… “You” can mean many things, of course. Not all my readers are gay or trans or sex workers, though some are (hi there!). Nor are they all Egyptians. But wherever you live, you might wind up here; anybody can visit Egypt (unless a Google search turns up evidence you actually know something about the place, in which case you’ll be expelled). The government welcomes tourists; this month it sent helicopters to kill eight of them, the way big-game hunters cull the population to make room for more. And it loves gay tourists; they’re so much fun to arrest. Meanwhile, that man’s title is actually head of the Morals Police, Shortat el-Adab. Who among us hasn’t thought or done or dreamed something immoral? The very word, adab, casts a wide dragnet in Arabic, covering everything from “manners” to “discipline.” Generalissimo Sisi himself has called for a land more disciplined in every way: “State institutions, namely those with educational, religious and media roles, have to help us regulate morals that we all think are problematic.” Wayward fantasies and errant words of dissent are as unchaste and culpable as misused genitals. Look in that man’s eyes, and tremble. He’s watching you.
Major-General Amgad el-Shafei, the new leader of Egypt’s vice squad, has been on my mind. Morals police arrested “the largest network of gays” last week, 11 of them reportedly inhabiting two apartments in the Agouza district of Cairo along with “sex toys,” “manmade genitalia,” and women’s clothes. Allegedly the criminals charged 1500 LE (just under US $200) per hour. It’s impossible to make out how police caught them, though the cops claimed to have been “monitoring pages on the Internet.” The arrests got unusual coverage — not only in scandal sites like Youm7 and El Watan, but the respectable state-owned Al-Ahram; and right in the lead was the name of the hero head of the Morals Police, el-Shafei.
One thing not much noted in the current crackdown on trans and gay Egyptians is how inextricable it is from fears, and laws, about prostitution. The morals campaign has meant intensified repression of women sex workers, though this gets little international attention. The law criminalizing homosexual conduct in Egypt is actually a “Law on Combatting Prostitution,” passed in 1951, amid a moral panic over licensed brothels kept by British colonial forces. Lawmakers, determined to extirpate immorality of all kinds, wrote a bill punishing not just di’ara (the sale of sexual services by women) but also fugur, or “debauchery” — a term they didn’t bother to define. They slapped both with a draconian three years in prison. Courts, culminating in a binding ruling in 1975, held that “debauchery” meant men having sex with men, with or without money. The law thus penalizes women selling sex, and all sex between men. It’s a textbook case of how a badly, broadly written law on sex expands like the Blob in the movies. Although legally it’s irrelevant whether those accused of homosexual sex were doing it for cash, police often claim they were, to stiffen the stigma. But everyone also knows that a woman snogging with her boyfriend or flirting with a man in public, or simply dressed the wrong way, can be picked up for “prostitution.” (Of course, the exchange of money is notoriously hard to prove in any case, meaning cops everywhere rely on stereotypes, suppositions, and lies. Cairo Tourist Police threatened a straight female friend of mine with the charge last October, because she hung around with gay men.)
The law was meant to punish women for defiling the national honor with the occupier. Now it suppresses any deviations from the moral “discipline” that plinths and legitimates Sisi’s rule.
So the same adulatory stories announced that el-Shafei’s officers also broke up “four prostitution networks,” involving an airline pilot, a Jordanian girl, Gulf Arabs (real or fictional). Last week el-Shafei caught gays consorting with Gulfies; the week before, twin sisters soliciting in Agouza; before that a 25-year-old woman doing “immoral business” with foreigners. The foreign peril is a crucial angle in today’s Egypt: fears of alien corruption, lusts leaking across borders, make persecuting “promiscuity” seem not only moral but mandatory. “‘Imported Prostitution’ Sweeps Egyptian Society,” Youm7 warned two weeks ago, about Ukrainian, Russian, and Chinese sex workers in Cairo.
The press defines the crackdown’s latest phase as a broad cleanup campaign before the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice that began today. “These pre-Eid morality raids have been going on for some time,” my colleague Dalia Abd el-Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told a reporter. “We have almost got used to expecting them.” This is true. Higher-ranking officers feel the urge to purge the streets before one of the noblest of Islam’s holidays. Admittedly, it’s a celebration of charity and forbearance, but show too much forbearance and the scum of the earth will spoil the fun. Meanwhile, beat cops get bonuses (and extract bribes) for diligence in duty; and they need them, because Eid al-Adha is expensive. (There’s the long weekend at the beach that many uxorious policemen buy their families, or girlfriends; plus, sacrificial animals cost money, and their prices usually soar before the festival.)
Two things, however, make this pre-Eid campaign feel different. First, security language dominates the holiday — and the crackdown. All the headlines are about threats and counter-measures. The state claims it has “eliminated” a terrorist group in the Western desert that was plotting holiday attacks; meanwhile, a massive, murderous military operation continues in Sinai, a war zone barred to journalists, and we only know the government gloats it’s killed hundreds of “terrorists.” In Cairo, authorities plan to safeguard the Eid with SWAT teams around mosques, banks, movie houses, parks — even on Nile party boats. Throughout, the Ministry of Interior assures us, the Morals Police will play a vital role, protecting women against the population (as opposed to their usual job, protecting the population against women). But morality is now part of security in Egypt. Whatever the Morals Police do, they couch in security terms. One newspaper screamed three weeks ago that male homosexuality in Egyptian society
has increased in recent times … and sets off alarm bells about the causes of what can be called the “emergency disease” which threatens the future of the Egyptian nation, and calls for serious and rapid action from the state to prevent its exacerbation, as a national security issue.
