Egypt: Interrogating the terrorist Scott Long

"Source of inspiration," cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, November 2016. Sisi: "A true pasha, by God."

“Source of Inspiration”: cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, November 2016. Sisi says: “A true pasha, by God.”

I hadn’t meant to write about this. It’s small compared to what many Egyptians face, or fear. But a few Egyptian friends have urged me to record it, partly because accounts of recent State Security interrogations are somewhat rare (people used to say that to meet the secret police was to go “behind the sun,” to disappear); partly because it illuminates what is on whatever passes for the dictatorial regime’s mind. Recent events, too, make me believe there’s a need, in the United States and elsewhere, to remember some things. I’ll get to that. Let me begin at the beginning.

The beginning is an ending. I left Egypt in March. Most likely, I will never be permitted to return. I had lived there for three and a half years, and for the last three of those I did not cross the borders at all. After the military coup in July 2013, it became increasingly clear to me that when I left, I would be denied re-entry; and that meant I delayed my departure until – when? I told myself: until I had finished everything I came for, or until there was nothing more to do.

For a long time – since 2005 – I’d been stopped at Cairo passport control every time I came into the country; taken aside, held for an hour or two, detained once in a locked room in the airport that had the forlorn graffiti of Palestinian refugees scrawled across the walls: then finally admitted. No questions asked, no explanation given. It was obvious I had been on some sort of list for years, that the state did not quite know what to do with me when I applied for entry. (US citizens do not need to buy visas in advance to enter Egypt; as a result, each of my arrivals took officialdom by surprise.) That was all back in the comparatively louche eras of Mubarak and Morsi. After the coup and Sisi’s seizure of power, the fact of being on a list seemed much more serious. In Cairo, I went underground — though it hardly felt so dramatic. I avoided contact with officialdom; I did not renew my entry visa. When necessary I blustered my way through ubiquitous checkpoints, never showing my passport. I bribed my building’s doorman not to register my presence with the police. And, toward the end, I moved to parts of Cairo where foreigners rarely went; I was far from inconspicuous there – some days, probably the only blond person within a kilometer or two — but in terms of what the police might expect I was off the edge of the world, off the books. For the last eight months I lived in Faisal, a vast warrenlike semi-slum stretching westward, and ultimately I settled in an “informal area” there: Cairo’s equivalent of a favela, streets not paved or named or usually shown on maps. The buildings, six or seven stories tall, were erected by the residents who migrated there, brick by brick and floor by floor; the first and generally last sign that you were in an informal area was that you never had to pay an electric bill, since all the power was siphoned from the official grid. I felt oddly safe there, as if I were curled in one of Kafka’s burrows, a dead end.

The Embaba quarter of Cairo, looking very much like the Faisal neighborhood where I lived

The Embaba quarter of Cairo, looking very much like the Faisal neighborhood where I lived

It’s difficult to describe my last six months in Egypt. Depression settled over everything in the country; no change seemed possible any longer, and you felt your imagination being buried in cement. Many people I cared about simply stopped leaving their homes. At last, I was invited to a conference in the US in March – organized by friends who, I think, had constructed a giant hook to haul me out of there. I knew if I went, it would be my final departure.

Leaving Egypt, the hard way

Leaving Egypt, the hard way

I talked to human rights lawyers after my ticket was booked. Overstaying a visa is a crime usually incurring only a minor fine at the airport, the equivalent of $30-40 US (at the time). The work and the writing I’d been doing put me in a different position, though. The lawyers told me I would be interrogated; the passenger manifest would ensure State Security was alert to my departure. I should get there early, keep their numbers on my phone, be prepared for possible arrest.

I spent my last night ever in Egypt crying, encrypting my hard drive, and uploading sensitive files to the cloud. A dear Egyptian friend drove me to the airport in the clean air of dawn, almost six hours before my flight. At passport control, they sent me down a hallway to pay the visa fine. I shelled out money to a civilian in a little office (one lesson: in Egypt, the government makes sure you settle your outstanding debts before they arrest you). “Wait a moment.” A man in a leather overcoat came in and told me to follow.

There is vertical power and horizontal power. I suppose in the US we are used to power revealed in perpendicular terms: skyscrapers, helicopters, bombers, drones. In Egypt, as in many other countries where I’ve worked, power is horizontal, shown not through height but through ambit, remoteness, segregation. I was led down an even longer corridor, so long that it seemed I was going to another terminal, or to some other place outside Cairo altogether, a hell not subterranean but suburban. Generalissimo Sisi plans to build Egypt a new capital city, far from protesters and ordinary people, distant in the desert; I imagine it linked to Cairo by a single interminable hallway.

Then: a small office, two wooden desks, two men: one in mustache and leather jacket, seated; one standing – an assistant, in short-sleeved shirt and tie. On Mustache’s desk was a stack of paper: perhaps 300 printed-out pages from this blog. A smaller stack was a printout of my Facebook page; another seemed to be news articles that had quoted me. A computer on the second desk was unplugged; hence, I guess, the hard copy. I sat down, asked their names, was told those were not “relevant.” No further explanation. The questions started.

Mustache did the asking, in English, while Necktie, now sitting at the other desk, took Arabic notes. There was no Good Cop/Bad Cop, only Talking Cop/Writing Cop, the two tasks apparently too complex for a single cop to master. We started oddly. Atop the pile of blog posts was one I wrote in 2013, comparing Sisi the dictator to the late Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary – known as “Sissi,” and commemorated in many blearily romantic Romy Schneider movies. It was labored and unfunny, but it had annoyed somebody. Mustache: “What are you saying here about our President? Are you saying that our President is a woman?”

This is not the President of Egypt.

This is not the President of Egypt

I really don’t remember what I answered, except that President Sisi’s rampant masculinity would surely only be underscored by a judicious comparison with Romy Schneider. It was fitting that the interrogation began with gender, since I’d stressed the he-male obsessions of the Egyptian state in much of what I wrote. Beneath that post in the pile, though, was one on life in death-racked Cairo in the days after the August 2013 Rabaa massacre; and then the politics peered through. Mustache: You write that you were walking around the city in that period. Were you not aware there was a curfew? Who allowed you to violate the curfew? Did you violate the curfew in order to meet with criminals?

First notable fact: They knew my online life thoroughly, at least its non-password-protected part: any writer would want such a devoted audience. One or two questions suggested they might possibly have intercepted e-mail (though I’d tried to use Tor) or phone calls. But they seemed to have no idea where I’d been living physically for the last year. They asked me repeatedly, and I gave fictional addresses (I truly hope they were fictional, that no actual 233 Mohamed Moussa Street in Faisal gave its inhabitants a disagreeable surprise). Necktie noted down the invented domiciles with stoic docility. The attraction of online surveillance for indolent secret police is that it’s a desk job.

Second: They never asked me explicitly about homosexuality, mine or anybody else’s. Mustache leafed through my posts on the subject (You feel a great freedom to criticize the culture and the values of the Egyptian people. Who gives you that freedom?) but avoided touching the topic directly as if it were contagious. (What Egyptian laws have you violated? he did demand repeatedly. Please name the Egyptian laws you have violated while in Egypt.) The closest he came was asking me, while gingerly fingering blog pages, whether I had a “website” on Grindr — pronounced to rhyme with “slender.” (Truly, I did not.) Mustache also inquired, upon Necktie’s prompting, Have you downloaded pornographic information over the Internet? One thing chilled me when I recollected it in tranquillity: Mustache asked, Have you ever assisted a person with mental health problems? Have you provided psychological advice to troubled persons? I said no, and only afterward did I remember that, the previous summer, I got repeated emails from an anonymous gay Egyptian who said he was depressed and wanted help finding a psychologist. I offered him contacts; but he kept insisting on seeing me face-to-face, proposing meeting places too close to my local police station for my comfort. (Police at that station, in Doqqi, were entrapping victims almost weekly over the Internet. Lazy as always, the cops steer their prey to meet at points in walking distance of the jail.) He made me very uneasy, and I finally stopped answering him. I felt ashamed of succumbing to suspicion. And who knows?

Third: What they did care about was politics, and a particular kind of politics. The real question – never exactly framed, but implicit in most everything – was whether I would say something to tag myself as a terrorist.

Sex interested them mainly as a division of, or gateway to, larger fields of violent subversion. Particularly telling was when they got round to a legal advice manual for Egyptian LGBT people, in Arabic, which I had agreed to host on my blog. For whom was this written? Mustache demanded, holding up the pages. I stared back blankly. The post said, in clear Arabic, that it was meant for LGBT people. “It was written by Egyptians for other Egyptians,” I said. Mustache replied, as Necktie’s pen scrawled softly: So it was written to benefit people who are planning violent acts against the state?

Our back-and-forth lasted four hours. Almost every question came up again and again – to trip me up, obviously. It was like being shipwrecked in a whirlpool, and watching flotsam from other wrecks whirl by, and circle, and then swirl by again, and realizing this can only end when you drown. A week later, I jotted down some of the questions I remembered. I didn’t record my answers, so if you’re looking for hints on how to fence verbally with secret police officers, you won’t get them here. But the basic rule, as always with repressive power, is to say “no” to everything. Perhaps, in the age of iron to come, that monotonous “no” is the only mark of selfhood that will survive us.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for Edgar Allan Poe's "A Descent Into the Maelstrom"

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent Into the Maelstrom”

  • Why did you overstay your visa? (I pulled out all the medical documents from my two stints in hospital in Egypt; I had been too sick, I said, to violate any Egyptian laws or download porn, much less board an airplane or get my visa renewed.)
  • How have you spent your time while living illegally in Egypt? (Writing.) Writing what? (What you have in your hand.) Who pays for your writing? Do you write libellous statements about the leaders of other countries, or just about Egypt? (I do recall my answer: “I’ve written about many countries. The only person who ever accused me of libel was a very vain Englishman.” They didn’t ask who.)
  • Mustache paused at two other blog posts near the top of the stack. Have you ever been imprisoned in Jamaica? Have you ever been imprisoned in Tunisia? For what crime were you arrested in Tunisia? (I have never been in Tunisia.) Who do you cooperate with in Tunisia? Why do you insult the Tunisian state? Who were you arrested with in Tunisia? 
  • Inevitably: Have you visited Israel? Then: Have you visited Iran? Why do you write about Iran? Who do you cooperate with in Iran? Have you visited Syria? Have you visited Libya? Have you visited Qatar? Who do you know in Qatar? Who do you cooperate with in Qatar? When did you visit Qatar? Who visits you from Qatar? What money have you received from Qatar? (I’ve never been near Qatar, though I’ve been quoted often by Al Jazeera — I believe Mustache had printed out samples. But the Doha regime, which supported the Muslim Brotherhood, is Sisi’s special bête noire.)
  • Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are effectively banned in Egypt.  My onetime tenure at HRW weighed on their minds. What is your current function with Human Rights Watch? What information do you transmit to Human Rights Watch? And: How do you receive your salary from Human Rights Watch? (Courier pigeon.)
  • Where did you receive information on how to hide things on the Internet? (Mustache was fascinated by posts I’d done on Internet security, several of them in Arabic.) Do private companies make these things, or foreign governments? Are you paid by these private companies? You are in contact with which criminal groups who use these en-cryp-ti-on (carefully pronounced) methods? Also on technology: Which firearms do you own? (Gun ownership is legally restricted in Egypt. I have never even held a gun.) We know Americans love firearms, where have you purchased firearms in Egypt? Who in Egypt gave you firearms? Where do you keep your firearms? 
  • They asked me about my “connections” with three individuals. First was Hossam Bahgat, the activist and journalist who is now banned from travel in an investigation into “illegal” NGOs. (I said, accurately, that we were were busy people who hadn’t spoken much in years.) Next was Alaa Abd El Fattah, the revolutionary activist. (I said, accurately, he’d been imprisoned on false charges for most of the time I was in Egypt.) The third was an Italian who’d been entrapped over the Internet and deported in 2015. (I said, accurately, we barely knew each other.) Mustache seemed about to produce more names when a phone call interrupted him, and after that the interrogation moved to other things.
  • But they did care about organizations. Which unregistered organizations do you belong to? Have you used your home for meetings of illegal organizations? Which illegal organizations have you given money? Do you have an Egyptian bank account? Which Egyptians use your foreign bank account?  When did you last receive money from abroad? Have you received money for Egyptians? For what Egyptians have you received foreign money? What Egyptians have you given money? No, no, none, no, none, never, no, none, none; then half an hour later, Are you a member of ….
  • But the most sinister questions were about places. Have you ever lived in Heliopolis? Have you ever worked in Heliopolis? — a district in eastern Cairo. Then: Have you ever visited Sinai? I said truthfully I never had, but Sinai kept coming up over and over at intervals, like a brightly painted barrel in the maelstrom. When was the last time you visited Sinai? Where did you go in Sinai? Have you ever been to Sharm el-Sheikh? To Dahab? When were you in El Arish? Who has travelled to Sinai with you? Who did you meet in Sinai? Later Heliopolis bobbed up again. Who are your connections in Heliopolis? Do you belong to organizations in Heliopolis? How often did you visit Heliopolis during the summer of 2015? And: Which days were you in Heliopolis in June 2015?

