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

 

BullShnit: Egyptian homophobia’s Swiss defenders

Mona Iraqi, in an Egyptian Internet meme

Mona Iraqi, in an Egyptian Internet meme

ACTION: Please write to Shnit and Olivier van der Hoeven in protest at the film festival’s decision to support homophobic informer Mona Iraqi: 

The International Short Film Festival is based, along with its director, Olivier van der Hoeven, in the placid Swiss capital of Bern. The festival has branches or “playgrounds” in Argentina, El Salvador, Japan, Russia, South Africa, and Thailand. Oh, and Cairo, Egypt. The festival goes by “Shnit” for short, a semi-acronym ugly but calculated to grab attention. As director of its Cairo playground, Shnit chose someone also skilled at doing ugly things that grab attention. Shnit’s Egypt representative is the infamous TV presenter, gay hunter, homophobe, and police informer Mona Iraqi.

Pink in some places, not in others: Olivier de Hoeven, director of Shnit

Pink in some places, not in others: Olivier de Hoeven, director of Shnit

A splendid French blogger discovered this four days ago. But let’s be fair: Shnit chose Mona Iraqi before her full penchant for depredations was known. She only revealed herself wholly last weekend, when — doing her bit for a massive government crackdown on Egypt’s LGBT communities — she led a police raid on a Cairo bathhouse. 25 or more men — beaten and bound, paraded naked and humiliated into the cold night, their faces shown on Mona’s own Facebook page — now face charges of homosexual conduct as a result of Iraqi’s work, with prison terms of up to three years. Since then, she’s been boasting about this for a domestic audience, and lying about it for a foreign one. This poses PR problems for an international cultural klatsch like Shnit, which — as its name shows — has an fine ear for publicity. They’ve had a week to decide: how do they deal with their wayward Egypt employee?

By lying. Amazingly, Shnit hasn’t distanced itself from Mona Iraqi’s collusion with Cairo’s gay-chasing, torturing police. They endorse what she did while parroting her deceptions. That’s disgraceful. Shnit owes LGBT people, in Egypt and around the world, an apology; they owe one to Egypt’s whole embattled human rights community. And, for the sake of their reputation, they need to scrub Mona Iraqi from their credits now.

The first thing Shnit did post-debacle was to change its website to cover its tracks. Now, when you open the site, you get this:

Screen shot 2014-12-16 at 10.22.29 PMSo very pro-queer! The ad’s for a Dutch movie about a trans* teenager. You might get the impression from the context that it has shown in Shnit’s Cairo festival. That’s misrepresentation number one: So far as I can make out, it never has.  

The context is what counts here, and it’s all about justifying what Mona Iraqi did. When you click on the image, you get some boilerplate:

Shnit International Shortfilmfestival has a proud, long-standing history of support and inclusion of films, filmmakers and audiences of all sexual orientations, of all races and walks of life, from every corner of the world. We strongly believe in freedom of lifestyle and expression.

But then comes the good part:

This is complete bullShnit, and surely Olivier van der Hoeven knows it. Mona Iraqi wasn’t looking for evidence of “sex trafficking” — which is not, of course, the same thing as “sex trade for money” — nor did she find any. She was looking for evidence of homosexual conduct, because the police have been arresting alleged gay and trans people by the dozens or hundreds for a year now. (Olivier van der Hoeven can read about that here and here.) The men are being charged under an Egyptian law against men having sex with men; the provision says nothing about the exchange of money. (Olivier van der Hoeven can read about that law here.) Mona Iraqi collaborated with Cairo’s gay-hunting cops in planning and executing the raid: a perfect paradigm of what indignant Egyptians call “informer journalism.” Iraqi wrote on her Facebook page the day after the raid (complaints later got the post taken down):

Today is a beautiful day … Our program was able to break up a place for perversion between men and to catch them flagrantly in the act … My God, the result is beautiful.

As for filming “to ensure the police act in accordance with the humanitarian standards” — this makes me so sick I can barely breathe. If Mona Iraqi cared about “humanitarian standards” she would protest how police led the men stripped onto the street, humiliated and degraded, or about the forensic anal exams — a form of torture, repeatedly condemned by Human Rights Watch and other rights groups — that the victims have been forced to endure. About those grotesque abuses, the “humanitarian” Mona Iraqi hasn’t uttered a sound.

Neither will Shnit. In regurgitating Mona Iraqi’s hypocritical lies, Shnit and de Hoeven excuse or deny homophobia, prison terms, police brutality, and torture. On the other hand, Mona Iraqi’s footage of the raid should make an exciting short film. Shnit can rake in dollars showing it in Cape Town, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, or Bern.

Mona Iraq (R) making a short film about police acting in accordance with humanitarian standards, December 7, 2014

Mona Iraq (R) making a short film about police acting in accordance with humanitarian standards, December 7, 2014

Iraqi’s allusions to “sex trafficking” are simply a stab at explaining away these horrors. (If the men are victims of trafficking, why are they facing three years in prison?) She and Shnit evidently share the certainty that sex workers have no human rights. That parallels Iraqi’s mortifying invocation of HIV/AIDS as a reason for the raid. The arrests she supervised, Iraqi told the Egyptian press, “confirm the strong relationship between the spread of AIDS and sexual practices between men.” She was actually saving lives for World AIDS Day, she insists. These fictions only further the transmission of HIV/AIDS: by increasing the stigma attached to men who have sex with men, by driving vulnerable communities further underground, by furnishing heterosexual partners a false feeling of safety. In giving Iraqi’s deceptions a free pass, Shnit deals a further and disgusting insult to Egyptians actually trying to combat the pandemic.

It gets worse. Today a Shnit staffer, researcher and project coordinator Ekaterina Tarasova, started tweeting in Mona Iraqi’s defense. The blogger who initially discovered the Mona – Schnit connection reproached her. In reply Tarasova cited the statement on Schnit’s website:

Katja 1“It’s her work.” This got me riled up. I stepped in:

Katja 2I tried to give Tarasova and Shnit the benefit of the doubt: maybe they actually didn’t know that any sex between men is an “unlawful action” in Egypt, or that a police crackdown has been expanding for a year. I wrote:

Katja 4And that led to the following exchange:

Katja 3Meanwhile, Mona Iraqi was furiously retweeting everything her colleague Tarasova wrote:

Katja 6One Middle Eastern LGBT rights activist wrote to Tarasova:

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 1.47.07 AM

Georges Azzi, distinguished Lebanese activist and head of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, weighed in:

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 1.48.26 AMBut Tarasova insisted that she knew better than people in the region.

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 1.47.18 AMIt was, she said, just “words against words.”

Katja 6The rainbow flag always makes everything better.

Ekaterina Tarasova’s job with Shnit is “research,” and I think she could use some lessons on how to do it. You might also suppose that, at some point, a staffer in a sensitive situation like this would decide the better part of valor was to shut up. But not Shnit, and not Tarasova. The thing is, they truly love Mona Iraqi. They’re truly eager to defend her against any and all evidence. And her victims, rotting in a Cairo jail, can go to hell — except they’re already in it.

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 2.48.24 AMOnce again: you can write to Shnit at . They surely should explain how they square their support for Mona Iraqi’s police raid with their supposed endorsement of equality; how their equanimity about jailing gay men (or torturing supposed victims of “trafficking,” for that matter) fits with their pieties about human rights. The arts aren’t there to make torture and hate honored guests at a champagne reception. As one activist put it:

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 3.32.40 AM

 

النشطاء يدينون غارة منى عراقي / Activists condemn Mona Iraqi’s raid

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Mona Iraqi, R, films while police lead away naked prisoners from December 7’s bathhouse raid: From her Facebook page

(English below)

نشطاء يستنكرون قيام الإعلامية منى عراقي بالإبلاغ عن مجموعة من الرجال و تصويرها لهم أثناء القبض عليهم
ويطالبون الحكومة المصرية بالتوقف عن ملاحقة المواطنين بسبب ممارساتهم الجنسية
 

تابعت المجموعات الموقعة أدناه بمزيد من الصدمة والقلق الشديد واقعة قيام شرطة الآداب بمديرية أمن القاهرة بالقبض على حوالي ستة وعشرين شخصا أثناء تواجدهم بحمام عام للرجال بمنطقة رمسيس بدعوى ممارستهم “للشذوذ الجماعي” بمقابل مادي داخل الحمام. وجاءت هذه الواقعة بناء على بلاغ من الإعلامية منى عراقي والتي ادعت أن الرجال يحولون المكان إلى “وكر للشذوذ الجماعي”، ولم تكتف عراقي بالبلاغ ولكنها أيضا صاحبت قوات الشرطة أثناء عملية المداهمة التي وقعت في مساء الأحد في حوالي العاشرة مساء، وقامت بتصوير مجموعات الرجال داخل الحمام وهم متجمعين عرايا وغير مسموح لهم بارتداء ملابسهم ويحاولون بشتى الطرق إخفاء هوياتهم في انتهاك صريح لحقهم في الخصوصية وفي خرق واضح لمواد القانون.

تأتي هذه الحادثة استكمالاً لهجمة أمنية شرسة تشنها الدولة، متمثلة في شرطة الآداب، ضد المثليين والمتحولين جنسياً، هذه الحادثة والتي تعتبر أكبر واقعة قبض على أشخاص بتهمة “الفجور” منذعام 2001، سبقتها العشرات من وقائع القبض على مثليين أو متحولين جنسيا او أشخاص يشتبه في كونهم كذلك في هجمة هي الأشرس منذ الهجمة التي صاحبت “حادثة كوين بوت” الشهيرة في 2001، فبعد الثلاثين من يونيو 2013، رصد النشطاء القبض على اكثر من 150 شخصا على خلفية الاعتقاد بكونهم مثليين أو متحولين جنسياً، ووصلت العقوبات في بعض هذه القضايا إلى ثمان وتسع سنوات من السجن على خلفيات قانونية غير سليمة أو ملفقة. وغالبا ما صاحبت عمليات القبض هذه حملة إعلامية أكثر شراسة تنتهك بيانات المقبوض عليهم وتنشر صورهم وتسجل أحاديثا مصورة معهم، وتصور المثليين كمجموعات من المرضى والمجرمين الذين بحاجة للعلاج أو تصويرهم كمجموعات غريبة انتشرت بعد الثورة.

لم تقف الحملة الإعلامية عند هذا الحد ولكن قامت الإعلامية المذكورة بنقلها لمستوى جديد إذ حولت وظيفتها من إعلامية إلى مخبر يعمل لصالح البوليس ويقوم بالإبلاغ عما يعتقد بأنه جريمة، ورغم عدم ارتكاب المقبوض عليهم جريمة يعاقب عليها القانون فقد روجت وسائل الإعلام المختلفة للقبض على “أكبر شبكة للشذوذ” في مصر قبل أن تحكم عليهم أي محكمة أو يثبت ضدهم أي اتهام، وتفاخرت منى عراقي ببلاغها باعتباره عملا بطولياً و”انتصاراً أخلاقياً” بل وقامت بما ينافي أبسط قواعد آداب مهنة الصحافة وقامت بتصوير المقبوض عليهم، وإذ يدين بشدة الموقعون ما قامت به هذه الإعلامية من أفعال تسيء إلى مهنة الصحافة والإعلام فإنهم يؤكدون أن من خالف القانون في هذه الحالة هو هذه الإعلامية وليس الرجال المقبوض عليهم. فبعيدا عن التفتيش في نوايا الناس وممارساتهم الخاصة والرضائية فإن هذه الإعلامية خالفت بشكل واضح المادتين 58، 75 من قانون الإجراءات الجنائية والتي تعاقب قيام أي شخص بإفشاء معلومات عما تضبطه الشرطة لأشخاص غير ذوي صفة، ويطالب الموقعون بإعمال مواد القانون على الإعلامية منى عراقي التي تستغل مهنتها لانتهاك خصوصية الأفراد ونعتهم بما ليس فيهم من أجل التحصل على مكاسب مهنية.

وتؤكد المجموعات والمنظمات الموقعة استياءها الشديد من استغلال انتشار فيروس نقص المناعة المكتسبة (الإيدز) كحجة وغطاء شرعي لهذه الممارسات الإعلامية المهينة، فلا يمكن لمثل هذه البلاغات إلا أن تزيد من الوصم والتمييز تجاه مجموعات تعتبر من الأكثر عرضة للإصابة بالفيروس، وبالتالي تقلل من فرص لجوئهم إلى خدمات المشورة أو الفحوصات الاختيارية والعلاج. وفي النهاية تؤكد المنظمات الموقعة أن الدولة عليها أن تنهي ترصدها لممارسات الأفراد الخاصة وتتبعهم داخل غرف نومهم أو في الأماكن العامة والتجسس عليهم وعلى وسائل اتصالاتهم وتؤكد المنظمات مسئولية الدولة في حماية وتفعيل حقوق هؤلاء الأفراد ومن ضمنها حقوقهم في الخصوصية وعدم التشهير والوصم..

