It’s like watching a whole ramshackle building totter when a single brick is pulled out. That’s how it felt, a week after the government’s case against the 26 victims of Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid collapsed. Practically every day since, the Egyptian media has carried some new, damaging revelation about how the criminal-injustice system works.
1) The press headlined the allegation, first reported in BuzzFeed last week, that at least one of the 26 men was raped in detention, with the encouragement of the Azbekeya police station guards. Mohammed Zaki, one of the defense lawyers, said the cops offered the men – hauled from the bathhouse naked except for underwear or towels – “as a gift to the prisoners,” with one officer pushing the victim into a cell and telling inmates, “Today’s your lucky day. Enjoy.” The man was “stripped of his towel, pushed to the floor, and raped, while police ignored his cries for help.”
2) The independent daily Al Masry Al Youm posted a filmed interview with one of the 26 victims: “The police treated us like animals,” he said.
Interview with “Ahmed,” a victim of the bathhouse raid
The newspaper summarized his story:
Ahmed, a young man in his thirties, comes to Cairo from his city in the Delta once or twice every week for a day trip of a few hours, to buy clothes on Clot Bey Street and return to the workshop in his city. On December 7, in his last visit to Cairo, Ahmed thought of going to one of the public bathhouses in the only district he knows. “The door of the place was open for anyone who wanted to cleanse himself,” says Ahmed. …
“Suddenly, the police raided the bathhouse and ordered us not to move. Some policeman started removing the towels we were putting on, while the TV host filmed those there,” Ahmed added. “When the owner of the bathhouse said she couldn’t film and asked who she was, she said she was from the government.” …
[At the Azbekeya station], a police assistant named Khaled put handcuffs on Ahmed and chained him to the iron gate of the jail and kept hitting him with a baton, and then shoved it in his behind. … Ahmed says the suspects were treated badly at the prosecution, but much worse in detention. “Despite the humiliation, no one [at the prosecution] ordered us to pretend we were dogs and bark, or lie on our stomachs while police officers passed by. It was like that every day in the jail.”
3) Al Masry Al Youm also interviewed neighbors of the bathhouse who condemned the raid as an “attempt to tarnish the area’s reputation.” One shop owner said, “Those are very good people. We and our ancestors had our shops next to that bathhouse and we have never seen anything wrong from them.”
4) Finally: Mona Iraqi herself may lose her show. A source inside the Al Kahera Wal Nas (Cairo and the People) TV channel said she faces cancellation, because she’s put her employers in “an awkward position.” It’s not just the ethical monstrosity she committed. It’s that the defendants’ lawyers are threatening libel suits against the channel for 10 million LE ($1.4 million US) each.
In this one case, the regime and its lackeys are red-faced and in full retreat. That doesn’t mean, however, that the crackdown against LGBT people in Egypt is over. Remember:
- Well over 100 people convicted for the “habitual practice of debauchery” since October 2013 still sit in prison.
- Egypt’s prosecutor general has appealed the acquittal in this case, with a first hearing scheduled for January 26. The move shows a government still bent on putting LGBT people in prison. New arrests can start at any time.
- What happens to Egyptians accused of being gay, or transgender, or lesbian is part of the overall human rights situation; and that is appalling. As the Revolution’s fourth anniversary impends, the counterrevolution is in charge. The government menaces human rights activists with possible life sentences. More than 25,000 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters languish in concentration camps without trial. My friend Yara Sallam and 23 others are serving two years behind bars for a peaceful protest march. Security forces persecute everyone from alleged “atheists” to street merchants. Until real rule of law restrains police power in Egypt, anybody different will be under threat.
Domestic and international pressure helped bring justice in the bathhouse case, but the work must continue — not just for LGBT Egyptians, but for all victims of human rights abuse. There are two important pressure points in coming months.
FIRST: The US gives over $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt annually. Nearly all is military assistance: economic aid makes up only around 15% of that total, and has been shrinking for more than a decade. No one in Egypt wants the remaining economic aid slashed – there’s no reason the rulers’ malfeasance should rob the poor of their last scraps and crumbs. But the military aid keeps the military dictatorship going. Cut it.
Since 2012, Senator Patrick Leahy has kept up the good fight to condition military aid on Egypt’s progress toward democracy. When the US Congress passed an appropriations bill last month, it included a long list of conditions: “holding free and fair elections, allowing peaceful assembly, due process for detainees.” But the law also “includes a waiver allowing Secretary of State John Kerry to ignore the preconditions for national security reasons.”
Will Kerry invoke the waiver, and keep the aid spigot on? The State Department is likely to start the internal debate next month. Powerful constituencies support Egypt. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) money must, by US law, be spent on US-made armaments. Egypt’s aid bonanza thus funnels back to the US defense industry, which slavers to keep the money flowing. Yet even if the US lacks political will to end its gifts to the generals completely, it could still show displeasure. It could stop offering Egypt two forms of undeserved special treatment: early disbursement and cash-flow financing.
“Early disbursement” of military aid is a privilege the US State Department gives only to Israel and Egypt. “At the beginning of the year, U.S. funding is deposited in an account at the New York Federal Reserve, and Cairo is allowed to use the interest accrued on these deposits to purchase additional equipment.” The interest gives it tens of millions extra to spend.
