suspected of be ing gay have long been the target of sporadic detentions (pdf) – with those arrested often convicted of debauchery or insulting public morals. But some activists claim the recent arrests, which began at a gay meeting-place in a poor Cairo suburb last October, are happening at a faster rate than at any point since 2004.
No one is certain how systematic they are, or exactly why they are happening. Some think the raids are simply another example of the aggression aimed at all kinds of dissidents in recent months. Meanwhile, several of the raids may have been caused by complaints from neighbours, rather than instigated by the state itself.
But regardless of how each raid began, what is unusual is how regularly and how willingly the state has prosecuted individuals – especially at a time when there is so much else in Egypt for the authorities to address.
Dalia Alfarghal, a human rights activist, said: “We have a lot of crazy things going on in the country – and they’re detaining these guys instead of catching terrorists.”
Many wonder if the government wants to assure a largely homophobic Egyptian society that – despite ousting Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last summer – they can be as conservative as the man they replaced. April’s arrests, for instance, came soon after a police chief announced a special taskforce to arrest atheists.
“These kinds of cases help show they can be society’s moral gatekeepers,” said Mahmoud, an activist concerned with gender issues. “I guess their point is that even though the Islamists are gone, we’re still going to keep an eye on the behaviours that may, according to them, disrupt society.”
Another explanation is that widespread coverage of the raids would help distract the public from the government’s failings – much as the media storm sparked by the 2001 arrest of 52 men at the Queen Boat, a gay nightclub in Cairo, did for Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
But if that is the strategy, several note that it has not been particularly successful so far – there is too much else going on in the mayhem of Egyptian politics. “I think there is a clear difference between [now and] the time of the Queen Boat,” said Mahmoud. “At that time it was very easy to use a certain issue to camouflage others. But now, since the start of the revolution, people’s attention span only lasts a day or two – and then another thing comes up.”
The gay community’s response to the raids also differs from the aftermath of the Queen Boat arrests, according to Mahmoud. “At the time [in 2001], it created a lot of panic. Everybody went to their homes, they wouldn’t talk to anybody, they were afraid of each other – because who knew who might turn the other in. But now, although there is a lot of anxiety and fear, I don’t feel it has the same impact.”
This is partly down to the community’s support networks, which activists say are bigger today than they were 13 years ago, particularly since the 2011 revolution. But stronger though the community may be, its members still strive to keep it as invisible as it ever was, fearing a fiercer crackdown.
Homosexuality as a concept, however, has become slightly more visible. This January, film censors finally approved the screening of Family Secrets, billed as the first widely-shown Egyptian movie to feature a gay protagonist (though many were furious that the film ultimately suggests that homosexuality is a curable disease).
But more exposure to gay issues has not necessarily led to the spread of less homophobic attitudes. People coming out to their parents often find themselves sent to psychiatrists for a “cure”. One interviewee said they saw 16 in total.
At Mohamed A’s workplace, many people know he is gay, and he does not feel in danger as a result. But some female colleagues say they would prefer not to be left alone with him. “It’s kind of funny. In their minds, being gay is perverted, and I want to have sex with any object. But maybe it’ll change with the building of trust between me and them.”
As in many countries, Egyptian homophobia has both religious and cultural roots. Regarding the former, Egypt’s Christian and Muslim communities lack high-profile liberal voices to counter homophobic readings of both religions. As for the latter, Egypt’s patriarchal society feels threatened by those who challenge traditional gender roles.
“We live in a very masculine society,” said Adam, a graphic designer who was attacked by his brothers and mother after coming out to them six years ago. “You have to follow certain lines – you have to study, graduate, then get married, and then have kids. And if you break the line, then there’s something wrong.”
In this context, gay women in Egypt say they are less conspicuous than gay men. Women have not been the focus of any crackdown – perhaps because mainstream Egyptian society, according to one gay woman, has only recently begun to deal with concepts of lesbianism. “I think people didn’t know what lesbians were 10 years ago – I didn’t even know,” said Pam, an ecologist. “It was never on TV. But now it’s part of the dialogue. You do get people calling out in the street: ya lesbian!”
Given this environment, some gay Egyptians question the usefulness of bringing western assumptions about gender and sexuality to a context as specific as Egypt, and query the application of western-rooted labels such as LGBTQI. “LGBTQI emerged in a certain context in a certain time in a certain group of people,” said Pam. “There are so many other formulations of sexuality that fall outside of that and cannot be encompassed by it.”
Others warned against equating same-sex intercourse to a defined sexual identity. In lower-class areas, said Mohamed A, it is common to find young unmarried men who have sex with other men but who do not consider themselves gay, or even know the term. “They would think that the only right thing to do is to get married,” he said, “and that being in a relationship with a man is only something temporary.”
But away from questions of definition, the main fight remains one for acceptance. Progress is slow in such a conservative society, but some see hope in the younger generation. “I feel there’s more willingness to discuss this,” said Mahmoud. “Maybe that’s more about my age group, but I see more openness and acceptance of diversity.”
Additional reporting by Manu Abdo