الموقعون:

من الشرق الأوسط وشمال إفريقيا:
المؤسسة العربية للحرية والمساواة
الجمعية التونسية للنساء الديمقراطيات
تحالف الحقوق الجنسية والجسدية في المجتمعات الإسلامية
حلم- لبنان
تحالف الميم- لبنان
موزاييك- المنظمية الشرق أوسطية للخدمات والتأييد والتكامل وبناء القدرات
اللجنة الاستشارية للشباب (مصر)
قوة ضد التحرش/ الاعتداء الجنسي الجماعي (أوبانتيش)
حملة التضامن مع مجتمع م م م م في مصر
انتفاضة المرأة في العالم العربي

Activists condemn TV presenter Mona Iraqi, who reported a group of men and filmed them while they were being arrested: and demand that the Egyptian government cease persecuting people for their sexual practices

The undersigned groups have followed with much shock and increasing worry the arrest, by Egyptian morality police of the Cairo Security Directorate, of approximately 26 individuals while at a public bathhouse for men in the Ramsis neighbourhood. The men were arrested for the alleged “group practice of deviance” in exchange for money inside the bathhouse. This incident happened after the bathhouse was reported to police by media presenter Mona Iraqi, who claimed that the men turned the place into a “den of group deviance.” Iraqi did not stop at reporting these men: she actually accompanied the police force while they stormed the place, at around 10 PM on Sunday, December 7. She photographed groups of men inside the bathhouse while police gathered them naked, denying them the right to put on their clothes. The men desperately tried to conceal their identities, but they were filmed and photographed in clear infringement of their privacy rights and in obvious disregard to the law.

This incident is the continuation of a vicious security campaign launched by the state, carried out by its morals police, against gay and transgender people. The incident is the largest mass arrest of individuals arrested on the charge of practising “debauchery” since the notorious raid on the Queen Boat in 2001. It was preceded by dozens of other arrests of gay and transgender people, or people suspected of being so. After June 30, 2013, activists have documented the arrest of more than 150 individuals on the assumption that they are gay or transgender. In some cases prison sentences of eight or nine years have been imposed, on legal grounds that are incorrect or fabricated. The arrests have been accompanied by a still more monstrous media crusade, publicizing the personal information of those arrested, publishing their pictures, even posting filmed interviews with them. The media present homosexuals as a group of “sick” individuals and criminals in need of therapy — or paints them as a deviant community that spread after the revolution.

The media crusade has not stopped at that. Mona Iraqi took the media frenzy to a new level as she transformed the job of a presenter to that of an informant, working for the police, reporting to them what she thinks is a crime. Those who were arrested did not commit any crime punishable by law. Yet various media outlets promoted the idea that the biggest sex ring in Egypt for “practising deviance “ had been arrested, before any verdict was reached or any accusation against those individuals was actually proven. Iraqi boasted about her reporting, calling it a heroic deed and a “moral triumph.” She took pictures of those arrested, in clear violation of the basic ethics of journalism. The signatories to this statement condemn most strongly what this media presenter did. Her acts disgrace the professions of media and journalism. We assert that the person who violated the law is the presenter and not the men who were arrested.

Besides prying into people’s intentions and their private, consensual practices, this presenter clearly violated articles 75 and 58 of the law of criminal procedures: these prohibit anyone from disseminating information about persons arrested by the police to others who do not have standing in the case. We demand that the presenter, Mona Iraqi, be held accountable before the law for misusing her profession to violate the privacy of others and slander and misrepresent them, and for pursuing professional benefit regardless of consequences.

The groups and organizations signed below profess their deep distress that the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (AIDS) has been used to justify and legitimate these demeaning media practices. These reports have done nothing but increase stigma and discrimination against the groups most vulnerable to the virus. Ultimately this will damage their opportunities to seek counselling services or voluntary testing and therapy.

In conclusion, the undersigned organizations affirm that the state has to end its prosecution of personal behaviour, its pursuit of individuals both into their bed rooms and in public spaces, and its spying on them and their means of communication. The organizations also stress the responsibility of the state to protect and realize the rights of these individuals, including their rights to privacy, and to freedom from stigma and slander.

MIDDLE EAST / NORTH AFRICA REGION:

Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality – regional
Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates (ATFD) – Tunisia
Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR) – regional
HELEM – Lebanon
M Coalition, Middle East/North Africa – regional
MOSAIC / MENA Organization For Services, Advocacy, Integration, and Capacity Building – regional
National Youth Advocacy Taskforce – Egypt
Operation Anti Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH) – Egypt
Solidarity With Egypt LGBT – Egypt
Uprising of Women in the Arab World – regional

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Photo of the raid, from Mona Iraqi’s Facebook page (faces blurred by Scott Long)

 

Dozens arrested for “perversion” in a huge raid in Cairo

Arrested men from the Bab el-Bahr hammam being herded into a Central Security truck, December 7, 2014. The woman with a camera to the R may be Mona Iraqi.

Arrested men from the Bab el-Bahr hammam being herded into a Central Security truck, December 7, 2014. The woman with a cameraphone to the right appears to be Mona Iraqi.

At about 10 PM last night, December 7, police carried out a massive raid on a hammam (bathhouse) in the Ramsis area of Cairo, not far from the main railway station. They arrested many men — dozens, reportedly — and hauled them, stripped naked like concentration-camp inmates, to the trucks. Someone living nearby who watched the assault wrote on social media that “police together with Central Security forces attacked the bath.” (Central Security, Amn el-Merkezi, is an army force mainly composed of raw recruits; it takes over many policing duties in an increasingly militarized Egypt.) “40 people were arrested. Some were beaten up in the baths, and they were all arrested with no clothes.” He said “a female journalist and a cameraman” arrived “before they attacked the baths. She tried to enter and film inside, and she was kicked out by the owner. Immediately this was reported [to the police], and the baths were attacked. People say there were informers from the police inside the baths before that.”

The reporter was Mona Iraqi, presenter for the TV program El Mostakbai (The Hidden), which airs on the pro-government Al Kahera Wal Nas (Cairo and the People) news channel. Around 2:00 this morning, Mona Iraqi posted proudly about the raid on her Facebook page — along with still shots, bearing the El Mostakbai watermark. Two hours later, she took it all down. But I had saved the pictures, and a friend saved screenshots of the post. What she wrote was a promo for coming attractions.

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With pictures, we reveal the biggest den of group perversion [shuzooz gama’ay] in the heart of Cairo. …

With pictures, a filmed investigation by El Mostakbai reveals the den of perversion near the El Azbekeya police station.

El Mostakbai program, presented by the journalist Mona Iraqi … reveals the biggest den for group perversion in the Ramsis area. El Mostakbai also reveals that the den is a steam bath in the heart of Cairo, a place to have a bath and massage, for men. It’s run by a man who is 60 years old, for financial gain. It is at 35 Bab el-Bahr street, in Ramsis in the heart of Cairo.

In the bath, there are spaces for group perversion … Males of different ages and different nationalities come. The cameras of El Mostakbai managed to do a filmed investigation to prove incidents of group perversion and record the confessions of the owners of this den.

We had decided to show the episode last Wednesday [December 3]. El Mostakbai filed complaints with national institutions about what is happening in the baths. But the warrants from the prosecution were late, so the program team decided to postpone the show to give security institutions a chance to close down the baths. Immediately a force of morals police under the instruction of General Mohammed Qassem, the head of general administration for Cairo Intelligence, and with the leadership of Colonel Ahmed Hashad, the head of the investigations department of Cairo Morals [adab] Police, arrested the men who were in the baths, caught in the act during a group sex party. They also arrested the head of the den and all the workers. They were immediately transported to the prosecution with no clothes. Their clothes were taken as evidence in the case.

The El Mostakbai program will be shown next Wednesday [December 10]: the whole story of the dens for spreading AIDS in Egypt.

Stay tuned. This is a higher-headcount case than the already-famous “gay wedding video” scandal, and promises to be as high-profile. Questions multiply: for one, how long had Mona Iraqi and El Mostakbai had the hammam under surveillance? What’s clear is that another pro-Sisi media organ is working in close collusion with security forces, to produce a sensational show about sex with appalling and terrifying images, to invade privacy and engorge the prisons and destroy innocent people’s lives.

Screen shot 2014-12-08 at 4.47.05 AMIf you want to tell Mona Iraqi how you admire her, her personal Facebook page is here. (Update: Her other fan page is here. It turns out that there, the post remains up — for now.) And here are more of the horrific pictures she so avidly posted. Where the faces are blurred, it was done by me, not by Mona Iraqi.

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The woman filming on the right is probably Mona Iraqi.

I hadn’t believed tensions around sexuality and gender could rise higher in Egypt. But they have. A brutal campaign of arrests continues, and the media incitement steadily intensifies. On December 3, for instance, Youm7 — the favorite mouthpiece of the Ministry of Interior — announced that morals forces led by General Magdy Moussa had uncovered a “den of prostitution” in the rich Zamalek district of Cairo, including people it called mokhanatheen [“sissy” or effeminate], transgender, and homosexual. They “found on the site quantities of drugs and sex drive pills and underwear and sex videos.” The accused used “several Internet sites and pages to promote their sexual networks.”

This message about “networks” is a menacing constant. Egypt’s powers that be treat homosexuality and gender dissidence as political, and — like any kind of politics under an ever more constricting dictatorship — conspiratorial and sinister. In mid-November, for instance, police arrested a secondary school teacher with four other men in the Cairo suburb of Helwan, and accused him of leading a “homosexuality network” there. The ringleader had a laptop with gay images on it, as well as “women’s clothing, wine, and condoms”; yet this didn’t stop him, according to the media, from trying  to “attract sympathizers to the terrorist [Muslim] Brotherhood” — by having sex with them. He reportedly also liked to flash the four-finger salute of the Brotherhood in bed. (I have spoken to two people who knew the man distantly. They assert that while he was devout, and repelled by the state murders of Brotherhood supporters in 2013, the notion of his recruiting anyone to a political movement is absurd.) The case had a blatant quality of vengeance. During the furor over the “gay wedding” video, the banned but still militant Brotherhood had accused Sisi’s regime of bringing perverted marriage to Egypt; now the regime charges the Brotherhood with passing out pervert sex as a membership bonus. It all shows how security threats and sexual temptations blend to a single enemy in official propaganda. The man got three years in prison; his co-“conspirators,” three to nine. More lives destroyed.

Top: Defendants in the Zamalek case, from Al-Youm al-Sabbah; Bottom: Gen. Magdy Moussa, from VetoGate

Top: Defendants in the Zamalek case, from Al-Youm al-Sabbah; Bottom: Gen. Magdy Moussa, from VetoGate

The hapless lead defendant from Helwan figured again two days ago in a long, livid expose on the tabloid website VetoGate, revealing the extent of “perversion” in Egypt. By now, his crime has swelled to “managing an international perversion network.”

The investigations revealed that he was one of the leading perverts in Egypt; he was proven to have practiced perversion and also exported it to rich [Gulf] Arabs by sending them young people. … The investigations also revealed that he facilitated the travel of a number of perverts abroad under the cover of working in tourism, giving them cuts in exchange that are more than the money sluts and [female] prostitutes earn. They facilitate and make it easy for perverts to travel abroad to enjoy freedom in practicing perversion openly — with no fear of the pursuit by security forces that they experience here, because of the refusal of the Egyptian and Islamic community to tolerate these practices that go against religion, morals, and traditions.

This is heady stuff for a high-school French teacher. But the regime’s xenophobia, its loathing of the decadent Gulf (where, despite the steady support the Saudis furnish Sisi, Qatar’s rulers continue to fund the rebel Brotherhood), and its fear of any solidarities outside State surveillance — all these potent anxieties intersect. “Sexual perverts” are scapegoats and victims.

The VetoGate article is worth quoting at length. It unveils insecurities that fuel not only the crackdown but the regime’s broader politics. It claims to offer a “map of the perverts [shawazz] existing in Egypt,” given the reporter by a “source” high in the morals police: “We monitor movements and activities of many people who commit acts against morals. Especially the crimes of sexual perversion.”

Lately the number of moral crimes has been increasing. … The surprise is the increasing percentage of sexual perversion in Egypt, which has reached the highest rate in decades.

This fits neatly with the narrative by which the Sisi government, and its police, claim legitimacy. The specter of social sickness makes them needed.

The source added that the outbreak of the January 25 revolution [which overthrew Mubarak in 2011] contributed to spreading crimes and activities against morals. That was because of the absence of the security institution from the scene at that time, until the revolution of June 30 [2013: the coup that brought Sisi to power]. Since then, the national security has begun to regain its strength.

We're watching you: Graphic from VetoGate article

We’re watching you: Graphic from VetoGate article

Despite that, the perverts — “of both kinds,” male and female — are still everywhere.

Security officials drew VetoGate a map of the most popular places for perverts to go in Egypt. It includes a lot of cafes and ahawi [traditional coffeeshops] where they gather in the downtown district … and in City Stars [a giant mall] in Nasr City,  and Costa Café in Maadi and Grand Mall Maadi … and in one of the cafes in El-Giza Square in front of Omar Effendi store, and Talaat Harb Square, and El Korba Square in Heliopolis, and in front of Arcadia Mall in the area of the Maspiro building, and Cinema Café Odeon, and El Borsa Café. The source also added that sexual perverts live in Egypt hidden and discreet from all sides, like night bats, and they appear under the name “gay” [transliterated in Arabic]. You will find that each and every one has a name different from his original name, by which they call each other. There are nicknames like Oum el Ali, Oum el Farouk, Oum El Susu, Oum el Fadi [nicknames for mothers in Arabic]. …. That helps them forget their masculinity and appear feminine and arouses the instinct that they have. … They are professionals in practicing prostitution in a wide range, and with very expensive prices that compete with the prices of female sluts.