North Sinai harbors the largest, ISIS-affiliated insurgency against Sisi’s rule. Heliopolis, though, is mainly for shoppers. I rarely went there, and not till later did I speculate on why they cared. Possibly they wanted to connect me to some illicit gay ring in the suburb. Memorably, though, a bomb blew apart Hisham Barakat — Egypt’s prosecutor general — in Heliopolis on June 29, 2015. The insistent dates made me wonder if they were looking to build some insane link to his murder. (I had said extremely harsh things about Barakat in e-mails to non-Egyptians after his killing — if death can be deserved, he deserved it.) The final fact, though, was: for them, perverted sex cases and security fears were becoming the same.

aya_hegazi_0

Aya Hegazy

Possibly all this was meant just to scare the hell out of me; if so the ludicrousness interfered with the lesson. But the narrative weaving through the interrogation was no more ludicrous than most of the terror trials Sisi’s security state has put together. It’s a state that holds more than 40,000 political prisoners. Famously, in 2013 three Al Jazeera journalists were arrested, then sentenced to years in prison on “terrorism” charges. for reporting on Muslim Brotherhood protests in Cairo. Their camera tripods and studio lights were held up on TV as terrorist equipment. From Mustache’s manner and intensity, I’m fairly sure State Security was ready to concoct some such case against me, if I’d answered enough questions wrong. Being a foreigner is no longer a mark of safety in Egypt: the Al Jazeera case sucked an Egyptian, a Canadian, and an Australian citizen into the desert gulag, clearly meant as a message that passports are no protection. A US citizen, Aya Hegazy, has been held in pre-trial detention, along with seven Egyptian colleagues, for two and a half years. She had founded a Cairo NGO housing and rehabilitating street children; she’s facing highly dubious charges of sexual abuse — and of luring susceptible kids to enlist in the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorists.” It’s widely seen as another brutal warning to civil society (and a way of punishing homeless youth, who I can testify were among the bravest and fiercest demonstrators against police repression, under Morsi as well as Sisi, from 2011 on). I don’t mean for a second that imprisoning foreigners is somehow worse than imprisoning Egyptians. But it marks a regime that no longer feels any restraint, whose fears and fantasies drive it to ever more sweeping and unstoppable measures of control. The US has done almost nothing to protest Aya Hegazy’s persecution. (Hillary Clinton asked for her release during a September meeting with Sisi, according to Clinton’s campaign.) On January 25, about six weeks before I left the country, security forces in Cairo kidnapped a young Italian student named Giulio Regeni. He disappeared from a street near where I often stayed at night. His savagely mutilated corpse turned up in a ditch a week later. That did arouse international anger — because of the horrible mercilessness of his torture, because his family demanded justice. Possibly the blowback from Regeni’s slaughter contributed to a decision not to arrest me. State Security may have felt it wasn’t worthwhile to risk extra chiding from abroad. I bear the spectral guilt of having profited from another person’s death.

Street children in Midan Tahrir, Cairo, early 2013. Photo by Reuters

Street children in Midan Tahrir, Cairo, early 2013. Photo by Reuters

The interrogation in the airport office droned on and on. About 45 minutes before my plane was due to leave, I said, more or less: “If you make me miss my flight, I assume you are arresting me. In that case, I want to call a lawyer now.” (The idea of “calling a lawyer” is lunacy in that context; at best you send a text from a cellphone hidden in your sock.) Mustache and Necktie whispered for five minutes. Mustache left the room. I was sweating.

Ten minutes later he came back. “Go,” he said. They physically shoved me out the door.

Since I left — escaped? — Egypt, I’ve often been asked why I stayed so long. It is difficult to explain. One way to say it is: something not just disorienting but morally vitating inhabits the way “international” human rights work is done; the rhythm of parachuting in, polevaulting out of “troubled places,” absconding with information from one country, processing it into useable fact in another, perpetually at multiple removes from the people whose stories you record or the actual workers who help you record them. In this realm, too, power is remoteness, distance. I stayed in Egypt after the arrests began because I wanted not to distance myself. I wanted to stay and work with my friends. At least we would share some of the burdens together.

If I had a clear function in our informal division of labor, it was to get the word out to the foreign world about what was happening in Egypt’s crackdown, to mobilize movements to answer. I failed. Undoubtedly there were many reasons I failed, personal inadequacies to start. One reason, though, was the way Sisi’s regime has taken up “security” as its identity and purpose. Despite the self-destructiveness and ineptitude of nearly all his anti-terror measures, Sisi has sold himself to the West — as well as to Saudi Arabia and Russia — as a bulwark against the numinous, universal threat. As a result, no ally will criticize him seriously and no leader will spurn his embrace. Newspapers and even human rights groups prefer to focus on abuses elsewhere, more congruent with the unwritten battle-plans of the endless war on terror. This isn’t just for foreign consumption. In Egypt, the language of security is all-pervading. It infects everything, and as a result everything becomes a security threat, even a blog or a Facebook page, even a few people having sex in a decrepit flat. The anti-terror machinery terrorizes itself.  Fear is everywhere. It just induced the United States to elect a maniacal thug as President, and Sisi’s government proudly announced that Sisi was the first foreign leader whose call Trump took. I wanted to tell this story partly as a reminder that the fear is absurd but the fear has consequences. But of course this will fail too, because we already know.

Donald Trump meets with President Sisi at the Plaze Hotel during the UN General Assembly session in New York, September 19, 2016. Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP

Donald Trump meets with President Sisi at the Plaza Hotel during the UN General Assembly session in New York, September 19, 2016. Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP

As I say, there was nothing exceptional in my experience, except that I walked away. Thousands around the world face the machinery of security every day, the manifold terrors of counter-terror, and I have nothing to offer but one small piece of advice. Remember: The police are stupid. In the end, that’s the main hope for our own iron age. The cops are studded with guns and sealed in Kevlar, but they have no minds.

The he-men in the airport office knew barely more about language, technology, life in its intricacy than a dog knows about a train. And their stupidity is only a distilled version of the larger stupidity of the state. (A victim entrapped over the Web whom I interviewed in 2003 told me: “All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor] — knew nothing about the Internet. The deputy prosecutor even said, ‘I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it? Do people just talk around with men?’ They knew nothing about how the things I was charged with actually worked.”) The state is an empty skull. The parasites in it spy and pry, but they cannot turn mere facts into knowledge. Their stupidity intimidates and oppresses, but it is also our strength. I learned a joke 25 years ago in Romania, and I still tell it, because it gives me comfort:

Q: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, the intelligent policeman, and the stupid policeman are eating Chinese food together. Who eats the most?
A: The stupid policeman eats it all. The other three are imaginary.

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Cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr: Get in / إركب

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Meet this policeman. He is going to arrest you.

Major-General Amgad el-Shafei, from El Wafd, May 2015

Major-General Amgad el-Shafei, from Al Wafd, May 2015

… “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.

Some of the 11 arrestees, from Youm7

Some of the 11 arrestees, from Youm7

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.)

Anti-prostitution laws, hard at work

Anti-prostitution laws, hard at work

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.)

“In Peace and Security.” Cartoon by Andeel for Mada Masr, September 14, 2015

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.

For torture nerds only: Ministry of Interior organizational chart (English, L; Arabic, R), from the Ministry's website. Don't blame me for the blurriness, blame the Ministry of Interior.

For torture nerds only: Ministry of Interior organizational chart (English, L; Arabic, R), from the Ministry’s website. Don’t blame me for the blurriness, blame the Ministry of Interior.

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?

Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a bathhouse, December 7, 2014

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. 

Separated at birth: El-Shafei (L), from an official photo; Big Brother (R), from an Ingsoc rally

Separated at birth: El-Shafei (L), from an official photo; Big Brother (R), from an Ingsoc rally

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Entrapped! How to use a phone app to destroy a life

Love in the age of Grindr. From http://media.giphy.com/

Love in the age of Grindr and Tinder. From http://media.giphy.com/

NOTE: For advice on how to avoid police entrapment and protect yourself on the Internet, see here (in Arabic) or here (in English and Arabic). For important information (in Arabic) on your legal rights if you’re arrested in Egypt for being gay or trans, see here. 

Here’s news from Cairo. On September 8, El Watan reported that the morals police, “under the direction of Major General Ahmed el Shafie,” caught a “bodybuilding trainer” who also served as bodyguard to famous actors and singers. He was “practicing sexual perversion [shuzooz] with a rich Arab man in an apartment in Doqqi” (a tony neighborhood where many Arabs from the Gulf live). Investigations showed “that the accused Salah A. , a bodyguard, set up a page for himself on a social media website, to offer himself for sexual perversion with men who want to practice debauchery [fugur] for prices as high as LE 2000″ – about US $250.

Major General Amgad el-Shafie, from a 2014 TV interview

Major General Amgad el-Shafie, from a 2014 TV interview

The same day, Al Youm al-Sabbah (or Youm7), a scandal site that runs stories leaked by cops, announced that the morals division of the Tourism and Antiquities Police – which patrols hotels and tourist sites — “has captured two sexual perverts while they practiced debauchery with two men from the Gulf inside two famous hotels in Zamalek and downtown Cairo.” Major General Ahmed Mustafa Shaheen, Tourist Police head, took credit for the case; one of the arresting officers was Colonel Ahmed Kishk — remember that name. In a posh Zamalek caravanserai they stopped “Fathy A., 24,” leaving “the room of a guest from the Gulf area.” On his IPhone they found a “conversation program which allows him to identify those close to him,” and evidence that he had sex for 1000 LE a shot. He is in jail, and was subjected to a forensic anal examination. The second miscreant, “Mahmoud A., 23,” was “found practicing debauchery with a person from the Gulf in exchange for 800 LE, in another hotel in downtown Cairo.” He too is in the police lockup.  A transgender friend of mine knows one of the hotel arrestees, and says he identifies as a “ladyboy,” a slang term in Cairo for men who play against gender roles.

of the Tourism and Antiquities Police meets with officers at a meeting this month about protecting archeological sites; photo from Youm7

Major General Ahmed Mustafa Shaheen of the Tourism and Antiquities Police meets his minions, at a confab this month about protecting archeological sites; photo from Youm7

It doesn’t make sense. Youm7’s explanation for the arrests beggars belief; “secret sources” pointed police to “two men who look suspicious and are unstable in their behavior and the way they talk,” headed for “two rooms of two different customers from the Gulf area,” in two hotels in two different neighborhoods. Quelle coïncidence! And why were the young Egyptians jailed while the Gulf Arabs went scot-free, in a country that’s declared its intention to crack down on gay foreigners? Under Egyptian law, both parties should be culpable. (See the note at the end for a summary of Egypt’s law on sex work and homosexual conduct.)

I know why the Gulfies weren’t jailed. The Gulfies didn’t exist. The IPhones, the evanescing clients, suggest the real story: the police impersonated rich Gulf Arabs online, to lure victims to a meeting and arrest them.

Between 2001 and 2004, police entrapped hundreds, probably thousands, of gay Egyptian men over the Internet, in a massive crackdown. Since 2013, arrests of suspected LGBT people burgeoned again in Egypt; most victims were seized at home or on the streets, yet rumors circulated that cops had returned to the Web for entrapment. But there was no proof — till this summer. On June 8, police arrested a Syrian refugee in Messaha Square in Doqqi; they’d arranged to meet him over Growlr. An appeals court overturned his one-year sentence, but, flouting legal protections for refugees, the Ministry of Interior deported him anyway. A month later, seemingly under similar circumstances, Doqqi police arrested an Italian national who had lived in Egypt for six years. A court eventually dismissed the charges, but, under pressure, he left the country. The latest cases show not just foreigners but Egyptians are targets of the snares.

Internet entrapment is cruel — and successful — because it feeds on solitude. The police arrest you not because you’re dancing at a party or cruising on the street, but because, on the apparent privacy of a flickering screen, you express a need. Your crime isn’t hurting someone but being vulnerable to hurt. I know a great deal about Internet entrapment; more, I think, than almost anybody except the police who do it. I don’t have the victims’ permission to detail this summer’s cases; but I’ve interviewed dozens of men arrested in the 2001-2004 crackdown, and studied dozens of police files from the same period. I’ve documented entrapment cases in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. You want to learn how to do it? Here’s what I know.

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, from the New Yorker, July 5, 1993; this is reportedly the New Yorker's most-reproduced cartoon ever

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, from the New Yorker, July 5, 1993: reportedly, the New Yorker’s most-reproduced cartoon ever

I. Truth and consequences. In the huge crackdown from 2001-2004, massively publicized arrests in gathering places — like the Queen Boat raid — made gay men avoid the sites where they could meet face-to-face. They turned to the Internet; and there, in their isolation, police could pick them off one by one. The current crackdown follows the same script. Last year, police harassment devastated the downtown café scene, shuttering spots where LGBT people had been welcome. (After padlocking one coffee bar popular among gays, police announced to the press that they had quashed an “atheists’ café,” a “place for Satan worship, rituals and dances.”) Nobody goes out anymore; they stay home and log in. Any time I’m with a group of gays in Cairo, the peculiar cooing sound of Grindr alerts, like pigeons masturbating, semicolons the hushed conversations.