And the other difference is the glut of publicity the police are giving this pre-Eid campaign. Nothing “undercover” about it. One thing you can say about Major-General el-Shafei: he knows how to get headlines.
What else can you say about Amgad el-Shafei? He’s an interesting man. It’s hard to trace the arc of an Egyptian policeman’s career; these cops don’t post their CVs on LinkedIn. The Ministry of Interior is by far the least transparent part of an Egyptian state apparatus that mostly churns out squid ink. Still, you can tell the man is important: he holds the highest police rank. Back in 2014, he shows up on TV (talking about the “spread of weapons after the Revolution”), as assistant director of the Bureau of Public Security at the Ministry.
El-Shafei on the “Name of Egypt” talk show, April 2014
By April 2015, though, el-Shafei has a different Ministry post; he heads its General Directorate for Investigating Public Funds. It’s one of the most sensitive police branches: “the first line of defense for combatting economic crimes such as, for example, but not limited to, forgery and fraud in all its forms, falsification of documents and national and foreign currencies, promotion of all forms of financial fraud … administrative offenses of bribery and influence peddling and graft,” and so on. Mostly el-Shafei pursued not state officials stealing public funds, but members of the public stealing them: or just plain fraud in general. That’s odd, given how rampant official corruption is in Egypt. (This month, Sisi used the arrest of the Agriculture Minister on charges of taking bribes as a pretext to dismiss the whole government.) But here el-Shafei’s gift for getting publicity truly flowered. For four months, he was on TV and in the headlines constantly: for arresting a scam artist, “El Mestray’iah,” who bilked Egyptians of their savings; for grabbing a gang smuggling hard currency out of the country; for nabbing a fake-investment ring. The press releases must have spurted from his office daily, like healthy flatulence.
His last bow in this role comes July 4, when he takes credit for arresting the “fashion doctor,” an academic who ran a weird scam involving fashion shows. The next time el-Shafei appears, he’s had a change of title. On August 17 his name graces an item about the arrest of three Ukrainian sex workers. He’s now director of the Morals Police.
So sometime in the summer, el-Shafei got a new job. Why? The morals squad, in comparison to anti-corruption work, is a swampy backwater. It has its consolations, to be sure, financial ones included; some impecunious cops actively seek the assignment. (San Francisco’s famous Tenderloin sex district supposedly took its name from a police officer who said, more or less, I used to have ground beef for dinner. But now that I’m working vice, I’m going to get me some of that tenderloin.) Still, it resembles a demotion, and I wonder why. Had el-Shafei done his job too well for someone’s comfort (seems unlikely), or not well enough? Or maybe the Ministry just wanted someone of his caliber in the Morals Police, perhaps to root out corruption. Corruption in vice squads usually means cops take bribes in exchange for not pressing charges. The surest way to stop it is to increase prosecutions; here, el-Shafei seems already to be semaphoring success.
In a society stripped of facts, speculation rules — and I can speculate as wildly as the best of them. The most ambitious case the Morals Police brought last year was journalist Mona Iraqi’s klieg-lit raid on an alleged gay bathhouse in December. (I had heard rumors back in September 2014, from well-connected sources, that the Ministry of Interior was debating whether to stage a huge gay show trial on the scale of the Queen Boat. The Bab el-Bahr hammam was it.) The trial failed, and reaped bushels of bad publicity for the police. Rumors of corruption susurrated round it; Wael Abbas, a well-known blogger, claimed the police were in league with a gentrifying real-estate magnate trying to close the bathhouse (which had one of those immemorial, unbreakable Cairo leases) and expropriate the building. Such theories never had a shred of proof. But what if el-Shafie’s new job were the Ministry’s answer to all that: a move to bring back the days of good PR, successful gay persecution, unremitting arrests?
Who knows? Not I. I do know, though, that an ambitious and publicity-seeking policeman given absolute power, in an authoritarian state, over frightened and furtive and undefended people’s lives will abuse it — because the power itself is abuse. I know that the newsclips this skilled operator spews out have life and momentum of their own; like maggots in dead meat, they’ll multiply, and what will emerge full-blown are more arrests, more suffering. I know that the surveillance and the stings will grow in both brutality and cunning. I speculated last week that the branches of Egypt’s police are competing to get the money and technology the state now has for Internet surveillance: for the kind of keystroke-by-keystroke decoding of people’s discourses and desires that can splay their ganglions bare for the government’s entertainment. How can the Morals Police cut in on the largesse, and build an empire over intimacy? By convincing the state that it’s successful, and that its success defends national security. On both counts, el-Shafei knows what to say.
NOTE: For advice on avoiding police entrapment and protecting yourself on the Internet, see here (in Arabic) or here (in English and Arabic). For very important information (in Arabic) on your legal rights if you’re arrested in Egypt for being gay or trans, see here.