Self-evidently this justifies the government’s ongoing crackdown on downtown Cairo life, including cafes that breed deviant sex while sheltering dissident opinion.

Scene from the glamorous Cairo gay scene, Egypt's fabulous answer to Studio 54

Apparently a glimpse of the glamorous Cairo gay scene, Egypt’s fabulous answer to Studio 54

Like the Muslim Brotherhood, the society of perverts has a conspiratorial counter-government.

The source exposed a very interesting surprise, when he confirmed that the management of these networks is through a godfather for perverts who administers the ring and divides perverts among those who are craving forbidden pleasure. In pursuing this task, he also communicates with his customers among tourists and from hotels through groups and pages on social-network websites.

The godfather gives the four-finger Muslim Brotherhood salute, while making an offer you can't refuse

The godfather gives the four-finger Muslim Brotherhood salute, while making an offer you can’t refuse

The godfather also appoints mediators, who “in case of any conflict or fight between people attached in a relationship” will work “to resolve matters between them.” That is because perverts are violently jealous, and “these problems can result in strong damages to the partners and to perverts like them.” Moreover, “the source continues that the godfather also writes the perverts’ marriage contracts. It is a usual contract, with this difference, that it is a marriage between two men.” The article quotes at length from what it claims is a contract for an ‘urfi marriage (a form of Sunni union not registered in civil law) between two men. The godfather did his job devoutly: There’s even a dowry [sadaq]. The whole thing is calculated to arouse an ordinary reader to fury against the imitative impudence of perversion. The police source shares the outrage. “The throne of God is being shaken” by the perverts, he tells VetoGate, which probably made this up.

Ominously insouciant, the article even hints that charges of “debauchery” and “perversion” may unseat high state officials.

The source revealed to VetoGate … a shocking surprise. A big, well-known official in the government was arrested along with his son and others, in female outfits, while practicing forbidden pleasure in an apartment. He confessed to the prosecution that he is accustomed to practicing perversion and advertising it through the pages of social networks. He carried out and organized parties for perverts in exchange for financial gain. …

The source reveals that the forces of the administration found, after the criminal’s arrest, a number of videos showing practices of a group of perverts who hold sensitive posts in Egypt. Some videos contain dance routines, with men wearing female outfits. Other videos show them practicing perversion. The criminal declares that he intentionally recorded this discreetly during the parties that he organized for them, to protect himself, specially because some of them are in very high positions: it would be a tool of pressure that he could use if needed, to blackmail them and force them to obey his wishes …. And the source confirmed that the criminal is jailed now, by order of the prosecution.

It’s conceivable that this is just a fantasy from VetoGate, which lies regularly. Or it might actually presage a purge. (Lately cracks have showed in the seeming unanimity of State support for Sisi’s dominance. Last week voice tapes, leaked to the media in mysterious fashion, seemed to reveal high military officials conspiring to fake evidence in the trial of overthrown ex-President Morsi. If real, they suggest that somebody highly placed wants to undermine the government’s most crucial maneuvers. And possibly somebody else wants to punish him.) To speculate on the basis of this nonsense is pure paranoia. But paranoia is everywhere in Egypt these days. The government’s paranoia, rooting out perversion among sidewalk-cafe denizens slumped over shishas, finds its match in the paranoia of its subjects, reading dark plots between the lines of tabloids. Ignorance feeds ignorance. Fear breeds fear.

زودوا-الجهل

Presidential aide: “Sir — sir — what will we do about the garbage, traffic, electricity, hospitals, security, income, law and order, jobs and the future — WHAT WILL WE DO ABOUT IGNORANCE!?!!” Sisi, after a pause: “…Increase ignorance!” Controversial cartoon by Andeel for Tok Tok magazine

Fear is not abstract. It finds a form in the violence inflicted on vulnerable bodies, the stripped bodies on Bab el-Bahr Street in the winter chill. Look at the pictures; the men’s backs bowed, their hands bound, dragged naked into the December night and off to hell. It is 10 AM in Cairo now, and the men must be in cells in the Azbekeya lockup, perhaps still naked, perhaps being tortured at this moment, freezing and despairing. I can think of nothing but the pictures, but thinking of them is unbearable.

The state in Egypt lives on fear. Reporters and writers who intermittently tried to live in truth, fighting fear with the strength of a lucid sentence or a honed story, now replicate the fear and spread it. They terrorize, together. Look at their victims.

From Mona Iraqi's Facebook page

From Mona Iraqi’s Facebook page

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Egypt: Tweet and blog against homophobic brutality, September 24 and 25

Prisoners in the courtroom cage during the Queen Boat trial wear masks to protect themselves from sensation-seeking photographers: Cairo, 2001

Prisoners in the courtroom cage during the Queen Boat trial wear masks to protect themselves from sensation-seeking photographers: Cairo, 2001

URGENT! This Wednesday and Thursday, September 24 and 25, Egyptian activists want a worldwide storm of tweeting and blogging to protest the recent, massive wave of brutal repression of LGBT people.

Here’s the call to action in English, followed by Arabic. (You can learn more and join the event on Facebook — and while you’re at it, check out the Solidarity with Egypt LGBT page as well.) The Arabic version below includes sample Arabic tweets (in red) but please write your own in English! Paste the hashtag
#ضد_حبس_المثليين
in Arabic, or use it in English —  #stopjailinggays. Please share widely and join in!

TWO DAYS OF TWEETING AND BLOGGING: #STOPJAILINGGAYS

Because the Egyptian government has recently focused its efforts on monitoring people’s private lives, whether in the bedroom or on their facebook accounts …
Because the police have paused in chasing “terrorists” and are going after people for their sexual orientation and gender identity …
Because since October 2013, police have arrested more than 80 people for the “crime” of being gay or transgender …
Because some of these people receive humiliating treatment including physical violence and rape threats in detention …
Because the Forensic Medical Authority conducts anal examinations on these people, considered sexual assault and a violation of human rights and medical ethics …
Because they are sentenced for up to 10 years on charges of debauchery — a vague word …
Because the media has been waging a sensational campaign against LGBT people in Egypt, violating people’s privacy by publishing names and photos …
Because of all of this, on September 24 and 25 we will be tweeting and blogging using the hashtag
#ضد_حبس_المثليين
which means “Against the Jailing of Gays.”
Join us. Invite your friends. Raise your voices.

يومين للزقزقة والتدوين #ضد_حبس_المثليين

بمناسبة إن الدولة متفرغة في الفترة الأخيرة لمراقبة الناس في أوض نومهم وعلى صفحاتهم الخاصة، وبدل ما الشرطة تقبض على الإرهابيين مخصصة وقتها كله لملاحقة المثليين من أول أكتوبر السنة اللي فاتت الدولة قبضت على أكتر من 80 واحد بتهمة المثلية، بعضهم بيتعرض لمعاملة مهينة جوة السجن من ضرب وذل وشتيمة، وتهديد بالاغتصاب، غير إن الطب الشرعي بيطبق عليهم كشوفات غير آدمية وبيكشف على فتحات الشرج بتاعتهم عشان يثبت هما مثليين ولا ﻷ، بعضهم أخد أحكام بالسجن بتهمة الفجور، اللي هي تهمة مطاطة ومش واضحة، ولإن الإعلام قاعد يخلق أساطير حوالين المثلية الجنسية زي إنها مرض نفسي والقنوات والجرايد بينتهكوا خصوصية الناس وينشروا أساميهم وتفاصيل حياتهم

فاحنا يوم 24 و25 سبتمبر هنزقزق وندون باستخدام هاشتاج #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية الجنسية مش جريمة والدولة المفروض عندها حاجات أهم تعملها من مراقبة مين بينام مع مين،

شاركونا بالتدوين والكتابة خلال اليومين دول ودي نماذج من التويتات اللي ممكن تستخدموها:

المثلية هي ميول عاطفية أو جنسية ناحية انسان من نفس الجنس. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش جريمة. إزاي حبس المثليين في السجون هيحل المشكلة؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش اختيار. محدش بيختار يكون جزء من فئة مهمشة ومرفوضة من المجتمع. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

أكبر مؤسسات الطب النفسي بطلت تعتبر المثلية الجنسية مرض نفسي من السبعينات. مفيش علاج نفسي معترف بيه عالميا للمثلية الجنسية. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثليين جنسيا بيتعرضوا لعنف مستمر، سواء من الدولة اللي بتجرمهم، أو من الأهل أو في الشارع. المثلية مش مقبولة بس العنف مقبول؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش تقليعة ولا موضة ولا بدعة من الغرب. المثليين موجودين في كل العصور وكل الحضارات. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

جسمي أنا حر فيه. عاوز تتحكم في جسمي ليه؟ تقبل حد يقولك تعمل ايه وماتعملش ايه في جسمك؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

من حق كل شخص بالغ انه يختار يدخل في علاقة ولا لأ ويختار مين الشخص المناسب ليه من غير تدخل من أي جهة. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش مرض نفسي ولا بتسبب أمراض نفسية ولا جسدية. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

شهد العام الأخير تصاعد في عدد المثليين والمتحولين جنسيا الذي تم القبض عليهم فيما يزيد على 80 شخص. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية غير مجرمة بالنص في القانون المصري ولكن يستخدم مصطلحات فضفاضة مثل الفجور لملاحقة المثليين جنسيا #ضد_حبس_المثليين

عقوبة الفجور المستخدمة للقبض على المثليين تصل ل 3 سنوات ويضاف أحيانا اتهامات أخرى ليصل الحكم ل 10 سنوات #ضد_حبس_المثليين

الشرطة لم تستهدف فقط المثليين جنسيا ولكن استهدفت أيضا المتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا #ضد_حبس_المثليين

النيابة بتحول المتهمين للطب الشرعي والذي يقوم بعمل فحص شرجي ضد إرادتهم بمخالفة حقوق الإنسان ويعتبر انتهاك لكرامتهم وخصوصيتهم

التغطية الإعلامية لعبت دور كبير في التحريض على المثليين والمتحولين جنسيا واستخدمت ألفاظ سلبية مثل الجنس الثالث أو الشواذ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

الإعلام انتهك خصوصية وسرية المتهمين عن طريق ذكر أسماء المتهمين أو نشر صور وفيديوهات لهم مخالفة للمهنية ولأخلاقيات الإعلام #ضد_حبس_المثليين

Egypt’s “gay wedding” furor: A ship of fools

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

In Egypt any man can harass, brutalize, and rape a woman. It happens all the time. The State will ignore it for as long as possible; the media will say she asked for it. Just try a harmless expression of mutual, consensual desire, though. They’ll hound you to within an inch of your life.

Let’s start with the video. It came out of nowhere, but by Saturday morning it was everywhere. That day — it was August 30 — I spent with some young, impeccably liberal Egyptians. They kept staring with stunned fixation at their smartphones, repeatedly hitting “play,” watching it go viral, wondering what was going to happen to the men.  The YouTube comments could have told you what was coming: “They’re outside of prisons; they should worship God within them,” one outraged viewer wrote. That night I met with some of the men in the clip. One of them kept breaking uncontrollably into tears. They were trying to report the invasion of privacy, get YouTube to take it down. No use: By next day, it was on the website of Youm7 — the tabloid that’s been carrying on a homophobic campaign for months — and on TV. You think you are just a private person, contained in the fences of your skin; then suddenly you find you’ve escaped yourself, become a common spectacle and possession, a fetish cupped in the palms of everybody’s hands. No doubt this is why politicians and movie stars are so vacuous, stripped of self; but imagine sitting in ordinary obscurity and abruptly discovering you’re now an infinitely duplicable, circulating flash of light. “Mirrors and copulation are both abominable,” Borges wrote — it was one of the aphorisms of his invented world of Tlon — “because they multiply mankind.” But that was before the Internet.

Yesterday, some of those accused of being in the video went on trial. They face years in prison. The whole fiasco reminds many Egyptians of another moral panic that crushed innumerable lives: the Queen Boat show trial of 52 men, back in 2001.

I won’t link to the video here; the men have been exposed enough. It lasts little more than a minute; it shows some kind of party on one of the boats that cruise the Cairo Nile. (You can buy a ride individually or rent the felucca for a group.) The cameraphone tilts and pans past some celebrating people; there’s a cake, and two seem to exchange rings. When it went viral, it was instantly dubbed “Egypt’s First Gay Wedding.”