Egyptians want the same range of things from dating apps as people anywhere: talk, touch, raunch, rapport, money, undying love. Where threats pervade the world outside, though, people want safety, as much a sexual as an emotional need. Dating apps give a dangerous simulacrum of security. You believe you’re safe, because you can hide who you are. You’re not safe, because others can do the same.

From Girl Comics #1,

From Girl Comics #1, “A Brief Rendezvous”

Dating apps are games of truth. They’re full of people seeking truth with desperate sincerity while trying to avoid telling it. The first rule is: Everybody lies. You lie as much as you can to make a better self for yourself — but not so much that, if a meeting happens, the other will be let down. (Don’t say you’re 25 and look like Channing Tatum if you’re 55 and look like Chris Christie.) The second rule is: Winning means not being lied to. It means meeting someone who tells you the truth; it means sustaining your invented self which staying the one less deceived. The game’s unstable, off-center, because these rules are irreconcilable.

But there’s one catch, one secret: If the police are playing, the policeman always wins. His avidity to listen, meet, and love trumps the diffidence other, lukewarm suitors show. The cop can lie as much as he likes, without fear of a rendezvous exploding his persona; you’re not going to storm away saying, “But you’re not 25,” because you’ll be in handcuffs. And he doesn’t care how many lies you tell; all that matters is getting the one fact from you, a confession that you’re gay — the evidence that makes you criminal. For ordinary players, you’d need the intricate algorithms of game theory to calculate the winning balance of truth and fiction. But streamlined rules govern the policeman’s game; only one truth counts. Once he has that, he’s won; your loss is final.

In a game of needs, the simplest, most economical need conquers. Most gay men believe the online world is liberating. But the game is rigged for the police. The ersatzness of that world, its imitation freedom, collapses like cardboard when a policeman commences play. After that, only he can win.

2. Trust and betrayal. Before you entrap someone, they have to trust you enough to talk to you and meet you. Most people online in Egypt want to believe there’s someone real out there, someone less prone to fiction than they are; naive desire renders entrapment easy. Still, the policeman needs skills: some English (required to navigate many apps and websites — plus, much chat is partly anglicized); some knowledge of gay slang and the gay world. It’s not a combination many cops have.

The Mugamma looms over Midan Tahrir

The Mugamma looms over Midan Tahrir

There are certainly officers who prowl the LGBT Internet. They’re in the morals division of the Cairo police, headquartered atop the Mugamma, the vast Stalinist bureaucrats’ sarcophagus on Midan Tahrir. (In 2001-2004, cops entrapped gay men from elsewhere in the country — but always by asking them to come to Cairo, for convenient arrest.) I’m convinced, though, they employ civilian gay informers as well.

Morals police in Egypt, like elsewhere, have always cultivated informers. The gay ones were mostly working-class guys, doing it for a little money and immunity from arrest. Sometimes, in seasons when the cops hungered for baksheesh, police would take an informer in a microbus round the cruising areas; he’d point to the known khawalat, or faggots, on the streets and they’d be loaded in the van, beaten, jailed. The gays even gave some famous informers nicknames; “Mohammed Laila Elwi,” dubbed for a movie actress, probably got hundreds arrested. In 2003, with an Egyptian colleague, I went to talk to Taha Embaby, then the dreaded head of the Cairo morals division, in his office in Abdin police station. On a sofa in his anteroom sat two fey young men, obviously there to give reports. As we stood quivering with trepidation, one cocked his wrist flirtatiously at me. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said.

But in 2001-2004, for Internet entrapment, police developed a new cadre of informers, with cyber-skills, not street smarts. Sometimes these exhibited frightening cunning. In one case, police entrapped a man who worked at the Cairo Opera House. His Internet chats with his nemesis,  preserved in the police file I read, chilled me: they showed an agent, calling himself “Raoul,” with deep musical knowledge and dark humor — as if the cops, like a dating site, had matched the informer to the victim. They asked each other their favorite operas. Tosca, said the victim-to-be, but the agent named “Die Fledermaus”: Johann Strauss’ story of deception and entrapment, its last scene set in a jail. He added that he loved Dialogues des Carmélitesan opera by the (gay) composer Francis Poulenc: a work almost unknown in Egypt, one that also ends, grimly, in a prison cell. As they set up the meeting that led to the arrest, their dialogues grew double-edged:

Raoul: and I promise u 2 things
Incubus: which r?
Raoul: first I will make u so happy
Raoul: second u will never forget me

Isabel Leonard (R) and Elizabeth Bishop in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Dialogues des Carmélites. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: Isabel Leonard (R) and Elizabeth Bishop in a Metropolitan Opera production of Dialogues des Carmélites. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

The informers often used the name “Raoul” in 2001-2004. Raoul frequently said he was French or Spanish — police grasped that many Egyptian gays trusted foreigners more than fellow countrymen. In some incarnations, he clearly wasn’t what he claimed. (One court file showed “Raoul” chatting with two young gay men. When he explained he was from Spain, one of the men excitedly announced he studied Spanish. Es usted de Madrid? ¿Qué estás haciendo en Egipto? Raoul retreated: No, no, better English for now. They went to meet him anyway.) But some playing the “Raoul” role were perhaps more truthful. I suspected police were blackmailing a gay foreigner living in Cairo, possibly one they’d gotten on drug charges or some other grave offense. It evinced the trouble they were willing to take to entrap a few hundred gay men.

The cops themselves were like cops everywhere: eager to make arrests, but lazy. They met their victims as close to police stations as possible, to minimize the walk. Often the rendezvous was in front of the Hardee’s in Midan Tahrir, across the street from the Mugamma. These days, police in Doqqi seem to specialize in entrapment; they like to meet victims in Midan Messaha, three easy blocks from the Doqqi police station.

 Friendly Doqqi police doing their patriotic propaganda duty: Cops hand candy to passersby in front of the Doqqi police station, to celebrate Sisi’s Suez Canal opening on August 5

3. Innocence and evidence. The one thing police want is proof of their victims’ guilt: which means getting them to confess to at least one sexual experience they’ve already had. Tender, attentive, and inquisitive, the informers pry this information out like gold fillings from teeth.

In early 2002, “Wael Samy” (another name informers often used) answered a personals ad placed by Zaki, a lonely 23-year-old from a provincial city. They started exchanging emails, often in English, and Wael lured Zaki into describing the one time he’d had sex:

Dearest Wael, It is always so fulfilling to hear from you ‘cause your e-mails are full of sincere emotions and feelings although they are always too short. I am also so happy to know that my emails give you such pleasure. …

Well, this time, as you’ve requested, I’ll try to give you an account of what happened during my first and only sex experience which happened about six years ago, hoping you can e-mail me with yours next time.

Zaki fell in love with Wael at a distance, and went to Cairo to meet him. The e-mail was the key item of evidence at his trial. He spent three years in prison.

Spies in our midst: Graphic from El-Watan, 2014

Spies among us: Graphic from El-Watan, 2014

But police also try to extract confessions after arrest. In the past, they’ve used a sadistic trick. If the informer had claimed to be a foreigner (“Dennis” or “Sevensen,” like “Raoul,” were common aliases), police at the Mugamma`would tell the terrified prisoner he’d been arrested because he’d spoken with a spy. Menaced with an espionage charge, the innocent captive would protest that they’d only talked about sex. Fine, the cops would say. Just tell us all about your gay life in writing and we’ll let you go. One victim told me:

The officer who interrogated me claimed [he was] a State Security officer. He said that all he wanted was for me to confess that I was gay. He said this is “personal freedom” and that if I confessed they would inform State Security and let me go immediately.

“Amgad,” a young doctor from upper Egypt whom I interviewed after his release from prison in 2003, told me the police

asked me how long I had known [the man I chatted with] … They told me this guy was an Israeli spy. They said he would have sex with me, then take photographs of me and then threaten me and make me work for Israel. … I told them all about my gay life, such as it was—the friendships I had made over the Internet and why they were important to me. Then they looked at each other and said something like, “We will make this only a personal relationship case.” Now I realize how funny they thought it was to lead me on this way.

The thing is, they didn’t blink. They didn’t feel that doing this would destroy a whole life. They caught me because I am gay, but they didn’t even think that my future could be destroyed. I am not rich, I cannot leave the country or start my life over. … And they didn’t feel anything. Anything. Can you understand what they were thinking? I cannot.

b86cefbf-3753-4937-95dc-62696d57cd8f4. Motives. It’s the cops’ motives I mean. Today as much as in 2001-2004, the Egyptian criminal justice system’s ignorance about the Internet is stunning. Back in 2003, one defendant told how at his trial, the judge

wasn’t sure what a website was, or what “chat” was, and he was puzzled by the difference between chatting with someone over the phone and over the Internet.

Another told me, “All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor]—knew nothing about the Internet. The deputy prosecutor even said, ‘I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it? Do people just sit around and talk with men?'”

Things haven’t changed much. Most judges know how to send e-mail by now, and some cops even have Facebook pages. But the technical side of cyberspace mostly leaves them baffled. And this makes the Internet a source of fear. It terrifies the state itself. Police pursue “perversion” on the Internet not because they’re scared of perversion, but because they’re scared of the Internet and its capacity to spread it.

The Internet arrived in Egypt in 1993; by the early 2000s, it had nearly half a million users. In 2002, the government introduced “free” dial-up access (costing ordinary phone rates), opening the Web to anyone with a landline. With the advent of wireless, sold through Egypt’s giant telecommunications companies, technology leapt ahead of the state’s capacity for control. Faced with a Facebook- and Twitter-powered revolution in January 2011, the government proved unable to monitor or block individual websites; its only recourse was to shut down the whole Internet for days — and even then, intrepid activists circumvented the wall. Successive regimes absorbed the lesson. Information flow could be an mortal foe; survival could hinge on subduing it.

From InternetSociety.org, based on World Bank data

From InternetSociety.org, based on World Bank data

The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) estimates that internet users in Egypt more than tripled from 15 million in 2009 to 48 million in early 2015. Smartphones — required for using most apps — have spread more slowly. In 2012, smartphone penetration was lower than almost anywhere else in the Middle East. This is changing, though. Sony reportedly expects smartphones to make up 32% of mobile sales in Egypt by next year — still low (worldwide, they account for more than 2/3 of sales) but rising swiftly.

High price and exclusivity make smartphones even more potent status symbols in Egypt than elsewhere. They’re a tool of communication, but also a tool for the upper-class and upwardly mobile to convey their insulation from the world. To be sure, plenty of poor people save for months to buy a Samsung, but that’s because possession conveys membership in a virtual gated community, like the real walled wealth reserves that mushroom in exurban Cairo. This adds to the false feeling of safety enshrouding the promised anonymity of the Internet.

But the government attacks anonymity on every front. Most obviously it fears the Internet’s political uses. ANHRI notes that “the role the internet played in the political changes over the past years … drove more and more users to social media.” Twitter users, for instance, multiplied tenfold between 2012 and 2015. And lots of Egyptians talk politics on the Internet — about twice the percentage that do in the rest of the world. Moreover, with Sisi’s draconian censorship of print media, Facebook and Twitter and a few doggedly independent websites are where Egyptians turn for accurate rather than airbrushed news.

The state responds by suppressing, scaring, spying. A brutal draft “cyber-crime” law provides life imprisonment for “harming public order; endangering safety and security or society; endangering the life and security of citizens; preventing authorities from undertaking their duties,” as well as “harming national unity or societal peace” and “defaming a heavenly religion.” The pretext is “terrorism”; the target is any dissent. Already the government has imposed harsh prison terms for unwanted — in particular, atheist — Facebook posts or pages. (Last month a court rejected a Sisi supporter’s lawsuit demanding a complete ban on Facebook. It urged “self-censorship” instead.) Meanwhile Sisi’s regime has sought, and bought, technology from sinister corporate suppliers to enable surveillance of virtually every keystroke on the Internet. No one knows just how deep the state’s current invasions of cyber-privacy go.

on-the-internet-nobody-knows-youre-a-dog-except-the-NSA

Egypt has aimed very little of this high-tech surveillance machinery at sex or dating apps — so far. In truth, most dating apps are extremely vulnerable to surveillance. Last year, analysts found flaws in Grindr’s geolocation service, the one that lets you know which cruisees are near you; anybody adept at exploiting the errors could pinpoint a user’s exact location down to a meter or two. Some (but seemingly not all) of the problems were patched, and Grindr disabled geolocation for some worst-case countries, including Egypt. But other problems persist. For one thing, most dating apps don’t offer users an SSL (Secure Socket Layer, or https://) connection — one that encrypts communication between your device and their servers. Moreover (I’m quoting the security mavens at Tactical Tech), with most dating apps,

  • Downloading the apps from the Appstore or Google Play will link them directly to your Apple ID or Google account;
  • Your mobile operator will also collect this information, linking it directly to your identity;
  • Other social networking apps installed on your mobile device such as Facebook or Twitter may also collect this information about you.
Geolocation and its discontents: From cartoon.called.life on Instagram

Geolocation and its discontents: From cartoon.called.life on Instagram

Yet Egypt’s police haven’t taken full advantage of this porousness; so far as I know, they’ve relied on crude flesh-and-blood informers to entrap Grindr’s and Growlr’s users. I suspect there’s a knife-fight among Egypt’s police branches to access the technology and training — and money — for Internet surveillance. And the sex cops haven’t been a priority so far; the thugs surrounding Sisi care far more about sites dealiing in expressly political dissent than they do about dates or hookups.

