In Egypt any man can harass, brutalize, and rape a woman. It happens all the time. The State will ignore it for as long as possible; the media will say she asked for it. Just try a harmless expression of mutual, consensual desire, though. They’ll hound you to within an inch of your life.
Let’s start with the video. It came out of nowhere, but by Saturday morning it was everywhere. That day — it was August 30 — I spent with some young, impeccably liberal Egyptians. They kept staring with stunned fixation at their smartphones, repeatedly hitting “play,” watching it go viral, wondering what was going to happen to the men. The YouTube comments could have told you what was coming: “They’re outside of prisons; they should worship God within them,” one outraged viewer wrote. That night I met with some of the men in the clip. One of them kept breaking uncontrollably into tears. They were trying to report the invasion of privacy, get YouTube to take it down. No use: By next day, it was on the website of Youm7 — the tabloid that’s been carrying on a homophobic campaign for months — and on TV. You think you are just a private person, contained in the fences of your skin; then suddenly you find you’ve escaped yourself, become a common spectacle and possession, a fetish cupped in the palms of everybody’s hands. No doubt this is why politicians and movie stars are so vacuous, stripped of self; but imagine sitting in ordinary obscurity and abruptly discovering you’re now an infinitely duplicable, circulating flash of light. “Mirrors and copulation are both abominable,” Borges wrote — it was one of the aphorisms of his invented world of Tlon — “because they multiply mankind.” But that was before the Internet.
Yesterday, some of those accused of being in the video went on trial. They face years in prison. The whole fiasco reminds many Egyptians of another moral panic that crushed innumerable lives: the Queen Boat show trial of 52 men, back in 2001.
I won’t link to the video here; the men have been exposed enough. It lasts little more than a minute; it shows some kind of party on one of the boats that cruise the Cairo Nile. (You can buy a ride individually or rent the felucca for a group.) The cameraphone tilts and pans past some celebrating people; there’s a cake, and two seem to exchange rings. When it went viral, it was instantly dubbed “Egypt’s First Gay Wedding.”
Some of the men I talked to asserted the whole thing was a joke. One of the alleged grooms called the popular talk-show of Tamer Amin to say as much — that he had a girlfriend and was just “playing around with rings.” If it was a marriage between men, then in a sense it was intrinsically unserious, since the law doesn’t recognize that. Nor does the law punish playing at marriage. The furor kept mounting though. Amin, on his show, called for retribution. (Tamer Amin is eager to anathematize people he thinks are gay, but equally happy to excuse rape. When a Cairo University student was sexually assaulted earlier this year, Amin told viewers that “She was dressed like a prostitute … The sexually repressed boys couldn’t control themselves … I blame her for dressing like this, and her parents for letting her leave the house in that dress.”) Mohamed Sobhi, an actor notorious for his paranoid rants against Jews, demanded the State “respond’ to the “the spread of the phenomenon of gay marriage.”
And the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the dictator’s most feared opposition, berated the regime that overthrew it, for going soft on perversion. A former MP for the Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party warned that “For the first time in Egypt, we hear of gay marriage. The coup leaders embrace the Western agenda of demolition and decay of religion, and Egypt is converted into a brothel.” She added that the “authority of the coup” lay behind the wedding.
The supposed ceremony thus became a political crime. The State took up the challenge: it started arresting people. Last Wednesday, September 3, police picked up at least 13 people in the streets around Ramsis Station, and interrogated them about the video. The next night, they seized an unknown number as they were leaving a club downtown — I’ve heard figures as high as 26. Most were released, but somebody pointed an incriminating finger. On Saturday, the media announced that men from the film had been arrested, by police directed by Major General Magdy Moussa. (The exact number is still not clear. Most news reports say seven people were arrested; Al-Mogaz says two more are being sought; Youm7 claims ten are involved, and even after a confused hearing Tuesday, where the lawyers were denied access to court papers, it’s impossible to verify a figure.) [NOTE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has now confirmed eight defendants have been arrested.] Youm7 showed grainy video of people being hauled to jail. The full names of nine victims, some presumably still at large, appeared in the press.
The charges against the men aren’t clear, but they reportedly included incitement to “debuachery” (fugur, the legal term in Egyptian law for homosexual acts), and “publication of indecent photographs.” The images showed “the purpose was the celebration of attachment to one another, in scenes deemed shameful to the maximum degree.” Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, personally intervened in the case to show its seriousness, ordering quick action. Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority conducted anal examinations on the arrested men — an intrusive, abusive, torturous and medically worthless procedure. They found no evidence of homosexual conduct. That didn’t stop a court, on September 9, from ordering the men jailed for another 15 days so the furor can continue.
I spoke to one of the men trawled up in the police nets last Wednesday night: picked up at 3:30 AM on a street near Ramsis Station. This is his story:
I was standing with a friend — he had tight jeans, that was probably why they thought we were gay. Suddenly a policeman came out of nowhere and grabbed us. We were thrown into a microbus nearby. I tried to scream and the policemen told us to shut up. There were about 13 of us crammed in there, all picked up in various places.
In the past, Cairo police often looked for gays by riding in a microbus with an informer, who pointed out victims passing in the street. Almost a third of the Queen Boat defendants were arrested that way (not on the boat!) This time, the microbus took them to the Mugamma, the huge Stalinist building in Tahrir Square, a symbol of State bureaucracy. There police broke the men into groups for interrogation. One man “scampered off by a different door” — possibly he was the informer.
My group was me, my friend, and another man I didn’t know. We were taken up to the 12th floor, the “Adab” [morals] division.
At first the police were very aggressive with us. They beat us with sticks, and called us many names. Then the boss came in to question us.
The boss was very civil. He said for months they had been arresting gays as a way of stopping the spread of AIDS, because these men were having sex without condoms.