4549887301409591956-الفنان محمد صبحي

Mohamed Sobhi attempts to keep gay marriage from spreading to him

Some of the men I talked to asserted the whole thing was a joke. One of the alleged grooms called the popular talk-show of Tamer Amin to say as much — that he had a girlfriend and was just “playing around with rings.” If it was a marriage between men, then in a sense it was intrinsically unserious, since the law doesn’t recognize that. Nor does the law punish playing at marriage. The furor kept mounting though. Amin, on his show, called for retribution. (Tamer Amin is eager to anathematize people he thinks are gay, but equally happy to excuse rape. When a Cairo University student was sexually assaulted earlier this year, Amin told viewers that “She was dressed like a prostitute … The sexually repressed boys couldn’t control themselves … I blame her for dressing like this, and her parents for letting her leave the house in that dress.”)  Mohamed Sobhi, an actor notorious for his paranoid rants against Jews, demanded the State “respond’ to the “the spread of the phenomenon of gay marriage.”

And the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the dictator’s most feared opposition, berated the regime that overthrew it, for going soft on perversion. A former MP for the Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party warned that “For the first time in Egypt, we hear of gay marriage. The coup leaders embrace the Western agenda of demolition and decay of religion, and Egypt is converted into a brothel.” She added that the “authority of the coup” lay behind the wedding.

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

The supposed ceremony thus became a political crime. The State took up the challenge: it started arresting people. Last Wednesday, September 3, police picked up at least 13 people in the streets around Ramsis Station, and interrogated them about the video. The next night, they seized an unknown number as they were leaving a club downtown — I’ve heard figures as high as 26. Most were released, but somebody pointed an incriminating finger. On Saturday, the media announced that men from the film had been arrested, by police directed by Major General Magdy Moussa. (The exact number is still not clear. Most news reports say seven people were arrested; Al-Mogaz says two more are being sought; Youm7 claims ten are involved, and even after a confused hearing Tuesday, where the lawyers were denied access to court papers, it’s impossible to verify a figure.) [NOTE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has now confirmed eight defendants have been arrested.] Youm7 showed grainy video of people being hauled to jail. The full names of nine victims, some presumably still at large, appeared in the press.

Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

We will hurt you when we find you: Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

The charges against the men aren’t clear, but they reportedly included incitement to “debuachery” (fugur, the legal term in Egyptian law for homosexual acts), and “publication of indecent photographs.” The images showed “the purpose was the celebration of attachment to one another, in scenes deemed shameful to the maximum degree.” Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, personally intervened in the case to show its seriousness, ordering quick action. Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority conducted anal examinations on the arrested men — an intrusive, abusive, torturous and medically worthless procedure. They found no evidence of homosexual conduct. That didn’t stop a court, on September 9, from ordering the men jailed for another 15 days so the furor can continue.

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medica Authority, who said the "bride" had turned out "normal"

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medical Authority, who said the “bride” had turned out “normal”

I spoke to one of the men trawled up in the police nets last Wednesday night: picked up at 3:30 AM on a street near Ramsis Station. This is his story:

I was standing with a friend — he had tight jeans, that was probably why they thought we were gay. Suddenly a policeman came out of nowhere and grabbed us. We were thrown into a microbus nearby. I tried to scream and the policemen told us to shut up. There were about 13 of us crammed in there, all picked up in various places.

In the past, Cairo police often looked for gays by riding in a microbus with an informer, who pointed out victims passing in the street. Almost a third of the Queen Boat defendants were arrested that way (not on the boat!) This time, the microbus took them to the Mugamma, the huge Stalinist building in Tahrir Square, a symbol of State bureaucracy. There police broke the men into groups for interrogation. One man “scampered off by a different door” — possibly he was the informer.

Soldiers in front of the Mugamma in Midan Tahrir, January 2011, by Joseph Hill

The Mugamma looms above Tahrir Square, guarded by soldiers, during the Egyptian revolution, January 2011: by Joseph Hill

My group was me, my friend, and another man I didn’t know. We were taken up to the 12th floor, the “Adab” [morals] division.
At first the police were very aggressive with us. They beat us with sticks, and called us many names. Then the boss came in to question us.

The boss was very civil. He said for months they had been arresting gays as a way of stopping the spread of AIDS, because these men were having sex without condoms.

This is false. So far as we know, no evidence that anyone transmitted HIV through barebacking has been presented in any cases so far. The manipulation of public-health rhetoric is a bit strange coming from a government that claims it can cure AIDS by turning it into sausages.

But now, he said, there is this video. He said we have a new president, and Sisi is determined not to let this kind of thing happen, and will not let the Muslim Brotherhood get any benefit from it. I told him I didn’t know anything about the people in the video. All the same, they took our phones and made backups of all the information on them.

We were kept there for six hours, till after 10 AM. After the boss left the other policemen came back and made fun of us, calling us female names and asking if we were carrying condoms. My friend and I were set free; they held on to the third guy who was with us, because they said there was a theft charge against him. I don’t know what happened to the others.

The information on the phones — particularly if passwords were stored on them — could help the police open the victims’ Facebook and other social-media accounts. Plenty more could be rounded up that way.

Don't blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

Don’t blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

This whole uproar raises several issues. First: why now? The men I spoke to told me the video was made last October. One theory, seized on by the press, is that someone released it now to get revenge on a participant. It’s not implausible, though, that the authorities somehow obtained it earlier, and have been waiting for the moment when it might prove useful. There is plenty to distract people from in Egypt these days. Rolling power outages afflict the country; September 4 was promptly dubbed “Black Thursday” because the blackouts were so severe. Meanwhile, no sooner did Sisi win his rigged Presidential election than he announced massive cuts to fuel subsidies, pushing up prices for many basic goods. In such straitened circumstances, the spectre of “gay marriage” has long-proven value as a distraction. In Morocco in 2007, a YouTube video allegedly showing such a ceremony provoked riots — and jail terms for participants — in the town of Ksar el Kbir. In Kenya in 2010, similar stories stirred up vigilante violence in Mombasa. In Egypt itself, the first, sensational press reports in the famous Queen Boat case said a same-sex wedding was taking place on the raided vessel; some months before that, the press had pounced on unproven rumors of a marriage in the Delta town of Zagazig. “Gay marriage” has become a perfect encapsulation of cultural powerlessness before the imperial West.

Second, of course, the video leaked amid a months-long campaign of arrests and vilification of people accused of homosexual conduct or of dissident gender expression. Transgender people in particular have been rounded up in clubs and on the streets, and seized in private homes. These arrests continue. In early August, police arrested a woman and two men in Rehab City, a gated community on Cairo’s outskirts, and charged the latter with homosexual conduct. I’m reliably told the cops stopped one of the men at a checkpoint, on his motorcycle; finding him suspicious, they went to his home, and found the conclusive evidence — condoms. (So much for the officers’ concern for public health.) Later that month, “security forces” arrested ten people in what they called a “prostitution ring” in Giza, in western Cairo. They included, it seems, a trans woman, whose photo was singled out to appear in El-Watan. (Only the eyes were imperfectly blacked out; obscuring the face was done by me.)

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

But it’s not just alleged gays and trans people who are victims of the atmosphere of repression. The police presence in downtown Cairo is formidable now. Just under three weeks ago ago, cops raided a host of sidewalk cafes, forcing them to shutter because they had tables on, well, the sidewalk. (I recall when Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved similarly against street life in Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district, Western conservatives condemned it as creeping Islamic totalitarianism. When Sisi does it, nobody bothers.) The next day, they cracked down on street vendors. Grim, barred trucks from Central Security palisaded the avenues, filling up with hapless men whose crime was hawking scarves and jeans in the passageways off Qasr el-Nil. There is a general campaign of social control going on, and a general rehabilitation of the reputation — and power — of the police. Homosexuality is simply another convenient bogeyman. Its particular convenience, though, is that it unites several things Sisi despises: “Western” influence (as in those marriages), abnormal gender roles, and the youth culture and revolutionary decadence symbolized by the downtown world. Attacking “debauchery” allows him to set the State firmly against all those debilitating forces.

Third: the fact that the latest arrests came after criticism by the Muslim Brotherhood shows where Sisi senses his greatest vulnerabilities. Having overthrown the conservatives, he needs to prove his moral credentials. It’s significant that no comparable wave of repression happened under the Brotherhood itself: they had no credentials to prove. (It’s also significant that this panic has burgeoned during the week the government sentenced several Brotherhood leaders to decades in prison.) Sisi’s Minister of Religious Endowments — who more or less controls all the country’s official mosques — explained the official line elegantly to the media last week. Every Egyptian should reject “all anomalies” such as homosexuality, “because in the end they only serve the forces of extremism and terrorism, which claim to be the protectors of religion and morality.”

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gomaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gumaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Finally, what all this produces is fear, comprehensive and immobilizing. No one can guess what will come next, how far the crackdown will go. There are vague stories the State has planned a massive trial of alleged homosexuals for later this month, or next month; no one knows whether this mini-Queen-Boat is enough for them. Cairo Scene, a English webzine for the privileged party set, has claimed the police are already arresting gay men over Grindr; no one has been able to confirm a single case, but the rumor only adds to the terror. My sensible colleagues are pruning their phone lists, taking down photos from Facebook, and waiting — waiting for what, nobody can tell. Even I have drawn up a list, for friends, of things to do if I’m arrested; when insouciant I behave that way, you know something is wrong. A full-fledged moral panic is spreading in Egypt. It even has a song — by an Egyptian band, proclaiming that something must be done to stop the she-men with skinny jeans:

The panic infects political discourse, turning everything to triviality. The contrast between the indifference accorded real and terrible stories of violence against women, and the seriousness with which a mock wedding is reviled, remains ominous. The men on the boat may have been careless or presumptuous, but the whole country increasingly resembles a ship of fools. The absurdity isn’t innocuous, though. The point of moral panics is that they can always find new victims.

 

Policing Pride

Stonewall riot, New York City, June 27, 1969

Stonewall riot, New York City, June 27, 1969

Forty-five years ago yesterday, the Stonewall riots began, the reason Pride happens at this season. I have a Dark Gay Secret: I’ve never enjoyed most Prides. Mostly it’s because of how I deal with crowds. Prides are peculiar marches, not about specific goals but about visibility itself as a general good; the exultant pointlessness, which is the point, disconcerts me slightly, and I feel like a guy who comes to a lazy cocktail party thinking it’s a fancy-dress ball. I swing into a different state of mind, perversely, if there’s a chance the police or a mob might attack. Then I’m poised to document, record, act, a good human rights gnome, as I’ve done at tiny embattled Prides from Budapest in 1992 to Zimbabwe in 2000 — or at probably hundreds of other demonstrations from Romania to Egypt. That I know how to do. But otherwise I stand around wondering what’s the value of my personally being visible — does anyone want to see me? — and why the hell I’m there.

This is by way of explaining that in sixteen or so years of living in New York, I only went to Pride once. It was 1998. A friend and I staked out sidewalk space on lower Fifth Avenue and watched the platoons go by. It was fun till we heard a roar of exuberant welcome, a surging surf of cheers, billow down from a few blocks before; as the thunder neared we saw a blue-uniformed brigade the crowd was wildly applauding, and someone told us it was the first-ever contingent of LGBT police officially allowed to march in the parade. This was nine months after Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been raped by policemen in a Brooklyn jail. I turned away. I asked my friend: how could they go all jismic over an institution that, however many gays it hired, was historically their oppressor, still firmly in the business of oppression? (This was the warm noon of Giuliani time.) He frowned dourly. “They love power,” he said.

Today is Pride in London. (A few years ago it was renamed to avoid the whole annoying question of whose identities were included — L? G? B? T? Q? — and make it more a self-lauding celebration of the city’s own diversity, however unspecified.) A good if only slightly jargony article by Huw Lemmey asks questions similar to mine in more detail. He describes how the festivities welcome the Metropolitan Police, parading in full uniform.

Their bodies are used as symbols, building an image of the police as an inclusive and tolerant body reflecting the makeup and values of society as a whole. …It is wrong to say Pride is now a depoliticised event: it is more politicised than ever. It has been turned over to the service of the dominant ideology, and so is harder to distinguish from the cruelties and injustices of everyday life. We have lost Pride.

We'e here, we're queer, don't move, motherfucker: Metropolitan Police march in Pride in London, 2013

We’e here, we’re queer, we love you, really: Metropolitan Police march in Pride in London, 2013

As this shows, it is easy to see the privileged police participation as symbolic of things a lot of people dislike about Prides these days, though fewer and fewer find language to resist them: their mainstreaming, commodification and corporatization, symptoms of a movement demobilized. For “corporate and state institutions,” Pride’s an opportunity. The “’visibility’ of their employees on a public march associated with youth, diversity and openness became a positive boon.”

Police kettle Climate Camp protesters at the G20 summit, London, 2009

We’re here and fuck you: Police kettle Climate Camp protesters at the G20 summit, London, 2009

It’s equally sensible to see in the cops’ presence a more precise historical wound: an insult to those who preserve the memory of police violence, whether against an Abner Louima in New York or a Jean Charles de Menezes in London, or the many others whose unreported stories they represent; or a white- or pink-washing of the ways security forces deal with less anodyne demonstrations. Faced with gatherings more militantly “diverse” than Pride and more impelled by politics than pleasure, British police crack down hard. They routinely “kettle” or encircle any nonviolent protest, isolating it from public view, enabling brutality, dangerously crushing the participants. The Guardian calls this a method for “authoritarian governments” that “brook no opposition and contrive a compliant society.” Since I haven’t been to a demo in London since 1993, I’ve mainly seen the practice in open, diverse, democratic Egypt, where twice I was almost trampled to death in a protest constricted by a tightening security cordon. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London has bought three watercannon for his city this summer, to soak menacing subversives who cannot make it to the beach.