This too may be changing. The more arrests the morals police make, the more they can argue that Internet sex is a security issue. Persecution of gay foreigners can only bolster that contention — and as that expands, State Security officers seem to be upping their involvement in the cases. Think Rentboy. Last month, US Homeland Security dropped its hot pursuit of mad bombers and terror cells to bust an innocuous website for male sex workers, ostensibly because it aided “trafficking.” The anxieties in play were indistinguishable from those in Egypt: fears of money, bodies, identities, and information flowing over the Web and across borders, out of control. Similarly, when Cairo journalist Mona Iraqi led a ludicrous, brutal raid on an alleged gay bathhouse in December, she justified the inhumanity as a war against “human trafficking.” The online world is already a danger zone for LGBT Egyptians, but there may be worse to come.

5. In conclusion. Gay men’s cruising is intimately interwoven with urban history, with the power to spin new narratives out of opportunities for lingering, loitering, delay. Cruising is connected to the figure of the flaneur pausing at shopwindows and interrogating glances, to existence in the city as a story full of forking paths, to the streets as sites of mystery and concealment amid displays and crowds.

Yum. This is a much more attractive label than the old ones.

Yum. This is a much more attractive label than the old ones.

I remember walking once through Bucharest with a gay Romanian friend in 1993. Only a few years after the Revolution, Romanian cities were still drab, vacant. Clothing stores all sold the same clothes, state food shops held aisle on aisle of canned carp in oil — crap în ulei, self-descriptive. Suddenly, on gray Bulevardul Bălcescu, we realized a young man with sculpted hair was staring at us. We followed him, tentatively. Then we lost him — then realized he was following us. We carried on a hunt or dance for an hour or so, as he paused at store windows, stared furtively into the grimed glass, flicked an eyelid our way, flurried on. My friend, expert enough at cruising dark public parks, had never experienced anything like this in downtown Bucharest. I understood that day the advent of something new in the disused city, an ambulatory eroticism that would transfigure seeing and the sidewalks, something reflected in a few scrubbed panes, flowering in the first buds of consumer culture; new desires and new ways for them to occupy the streets. (I thank George Iacobescu, who became my friend that day, for offering the lesson.)

All I can say is, Grindr’s different. Playing on dating apps is interesting and erotic, but it isn’t ambulatory or open. A call-and-response rhythm drives the dating app. It starts the moment you sign up, when you clarify yourself in detail, on a form, not only for your peers but for the corporation’s benefit. Once your identity’s set, interrogations continue. Conversations are quick arousing inquisitions, the question-and-answer form unvarying as a coxswain or a tragic chorus. This isn’t cruising; it’s a catechism. Like religious catechisms, it’s a mechanism by which power forces you to state your faith, define your self as one declines a noun. The apps police us; they force us to confess, even though temptation constrains us, not a clumsy truncheon. No wonder it’s a perfect playing ground for the police — the police are already there. They come built in. Intensifying this is the effect of speed. Ten years ago, on static personals sites, you could write long answers, even switch to the horse-and-buggy hebetude of e-mail. Now everything goes triple-time; urgent antiphonies rush you on, no time to dally, every decision’s instant. The race erodes judgment, and it’s that much easier for the cops to get what they want from you — the name, the sex story, the date for the meeting.

No wonder everybody lies so much on apps; it’s their way of resisting the drumbeat demand that you define yourself. It preserves space for secrecy and invention — only a space too fragile to withstand the police. Every time I fill out a form on one of these things I recall Foucault. “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.” And fuck.

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez, from the New Yorker, February 23, 2015

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez, from the New Yorker, February 23, 2015

At the beginning, I mentioned Colonel Ahmed Kishk, who helped arrest the hapless victims in hotels. As soon as I read that, I recognized the name; it took a few days to remember everything. Twelve years ago, Colonel Kishk presided over the arrests of thirteen gay men who used a flat in Giza for occasional sex. There was no Internet entrapment in the case; Kishk collected evidence by the old-school method of tapping the apartment’s phone.

One of the men tried to slit his wrists when Colonel Kishk seized him. I remember standing outside the Giza police station one February night in 2003, trying to get in to see them; I was turned away. I spoke to several of them much later (they were convicted, then acquitted on appeal, freed after six months in prison). Guards tortured them viciously in the police lockup. Possibly they were being tortured while I stood on the cold street.

This summer, by coincidence, I met a man who had been one of them. He’s almost forty now; he fled the country after he was freed, and has lived in the Gulf ever since, only returning to Egypt to see his family. When he told me his story and I realized who he was, he started crying. “You know,” he said, “in many ways I live well now. I have a good job in another country. And yet they ruined my life, utterly. I know that I am safe now. And yet I know I will never recover.”

One other thing I know about these cases: when the police invest their time and talents in training their own to entrap and deceive, or in blackmailing and manipulating gay informers, they’ll use those valuable human resources again and again and again, till they are shamed or commanded to stop. Why lose the investment? These stories are only the augury of more ordeals. Colonel Kishk is still on the job.

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Guy 1:

Guy 1: “Those gay people are funny, bro…” Guy 2: “Yeah man…” Cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, August 20, 2014

Oliver: Thoughts on love

Oliver, in a photo taken by a friend while I was in hospital for a week in May

Oliver, in a photo taken by a friend while I was in hospital for a week in May

My little cat Oliver, whom I loved dearly, died in July. He was perhaps ten months old – with rescued street cats, of course, there is no way to be sure. He had been sick for a few days, coughing and feeble; but I didn’t fully notice till he began refusing food and hiding in dark places: a sign, though I didn’t realize it, that a cat believes it is going to die. I took him to the veterinarian on a Wednesday. He cried softly, mewling against my shoulder, as we descended the elevator; in the taxi, he tried to hide beneath the seat. The doctor said he had severe pneumonia. They shaved part of his leg and attached an IV drip to rehydrate him. But as soon as the slow flow of liquid struck, something happened: he screamed and leapt in the air, as if galvanized. I tried to hold him and he bit my right hand hard, just at the thumb; I carried the scar for weeks. Then he tumbled over and lay there, still. The doctor massaged his chest, and gave him a shot of atropine, but his muzzle was turning blue. I was too stunned to realize quite what was happening. He died staring at me, his mouth open; the look in his eyes was both blank and insistently expressive, as if he were saying to me, simply: You see.

I haven’t been able to say much that made sense about it since. For a long time now I have been thinking about what, or how, a life — any life — means. This is different from “the meaning of life,” a question that is, as the President would say, above my pay grade. (Who gets paid to provide such answers anyway? The philosophers I’ve known must have hid their incomes under a bushel.) It’s instead a question of what one specific life can signify, so slight, so almost-always soon forgotten. What does it mean for such an evanescent thing to mean? If an individual existence means anything after it is gone, that must lie in what we say about it, how we re-imagine and retell it. But this seems a cruelly fragile significance for an extinguished life that once meant so much more to the one living it.

This question is valid for animals as for humans. Animals may or may not have consciousness like ours. (Julian Jaynes points out that it’s impossible, watching any human going about her business, to tell whether she is actually conscious or an automaton at the beck of inner voices. Yet we give humans the benefit of the doubt, although – in the case of Donald Trump, or President Sisi, or indeed almost anyone on TV – the inner voices might be a more plausible explanation. I don’t see why we shouldn’t grant the same credit for consciousness to the pets sharing our lives, who look at least as convincingly as if they know what’s what.) Even if they are conscious, though, we humans have the power of language as they don’t. We are meaning-making animals, and the meaning of the animals we love resides uniquely in our minds, our words. Our pets give us a trust that, duplicitous and uneasy, humans can’t offer one another. In return, we only give them words they cannot use.

So I wonder what Oliver meant; what I can say about this vulnerable, short-lived little animal who only indifferently noticed that I had given him a name? He came to me in November of last year, in a sidewalk café near where I lived in Doqqi. I went there to meet some friends, and when I arrived, a tiny orange-and-white street kitten was on the lap of one of them. He was dirty and scraggly, with an infection in one eye. He was also desperately affectionate; put down, he would try to scramble back up to you, as if he wanted nearness more than anything, even food. I couldn’t leave him; after asking my friends what to do, I decided to take him home. He whimpered as I carried him down the street. The elevator frightened him – he cried frantically as we rose in it, far more grievously than when, months later, he descended it the last time. The artificial light in my flat stabbed his eyes and terrified him, and he burrowed under my jacket and clung to the back of my shirt. Several traumatic baths were needed before he was presentably clean. The conjunctivitis faded quickly. It took a day or two to decipher his sex; when I did, I named him Oliver, after Dickens’ little orphan.

Oliver in early December 2014, about a week after I brought him home

Oliver in early December 2014, about a week after I brought him home

Cats are tragic animals, tragic in a comprehensibly human way. Their happiness is in the womb or in the first few weeks when they’re drawing on their mother’s teats, a fantasy of amplitude and union. (Watch a grown cat, sleeping, knead and suck anything that reminds it of a maternal nipple.) Then life turns on them, harsh, insufficient, cruel. When they’re barely old enough to fend for themselves, their mothers reject them brutally, like Baptists finding out their kid is gay. After that they form no compensating connections within the species. Cats are loners; they don’t prowl in packs like dogs; they struggle against their own kind to live, and sex is a penetrative skirmish in the war of all with all — if you’ve seen (or heard) cats fucking, it’s like one of Mike Tyson’s wet dreams. In fields or forests this life has logic. In a city like Cairo, it is dreadful; hundreds of thousands of street cats populate its trash piles, fighting to survive in a misery that brevity cannot redeem. Yet in all this they are animals recognizably like us: by night, dreaming of a lost maternal plenitude; by day, hacking day their way through a life without comfort, with a forward-thrusting impulse to survive that cannot restore them to the happiness of dreams. I suppose I’ll be accused of anthropomorphizing animals; instead, though, I’m situating our human rage and suffering back in the animal world from which it sprang. Schopenhauer must have studied cats in the wild. In them, the Will that wills nothing but its preservation, but cannot will contentment or satisfaction, appears naked of the disguises that make it bearable to humans; and so does the sorrow for a lost time when nothing was willed or needed.

Yet when they connect to us humans it’s something quite different, devoid of the violence that rends relations among themselves. They don’t strive with us; they suspend the war. Ethologists trace the domesticated cat’s bond with a particular human to its deep memories of its mother when she was carer and provider. Surely that’s true to a point. But cats aren’t idiots. They don’t blindly identify these large, hairless, stumbling apparitions with the resurrected mother. Their attachment contains the buried past while transmuting it into something else. (Often while I worked, Oliver would lie on one of my old thick blankets, which smelled of me but was reassuringly hairy in a cat-like way, and knead and suck it while drifting off to sleep. It was a fantasy object in which his memories could merge with the actuality of my scent. His bond with me showed its origins in nostalgia then; but, when he was awake, that bond was different – much less oral, for one thing – as if he knew that it was bound to the mast of the future, not the past.)

Cats take a lost utopia and, changing its terms, turn it into love for us. Without leaving the instinctual world for a moment, they acquire something like a moral life, one not shaped by the adult struggle to survive. Of course the transcendence of natural limit is small and local; morality is never complete, never permeates any self; no cat ever stopped dismembering mice because he loved a human. (Hitler, after all, became a vegetarian, but never stopped being Hitler.) Still, the accomplishment is something nature never fully planned. Turning backward to move forward, a cat’s love transcends the conditions and the destiny it was born with. Transcendence both rejects and redeems what it transcends. All morality is a map of an imagined future, but it comes from memory, from the faint dream traces of an unrecoverable past. Escaping the ukases of necessity means recollecting a time before need.

Oliver was intensely, astonishingly full of love. He loved to love people. Mostly this focused on me, but whenever he met a stranger he approached the encounter with passionate interest, as though he wanted to figure out what could be loved about this person. (When a cat grows up, its gaze tends to narrow; the broad stare of kittenhood that we think so innocent turns shuttered and aloof. It’s an aid to predation, a way of veiling exactly where the hungry look aims. This never happened to Oliver, though, for some reason. His eyes stayed wide and open till he died, as if he wanted to absorb as much of the world as he could.) In a street kitten, this was amazing. I don’t know how he became this way. In cruel Cairo, street cats learn to fear humans early; people spend on cats their casual sadism left over from family and work, as if they were tossing pocket change. At a downtown café last year, I used to see a cat with a tail skinned from the tip, bloodied down a third of its length. It darted round for days showing this raw stump in terror and pain, till it stopped appearing any more. I can’t reconstruct what made Oliver take the immense risk of loving a species so eager to torture, so quick to forget. But he took the chance, and he loved.