This is false. So far as we know, no evidence that anyone transmitted HIV through barebacking has been presented in any cases so far. The manipulation of public-health rhetoric is a bit strange coming from a government that claims it can cure AIDS by turning it into sausages.
But now, he said, there is this video. He said we have a new president, and Sisi is determined not to let this kind of thing happen, and will not let the Muslim Brotherhood get any benefit from it. I told him I didn’t know anything about the people in the video. All the same, they took our phones and made backups of all the information on them.
We were kept there for six hours, till after 10 AM. After the boss left the other policemen came back and made fun of us, calling us female names and asking if we were carrying condoms. My friend and I were set free; they held on to the third guy who was with us, because they said there was a theft charge against him. I don’t know what happened to the others.
The information on the phones — particularly if passwords were stored on them — could help the police open the victims’ Facebook and other social-media accounts. Plenty more could be rounded up that way.
This whole uproar raises several issues. First: why now? The men I spoke to told me the video was made last October. One theory, seized on by the press, is that someone released it now to get revenge on a participant. It’s not implausible, though, that the authorities somehow obtained it earlier, and have been waiting for the moment when it might prove useful. There is plenty to distract people from in Egypt these days. Rolling power outages afflict the country; September 4 was promptly dubbed “Black Thursday” because the blackouts were so severe. Meanwhile, no sooner did Sisi win his rigged Presidential election than he announced massive cuts to fuel subsidies, pushing up prices for many basic goods. In such straitened circumstances, the spectre of “gay marriage” has long-proven value as a distraction. In Morocco in 2007, a YouTube video allegedly showing such a ceremony provoked riots — and jail terms for participants — in the town of Ksar el Kbir. In Kenya in 2010, similar stories stirred up vigilante violence in Mombasa. In Egypt itself, the first, sensational press reports in the famous Queen Boat case said a same-sex wedding was taking place on the raided vessel; some months before that, the press had pounced on unproven rumors of a marriage in the Delta town of Zagazig. “Gay marriage” has become a perfect encapsulation of cultural powerlessness before the imperial West.
Second, of course, the video leaked amid a months-long campaign of arrests and vilification of people accused of homosexual conduct or of dissident gender expression. Transgender people in particular have been rounded up in clubs and on the streets, and seized in private homes. These arrests continue. In early August, police arrested a woman and two men in Rehab City, a gated community on Cairo’s outskirts, and charged the latter with homosexual conduct. I’m reliably told the cops stopped one of the men at a checkpoint, on his motorcycle; finding him suspicious, they went to his home, and found the conclusive evidence — condoms. (So much for the officers’ concern for public health.) Later that month, “security forces” arrested ten people in what they called a “prostitution ring” in Giza, in western Cairo. They included, it seems, a trans woman, whose photo was singled out to appear in El-Watan. (Only the eyes were imperfectly blacked out; obscuring the face was done by me.)
But it’s not just alleged gays and trans people who are victims of the atmosphere of repression. The police presence in downtown Cairo is formidable now. Just under three weeks ago ago, cops raided a host of sidewalk cafes, forcing them to shutter because they had tables on, well, the sidewalk. (I recall when Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved similarly against street life in Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district, Western conservatives condemned it as creeping Islamic totalitarianism. When Sisi does it, nobody bothers.) The next day, they cracked down on street vendors. Grim, barred trucks from Central Security palisaded the avenues, filling up with hapless men whose crime was hawking scarves and jeans in the passageways off Qasr el-Nil. There is a general campaign of social control going on, and a general rehabilitation of the reputation — and power — of the police. Homosexuality is simply another convenient bogeyman. Its particular convenience, though, is that it unites several things Sisi despises: “Western” influence (as in those marriages), abnormal gender roles, and the youth culture and revolutionary decadence symbolized by the downtown world. Attacking “debauchery” allows him to set the State firmly against all those debilitating forces.
Third: the fact that the latest arrests came after criticism by the Muslim Brotherhood shows where Sisi senses his greatest vulnerabilities. Having overthrown the conservatives, he needs to prove his moral credentials. It’s significant that no comparable wave of repression happened under the Brotherhood itself: they had no credentials to prove. (It’s also significant that this panic has burgeoned during the week the government sentenced several Brotherhood leaders to decades in prison.) Sisi’s Minister of Religious Endowments — who more or less controls all the country’s official mosques — explained the official line elegantly to the media last week. Every Egyptian should reject “all anomalies” such as homosexuality, “because in the end they only serve the forces of extremism and terrorism, which claim to be the protectors of religion and morality.”
Finally, what all this produces is fear, comprehensive and immobilizing. No one can guess what will come next, how far the crackdown will go. There are vague stories the State has planned a massive trial of alleged homosexuals for later this month, or next month; no one knows whether this mini-Queen-Boat is enough for them. Cairo Scene, a English webzine for the privileged party set, has claimed the police are already arresting gay men over Grindr; no one has been able to confirm a single case, but the rumor only adds to the terror. My sensible colleagues are pruning their phone lists, taking down photos from Facebook, and waiting — waiting for what, nobody can tell. Even I have drawn up a list, for friends, of things to do if I’m arrested; when insouciant I behave that way, you know something is wrong. A full-fledged moral panic is spreading in Egypt. It even has a song — by an Egyptian band, proclaiming that something must be done to stop the she-men with skinny jeans:
The panic infects political discourse, turning everything to triviality. The contrast between the indifference accorded real and terrible stories of violence against women, and the seriousness with which a mock wedding is reviled, remains ominous. The men on the boat may have been careless or presumptuous, but the whole country increasingly resembles a ship of fools. The absurdity isn’t innocuous, though. The point of moral panics is that they can always find new victims.