State Security (Amn el-Dawla) forces encircle a small anti-war demonstration, Sayyeda Zeinab, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 15, 2003: photograph by Scott Long

State Security (Amn el-Dawla) forces encircle a small anti-war demonstration, Sayyeda Zeinab, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 15, 2003: photograph by Scott Long

Since in New York or London (like so many other patrolled and guarded cities) victims of state violence tend to be people of color or other marginalized minorities, critiques of the police presence also resurrect suppressed questions of identity and justice within queer communities themselves. When “law enforcement become[s] part of the corpus of Pride,” Lemmey writes,

other bodies are necessarily erased. …  how can we ask people materially, psychologically and physically oppressed by the police (or the financial services institutions, or the Army) to “come out” and be proud of a collective political project which so visibly and proudly features those institutions that oppress them? …. By excluding those bodies from Pride, we perpetuate a public image of LGBT people limited to those who have no conflict with the police in their daily lives, ensuring a vicious circle of erasure for the excluded.

There is a fourth issue, which also grows out of the troubled history of LGBT people with policing. As long as the police are around (and, as Raymond Chandler wrote, no one has figured out how to say goodbye to them yet), they’ll be called on to protect LGBT people against violence, as well as to eschew homophobic violence themselves. All the sensitivity trainings and diversity hires and appearances at Pride serve this end: opening the institution to the benefit of people it’s supposed to serve, but hasn’t. The ability to claim the state’s protection when you need it is a constituent part of citizenship. But protection against whom? When these establishments promptly move on to identify other enemies, other aliens, new outsiders, new victims, are these vaunted openings also making LGBT people the privileged clients of repression? And when does a client become an accomplice? “I must distance myself from this complicity with racism, including anti-Muslim racism,” Judith Butler, declining the “Civil Courage Prize” she was offered at Berlin’s Christopher Street Day in 2010, said: 

We all have noticed that gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans and queer people can be instrumentalized by those who want to wage wars, i.e. cultural wars against migrants by means of forced islamophobia and military wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. In these times and by these means, we are recruited for nationalism and militarism. Currently, many European governments claim that our gay, lesbian, queer rights must be protected and we are made to believe that the new hatred of immigrants is necessary to protect us. Therefore we must say no to such a deal. To be able to say no under these circumstances is what I call courage. But who says no?

That’s still a question.

Police raid a migrants' camp in Munich, Germany, 2013

Police raid a migrants’ camp in Munich, Germany, 2013

World Pride, a putatively global confab, has been going on in Toronto, Canada this week.  Although people can attend panels to hear about particular abuses by particular police forces in, say, Uganda or Russia, one subject that’s unlikely to come up is how security techniques, surveillance, and control have gone just as global as Pride has. Yet Toronto’s cops learn from Giuliani’s how to deal with the intrusive and unwanted, and a rich cross-fertilized discussion of how to round up people and neutralize or kill them goes on between those enlightened cities and Cairo or Sao Paulo. Mike Davis warned a decade ago that the defining question of the twenty-first century city will be how to police the poor. This is ever more evident. Queer Ontario has put out a “Statement of Concern Regarding the TAVIS Policing of the Downtown Eastside during the World Pride Event,” and I will reproduce it in full:

Queer Ontario is very concerned about the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) policing initiative of the downtown eastside scheduled to coincide with the World Pride (WP) event. As many visitors to Toronto are expected during this major tourism event, we are concerned that the police are stepping up their intervention and surveillance of marginalized and vulnerable downtown eastside residents. We are concerned that the police are using a global tourism event as a pretext to crackdown on the area’s poor residents, the homeless, street-based sex workers, drug users, and others essentially engaging in an “undesirables cleansing” of the area.

We are concerned that the rights of our most vulnerable citizens will be violated during the TAVIS policing effort as its policy of targeted ‘prevention’ of crime does little to address the social and economic marginality that the area’s residents face — a social and economic situation marked by poverty, racism, gender violence, homelessness and discrimination. Especially vulnerable are the area’s female and female-identified transsexual and transgendered street-based sex workers and the local drug-using population. Adding to the problem is the fact that the downtown eastside is where many of the social services that the residents rely on are located – forcibly displacing local residents would thereby compound their difficulties.

Anti-poverty activists demonstrate against TAVIS in advance of World Pride, June 2014.

Anti-poverty activists demonstrate against TAVIS in advance of World Pride, June 2014.

As the TAVIS policing effort is contemporaneous with the World Pride event, we are especially concerned that the World Pride Committee not remain silent on this issue facing our poor and disenfranchised residents of the downtown eastside, and area which is adjacent to the Church Street Village and which is home to many of the city’s LGBTQ population. We are asking the World Pride organizers not to remain silent on this issue and to remember the history of policing in our LGBTQ communities. Heavy-handed and discriminatory practices by the police are not unknown to LGBTQ folks, past and present. Everyone has a right to the city and to unhindered access to the services many need to survive; not a few of whom will be directly affected by the TAVIS effort will themselves be LGBTQ people, and are, by and large, unable to afford many of the events WP has to offer.

We at Queer Ontario urge you to take this issue seriously as there are many people in our communities and beyond who are expecting World Pride organizers to remember our queer history and to act accordingly, working with the police to temper their activities during this time. We hope WP does not choose to engage in a shameful silence when the cops do the work of violating the rights of some of the most vulnerable members of the public and our poor citizens. We urge you to consider your role, as leaders of global events attached to a Human Rights Conference to not become a force for denying the same rights that queers/trans folks have had to fight for decades to obtain.

This is a very important issue for how events are going to be organized in this city now and for years to come. We ask that WP organizers step up and make their voices heard for the more marginalized citizens in the downtown area. We request that they not let a major global event become a handmaiden of short-sighted policing efforts and the displacement of the poor and marginalized, which have often accompanied such global entertainment and sporting events worldwide.

Sitting pretty: TAVIS forces on patrol in Toronto

Sitting pretty: TAVIS forces on patrol in Toronto

TAVIS, a “police unit that swoops into violence-prone pockets of the city to gather intelligence and connect with regular people,”  has severely “strained relations with heavily policed communities,” the Toronto Star phlegmatically reports:

TAVIS officers stop, question and document citizens at the highest rate of any other police unit, as they are expected to do. They also have the highest degree of carding of blacks, which, to be sure, is partially a reflection of the demographics of where they are most often deployed. …

With 22,000 arrests to its name in five years, TAVIS scares a lot of people — although not the city’s white, rich, criminal, drug-smoking mayor. But the anxieties about World Pride also draw on events like the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, where police sweeps and harassment drove sex workers and other undesirables out of their neighborhoods, doing serious harm to their livelihoods and (by limiting their access to health services) lives.

From ‏@stonewalluk  , 2013: "London Met Police came to visit us at the Pride family area, St Anne's Churchyard and took a couple of our stickers!"

From ‏@stonewalluk , 2013: “London Met Police came to visit us at the Pride family area, St Anne’s Churchyard and took a couple of our stickers!”

Large urban Pride fests like New York’s or London’s are not just celebrations for LGBT communities, or for their host towns. They’re tourist events, chances for neoliberally refurbished cities to show off their vibe and neutered variety to a consuming world. Queer Toronto gets the broad point right: Prides are now in the same class as giant sports carnivals — which, as I’ve written before, always feed fears of alien identities tarnishing the urban image, and always lead to policing the unwanted into either prisons or invisibility, the latter sometimes temporary, sometimes lasting. Among folks expelled from view when Pride comes to town may well be many ostensibly fitting into the LGBT lineup, but in practice not: sex workers, migrants, people of color, the poor.

There’s a growing number of studies of how sports events provide pretexts for social cleansing, from the London Olympics to the Rio World Cup. So far as I know there have been no similar investigations of how Pride is policed: who benefits from “protection,” and who are its victims. Absent such knowledge generalizations are irresponsible, but it needs looking into. (As one starting point, note this statement from the North Star Fund in New York, highlighting the coalition work of three of its LGBTQ grantees — the Audre Lorde Project, FIERCE, and Streetwise & Safe — to combat discriminatory policing.) The police presence at Prides is hardly just the nice symbolic gesture of marching and carrying flags. The logic of security forces does not brook their being decorative. Police also intervene in the layout and life of the city, to mold them to the Pride image; their appearance among the marchers promotes a certain apathy toward what they may be up to at the margins. How much violence happens in the name of safety? Look at that picture of Stonewall at the top. Then, next time you’re at Pride, ask yourself: Which side of the barricade are you on now?

Security forces encircling an antiwar protest at the Cairo Book Fair, Egypt, January 31, 2003: Photograph by Scott Long

Security forces encircling an antiwar protest at the Cairo Book Fair, Egypt, January 31, 2003: Photograph by Scott Long

 

Brutal gender crackdown in Egypt: The tomorrows that never came

An epitaph for Egypt's revolution: "Remember the tomorrows that never came?" Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

Heartbreaking epitaph for Egypt’s revolution: “Remember the tomorrows that never came?” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

You go home, you lock your door. If you live in a place like Cairo where everybody talks about crime, maybe you bolt it two times, three times. The door is centimeters thick but it marks an almost geological division: between your life, your self, and all those other lives that have no place in yours. Yet one knock, one blow of a fist, can tear through that integument like tissue paper. The flaccid walls melt, the architecture of a dream; they fold like cardboard stage-sets in a hurricane.

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another…. Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your  life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? … The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.” …

Everyone living in the apartment is thrown into a state of terror by the first knock at the door.

That’s Solzhenitsyn. But in each repressive society, among every persecuted people I’ve ever known, from old Bucharest to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the knock on the door takes on an almost metaphysical meaning: the barriers around your personhood dissolving. It’s a signal of intimacy, now transmuted into dread.

There is a crackdown, now, in Egypt. Activists calculate that, since last October, 77 people have been arrested, but the real figures are surely higher. The prison sentences are draconian; one victim got twelve years. It is one of many crackdowns. You could compile an honor roll of endangered people in Egypt: atheists, journalists, revolutionary protesters, Islamist supporters — of whom the army slaughtered more than 1000 last summer alone. What’s distinctive about this particular pattern of arrests isn’t so much its breadth as the peculiar intensity of its assault on intimacy and privacy. The police burst into people’s homes and apartments; they’re seizing those whose main offense is that their clothes and hair are different. Didn’t we hear a year ago — from everybody including the well-paid Tony Blair — that the Muslim Brotherhood had to be overthrown and its members murdered because they wanted to trample personal freedoms, impose compulsory hijab, to turn Egypt into a new Iran? So why are its successors, Sisi’s military dictatorship and its supposedly secular henchmen, the ones enforcing a dress code with truncheons and guns?

"Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot)." Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

“Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot).” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

The current wave of arrests started last autumn, as far as anyone can make out; back then I wrote on this blog about the first two cases. On October 11, police in El Marg, a working-class neighborhood in eastern Cairo, raided a bathhouse and gym and arrested fourteen men. Residents of the quarter had seemingly complained about the comings and goings in the place — they sacked it in rage after the raid. Beaten and abused in detention, the men were charged with fugur or “debauchery,” the term of art by which male homosexual conduct is criminalized in Egyptian law. The arrests got good press; Al-Akhbar Al-Youm, a semi-official newspaper, picked up the story immediately; and that must have provided encouragement. On the night of November 4, in the western suburb of 6 October City, police raided a private party in a detached villa. Among dozens in attendance, they picked up ten people (including a woman working as bartender). Here, the pattern began to set, like an obscene drawing scrawled in wet cement:

  • The invasion of a private dwelling.
  • The focus on gender nonconformity — after the proprietor of the house, police singled out the most “effeminate” guests, including a male bellydancer. (The link to the military regime’s exacting standards of manhood was very clear. The immediate motive for the raid was apparently that visitors to the house who passed a nearby, post-coup checkpoint had offended the soldiers’ sensibilities; the troops called the police in the nearby village of Kerdasa to come do something.)
  • The draconian sentences handed down. Eight defendants got the maximum permitted by the law on fugur — three years in prison; the host had a battery of related charges thrown at him, including “corrupting” others and managing a house for purposes of “debauchery,” and got nine years. (The woman was acquitted.)

Since then, the arrests have come in an accelerating rush, till now a new raid happens virtually every week. Some incidents:

  • In the Red Sea resort of Hurghada,on December 14, police arrested two men (according to their IDs) who were wearing “women’s clothing and wigs” in a nightclub; they found “lipstick and condoms,” “makeup and creams” on them, according to the media.  The press also reported that the morals (adab) police perceived a pattern of “young people aged 16 to 20 from the Western provinces and Cairo” coming to Hurghada to “wear women’s clothing, carrying handbags with makeup tools and accessories and sexual creams and condoms.” In April, a court sentenced one of the two victims to three years in prison; the other was sent to a juvenile facility.
  • In February, the same Hurghada vice squad announced the arrest of three more “deviants,” aged 19, 20, and 23: “dressed as ladies and carrying handbags, in which an inspection found cosmetics and women’s clothing.” They confessed they wanted to “turn into women.” The police reassured the public that a “security crackdown” on deviance was in progress. There have probably been more Red Sea arrests of which we know nothing.