Oliver approaches a new friend at my birthday party, June 2015

Oliver approaches a new friend at my birthday party, June 2015

He was so inseparable from me for months that it’s hard to detach discrete memories. I remember the way he stretched, usually lying beside me in the bed in the morning, more profoundly than I’ve ever seen a cat stretch its limbs before: his body taking in the sheer contentment of being there. Although like most cats he was not enthusiastic about having his belly touched, he liked to lie on his back, cradled in my arms, staring up at me; at such moments he would let me strum his stomach like a banjo, as if he were saying, I know you like this; it’s OK. Early on, I tried shutting him out of my bedroom some nights, because I’m allergic to cat hair. I stopped because he would sit at the doorsill the whole night crying – not because he wanted food, his bowl was full, but because he wanted nearness. I remember how, when I leaned over him, he would reach up his paw and press my face. It was a firm touch, but too pliant to be meant to keep me distant. He would stare at me intently then, as if to say: There you are.

Another thing I have thought about lately, in a disconnected way, is love. As I grow older, I grow more convinced that love is something tangible in the universe, existing above and beyond beings who try to love; a force that inhabits us, almost irradiates us, briefly and from time to time (because our frailty could hardly bear such a suffusion constantly). It’s impersonal in the sense that it seems to dwell outside us. Yet it still calls us back to the things of this world, to apprehend the absolute individuality of the objects it chooses. There is a wonderful essay by Edward Mendelson on W. H. Auden, my favorite poet since I was a child. A heretical Christian, Auden had his own religious vocabulary. “Auden used ‘miracle’ to refer to anyone’s sense of the unique value of one’s own unpredictable individuality”; and he used “God” for the force that understands the individuality of every thing in creation. God is the giver of all Proper Names.

“To give someone or something a Proper Name,” he wrote, “is to acknowledge it as a real and valuable existence, independent of its use to oneself, in other words, to acknowledge it as a neighbor.” The value that is acknowledged through a proper name is not measurable in any objective sense; it exists in the eyes of the beholder. When human beings imagine a beholder who finds such value everywhere, they think in terms of God, or, as Auden wrote in another late poem, “the One … / Who numbers each particle / by its Proper Name” – a deity who knows the name of every electron in the universe, rather than thinking about them in collective, statistical terms.

That is love in its largest shape, of which we experience little, local portions. Poets grasp this paradox of an immense power transfiguring our particular selves. They tell us that to let this power invade us gives us meaning, just as the power lets us recognize the meaning in others. Perhaps that force that is not us, is all that will remain of us. Philip Larkin wrote about “our almost-instinct, almost-true”:

What will survive of us is love.

One more thing I remember. There was a time from November through January – the first few months after I took in Oliver – when the cruelty in Egypt seemed out of control. Stories of arrests and torture spread, formed the ground bass beneath every conversation. My friends were leaving the country; what they left behind was fear. We were all certain we would be arrested. I kept a small bag packed under my bed for when the police came. Each day I repacked it methodically (colored underwear or white? do they allow dental floss in jail?) as if trying obsessively to put order in the paranoia, to arrange its mad metastasis into a coherent plan.

I can’t describe what it meant, amid all this, to have the nearness of a small animal who wanted nothing but to love and be loved. He wakened me every morning, sitting on my chest, sensing something was out of kilter, with no remedy to provide but love. His simplicity made things seem sure. Purity of heart can save others; he woke me out of the nightmare of the fallen days to a dream that fear was the fragile thing, that our barbarous human hatred quailed before the invulnerability of compassion. He offered the hope that love survives in this suffering world, that it transforms us. For that I owe him much of my self, although I never had a way to say it. Goodbye, Oliver. I love you.

Oliver at my birthday party, June 2015

Oliver at my birthday party, June 2015

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New arrests of alleged trans and gay people in Cairo

Seven innocent Snow Whites: From Youm7, February 27

Seven victims: Still from Youm7 video, February 27

Some of us hoped the acquittal of victims in Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid would resonate longer than a few days or weeks; maybe prosecutors and police, humiliated by the implosion of a showpiece case, would back off from their pursuit of illusory “perversion.” But that would be unlike this government. General Sisi, dizzy with his own powers, takes each failure as an opportunity to fail better.

On February 27, Al-Youm al-Sabbah (or Youm7), mouthpiece of the state’s morals campaign, headlined the arrest of seven “transsexuals” (motahawiloon genseyan) the night before. The vice squad, “under the administration of Major General Magdy Moussa,” found them “forming a network for practicing debauchery [fugur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct] in Cairo.” Youm7 included video interviews with the victims, chained together in the police station. It blurred their faces — usually, it flaunts them. But a photo the news organ posted on Facebook showed two of them, up close and clearly. I won’t reprint it here. The two seemed very young (one person with a little knowledge of the case told me some of the victims might be minors, but I’ve also heard that isn’t true). One of them looked utterly terrified.

And a grumpy dwarf: Major General Magdy Moussa, from El Methaz

And a grumpy dwarf: Major General Magdy Moussa. Photo from Vetogate.com

Youm7 says that, according to Moussa, police followed the victims

through their web pages on social media, and have proof that they publish naked photos. He also confirmed that the administration has created fake webpages to follow up the activities of perverts [shawazz], which led them in recent days to organize meetings with them in a nightclub on Al-Haram [Pyramids] Road, where [they were told that] at the end of the evening they would be taken to apartments to participate in debauchery.

The truth seems different.

Haram Road: Photo by Marwan Abdelhamed

Haram Road in the Giza district of Cairo: Photo by Marwan Abdelrahman

Al-Haram Road is one of those points where the Cairo people live in confronts and copulates with the Cairo tourists see. A long strip of street stretched west toward the mauve haze where the old Egyptians believed the dead went, it carries the city’s smog out to lap at the haunches of the Pyramids. It’s a smear of lights and shabbiness like a cut-rate Vegas, full of seedy nightclubs patronized by Westerners taking a break from the ruins, and Gulf Arabs taking a what-happens-in-Egypt-stays-in-Egypt break from home. The American scholar Paul Amar has documented some three decades of political battles over the entertainment sites along the road.  Louche venues where foreigners and Egyptians mingle, they unnerve authorities by implicitly posing an alternative to a “national culture that is embodied most essentially in gender norms.” Between threats to bulldoze them, the government watches and polices the clubs and streets. (No wonder Major General Hassan Abbas, head of the vice squad’s “International Activities” division, also led the arrests — according to Youm7.) The El-Leil Casino is one of the area’s most venerable, and respectable, bars. It offers dinner and dancing, and a cabaret where some of Egypt’s best-known bellydancers perform.

The El-Leil

The El-Leil

The police grabbed the defendants there. One version I heard is that six were sitting at a table together. A transgender woman who was a police informer pointed them out to an undercover cop, who seized them. Although some of the victims may identify as trans, apparently not all do, and all were wearing men’s clothing. In the video, most of them deny that they knew each other before that night. The seventh defendant is a cisgender woman who was near their table. Reportedly she asked police what was going on, and they took her too. (Her interview on the Youm7 video seems to confirm this.)

If this is true, the Internet entrapment story may not be. Yet the police do seem intensely anxious about the Internet and how “perverts” use it. The video is salted with shots of trans women, seemingly from social-media pages. One defendant, dazed, suggests the cops interrogated him heavily about his online presence: “They took me while we were sitting and I don’t have any [Web] pages and I don’t know how to read or write.”

The story shows police increasingly bent on using the Internet — as trap or evidence — against anyone they suspect of being transgender or gay. Fears of prostitution (and its attendant exchanges across bodies, classes, borders) also simmer. The authorities say each of the victims “got paid about 3000 LE to practice debauchery” — about $400 US, the kind of price only a foreigner would pay.

Rogue journalist Mona Iraqi, of course, tried hard to exploit just such fears, latent but potent in an increasingly resentful, xenophobic country. In her last, self-justifying TV program on her bathhouse case, a month after the acquittal, she tried to “prove” the working-class hammam was a homosexual haven by citing English-language Google searches. And she still claimed that “sex trafficking” was going on there, mouthing the ominous syllables without a rag of evidence that any client had been exploited, or transported, or even aroused.

Mona Iraqi’s latest broadcast about the bathhouse raid, February 4

Yet the only bit of good news I can point to is that Mona Iraqi failed. Egypt keeps sinking deeper into authoritarian paralysis, but at least her discrediting continues; and she’s had a terrible month. In mid-February, while she was trying to pursue some sort of story on a private school, the headmaster– apparently made suspicious by her reputation — called the police and had her arrested for filming on the grounds without permission. Tarek el-Awady, a defense lawyer from the bathhouse case who has doggedly pursued her since, gleefully released the police report to the press. And a week after that, el-Awady’s complaint against her for libelling the bathhouse defendants bore fruit. Prosecutors charged Iraqi and the owner of the host TV station, Tarek Nour, with bringing false accusations against their victims. They’ll stand trial beginning April 5.

Tarek Nour, receiving an award for best performance in a role supporting really evil people

Tarek Nour, receiving an award for best performance in a role supporting really evil people

Don’t rejoice yet, though. In addition to the problems with Egypt’s repressive law on libel (it’s a criminal as well as civil offense, incurring up to one year in prison) there’s something funny here. A scent of political scheming always hung round the bathhouse case. The fact that Iraqi’s boss Tarek Nour faces trial as well adds to the intangible suspicion. Nour is not just a broadcaster. He’s the “emperor of ads,” the immensely rich owner and founder of Tarek Nour Communications, one of the first and largest private advertising agencies in the Middle East. (His TV channel is a handy side business; he buys the ads he makes.) A slavish camp follower of the military-industrial establishment, Nour was Mubarak’s favorite media maven, doing the dictator’s ads for the one (farcially) contested election he ever permitted, as well as for the presidential campaign of Mubarak stooge Ahmed Shafik in 2012. Then he ran Sisi’s advertising for both the January 2014 referendum on a new constitution, and the presidential race later that year. So close was he to the Generalissimo that a rumor even spread last year that Sisi’s reclusive wife was Nour’s sister — apparently not true.

So why is he on trial in this comparatively trivial case? Just maybe, the tycoon disappointed the tyrant du jour. Since there was no imaginable way Sisi could lose either vote, Nour’s main job was to gin up enough enthusiasm for a legitimacy-lending turnout: and he failed. In the constitutional referendum, Nour publicly promised a 60% turnout; in fact, it was under 40%. And the presidential ballot so humiliated Sisi with its low attendance that he was obliged to keep the polls open an extra day, so that a seemly quantity of voters could be bought, bullied, or resurrected from the dead. I doubt Nour will ever serve a day in jail, but it’s just conceivable the collapse of the bathhouse case gave Sisi an excuse to remind him that poor performance carries consequences.

Not hidden from me: Mona Iraqi on TV

Not hidden from me: Mona Iraqi on TV

I stress: I have no idea whether that’s true. But the diversion the speculation provides, absent any real knowledge of what’s going on, itself indicates how a certain kind of authoritarianism works. Egypt today is obsessed by secrets. (Mona Iraqi’s program, after all, is called “The Hidden.”) Everybody’s searching out obscure motives, untold tales; even private life, in a surveillance state, is spectacle. Intimacies, unblurred photos, inward lives, the contents of keepsake chests and password-protected pages, are rooted up and splayed for everyone to see. But in the process everything — justice, politics, private experience — turns into entertainment, a soap opera of conspiracy stories. I’m as easily distracted as anyone. And under the show the mechanisms of power tick on undisturbed: even more deeply buried, hidden.

While we were calling people last night trying to find out what happened on Haram Road, an Arab satellite channel droned in my living room, rerunning Running Man. It’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the Reagan era, about a dystopian world that forces convicted criminals to fight to the death in a huge, televised, wildly popular game show. (The Hunger Games stole the idea.) Those days, nobody had dreamed of reality TV. We laughed when the evil game show host barked into the phone, “Get me the Justice Department — the Entertainment Division!” That was then. I’m in Cairo now. The joke’s here.

The open road; Haram Road under development, in a photo probably from the 1930s, from Fatakat.com

The open road: Haram Road under development, in a photo probably from the 1930s, at Fatakat.com

After Mona Iraqi: Some Egyptian voices

Lock your door if you like, but I'm still watching: Mona Iraqi as Big Sister, in an ad for her program El Mostakhbai ("The Hidden")

Lock your door if you like, but I’m still watching: Mona Iraqi as Big Sister, in an ad for her program El Mostakhbai (“The Hidden”)

How does it feel to be unsafe in ur own house, scared and your stomach hurts hearing ur elevators doors open, random foot steps outside thinking they might be coming to get you, becoming someone else but yourself just because they can’t accept you the way you are, afraid to love and be loved, not because ur heart might get broken. NO it is because u can’t be who you are even in ur own home with someone you love. Afraid you might get killed in front of everyone and they will be happy and supportive to your killer just because u r not one of them. Happy new year.

A gay Egyptian friend wrote that on Facebook on December 31. It reflects how many in Egypt feel — whatever their identities — after a year of fear, a year of intensifying police repression and political regression.

The collusion between supposedly independent media and the state has been key to consolidating Egypt’s new dictatorship. This week Buzzfeed reported the claim by Ibrahim Mansour, editor of Tahrir News, that “There are instructions from the state apparatus” to cover sex scandals and other “silly” issues. Mansour believes “the government wanted coverage of arrests for homosexuality and other ‘morality’ charges in order to distract from political stories that could expose how the government had betrayed the hopes of the revolution.”

IloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisi: Mahmoud Saad

IloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiI IoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisi: Mahmoud Saad

But it goes deeper. The state knows how to bully or buy media to mouth its political line. Help in getting salacious sales-boosting stories is merely one reward for cooperation. This week a tape mysteriously leaked, apparently recorded during last year’s presidential campaign; in it, Abbas Kamel, head of Generalissimo Sisi’s office, gives the armed forces’ official spokesman detailed orders to exploit reporters. He instructs the PR flack to reach out to “our people in the media,” and command them to “create a situation” and “rile people up.” One snippet plumbs the depths of sycophancy to which journalists can sink:

Kamel also mentions media personality Mahmoud Saad, saying he had recently received a call from Saad asking what he did wrong, and that he heard he had upset “them.” “He told me that we had already agreed and that he loves and supports [Sisi],” he said, before dismissing Saad, saying “we can leave him for now.”

In Egypt, embarrassing tapes leak so often these days you could irrigate crops with them. They may suggest cracks in the military’s support for Sisi, or perhaps fractures between the military and the security services. They also point an ambience around Sisi reminiscent of Beckett’s Krapp or the noxious Nixon, a paranoiac multiplication of microphones where nobody knows who’s wiretapping whom. But the perverse copulation between journalists and generals remains a central fact in Egypt’s loss of freedom.

Sisi's last tape: The Generalissimo wonders whether he's hearing voices

Sisi’s last tape: The Generalissimo wonders whether he’s hearing voices

Two activist colleagues recently wrote essays on the implications of TV presenter Mona Iraqi’s disastrous escapade. With their permission, I’m publishing them here.

Ramy Youssef is an activist working on human rights and issues of harassment. He wrote (in English):

I was wondering: if I’d get the chance to talk to Mona Iraqi and have a discussion with her, what would I say? I tried hard to exclude any violent ideas that might be floating vigorously in my head, and focus on the verbal actions.

Not hidden for long: Mona Iraqi, played by Najla Fathy, listens to the shocking goings-on next door

Not hidden for long: Mona Iraqi, played by Naglaa Fathy, listens to the shocking goings-on next door

Mona Iraqi, who became one of the most famous and controversial persons in Egypt at the moment due to her heroic action in leading the extraordinarily smart morals police department to a demonic place where people bathe — God, isn’t she a real savior, intervening with unbelievable bravery to stop all these people from bathing and get them all into a police van wearing nothing but towels. Not only did she do this, but also she took the time to video record all these people being led into the police van semi-naked, and broadcast it on her TV show.

Last Monday, January 12, the court announced the verdict after the arrestees spent 35 days in prison. There were all found  innocent. While they were in jail, Mona Iraqi was on a different mission to spread awareness and deliver knowledge to our society. On her show, she declared a mere assumption about their sexuality based on zero evidence, and no right. She said that they are part of a male prostitution network, which participates actively in transmitting HIV to thousands and thousands of people. That’s what you get for having a bath, faggot!

On the second episode of the show, and after a two weeks campaign against her led by activists, journalists and movie makers that led to her expulsion from SHNIT – the International Short Film Festival – she decided to attack those who dared misunderstand her Nobel-Prizeworthy activities.

I talked on a TV channel after the bathhouse was raided, saying how I believe this is a setup to polish the image of the government. She played that interview, along with her comments that I’m just a phony who visits Europe twice a month with nothing on his mind about helping actual homosexuals. Pardonnez-moi, aren’t you just back from Paris? I will not go through explaining that everything she said is lies; that’s obvious.

Brave undercover reporters ready to investigate something awful in a bathhouse

Brave undercover reporters ready to investigate something awful in a bathhouse

Mona, you are not allowed by law to film anyone getting arrested, for any reason at all. You know that. You are not allowed to lead the police anywhere, even if it was Al Qaeda Central Offices, you do know that as well. You realize that what you did was shameful, terrible and incredibly immoral. You realize that what you did has nothing to do with “sex trafficking.” If you wanted to discuss “sex trafficking,” why go after people who pay 25 pounds to have a bath, instead of making a story about the state officials who are involved in sex trafficking on an international level? Oh, I forgot, that would cut off your financial support for a while.

The interesting part is she didn’t “out” anyone, for real —  she did something far worse: she made an assumption about 26 people’s identities, sexualities and practices, and then outed her presumptions, broadcasting the idea that this is truthful!

What Mona Iraqi did cannot be forgotten until she and whoever cooperated in this get the rightful punishment. People’s lives aren’t a tool for any media worker to achieve success. Mona Iraqi should be imprisoned for the sorrow she caused, in the same cell with the police officer who is bravely leading a campaign against LGBTs and presumed LGBTs.

Lt. Col. Ahmad Hashad, played by Fouad El Mohandes, prepares to put his expertise on immorality to use

Lt. Col. Ahmad Hashad, played by Fouad El Mohandes, prepares to put his expertise on immorality to use

Now what happens? That’s a good question. Three things: The first and most basic step is filing a complain against Mona Iraqi, Tamer Amin [a talk show host who has campaigned against “perverts” and dissenters of all kinds] – who seems to be the perfect match for her — and Ahmed Hashad (who is the head of the morals police and the officer responsible for the crackdown on homosexuals and transsexuals, according to his declarations).

Second: doing more extensive investigations on the lies behind all the homosexual and transsexual cases that Ahmed Hashad has presented to justice, and setting these victims of injustice free.

Last but not least, law needs to respect human rights, now not later. Police need to stop arresting people based on their sexualities or presumed sexualities, because that is just wrong and unjust. The law should be cleansed of all personal conservative beliefs about sexual activities.

It is about time for this country to start working according to law, and by law I mean a true law respectful of human rights that does not criminalize any consensual sexual activity by any means. Many people, LGBTs and non-LGBTs, wait for justice to take place. If you as a state do not apply justice, in time it will be applied to you.

Members of Egypt's morality police, on hearing that immorality is taking place somewhere, prepare to go to work

Members of Egypt’s morality police, on hearing that immorality is taking place somewhere, are ready to go to work

“Yara” — she asked not to use her real name — is a transgender rights activist working on sexual health and rights. She wrote in Arabic; the translation was edited slightly for clarity in English. The original Arabic is at the end of this post.

Amid the latest events that Egypt is undergoing, causing changes on various levels, the issue of homosexuality has grabbed the attention of pens, papers and cameras of yellow newspapers.

To begin with, I am an Egyptian trans person from Egyptian roots. I carry no other passports and I belong to no political party or religious currents. And I am still living in Egypt. My case is the case of every homosexual living in Egypt, facing oppression on all levels, “a second class citizen” according to the criteria the society imposes on people for how they look or act. That fact won’t stop me from showing how disgusted I am by the crackdown on LGBT individuals in Egypt.

Let’s get to the point.

This is how 2014 started for me: four homosexuals were arrested in Nasr City and accused of “debauchery.” Three were sentenced to three years in prison, the other one to eight years.

Al Youm Al Sab’aa [the popular tabloid Youm7] played a major role in this case and other cases that followed, smearing the victims’ images and shaming their names by stalking them in the police stations to videotape them or take pictures of them, mentioning their full names in the newspaper in the name of “professionalism.”

Typical headline and photo from Youm7, spring 2014: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7  didn’t.

Typical headline and photo from Youm7, spring 2014: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7 didn’t.

But obviously they didn’t figure in “the ethics of journalism.”

What are the ethics of journalism? Philosophies of media institutions might differ but they agree on the principles of following the truth, accuracy, subjectivity, neutrality, tolerance, and responsibility before the readers. To follow these ethics you start by collecting the information, understanding its importance, then delivering it to the audience.

The press is committed to the principle of “doing the least harm.” This means not publishing some details, such as the name of an injured person, or news irrelevant to the subject of the article that might harm the person mentioned. That definition of media ethics the journalists of Al Youm Al Sab’aa did not follow in any way, in any case they covered about homosexuality.

I will not talk for long about this newspaper that was so unethical in their news coverage.

Defendant in another "debauchery" case from 2014. Photo published in elhadasnews.com. Again, I blurred the features, not the newspaper.

Defendant in another “debauchery” case from 2014. Photo published in Elhadasnews.com. Again, I blurred the features, not the newspaper.

Along the same line: another disaster which was the first of its kind.

This was the campaign Mona Iraqi started against what she supposed, from her perspective, to be homosexuals. She started her campaign to know the reasons for the spread of AIDS in Egypt. Through her program she reported a number of people in a public place called “Bab Al Bahr” to the police, in order to protect them from the wrath of people living in that area — all according to the imagination of Mona Iraq.

Who am I and why am I speaking?

As I identified myself from the start as gay/trans, I also work in the field of health in Egypt and especially on HIV. I also work in human rights activism for LGBTs in Egypt.

Journalist Mona Iraqi, you talk about the acute criticism you faced from journalists in and outside Egypt, and human rights activists in and outside Egypt, in complete shock. You do not acknowledge the reasons behind this attack. So here are the reasons, based on your first and second episodes of the show “Al Mostakhbai” [Mona Iraqi’s television show]:

Why Mona Iraqi's ignorance on HIV/AIDS matters, I: Knowledge on AIDS among Egyptian women, 2008, from Children in Egypt 2014: A Statistical Digest, UNICEF, at

Why Mona Iraqi’s ignorance on HIV/AIDS matters, I: Knowledge on AIDS among Egyptian men, 2008, from Children in Egypt 2014: A Statistical Digest, UNICEF, at http://www.unicef.org/egypt/Ch10.HIV_and_AIDS.pdf

FIRST: The episode was supposed to be about AIDS and methods of transmission. But it was not. You did not discuss such questions as: What is HIV, and how is it different from AIDS; does it have symptoms or not; when do they show; what are the means of prevention; is there a cure or not?

The groups most at risk for the spread of HIV/AIDS are:

  1. Injecting drug users;
  2. Men having sex with men, and male and female sex workers;
  3. People who have unsafe sex with either sex.

If Mona Iraqi, as she claims, seeks the reasons for the spread of AIDS in Egypt, why didn’t she seek out all the groups most at risk of getting HIV?

What about those eight individuals whom she interviewed outside the bath [about their homosexuality]? How are their private lives related to the content of the episode? What about their own HIV status? If the goal behind the episode is to reveal the “dens of AIDS,” why weren’t the arrestees checked for HIV while they were examined anally?

Why Mona Iraqi's ignorance on HIV/AIDS matters, I: Knowledge about AIDS among Egyptian women, 2008, from Children in Egypt 2014: A Statistical Digest, UNICEF, at http://www.unicef.org/egypt/Ch10.HIV_and_AIDS.pdf

Why Mona Iraqi’s ignorance on HIV/AIDS matters, II: Knowledge about AIDS among Egyptian women, 2008, from Children in Egypt 2014: A Statistical Digest, UNICEF, at http://www.unicef.org/egypt/Ch10.HIV_and_AIDS.pdf

SECOND: In the first episode Mona Iraqi gave a speech about how it was impossible for her to enter this den full of naked men, as they were having group sex. But it is normal for her to record these men semi-naked on her phone! In her second episode she accused her critics of masculine bias, saying: “Are you attacking me because I’m a woman who did this?”

No activists objected to your being a woman among semi-naked men, but to your recording a video of them on your phone. However, if we look to the principles, values, traditions, and religious values that you and your supporters claim to apply in this case, then your being there and among these semi-naked men goes against all those values and traditions. It contradicts everything you previously said about those values.

THIRD: You demanded why activists and organizations in Egypt who are receiving funding don’t help this category of society.

The answer: this category is being prosecuted on all levels. We — activists — or anyone else cannot help directly. That doesn’t mean that we do not provide in one way or another — despite you.

CONCLUSION: Over one hundred persons were arrested and prosecuted in a few months, accused of debauchery, sentenced to between one year and twelve years in prison. The Egyptian yellow press and the likes of Mona Iraqi joined in smearing the image of the defendants and of homosexuals generally – in order to achieve fame, or sales.

The episodes of El Mostakhbai have nothing to do with HIV or AIDS or professionalism or press ethics.

Mona Iraqi referred to what is happening in European countries with arrests of male and female sex workers. But we do not see a picture of any journalist recording one of these arrests with his mobile phone. We didn’t hear about journalists reporting the places where they live.

What we can conclude from 2014 is that the issue of homosexuality in Egypt is a blown-up case pursued by those who want fame, or want to join in morally policing the lives and the privacy of many other people.

The December 7 bathhouse raid: Photo from Mona Iraqi's Facebook page. Iraqi is on the right.

The December 7 bathhouse raid: Photo from Mona Iraqi’s Facebook page. Iraqi is on the right. 

في ظل الاحداث الأخيرة التي تمر بها مصر  من تغيرات على جميع الأفق,

شغلت  قضية المثلية الجنسية أقلام وأوراق وكاميرات الصحف الصفراء في مصر.

بداية انا مصري مثلي الجنس ذو أصول مصرية ,لا أحمل أية جنسيات اخري ولا انتمي الي اي حزب سياسي أو توجه ديني صارم ولازلت مقيم في مصر.