“Cash flow financing” is also a special privilege Egypt shares with Israel. It allows Cairo to purchase weapons even beyond its yearly aid allotment, using the promise of the money the US is due to give it in future years. Essentially, Egypt can buy on credit – and the US government is liable for any payments it fails to make. (Clearly, a special favor to the American weapons industry as well.) This accounting trick radically ramps up the Egyptian military’s purchasing power. In most years, Egypt contracts to buy over $2 billion in American arms. That’s about 50% more than what its actual American-aid budget should allow. Cash flow financing makes the difference.
The crackdown on LGBT Egyptians is only one human rights issue that should weigh against full military aid to a deeply dictatorial regime. But it should be weighed. Kerry should cut the gun-filled gift baskets — or, at the minimum, end the accounting legerdemain that augments Egypt’s largesse. And if he refuses, Leahy and Congress should make plenty of noise. The time to start pressing the State Department is now.
SECOND: On March 13-15, the regime will host an “Egypt Economic Development Conference” in the posh resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. President Sisi himself will launch the gathering. The meeting is central to Sisi’s strategy to resuscitate the economy. The idea is to get a group of powerful private investors together, and woo or cajol them to sink their money into Egypt. An array of infrastructure projects will be on offer; infrastructure is the core of Sisi’s revitalization plans. After all, the regime’s rich supporters – mostly the same well-connected crony capitalists who propped up Mubarak’s sclerotic rule – cluster in industries like cement, construction, and communications. “Economic growth” by and large means fattening their portfolios with pointless projects, not feeding the poor.
Sisi’s government has been promoting this summit for months. The figures keep flowing from the Ministry of Investment: 120 countries and 3,500 companies invited, 42 big investment projects up for grabs. Yet they’ve postponed the conference repeatedly, reflecting a lack of international enthusiasm over Egypt’s limp prospects. So they’ve hired not just global banking maven Lazard to rope in participants, but also the International Man of Mystery, Tony Blair.
All that suggests the significance Sisi’s government hangs on the summit. The conference website is here; some speakers already are signed up — the chairs of GE and BP, and the head of the WPP Group, Britain’s mammoth advertising and media agency. I’ll be posting more about the meeting soon. All the participants should face one question back home: How will they use their leverage to improve Egypt’s dismal human rights record? And they might also be asked: How do they think their gay or lesbian or transgender employees in Egypt will fare? The time to pose these questions is now.
FINALLY: You want to know why all this is important? Don’t listen to me; listen to some of those whose lives the continuing crackdown wrecked.
I’ve interviewed two people arrested in two separate cases, when police raided private apartments in the spring of 2014. They were convicted, but appeals courts overturned their sentences – mainly because the original judges handed down verdicts even before sending the victims to the Forensic Medical Authority for anal tests.
The anal tests are usually inflicted on all prisoners accused of homosexual conduct. They’re bogus, and an invasive form of torture – but at least they provide the spurious semblance of evidence. Yet in these cases the lower court judge didn’t need “proof”; one look at the defendants, who were mostly transgender, and he found them guilty. When they filed appeals, though, they endured the tests; and doctors declared them “unused.” (I think I know why. To find the victims “used” so long after the fact, the medics would need either to claim the exams can detect homosexual sex months later – which makes the test look even more absurd; or to admit sex takes place in Egyptian prisons, where the men had been kept since arrest.) Unlike most of the crackdown’s victims, they can tell their stories.
These are accounts of torture and sexual abuse; of judges who sentence people based on their looks alone; of transgender convicts trucked from prison to prison because the keepers wouldn’t take their “pervert” bodies. You’ll find Ahmed Hashad — who was also the arresting officer in the bathhouse case — watching while his victims are tortured. I’ve changed all names and left out identifying details.
1) “You don’t need a warrant for this type of people”
Nadia is a transgender woman in her early twenties. She’s had silicone implants in her breasts, and hopes someday to leave Egypt to have full gender reassignment surgery. She and three friends – two other trans-identified women and a cisgender man – moved into a new Cairo apartment. That very day, police raided it. They believe they weren’t targeted specifically: “The cops seemed to be doing a general search of apartments on that street. But as soon as they saw us they knew they had hit gold.”
It happened at noon. All four of us were in the apartment, two of us asleep, two of us awake. There was a knock on the door and when we opened it, four police broke into the apartment, with three informers. [By “informers,” she meant plainclothes as opposed to uniformed police.]
The head policeman asked: “Do you have girls, weed, weapons in the apartment?” We said no. He said, “I am going to search this place.” He found girls’ dresses and one wig. We asked why he didn’t have a warrant, and he said, “None of your business. Shut the fuck up, bitches.” An informer said to the officer: “See how they look, they are all khawalat” [faggots]. The officer said: “You don’t need a warrant for this type of people.”