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada "security crackdown" on trans people: from El- Dostour

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada “security crackdown” on gender-nonconforming people: from El- Dostour

  • On March 11, the newspaper Youm7 headlined a court conviction for a “prostitution ring” in the Mohandiseen district, in Cairo west of the Nile: “a mixed network of girls and ‘third sex.'” Among the five defendants they mentioned, two were women and three were (biological) men; two of the latter apparently had women’s nicknames. The defendants’ ages ranged from 17 to 23, and the paper cheerfully printed their pictures. They had apparently been arrested, after “the receipt of information” and “investigations,” in a vice squad raid on an apartment they shared. They received one-year prison sentences.
  • On the very same day, March 11, Youm7 also reported the vice squad in Alexandria had arrested nine university students for “practicing sexual deviance,” in a raid on an apartment in the Montazah district. The newspaper said they had been caught “in flagrante delicto.” Egyptian LGBT activists later reported they had been released without charge, but it has been impossible to confirm this for certain.
  • On April 21, the vice squad in the Suez Canal city of Ismaïlia arrested a 22 year-old with male identity papers, who was wearing women’s clothing in a public park. The victim faces trial this month; the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has sent a lawyer. Youm7 reported the case and printed two photographs of the defendant, face fully exposed, seemingly seized from her house or phone.
  • On April 1, vice police in Nasr City — a district of eastern Cairo — arrested four people in an apartment. Their ages ranged from 18 to 31; according to their friends, two of them identified as male-to-female transgender. They had only moved into the flat the day before; it seemed that neighbors or their new landlord reported them. Prosecutors charged them with fugur. A lawyer who went to the jail to help them heard police calling them the “four faggots [khawalat].” The case moved extremely quickly; on April 7, a Nasr City court convicted them all for”debauchery.” The oldest also was found guilty of “facilitating debauchery” and maintaining “premises for the purposes of debauchery,” under provisions of the same law. He received eight years in prison, while the other three took three-year sentences.
Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

  • Also in Nasr City, during the first week of May, the vice squad arrested five more people in another apartment raid. Marsad Amny (“Security Observer”) printed their full names. It also reported that they were “clients” of those arrested in the earlier raid; activists believe the cops found them through the phones or friends’ lists of the previous victims. According to police, they confessed that they “hold private parties and drink  alcohol and liquor, and then they imitate women and [practice] vice with men.” The press also pruriently reported they had acknowledged “abusing pills” (presumably hormones) for breast enlargement and to “soften the voice and remove unwanted hair from their bodies. … They said that taking the pills helped them to acquire the shape, parameters, and characteristics of the female body.” And they owned “industrial tools for the practice of sexual deviance,” which is anybody’s guess. Today — May 19 — the Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights told me that one of the accused has been given a four-year prison sentence; three received eight years; and the court sentenced the flat’s main tenant to twelve years.
  •  On May 4, police arrested six people in a flat in the Cairo district of Heliopolis. Youm7, which carried a report the next day, called them “effeminates” (mokhanatheen, مخنثين, sometimes translated “shemales” or “sissies,” sometimes more respectably as “intersex” or “androgynes”) and claimed they were part of an “international sex network,” apparently because one had a Moroccan passport. The paper carried three successive, sensational stories based on information the police leaked, including pictures of the defendants and even two videos filmed in the lockup. Another paper said they confessed to “suffering from excess female hormones in the body and having sex hundreds of times.” The media also quickly announced that two of the accused “had AIDS,” suggesting an HIV test had been carried out in detention. Charged with “debauchery,” they are facing trial.
Major General Hisham el-Sawy of the Minisry of Interior, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

Major General Hisham el-Sawy , director of the general administration of the morals police, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

The news accounts and police statements actually suggest a still wider crackdown coming. The stories stress again and again that the “deviants” “advertise themselves through social networking sites,” or “through the pages of Facebook.” I interviewed a man arrested a year ago who recounted how the cops told him, “We know the cafes where you people gather, and we know the websites you use too.” Some of the recent court decisions adduce defendants’ personals ads, on sites like “Worldwide Transsexual Dating,” as evidence against them. Plenty of LGBT Egyptians use apps like Grindr, or have ads on multiple sites, or have posted indiscreet things on their own Facebook pages or in supposedly secret groups. A few strategically placed informers, and these people — thousands of them — could wind up in prison.

All that has happened before. From 2001-2004 Egyptian police arrested thousands of men for “debauchery,” entrapping many over the Internet. I can say with pride that this crackdown ended because we at Human Rights Watch, together with Cairo activists, documented it in clear detail, including the sleazy methods undercover cops used to delude and capture people. (“It is the end of the gay cases in Egypt,” a high Ministry of Interior official told a well-placed lawyer in 2004, “because of the activities of certain human rights organizations.”) For the next eight years, excepting an abortive spate of arrests of gay men suspected of being HIV-positive in 2008, no one went to prison for fugur in Egypt.

"A salute to our martyrs:" A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A salute to our martyrs:” A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead whom military and police killed. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Years of relative calm, then this. What underlies these new horrors?

First, media sensationalism feeds the arrests. Each juicy story gives police more incentives to pursue publicity. Youm7 (Seventh Day“), a privately owned paper, is the worst offender. They’ve blared out each new arrest with hungry glee, publishing names and faces, marching into jails with police collusion to capture the miscreants on videocamera.  Founded six years ago under Mubarak, Youm7 has parlayed its official connections to become one of the most popular papers, and websites, in Egypt. Since the Revolution, it’s become unofficial mouthpiece for the military and the security state. During the Morsi presidency, it whipped up hysteria against the Muslim Brotherhood (most famously, it claimed that the Brotherhood had dispatched roving medical vans to perform female genital mutilation door-to-door in rural Egypt, a story that spread widely before people noticed there was no evidence). More recently, its editor-in-chief was one of the elect anointed to tell a waiting world that Generalissimo Sisi planned to run for President.

A typical headline from Youm7: “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.” The face was not blurred in the original.

A typical headline from Youm7: “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.

Youm7 and its imitators dehumanize the arrested “deviants,” portraying them as both pathological and irrefragably criminal. Each article offers new images and verbiage of degradation.

But here’s the second point: of course, the government is feeding these stories to Youm7. And spreading stigma is a defining mark of the post-coup military regime. The whole strategy of Sisi’s government has been to divide and conquer Egypt, with a thoroughness earlier rulers never achieved in living memory: by creating instability, conjuring up threats and then assigning faces to them, it gins up the impression of necessity around its palsied grip on power. It started last summer, portraying the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters (at least a quarter of the country) as not just terrorists but rabid animals whom only death could discipline, indifferent to life, including their own. Stripping humans of their humanity, however, unleashes an energy that brooks no confinement to particular targets. The circles of lives unworthy of living, of those expelled brutally from both the society and the species, keep expanding. Egypt is now devouring itself in an infuriated quest to define who is no longer Egyptian. The “perverts” are just the latest victims.

Police and media together have generated a full-fledged, classic moral panic. Just ten days ago, walking downtown during Friday prayers, I heard a sermon piped over loudspeakers in the very heart of Cairo: “Why do we now see men practice abominable vices?” the imam demanded. “Why do they put on makeup, lipstick, and behave in the way of women?” I forget the answer. The question was the point. These forms of “deviance” are now the common topic in corner mosques as well as national news. All the typical tropes come up. Youm7 interviewed pundits about the “problem” — a psychologist, a professor of Islamic history, and a “security expert,” who compared queerness to drug addition.

Recently a serious phenomenon has surfaced in our society, with devastating  effects on individuals, society and the nation. This phenomenon is the crime of homosexuality [“الشذوذالجنسى,” sexual deviance].

Advocating personal freedom, which our society could not apply correctly, does not mean that the individual is free in his actions regarding his personal and physical requirements. Affronts to legitimacy and legality should be disciplined, so that they do not conflict with the laws of nature or violate human dignity. But “homosexuality” is an affront to all humanity.

“Homosexuality” is filed as a taboo — but we must open it up whatever the reaction. It is a phenomenon that has swept Egypt following the revolution. Although it existed before it has now risen to the surface. …  It has even appeared in the recent involvement of some Arab princes in the practice of “homosexuality.”

As that suggests, you can subsume plenty of other enemies under this sweeping rubric. Revolutionaries, dissidents, and even Gulf magnates who may have given money to the Brotherhood are all tarred. In a violently xenophobic atmosphere, Western criticism of the arrests only proves there’s a foreign conspiracy against Egypt’s morals and manhood.

And, third: manhood is basic here. The crackdown mainly targets the people in Egypt’s diffuse and fragile LGBT communities who are most vulnerable and visible, those who defy gender norms. This is despite the fact that, while Egyptian law does criminalize male homosexual conduct, it says nothing about “crossdressing” or “effeminacy.”  Still, in many of these cases people were convicted of homosexual acts with no evidence but their looks (or the clothes or makeup in their handbags) alone.

Evidence survives that Egyptian cultures before the advent of British and French colonialism had specific niches for the gender non-conforming. Khawal is now an insult for men who engage in homosexual conduct, regarded as a terrible term of opprobrium. In the 19th century, however, it meant male dancers who dressed as women, who enjoyed (like some South Asian hijras) a recognized role as celebrants at events such as weddings.

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: "Egypt - haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer."

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: “Egypt – haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer.”

Whatever those niches were, though, in the 20th century they closed. Khawal came to mean not a gendered role but a sexual practice. Despite a few well-publicized cases of Egyptians seeking sex reassignment surgery, there was little social space for most people – particularly men – to cross gender lines for anything like a significant section of their lives. Only in recent years has there been a growing awareness of “transgender” identity, and an expanding willingness by a brave, determined few to live in at least a liminal space where gender blurs. Many of these folks don’t define themselves as “trans,” nor are they bound to particular gendered pronouns.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

One way to put this is that “gender identity,” if it means anything in Egypt, often exists in a continuum with “sexuality” rather than as a disaggregated axis for identity. But the development of downtown Cairo and a few other urban zones as places where all kinds of self-consciously “alternative” styles tacitly tolerate each other; the burgeoning availability of Internet information; and the discursive and personal freedoms the Revolution pried open, all encouraged a lot of people to experiment with new ways of appearing and even living, with being “ladyboys” (a term often heard in LGBT people’s Arabic), or fem, or trans. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The attention also meshes with other potent anxieties. I’ve written here before how the Revolution raised a nervous question about what Egyptian manhood meant. The generals who seized control of the country after Mubarak fell began at once to disparage dissenting youth as effeminate: long-haired, culturally miscegenated, and incapable of masculine virtues like loyalty and patriotism. As if in reaction, revolutionaries adopted a language of attacking others’ manhood: “Man up,” a call to courage and defiance suggesting that opponents were wusses, became a running cliché of revolutionary speech.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version disparages the police as "gay." Activists painted over the insult and turned it into a statement on homophobia.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version calls the police “gays.” Other activists painted over the insult and made a different statement: “Homophobia is not revolutionary.”

What resulted? An environment where all sides constantly debated masculinity and leveled accusations at its absence. Coupled with a fear of national vulnerability and diplomatic irrelevance (which the military governments carefully cultivated) this created ideal conditions for defaming transgressors against gender as traitors to culture and country. A stridently soldierly, macho dictatorship could hardly look for a more useful bogeyman than the mokhanatheen, who embody like a freeze-dried concentrate all the vices it attributed to its enemies.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: "The names change, the crime remains the same." The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: “The names change, the crime remains the same.” The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Fourth: the crackdown is convenient for the reputation of the police. In the Revolution’s wake, Egypt’s police forces stood discredited and despised. The cop represented the point where most citizens met and suffered from the power of a regime beyond the law. Almost everybody had a personal story of police extortion, or arbitrary harassment, or torture. After February 2011, the police almost disappeared from most Egyptian streets – loathed and cowed figures, fearing for their lives.

With Sisi’s ascendancy the cops are back with a vengeance. You see them at every traffic circle, big-bellied, smug, hitting up taxi drivers for their daily bribes. The regime’s purchased politicians praise the gendarmerie whose lucre-fueled alertness saves the nation from Islamist terror. Their presence hasn’t necessarily made them popular; memories of their abuses die hard. But going after still more despised enemies of virtue gives their image a lift. The news stories hammer home the moral: when it comes to “deviance,” our security forces are on guard.

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo. At top: "Those who appoint a successor never die." a parody of a proverb. At bottom: "O system! You're afraid of a pen and brush. ... You long to fight with walls, to have power over lines and colors." ACAB: "All cops are bastards."

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo, 2012. At top, Mubarak’s face emerges under that of General Tantawi, his Minister of Defense who overthrew him: “Those who appoint a successor never die,” a parody of a proverb (“Whoever has a child never dies”). At bottom: “O system! You’re afraid of a pen and brush. … You long to fight against walls, to have power over lines and colors.”At upper right, a policeman is beating a graffiti artist. ACAB: “All cops are bastards.”