قضيتي هي نفس قضية كل مثلي يعيش في مصر,يعاني من الاضطهاد علي جميع المستويات, بمعني اخرمواطن درجة تانية“, وذلك طبقا للمعايير والمواصفات التي فرضها المجتمع من هيئة الاشخاص و تصرفاتهم, ولكن هذا بشكل ما أو اخر لم يمنعني من اظهار مدى استيائي كشخص تجاه ما يحدث من غارة علي مثليين/ات الجنس في مصر.

إلى صلب الموضوع ….

هكذا بدأت  سنة 2014 معي تحديدا في شهر ابريل حيث تم القبض علي اربع مثلي الجنس في مدينة نصر بتهمة ممارسة الفجور,و قد حكم على ثلاثة منهم ب 3 سنوات و اخر ب 8 سنوات,

حيث لعبت جريدة اليوم السابع دورا هائلا في هذه القضية, و القضايا الاخرى التي تبعتها, من تشويه وتشهير صور المتهمين عن طريق ملاحقتهم في الاقسام و تصويرهمفيديووصور فوتوغرافيةو ذكر اسماءهم الكاملة في صحيفتهم وذلك تحت شعارالمهنية “.

ولكن لم يات في الحسبان  ما يدعي بـاخلاقيات الصحافة” !!

ما هي اخلاقيات الصحافة ؟؟

* قد تختلف فلسفات المؤسسات الصحفية إلا أنها تجمع على مبادئ اتباع: الحقيقة والدقة والموضوعية والحياد والتسامح والمسؤولية أمام القراء. ويبدأ اتباع تلك الأخلاقيات في الحصول على المعلومات ومراعاة أهميتها ثم توصيلها إلى الجمهور.

وكما هو الحال بالنسبة لأنظمة احترام الأخلاقيات فتلتزم الصحافة هي الأخرى بمبدأ «إلحاق أقل ضرر». وهذا يتعلق بعدم كشف بعض التفاصيل في النشر مثل اسم مصاب أو بأخبار لا تتعلق بموضوع المقال قد تسيء إلى سمعة الشخص المذكور.

هذا كان تعريف اخلاقيات الصحافة  و الذي لم يلتزم به صحفيو  جريدة اليوم السابع بشكل او باخر في اي قضية تم تداولها في ما يخص المثلية الجنسية.

لن أكثر الحديث عن هذه الجريدة لالتزامهم بتطبيق اللااخلاقية في اخبارهم.

و علي غرار ما حدث..

كارثةاخريهيالاوليمننوعها ……..

فقد كانت هذه هي الحملة التي شنتها مني عراقي على ما يفترض أنهم مثليي الجنس وذلك من وجهة نظرها  في سبيل معرفة اسباب انتشار الايدز في مصر,و قد ابلغت عن طريق برنامجها  علي عدد من الاشخاص يتواجدون في  مكان عام يسمى (باب البحر) خوفا من فتك اهالي المنطقة بهم و ذلك حسب ما جاء في مخيلة مني عراقي.

من انا و لماذا اتحدث ؟

كما عرفت عن نفسي  في البداية عن  كوني مثلي الجنس, انا ايضا  عملت في مجال الصحة في مصر و خاصة  فيروس نقص المناعة المكتسب“, و أعمل أيضا في مجال  النشاط الحقوقي للمثليين في مصر .

الاعلامية  مني عراقي:

تتحدثينعنالهجومالحادالذيوجهاليكمنخلالالصحفيينفيمصروخارجهاوالناشطينالحقوقيينفيمصروخار
جهامدعيةعدمفهماسبابهذاالهجوم ,لذلك ها هي الاسباب مستعينا بالحلقتين الاولي و الثانية من برنامجكالمستخبي” :-

ا/ كان من المفترض ان مضمون الحلقة عن الايدز وعن اسباب انتشاره .

كأي شخص مهني يطرح موضوع للنقاش يجب علية اولا ان يكون على دراية تامة   بموضوع الطرح,وأقصد هنا  في هذه الحاله (الايدز).

* فما هوفيروس نقص المناعة البشري“, و ما الفرق بينه و بين الايدز؟

و هل له اعراض ام لا, و متي تظهر اعراضة, و ما هي طرق الوقاية ؟

و هل يوجد علاج ام لا؟

*انتشار فيروس نقص المناعة المكتسبة :- (الفئات الاكثر عرضة)

1- المدمنيين بالحقن.

2- الرجال الذين يمارسون الجنس مع الرجال و بائعين/ات الجنس.

3- ممارسة الجنس الغير امن.

فاذا كانت مني عراقي كما تدعي انها تبحث عن اسباب انتشار الايدز في مصر لماذا لم تبحث عن الفئة الاكثر عرضة للاصابة بالفيروس؟

و ماذا عن الثمانية الذين قمت بتصويرهم خارج الحمام, وما علاقه حياتهم الخاصة بمحتوي الحلقة ,وماذا عن اصابتهم بالفيروس ؟

و اذا كان الغرض من الحلقة الكشف عن اوكار الايدز لماذا لم يتم فحص المتهمين باحتمال اصابتهم بفيروس نقص المناعة في حين ان تم فحصهم شرجيا؟

ب/ في الحلقة الاولي وجهت مني عراقي كلمة بانها لم يكن من المستحيل ان تدخل هذا الوكر المليء بالرجال العرايا, حبث يمارسون الجنس الجماعي, و لكن من الطبيعي بالنسبة لها ان تقوم بتصوير هولاء الرجال شبة عرايا بـ هاتفها المحمول .

ثم قامت منى  في الحلقة الثانية باتهام  مهاجمينها  بذكوريتهم قائلة

ولا علشان واحده ست هي اللي عملت كدا” !!!!

لم يعترض احد من النشطاء علي وجودك كامرأه وسط رجال شبة عرايا و لكن الانتقاد الذي وجه لك كان عن تصويرهم بهاتفك المحمول, و لكن اذا نظرنا الي القيم و المبادئ و العادات و التقاليد و الدين و العرف و الذي تدعي انت والكثير من انصارك في هذه القضية بتطبيقه.

فـوجودكفيهذاالمكانامامهذاالعددمنالرجالشبهالعراياينافيتماماكلالقيموالا
عرافوينافيايضاماسبقوقدقمتباعلانهفيحلقتكالاوليمتحدثةعناستحالةوجودكفيوسطهذاالمكان.

ج/ كنت قد ذكرت لماذا لا يقوم النشطاء والمنظمات في مصر الذي يتم تمويلهم بمساعدة هذه الفئة من المجتمع؟

الاجابة :-

فيظلوجودمايدينهذهالفئةعليجميعالمستوياتلايوجدفياستطاعتناأننقومبالمساعده  نحن النشطاء اوغيرنا بشكل مباشر , و لكن هذا لا يمنع اننا نقوم بمساعدة هذه الفئات بشكل او باخر.

و عليكي مني عراقي ان تتفهمي خطورة الموقف بالنسبة لثمانية شباب قمتي بتصويرهم في اماكن تواجدهم ,و قد اعترفوا بممارستهم علي شاشات التلفيزيون, فما بالك عن اهل المنطقة بـ هؤلاء ؟؟؟

الخلاصة :-

* تم القبض و الحكم علي اكثرمن مئه شخص خلال عدة اشهر بتهمة ممارسة الفجور وتم الحكم عليهم  باحكام تتراوح بين سنه واثنا عشر سنه .

* ساهمت الصحافة المصرية الصفراء وامثال مني عراقي في تشوية وتشهير صورة المتهمين و صورة المثليين بشكل عام علي حساب الشهرة ومين يبيع اكتر“.

*حلقات برنامجالمستخبيلا تمت بصلة  عن فيروس نقص المناعة البشري و الايدز كما انها لا تتصف بالمهنية واخلاقيات الصحافة .

*بالنسبة لما قمت باذاعته مني عراقي عن ما يحدث في بلاد اوربية او غيرها فيما يختص بالقبض علي العاملين والعاملات بالجنس. فنحن لم نري صورة اي صحفي قام بتصوير قبضية معينه علي فئة معينة بـهاتفه المحمول و لم نسمع عن صحفي قام بالابلاغ عن أماكن تواجدهم.

ما نستطيع استنتاجه من الفترة السابقة في عام 2014 ان قضية المثلية الجنسية في مصر هي قضية دسمة و لكن للاسف يشتهيها كل من يبحث عن الشهرة و كل من تخول له نفسه في تطبيق الفضيلة و الاخلاق و ذلك علي حساب حياة و خصوصيات ارواح اخري .

Victims of the bathhouse raid, in a screenshot from Mona Iraqi's television show: From Al Masry Al Youm

Victims of the bathhouse raid, in a screenshot from Mona Iraqi’s television show: From Al Masry Al Youm

Victory

UPDATE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights tells me (and the newspaper Al Wafd reports tonight) that the prosecution has formally appealed the not-guilty verdict against the 26 men. The prosecution has the right to appeal twice, under Egyptian law — once to an appeals court, and after that to the Court of Cassation. We don’t know whether the appeal will be accepted and a new trial held. Our understanding is that the law requires the existing verdict to be implemented pending the appeal — that is, the men should be freed. But the police will very likely try to find some pretext to keep them detained. What this shows is that the state is still hellbent on persecuting these men to the limits of its power.

B7JFjWnIYAAr_DD

Families and friends celebrate the acquittal of 26 men in the Cairo bathhouse raid trial, January 12, 2015. Photo: Louisa Loveluck on Twitter, @leloveluck

“This court finds the defendants innocent ….” That, or more or less that, was all anybody heard the judge say. The courtroom exploded. Lawyers cheered; journalists stood on the benches and joined the cheering; and the families, manhandled outside by the bailiffs before the hearing began, forced their way in through the doors and shoved the policemen aside in return: brothers and fathers shouting to the cameras that their kids were vindicated, black-clad women trilling the zaghrata — the triumphal ululation heard at weddings. It spilled into the halls outside. At one point the families and a few friends stood fists pumping in a circle, chanting “Our sons are men!” And there were cries of “Put Mona Iraqi on trial!” I’ve never seen anything quite like this in attending countless Egyptian trials over the years. We’d never felt anything like this. No one expected it. No one was prepared.

I didn’t bring a camera. Louisa Loveluck, of the Daily Telegraph, has posted a few seconds’ footage of the jubilation:

You have to understand: acquittals happen rarely in Egypt; when they do it’s generally because of an appeals judge who cares about the rule of evidence, certainly not at the first instance. This is the only high-profile human rights case since the 2013 coup that ended with such a success. Egyptian activists who worked on this case, documented it, and helped mobilize journalists and intellectuals and other activists to express their horror at what Mona Iraqi did — they deserve credit for this. I don’t know exactly what motivated the judge to look at the facts and not the headlines: whether he cared about the public pressure or about his own reputation (at the last session, he called the journalists to the bench to ask why they were so interested in this case) or whether he got a message from above that the state was ready to back down. But it wouldn’t have happened without ordinary people, gay and straight, from the families themselves to bloggers to tens of thousands of folks on Facebook and other social media, in Egypt and abroad, who had the courage and energy to speak out.

Alf mabrouk.

Families of defendants rejoice in the courtroom. Photo: Associated Press.

Families of defendants rejoice in the courtroom. Photo: Associated Press.

There’s more to be done. The crackdown must end. I hope this sends a message to the police that judges will no longer rubber-stamp their concocted cases, but the pressure on them needs to keep up. Other journalists need a reminder that the opprobrium Mona Iraqi met can extend to them if they continue their collusion with the surveillance state. Some lawyers are talking about pressing a case against Ahmed Heshad, the arresting officer from the morals police; for faking his testimony in the police report, and for his illegal leaking of information to Mona Iraqi. (Lester Feder of BuzzFeed, who was there with us today, covers the police misconduct in his excellent account of the trial, written with Maged Atef.) Others want to sue Mona Iraqi herself. (Mona is reportedly in Paris this week, having taken a convenient vacation while the consequences of her acts play out.) I’ll write more later today about why this story isn’t over.

Meanwhile, though: the joy left me dazed. I was full of memories. I first came to Egypt in November 2001, for the last session of the Queen Boat trial. When that chaotic, overwhelming hearing ended, a few of us — including Maher Sabry and Hossam Bahgat, both of whom had worked hard to spread the story of the arrests to the world — went to the old Horeya cafe in downtown Cairo. The place was founded in 1937; its name means “Freedom”; every revolution the city has seen was, in some measure, planned there. We drank Stella beer in the slanted late-afternoon light, and felt unsure of how to feel; half the defendants had been convicted, half acquitted. Another colleague frantically worked her phone, trying to find someone to buy her earrings. She needed the money because, though her friend in the case had been found innocent, he faced several days of being trucked from police station to police station in Cairo, while the cops checked whether he had any other charges pending. She wanted cash to pay enough bribes to spare him the ordeal. We didn’t know then that this was only the beginning of a crackdown that, over the next three hellish years, would see hundreds more jailed.

Egyptian justice hasn’t changed — it’s still unjust. The courts are still chaos, these men’s lives are still wrecked. Yet there’s a bit of hope. Today we went to the Nadwa cafe, around the corner from Horreya, and sat in the canted winter light and tried to collect our thoughts, which were scattered around like dreck and cracked sunflower seeds. I don’t like selfies much, but here’s one we took, with me and Dalia Abd El Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and Ramy Youssef, a law student and human rights activist, both of whom have been fighting this crackdown from the start.

10420080_10152604675592876_8045764159042164423_nThey’re only two of the many people who labored to see this victory, without expecting it. We look really happy. I hope lots of others today are feeling happy too.

In the courthouse, a family member gives thanks for the acquittal. Photo: J. Lester Feder, BuzzFeed, at http://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/men-charged-with-debauchery-in-egypt-were-raped-in-custody-l#.suDVwMew2

In the courthouse, a family member gives thanks for the acquittal. Photo: J. Lester Feder, BuzzFeed, at http://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/men-charged-with-debauchery-in-egypt-were-raped-in-custody-l#.suDVwMew2

Update: Film festival fires Mona Iraqi

Not in our sandbox: Logo for Shnit's "Cairo Playground"

Not in our sandbox: Logo for Shnit’s “Cairo Playground”

Shnit, the Swiss-based international short film festival, posted this on its website today:

As of its annual Council meeting on December 22th in Bern, the Board of Trustees of the shnit FOUNDATION, in accordance with Festival Director, has decided to exclute Mona Iraqi from the shnit International Shortfilmfestival immediately. shnit International Shortfilmfestival completely distance from and condemn the practices – professional and ethical – employed by Mona Iraqi as a TV reporter in the events of December 7th in Cairo. These practices are at utter odds with the principles of the shnit International Shortfilmfestival.

The Board of Trustees believes it is of great importance, however, to continue the shnit PLAYGROUND in Cairo, under new management and in line with the values of respect, tolerance and artistic expression without prejudice for which shnit has always stood. Commitment to these principles is a foundation of each and every PLAYGROUND and shnit’s management team around the world.

We thank again those who brought the issue to our attention, and to those who allowed us the due process to make an informed and considered decision.

Kudos to Shnit for doing the right thing, and rejecting Iraqi’s excuses and lies. Thanks also to all the people, in Egypt and beyond, who wrote to Shnit to complain about Iraqi’s unethical and immoral participation in gross human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, her victims are still in jail. It’s imperative to keep up the pressure on Iraqi. She has no place on the international cultural or journalistic scenes until the men she imprisoned are freed; until she apologizes for her role in this disaster and for her misrepresentations; and until the mass arrests targeting gay and transgender people in Egypt, which she’s done so much to further, stop.

Day one of the trial: What Mona Iraqi accomplished

Justice, surrounded by paparazzi: Standard courthouse art from Cairo

Justice, with paparazzi: Standard courthouse art from Cairo

Este artículo se publica en castellano aquí.

Today I went to the trial, with two Egyptian human rights activists — Dalia Abd El Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), and Ramy Youssef, a law student and anti-violence campaigner. El Galaa courthouse, on a grey street in Azbekeya in central Cairo, held the first session in the trial of 26 men, all picked up in journalist-informer Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid. As we took a taxi there, a friend phoned with a rumor that Mona Iraqi herself was in the court. She wasn’t. She hasn’t enough courage to confront the victims, the families, the destruction she’s accomplished.

I’ve always said human rights work is nine-tenths waiting. Today, too. You stand in a decrepit hallway while a crowd grows: lawyers in dusty robes, the families — mostly women, mostly old, each in a black dress and severe hijab — and, to let you know something prurient is up, the camera crew setting up a tripod in a corner. There were security agents too, in unusual numbers, in sunglasses and cheap leather jackets. 82 cases clogged the judge’s docket. The bathhouse trial came last, in acknowledgment of its special status. It tells you something about Egyptian justice that the other 81 took just two hours.

Azbekeya courthouse (press photo from El Watan)

El Galaa courthouse (photo from El Watan)

By the time the case finally came the crowd had swelled to fill the hallway. Police opened the courtroom doors at about 1:40 and let 60 or 70 people press through. The next twenty minutes were pure chaos. Guards hustled the cowed defendants in, bowed and chained in a line at the wrists, while the bailiff at the door beat them over the shoulders. The men were locked in the courtroom cage. Then, having admitted the families to see their sons humiliated, the guards decided to throw them out. This I remember from the Queen Boat trial in 2001 — the first time I ever attended a court in Egypt: in high-profile cases, the families are brutally barred from the hearing, while journalists are let in, as if the state wants to show off its achievements. The screaming and wailing were unbearable. To call the scene heartrending gives life to the cliché. Even my old heart, ragged as an ancient land deed, was shredded to scraps and kindling. One mother, while the cops forced her out of the room, shouted to her son in the cage: “Remember you’re a man! Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid of anyone except God!”

Another woman had come with a daughter and a boy of about 10. The child cried uncontrollably as he crouched on the benches, and he cried still more as he watched his mother manhandled and thrown out just before he was.

The police said that only lawyers and “licensed journalists” would be allowed in the room, but they checked press cards only desultorily in the chaos. What mattered was looking middle-class and respectable, or poor and powerless. The defendants are mostly working-class men, their families scared and defenseless before the authority of injustice. (A lawyer told us one of the men was due to be married the day after the raid. He had come to the bathhouse that night to cleanse himself before his wedding.)

The hearing was brief. More than a dozen defense lawyers crowded in front of the bench. One lawyer warned us he was afraid the judge might deliver a decision that day — the state was visibly anxious to move this forward; a quick guilty verdict would give Mona Iraqi a defense against the furious criticism she’s encountered in Egypt. After ten minutes the judge retired to his chambers. A few attorneys pushed in after him. The defendants were crying in their cage. A lawyer emerged to shout that they’d presented the judge their requests, and started to list what they’d asked for, including the defendants’ release. In the confusion the crowd took him to mean that the men were actually going to be freed. People rushed to tell the families outside, who gasped exultantly. Other lawyers screamed contrary stories. The false news of the men’s release hit Twitter in a few minutes.

In fact, the judge postponed the next hearing till January 4, and the men will stay jailed until then. In a bad but predictable sign, he rejected defense lawyers’ requests to call Mona Iraqi and the head doctor of the Forensic Medical Authority as witnesses.

A few points:

1) The lawyers still hadn’t seen the prosecutors’ or police reports, so we don’t know definitely what the charges are. It seems likely, though, that 21 men were customers at the bathhouse; they will be charged with the “habitual practice of debauchery” (article 9c of Law 10/1061), or homosexual conduct, facing up to three years in prison. The owner and staff probably make up the other five prisoners. They’re likely to be tried for some combination of:

  • keeping a residence for purposes of debauchery (article 9a, three years),
  • or facilitating the practice of debauchery (article 9b, three years),
  • or profiting from the practice of debauchery (article 11, two years),
  • or “working or residing in premises used for debauchery” (article 13: one year).

That could add up nine years in prison. Contrary to Mona Iraqi’s lies, there was no mention of “sex trafficking.”

His anus was this big: Hisham Abdel Hameed of the Forensic Medical Authority

His anus was this big: Hisham Abdel Hameed of the Forensic Medical Authority

2) The state paper Al Ahram reported last week that forensic anal exams were inflicted on 21 of the prisoners, probably the alleged customers. 18 were apparently found “unused,” while Hisham Abdel Hameed, the spokesman of the Forensic Medical Authority, claimed that three were discovered to have been sexually assaulted.  Mona Iraqi promptly advertised this result, claiming that she had saved rape victims. The allegation is horrifying and demands investigation, but there is no indication of any investigation. Neither the news story nor the hearing offered any suggestion that the men had actually said they were assaulted. The assault was not mentioned in the hearing at all, and there was no hint why rape victims should still be jailed and facing trial. Nor was there any indication of where the assault happened; it could well have taken place in the police lockup, where prisoners accused of homosexual conduct regularly face sexual abuse.

In 2003, Hossam Bahgat (founder of the EIPR) and I interviewed Dr. Ayman Fouda, then deputy director of Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority (he later rose to head it). Fouda was genuinely obsessed with anuses, and he spent hours explaining the theory behind the anal examinations. Homosexual sex, he told us, is always rape. When a penis nears an anus (he illustrated this with spontaneous hand puppetry), the anus clenches in instinctive rejection of the unnatural intrusion; hence the penetration is always violent, and leaves the same marks as an assault. The violence makes the breached anus funnel-shaped. Even if the pervert consents, his anus doesn’t. We inquired whether a person inserting a dildo into himself would leave the same traces. No, Dr. Fouda said gravely. “The anus recognizes a friendly object, and unclenches itself.”

This might be funny, if it weren’t for real. Fouda’s examiners constantly claim that they can detect anal deformities as “evidence” of consensual homosexual sex, even weeks after it allegedly happened — complete medical humbug. But this official understanding of anal sex fosters doubt whether the Forensic Medical Authority can detect the evidence (or bothers to) when a man has actually been raped. In this case, there’s been no attempt to treat the alleged victims as victims, to exonerate them from charges of consensual sex, or even to obtain their stories. It sounds suspiciously like a state attempt to produce a justification for Mona Iraqi’s raid.

Dr. Ayman Fouda of the Forensic Medical Authority, clutching a friendly object

Dr. Ayman Fouda of the Forensic Medical Authority, clutching a friendly object

Outside the courtroom, a younger woman holding a baby approached my colleague Ramy, desperately. She may have been the sister or wife of a defendant. She wanted to know what the forensic exams had found. She wanted, in other words, to know: will he be found guilty? He told her most of the defendants were “unused.” We didn’t have the heart to say: the state will probably convict them anyway.

We left in the late afternoon. In the street, supplicants in other cases thronged helplessly. Does Mona Iraqi have any idea of the horrors she has caused? Across from the courthouse, a parking lot holds neat ranks of yellow motorcycles; it’s the distribution center for Al Ahram, and the bikes deliver the city’s kiosks their daily supplement of lies. When I was a child, my mother sometimes read Lord Byron’s lines to me:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand …

— telling how power and degradation are in perverse proximity: Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. In Egypt, it’s the police and the press who copulate perversely. Justice and deceit bed down together. The prison and the publicity machine go hand in hand.

Egypt: Tweeting and blogging against informer journalists and homophobia

Stop informer journalists

Stop informer journalists

Tomorrow, December 21, is the first hearing in the trial of men arrested in Mona Iraqi’s December 7 bathhouse raid in Cairo. I will post updates here. Meanwhile: Protest this horrendous human rights abuse. Some very brave Egyptian activists are calling for a campaign on Twitter and social media — starting tomorrow, but continuing after. You can tweet using the hashtag #مخبر_اعلامي : in English, #StopInformerJournalists. You can also copy in @Mona_Iraqi and @MonaIraqiTV. The event page is here, and the call to action is below, in Arabic and then English:

يوم للتغريد و التدوين ضد اللإعلاميين المخبرين و الإعتقالات بناءاً على الهوية الجنسية

في هذا اليوم سيتم التدوين و التغريد من خلال كافة أدوات التواصل الإجتماعي كنوع من التظاهر ضد تعاون مني العراقي اللا أخلاقي مع جهاز الشرطة القمعي، و الذي أدى إلى أكبر حملة اقبض في التاريخ المصري لأشخاص بناءاً على على ما يعتقد أنه ميلهم الجنسي منذ حادثة كوين بوت في مطلع الألفينات. لم تكتف منى بإرشاد الشرطة إلى اعتقال ستة و عشرين — مع الوضع في الإعتبار أنه تم إبقائهم عراة بينما قامت هي بتصويرهم بهاتفها المحمول — بل روجت أيضا – بسوء نية- لفكرة أن الإعتقال سببه السيطرة على انتشار فيروس نقص المناعة البشرية و الدعارة! نحن نتظاهر ضد الانحطاط الحقيقي الذي تمارسه منى عراقي و أمثالها. نحن نتظاهر ضد الإعلاميين الذين أصبحوا مخبرين لصالح الشرطة بدلا من ان يكونوا ناقلين مهنيين للحقائق. نحن نتظاهر ضد عنف الدولة و انعدام العدالة ضد كل من يشتبه في كونه مثلي أو متحول جنسي

كيف يمكن أن أشارك؟

في هذا اليوم — غداً الأحد — دون\ي، إكتب\ي، غرد\ي على أي من مواقع التواصل الإجتماعي معبراً عن رأيك في هذه الأحداث المشينة مرفقة بالهاشتاج الآتي: #‏الاعلامي_المخبر

Tweeting and blogging against informer journalists and homophobia:

Contributions will be made through all social media to protest Mona Iraqi’s unethical cooperation with oppressive police forces, which led to the largest crackdown on people based on their assumed sexual orientations in recent Egyptian history. Not only did she lead the police in arresting 26 people — men kept naked while she filmed them using her camera phone like a bounty hunter – she covered her tracks with a media campaign spreading the idea that this is about HIV and prostitution. We protest the real perversion practiced by Mona Iraqi and her like. We protest the journalists who become informers rather than neutral transmitters of fact. We protest the state brutality and extreme injustice against people suspected of being gay or transgender in Egypt.

How can I contribute?

On that day, here’s what we will do. Go to any of your social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or your own blog. Write a post or share a picture that expresses your opinions on the matter. Attach it with this hashtag: #المخبرـالإعلامي