Finally, you have to notice that this crackdown so far doesn’t proceed by policing public spaces like cruising areas or cafes, or by sneaking into pseudo-public spaces like Internet pages or chatrooms. It may go there, but not yet. It’s private homes the police invade. With each news story, they tout their X-ray ability to peer through the walls like cellophane.

And this is the grimmest message, though at first it may not seem so. If Egypt’s Revolution had one collective goal, it was to roll back state power. State surveillance of personal life, of people’s rooms and bodies, was the precondition for the state’s other abuses: especially torture, the crime that all the Arab Spring revolts most focused on, the ultimate assertion of government authority over people’s physical existence down to their bones and nerves and skin. The Revolution rebelled against the policeman’s eyes at the window, his ears in the walls, his clawed hand on the shoulder.

That’s over. There is no privacy. The hand is a fist, and it is knocking at the door. The knock is a reminder that the state is still there, that it can control whatever you do, what you wear, what your bodies desire. The knock insinuates itself into your dreams. It’s trans or gay or lesbian people, or effeminate guys or mokhanatheen, who hear and fear it now; the message reaches them first, in the early stages. Accustomed to dread, they’re an attentive audience. (A gay man with nothing exceptional about his appearance told me three nights ago that he is afraid to answer the door these days, afraid to go out of doors lest his neighbors see him and suspect something and report him to the police.) But it’s a message for everyone, and eventually everyone will listen. The Revolution promised “personal freedoms,” but forget it; “our society” couldn’t “apply them correctly”; they’re a corrupt aspiration, an evasion of the necessity of control. Remember all those dreams of tomorrow? Tomorrow went away.

"Shut up! because your freedom doesn't help me": Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

“Shut up! because your freedom doesn’t help me”: Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

 

 

New arrests for “homosexuality” in Egypt

Down these mean streets: El Marg district in northeast Cairo

Down these mean streets: El Marg district in northeastern Cairo

I wish some Egyptian Joan Didion could visit El-Marg. She might turn this dry outcropping of Cairo into a fear-saturated landscape like the dismal suburbs of Los Angeles: “an alien place,” as the writer sketched those badlands in one essay,

a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.  October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April.  Every voice seems a scream.  It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.

Street in El-Marg

Street in El-Marg

I’ve been to El-Marg once or twice, out on the far northeast edges of the megacity, and I remember dust everywhere, enough to outdo Didion’s sallow, itchy ambience. The neighborhood is too close to the desert, and nothing keeps out the onslaught of sand that grinds itself fine against window and wall and skin. But there are no mountains and there’s little wind; none of Didion’s rattlesnakes crepitate in the drives – there are no rattlers in Egypt, just impudent mongeese that hurry hunchbacked along the streets like donked-up rats; and you come away impressed not by sullen, repressed California housewives dreaming of adultery and insurance money, but by the prevalence of men, particularly young ones, slouching and strutting and parading down the unswept streets. It’s a shaabi neighborhood, a word sometimes translated “popular” and sometimes “working class,” but carrying other, deeper connotations: down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth, the country transported to the city on migrants’ backs. The place has the resentful pride of poverty, but none of the thwarted aspirations that fester in Didion’s bourgeoises. Nobody aspires. The local dreams seem leaden, not golden. The main hope is simply to survive in an economy and country where that gets harder all the time. Fourteen or more men are in jail there tonight, for something connected, somehow, to this hurt and troubled manhood.

The story appeared on October 12 in Akhbar el-Youm, a state newspaper, describing arrests that probably happened the day before.

The niyaba [prosecutor] ordered the [continued] detention of the manager and specialists and workers at a health center that was open for perverts [shawazz] only, in El-Marg. He also ordered the detention of 14 men who were caught practicing immorality [fahesha] inside it, and the closure of the establishment.

Information had been received about the center’s illegal activity, and that it welcomed perverted men and boys to practice immorality in its rooms.  The investigation has proved the information correct; the center was raided, and 14 men were caught, in positions that are against religious precepts.

Also, the management staff were caught along with a large quantity of pills and sexual stimulants. It emerged that the center only engages in this illegal activity in return for payments of between 50 and 200 pounds [$7-$28 US] for one encounter.

The defendants confessed in front of Mohammed Sayed Ahmed, the chief El-Marg prosecutor, that they had been frequenting the center to practice immorality [fahesha]. The niyaba ordered their detention and referral to the forensic medical authority, and ordered the center closed and the evidence preserved.

The “health center” turned into a “medical center” by the time this reached the English-language Egyptian press. It has remained so now that the story has started to enter the international LGBT media.

Actually, the establishment is — was — neither. I have at least one friend who has visited. It was a small gym and sauna, converted from a private apartment and operating as a business for years. It’s well known in the surrounding streets; when my friend went there about three years ago – before the Revolution – and asked directions, the neighbors said “Oh, the hammam!”, or baths, and pointed the way. The entry fee was 25 pounds back then. It’s unlikely the price has gone up eightfold in the interim, so the figures the police gave (with the strong suggestion of prostitution) are probably nonsense. There is a good chance that the “pills and sexual stimulants” the police found are vitamins, or even steroids.

Working out is easy! Fun! And Pharaonic!

Working out is easy! Fun! And Pharaonic!

The gym sounds, and perhaps was, a little upscale for a district like El-Marg: so poor and so insulated from so much of Western consumerism, with the exception of universal values like Marlboros and Pepsi. The arrests certainly call into question the celebrated thesis of Joseph Massad: that the “visible” people experiencing, indeed mischievously inciting, persecution for “homosexuality” in Egypt are “Westernized upper- and middle-class Egyptian men who identify as gay and consort with European and American tourists.” There aren’t too many people like that around El-Marg. On the other hand, a different kind of consumerized identity, built not around sexuality but around masculinity, has been creeping into places like El-Marg for well over a decade now. It comes from movies and magazine ads and it consists in a cult of the sculpted body, perfected from nature’s raw materials, designed to elicit admiration quite apart from anything it does, any useful work or wonders it performs. A longstanding fetish of health and exercise in Egypt dates from the colonial period – periodic pushups helped show that “natives” could be as strong and self-sufficient as their masters. Yet it was largely confined to the upwardly-pushing middle classes, as Wilson Chacko Jacob has demonstrated in an intriguing study. Only more recently has working out, and a fullblown Chelsea version of it at that, become a defining feature of shaabi manhood.

Something of the change can be sensed just with a glance at two Egyptian movie stars and their physiques.  Farid Shawki (1920-1998), nicknamed the “King of the Cheap Seats,” was an idol to working-class audiences for decades, playing poor heroes who fought against injustices imposed by a rogues’ gallery of rich villains. He was an unwieldy lug with a rectangular body that made him resemble a walking refrigerator (a luxury item his characters certainly couldn’t afford). Mohammad Ramadan, a 20-something kid from Upper Egypt and now a major sex symbol, also plays noble prole roles, but by contrast has the kind of torso that – well, in every movie he misses no opportunity to take his shirt off: “Lunch, habibi?” “Yes, but it’s so hot in here …”

Farid Shawki (L), Mohammad Ramadan (R):

Farid Shawki (L), Mohammad Ramadan (R)

It’s like the transition between John Wayne and Channing Tatum: between a laconic masculinity that held its energies in reserve, lest they be harnessed or exploited, versus one that shows itself off compulsively and indeed exists to be seen. The way the poor devour this new image in Egypt may have something to do with how the shaabi classes are increasingly invisible to the privileged and powerful. The rich and even the middle class retreat into guarded shopping malls, gated towers, and remote desert developments with the poor safely locked out. The conspicuous development of delts and abs is also a defiant way to say, I’m here, if only as an object of desire. It also perhaps reflects the economy of underdevelopment: a feeling that muscles are no longer for labor – there are fewer and fewer jobs as the economy spirals downward – but for show. Maybe there’s an element of resistance to it (look at Mohammad Ramadan’s menacing weaponry, above), but mostly it seems to be resignation to a different kind of exploitation. It’s a grim admission that your existence is really only useful as a spectacle. This kind of masculinity-for-display inevitably carries homoeroticism with it, but a particularly unsettling kind: the pumped-up muscles make one an object, not an agent, and imply vulnerability along with the visibility, the paralyzed passivity of a pin-up photo. Mohammad Ramadan is not an action hero. He seems quite credible, in fact, playing a victim.

The consumerized body, its class implications, its cross-cultural incursions – have any of these drawn Joseph Massad’s indignant attention? I think not. I don’t know whether any of the arrested men in El-Marg are “gay” or not, or what they were doing when caught “in positions against religious precepts” (a remarkably inclusive phrase).  I am inclined to guess, though, that the visibility of this suspect masculinity finally roused the antagonism of the neighborhood; and that is why the police were called, and how they ended up in jail.

Friends of friends of mine know some of the men. (Although “14” is the figure that’s made it into Western press reports, this is only the number of the clients arrested – it doesn’t seem to include the “manager, specialists, and workers.”) The prosecutor ordered them held for four days, but that may be renewed. They’ve been sent off for forensic anal examinations, which are intrusive, abusive, and inhuman treatment. They don’t yet have lawyers. Human rights organizations are overburdened with the arrested, the tortured, the disappeared since the military takeover. Some informal networks are trying to see what we can do.

Bodies indisciplined: Anti-Morsi protesters fill Midan Tahrir, June 30

Bodies indisciplined: Anti-Morsi protesters fill Midan Tahrir, June 30

Back in June, when three days of massive demonstrations gave the military the go-ahead to overthrow President Morsi, most of my gay friends in Cairo flocked to the streets, first in protest, then in celebration. But nothing had gotten worse for LGBT people under Muslim Brotherhood rule; nothing has got better since it ended. Same old, same old. It’s still true that the worst persecution LGBT people have faced in Egypt, possibly in the whole region – the three-year, continuous crackdown from 2001-2004, when police probably arrested and tortured thousands – was inflicted under Mubarak’s secular dictatorship. It had virtually nothing to do with religion. Indeed, the aged caudillo was arresting and torturing tens of thousands of Islamists at the same time.

What has been consistent since the Revolution, despite the several changes of government – military, Islamist, military again – is that the police want desperately to win their reputations back.  Under Mubarak, the vast majority of Egyptians passionately loathed the police: they were the contact point where ordinary citizens faced, and felt, the corruption and arbitrary power and abusiveness of a regime that had lost its sense of limit. And after February 2011, the cops finally had to give a damn that they were hated. In fact they largely disappeared, fearing for their safety and even lives if they offended an empowered populace. Since then, they’ve looked for ways to recuperate credibility – mainly, by showily harassing anybody the man in the street might despise even more than a man in uniform. Since the coup, the police go after Syrians, Palestinians, and other foreigners, because the wave of State-fostered xenophobia makes them applause-inducing targets. But it never hurts to announce that you’ve picked up a few suspected homosexuals. What better paints you, corrupt and immoral though you may be, as a defender of the nation’s morals?

Tell us who to torture and we will: Police in el-Marg escort deputy Minister of Interior on an inspection tour, April 2013

Tell us who to torture, and we will: Police in El-Marg escort deputy Minister of Interior on an inspection tour, April 2013

One night last February, I got a call at 4:30 AM. A small gaggle of gay men had been standing just after midnight in a square, in the tony Heliopolis neighborhood, that’s known as a cruising area. A police car pulled up to harass them; two of them, feeling their post-Revolutionary oats, argued with the officers.  They got arrested, while the others ran. One other guy who bravely went to the police station an hour later to ask about their well-being also found himself arrested, though the cops quickly let him go. Before that, though, the badges threatened him that he’d join his shawazz pals in prison. The word spread fast, by phone and text message, across Cairo’s gay communities. There were fears the prosecutor would slap charges of “debauchery,” or homosexual conduct, on the two men; fears, too, that they’d be sent off for the dreaded anal examinations. By 6 AM Ramy Youssef, a young Egyptian human rights activist, was standing with me in the shivery egg-blue dawn in front of the police station. Under various pretexts, we argued our way in, and persuaded the commander to let us see the men. One had been severely beaten. They were set free a few hours later – largely, I think, because we let the abusers know somebody was watching; but before I left, I asked the commander, in my most oozily ingratiating manner, whether the police found it increasingly difficult to work since the Revolution. “Definitely,” he said, spreading his hands imploringly. “And I hope you will tell the world that, as these cases show, we are still trying to do our job.”

Abandon hope, all ye that think otherwise: Portraits of General Sisi at a toll booth on the Sokhna road, October 2013, from http://instagram.com/p/faSnnEGD-t/  (h/t @Seldeeb)

Abandon hope, all ye that think otherwise: Portraits of General Sisi at a toll booth on the Sokhna road, October 2013, from http://instagram.com/p/faSnnEGD-t/ (hat tip: @Seldeeb)

Will this change? Not until the police are changed – until Egypt’s security sector is reformed; and neither military nor civilian governments have shown the slightest interest in that. The current junta, led by Generalissmo Sisi, has even less incentive to embark on any reforms than Morsi, who should have mistrusted the police (after all, they persecuted the Muslim Brothers for decades) but imagined he could employ them against his enemies. And military rule is never friendly to alternate ideas of manhood (or womanhood, for that matter). It exalts its own proprietary version of gender: a thoroughly traditional one, the old Everyman style of patriarchal authority, impatient of any perversion or extravagance. “We’re all Sisi,” the propaganda tells the public, and anybody who doesn’t look safely, nondescriptly, heterosexually Sisiesque enough will be in trouble. The fourteen or more men now in jail are victims because they seemed, in some fashion, different. They’re among many victims of the pressure to both believe (in the secular cult of Sisi) and conform.

It is the eve of Eid el-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice in Islam. The holiday commemorates the faithful Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail – a story that ended, as Jews and Christians know from their own versions, with God’s merciful forbearance, permitting the prophet to spare the boy’s life. Tonight as I walked in downtown Cairo, all the alleys felt festive almost till the curfew impended. In a run-down street near the High Court, small kids played on the sidewalk around a prostrate and unhappy-looking goat, which in a few hours would play its part as the substitute sacrifice. Ibrahim offered up an animal in grateful exchange for the divine indulgence, the value God placed on human life. There are no substitutes in Cairo these days. It’s human life that’s sacrificed. The whole country looks more than ever like a scapegoat.

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We are all Sisi: Junta propaganda on an August 2013 cover of Sowt el-Umma

In Dream Park: A day without Adorno

Spill Water ride at Dream Park: This was really fun

Spill Water ride at Dream Park: This was really fun (self not in picture)

Yesterday, with four good friends, I went to Dream Park.

Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of Pilgrim’s Progress? If you never read Pilgrim’s Progress when you were a lonely kid, then perhaps you should; it’s one of the great English novels — the lone believer sets out on foot from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, plodding slowly through an allegorical landscape, through the Country of Coveting and the Slough of Despond, and of course Vanity Fair, which is probably near Dream Park. It entranced and frightened me as a child. The opening had the suddenness of pristine terror:

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.

“What shall I do?” Christian cries, because the book tells him that everything around him will be burnt with a fire from heaven, and he, and his neighbors, and his wife and children are all doomed to annihilation. Isn’t that a good reason to leave home? Isn’t that why you go to Dream Park?

At Vanity Fair, be sure to ask about the student discounts: Map of Pilgrim's Progress, from City of Destruction to Celestial City

At Vanity Fair, be sure to ask about the student discounts: Map of Pilgrim’s Progress, from City of Destruction to Celestial City

My Egyptian friends invited me on condition that I promise not to open a book all day, because they thought that would be good for me, and you can see why. (Christian’s book tells him, “Flee From the Wrath to Come,” and mine aren’t much lighter.) Dream Park is Egypt’s biggest amusement park, kind of like the various Disney universes but minus the megalomaniacal style. It was a lovely day in the sun with lovely people, cracking jokes and doing the bumper cars and eating homemade kofta sandwiches. I only cheated once and cracked a book during  the Towboat Ride, when I was sitting in the back. Don’t tell.

Amusement parks always are a bit of an allegorical landscape for me. “Forget your cares,” they say, and of course if the day works out you do, but there’s no such thing as complete amnesia, and putting the present aside makes room for the past to overtake me. I spent my childhood summers in Noble County, Ohio, a poor and rural place. There were two big revels every season, the County Fair and the Fireman’s Festival (to raise money for the fire department), and for both, traveling carnival companies set up rides. My mother never liked the Fair much, and neither did I. It was mostly for farmers — there was a constant recruiting drive to get kids into 4-H, so intense in its ethical overtones (“Head, heart, hands, health!” “Make the best better!”) that I imagined a junior agricultural cult sacrificing virgins to the crops, although virgins were too rare to be killed lightly in Noble County, and weighing pigs and evaluating fertilizer were the more likely diversions. Also, the Fair rides sucked. Once I went in a “haunted house” which mainly consisted of rubbery things touching your cheeks in the dark. My mother threw a fit at what she almost saw as child abuse, complained to the sinister carnies who huddled in a tent behind, and got our admission back. She liked the Fireman’s Festival better, because your money went to a cause. The crowds were smaller, the steers and swine gone, the rides seemed cooler and the carnies less scary. Every time I go to an amusement park, though, I remember her anger at the ghost house, where I had been robbed of a promised good time. She frightened me sometimes with the intensity of her feeling; but I learned with age, long after her death, that love means going to battle even for others’ smallest joys.

Son, that is one fine prize steer: 4-H stand at Noble County Fair, Ohio

Son, that is one fine prize steer: 4-H stand at Noble County Fair, Ohio

There were things I really enjoyed at Dream Park; there was a boat going over a waterslide that was delightful. But there were things that were different — different, too, from the Disneyland my parents took me to when I was nine years old, where I loved It’s a Small World After All, and the Mad Tea Party. Those ride were intimate and individuated; you got in alone or with your “guardian,” and spun around in a way that left you feeling special — that your experience was your very own, so to speak. (All the more so if you puked in the whirling teacup, and so made your temporary mark.) There were a few like this at Dream Park: they had an imitation teacup ride, and something called Caesar’s Shaker which could have fit in back in Noble County. But all the emphasis was on mega-rides, where dozens of people get buckled into some giant, meat-grinder-like machine.

Is this a new fashion? I don’t remember these being around to envy when I was small. We all took the Top Spin, which looks like a cross between a combine and a trash compactor, except fifty feet high; it takes two rows of strapped-down victims, and hoists them and flips them upside down and throws them groundwards.


I forwent going on Discovery, which seems to be the biggest attraction in the park. Shackled in a circle on a huge gondola hung from metal beams, you sit and the thing spins while swinging back and forth like a bell’s tongue, higher and higher till it’s more than perpendicular to the earth. One of my friends dislocated his shoulder.


Peer pressure to show you can take this stuff pervades the air. Another friend really didn’t like these “violent” rides, he said, and felt so frustrated that he almost cried at his inability to enjoy what other people seemed to. But I knew where he was coming from. I liked the spinning teacups better, and I missed the singing dolls and tinkling cembalo music of It’s a Small World.

I didn’t put words to my dissatisfaction till the day’s end, when we sat in the waning sun while Selim nursed his shoulder, and watched Discovery from a distance. It didn’t look frightening in the right way, it looked degrading: people packaged up and manhandled by a vast machine. It was frightening in the way that air travel is to the inflexibly phobic (including me): not just because of the heights and the speed, but because you’re processed and immobilized, strapped down in an anonymous collective, and everything that goes on abolishes not just your volition but your personhood. It seemed an exercise not so much in excitement as in complete submission, like S&M without any of the erotics, where your master is made of metal and is sixty feet tall. This didn’t strike me as fun. It reminded me of bang-up special effects, from Transformers or War of the Worlds.

(L): SpinSpider, version of the Discovery ride, in a Norwegian theme park; (R) Very bad thing ("I don't think they come from around here), from Spielberg's War of the Worlds

(L): SpinSpider, version of the Discovery ride, in a Norwegian theme park; (R) Very bad thing (“I don’t think they come from around here”), from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds

Probably it’s good that I didn’t have a book. But being bookless didn’t stop me from wondering what’s the fun in these rides that seem more helplessness than thrills, pure abnegation to technology. Today I remembered Adorno, my old guide and companion Adorno; and I looked up a few passages from Minima Moralia, the book he wrote in exile during the Second World War.

Some years ago, the report circulated in American newspapers about the discovery of a well­-preserved dinosaur in the state of Utah. It was emphasized that the specimen in question had outlived its species and was a million years younger than any hitherto known. Such reports, like the repulsively humorous craze for the Loch Ness monster and the King Kong film, are collective projections of the monstrous total state. One prepares for its horrors by getting used to giant images. In the absurd willingness to accept these, a humanity mired in powerlessness makes the desperate attempt to grasp the experience of what makes a mockery of every experience. …Two years before World War II the German public saw a film of the downfall of their zeppelin in Lakehurst. Calm, poised, the ship went on its way, only to suddenly plummet straight down. If there remains no way out, then the destructive drive becomes completely indifferent as to what it never firmly established: as to whether it is directed against others or against its own subject. 

This is really not a style of thinking conductive to having fun. (I have read that Adorno greatly enjoyed practical jokes, and that his friends wondered how someone so humorous could write “that way.”) Having quoted it, I wonder if my friends will invite me to Dream Park, or anywhere, ever again.

But he’s on to something, isn’t he? — in our era, where the special effects have gotten even more destructive, where movies are basically a succession of bigger and bigger things getting blown to bits. In such an age, every park is Jurassic. This feeling that being manhandled and anonymous before some humongous power, helpless in a humiliated mass, is fun: does it arise, not from some deep eternal masochism in the human soul, but from this moment in our history, where everybody’s strapped down to something, where powerlessness is so much the way you are that being even more powerless is the only thrill you can imagine?

Houses made of ticky-tacky: Middle-class apartment blocks in 6 October City

Houses made of ticky-tacky: Middle-class apartment blocks in 6 October City

You go to the many Dream Parks to get away from the city. But the history of amusement parks is one of counter-urbanism, creating faux utopian spaces that nonetheless reflect as well as refute the realities left behind them. Disneyland is vacation from and mirror to L.A., Dream Park is oasis and supplement to Cairo. (FORREC, the Canadian firm that built it, cites “forty years of experience in theme, urban, architectural and interior design” that give “a singular ability to merge design creativity with fiscal practicality.”) It’s fourteen years old, but it’s part of a larger urban project that began in the late Sadat years (when capitalism and speculation came to once-socialist Egypt): to create “new cities” on the edges of Cairo, safety valves for the megalopolis’s congestion. The rage of masses trapped in crowded poverty and powerlessness demanded an outlet: not for them, but for the middle classes who wanted to leave that menacing anger and the sump and stagnation behind.

Dream Park was uncrowded, comparatively empty on our visit, another victim of Cairo’s tensions and the curfew. (The latter only moved back from 9 to 11 PM yesterday.) People don’t like to travel these days. Earlier, another friend even warned me about the microbuses you have to take to get there — “terrorists” will stop them to take sojourners hostage, he told me. Those who had trekked there wanted, like us, to enjoy a day with the streets far off, the stories of murder silenced. But it’s not that simple. October 6 City, of which the park is a peripheral part, is an excrescence in the desert; it still looks as though only enchantment sustains its cement and lawns, as though a brief lapse of will would make the mirage vanish. When it wavers into sight on the straight horizon, it reminds you of the power of the corporate djinns who coaxed it from a lunar landscape of sand and rock. Speculating in land is almost the only growth sector in Egypt’s economy, but it takes enormous money and influence to make the desert even pretend to bloom. A Mubarak crony bribed his way to get the permits to build 6 October City. He eventually married his daughter off to the then President’s son: a fairy tale about a captive princess that might make a decent theme park ride. After the Revolution, a court tried him for corruption, along with the former Minister of Housing, who enabled his castles in the sand; he got a prison sentence in absentia. But he’s fled somewhere to safety, his class of hangers-on is back in power again after the coup, and few expect him to suffer much or long.

The whole desert development is artificial, an enormous strain on the environment that seems to be cracking at the seams. The grass is desiccated, the sand can’t be kept out of doors. In Dream Park, the aquatic rides take an immense amount of water — more than anybody could justify allotting to the place when 18 million people are living in the vicinity; so they keep reusing it, and it stagnates, and in corners it smells, and bloated dragonflies circle hungrily above the guests.

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Christian and Hopeful encounter terrorists and bad transportation infrastructure on the way to the Celestial City

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Christian and Hopeful encounter terrorists and bad transportation infrastructure on the way to the Celestial City

I’m not a good person for amusement, I suppose. Yet I really enjoyed Dream Park; I loved being with my friends; I loved the innocence despite everything, and I loved — even as I swayed under — the unleashed flood of memories of childhood. Tonight I’m remembering still, and for some reason I’m thinking of Pilgrim’s Progress. I read it in my great-grandparents’ farmhouse in Noble County, on languid summer days when the bluebottle flies buzzed in the prisoning windowpanes. It stood in the dark bookcase with many other old books, but it was the most impressive; they had a stately edition from the Henry Altemus Company, ample with engravings, one that must have sat in the parlor of many a pious family at the last century’s turn. I remember looking at Christian casting off his burden, Christian tempted by Vanity Fair, Christian crossing the river at last to the Celestial City.

Atheist on the edge: A lesson for Richard Dawkins

Atheist on the edge: Watch out, Richard Dawkins

I remember also the book’s ending, which brought back the pure terror of the beginning, here at the resolution where it was least expected. Christian and Hopeful enter Heaven after fording the treacherous RIver of Something. But Ignorance — a bumbling character who’s been the earnest hero’s comic foil — sails over by boat, which is cheating, and then tries to charm his way in without his ticket of salvation. The sentinels turn stonefaced, the story darkens. “When they asked him for his certificate, so he fumbled in his bosom for one, and found none. Then said they, Have you none? but the man answered never a word.”

The King of Heaven is intolerant of intruders. He orders his servants, “the two shining ones,” to act: “to go out and take Ignorance, and bind him hand and foot, and have him away.” I never forgot these lines:

Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.

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