They took us to the police station … They started hitting us in the face and kicking our legs, and touching us all over. The informers kept trying to pull my hair out. “Are these prostitutes?” the officer in charge said, and the other police said, “No, they are khawalat.” He said, “In more than 24 years I have never seen khawalat so effeminate. Take off your clothes. “
They took the phone of Laila [one of the roommates] and showed us photos of trans people on it. “Do you know these?” they demanded. I said all the pics were of people outside Egypt. They asked, “Do you get fucked? Are there many people like you?” …
Another officer, when he was told we were khawalat, starting beating us violently. Laila infuriated them by not saying anything, so they hit her especially. A “nice” clerk came and said, “They are sick people and you shouldn’t hit them.” Then he started taking a video of us.
They started to write up a report. We denied being khawalat. I said, “Is every person who has long hair a khawal? You can’t judge us by labels. If we are khawalat, you would have caught us in the act.” But they said, “It’s already in the report that you were caught in the act.” I claimed that we were sexually frigid and we could not have sex. But the officers and the informers all said, “If you look like this, you are doing that.”
They put us in a small cell away from the regular detention area. The officers began sexually abusing us, grabbing our breasts. One of the informers said, “If you don’t sleep with me, I’ll put you in detention with the other prisoners.” …
The next day we went to the niyaba [prosecutor]. We got four days’ detention, and went back to the police station, and then they took us back to the niyaba again. At the niyaba a lawyer told us the police claimed they had been watching us for a week. But we had just taken the contract for the apartment the day we were arrested! The wakil niyaba [deputy prosecutor] told us, “Call the Perverts’ Human Rights Association and they will get you out.” And there was a journalist taking pictures of us at the niyaba. One of the informers took the woman and took the phone and downloaded things from it, and told her to get the fuck out: he said the wakil niyaba prohibited taking photographs. But the guard there didn’t care, he said, “Fuck you and your wakil niyaba.”
Just six days after we were arrested, they took us before a judge. A journalist took our pictures again at the court. The judge called us names and didn’t even look at us. Three of us got three years in prison, and the one whose name was on the rental contract got eight.
On the second day after that we were sent to prison.
In the van to the prison, the officers kept telling us we would be beaten and raped. … At the prison entrance, the guards shouted, “Where the hell do these come from? They can’t be in this place. You can’t put such cases in this institution!”
The father of one of the victims “was an officer in the police. And the prison guy became more polite when he learned this. We asked to be put away from the other people in prison, and he said he would. He was the prison commandant.”
The guards went past all the cells saying, “Now you have women in the prison.” But we were put in an isolation cell for highly dangerous people.
Then because there was an appeal being made for us, we were taken to the Estinaf [appeals] prison … We were all four put together in one cell there, though one guard went to the straight-looking guy among us and said, “You are not a khawal, what are you doing here?”
After a few months they sent us to another prison. It rejected us. When we entered, guards beat us and told us to take off our clothes. “Open up your ass! What’s in there?” They got us naked and made the whole prison watch us. … The guard took off my T-shirt and looked at my breasts and said, “What is this? I am responsible for this prison!” He said to the commandant, “They sent us monkeys!”
There, we were separated, one to a cell. “Because they are sick,” the commandant explained, “And I don’t know how to treat them, I can’t have them in this prison.” He tried to transfer us to Tora Hospital [at the main military prison complex outside Cairo]. …
There was a lot of sexual harassment. People taking off our clothes. There was only soft sex, though. No one penetrated us. In prison, they had cameras everywhere – but no one cared.
They were sent back to the appeals prison.
A doctor in the prison kept asking us, “Are you a pervert? Do you sleep with men?” We said no. “Do you have erections?” No. He wrote a false report and said we asked for sex reassignment surgery. He told us, “If we give you the surgery we can put you in a women’s prison.” I said, “Are you crazy? I will not do this in prison!”
We were sent to the Forensic Medical Authority. They had forgotten to do this at the first trial because they were in such a hurry to convict us! The trial judge should have asked for the Forensic Medical Authority result, but he didn’t want to because there was press there, and he wanted to give the sentence quickly.
We went three times to the Forensic Medical Authority in Ramsis [the Cairo neighborhood near the main train station]. But each time, the police didn’t bring an order from the niyaba to do the test, so they wouldn’t do it. So the appeals judge kept postponing the decision – for one month, then another month, then for three months. Basically, he and the niyaba and the police wanted to keep us in prison, not let us out. It was 40 days after the niyaba asked for it that they finally did it. Even the doctor was astonished. …
And the anal test happened five months after our arrest. The doctor said: “You are fucking each other,” even before the test started. We said no, and told him the whole thing. Then: ”Take off your clothes: kneel over the chair and hug it.” He pushed our butt cheeks aside and looked. The report found us all unused.
The Forensic Medical Authority also did a report on our breasts, because the niyaba wanted it! They didn’t know I had silicone boobs; they asked me if I had taken an XY [chromosome] test. I lied, I said “Yes, these breasts are normal.“ They didn’t know the difference.
Whenever we went back to the niyaba, the wakil niyaba kept interrogating us about many different subjects. He tried to accuse us of having sex in the prison, and when we denied it, he told us, “That’s what they are saying about you. I don’t care about your case, I just care about you having sex in the prison.”
He demanded, “Why are you being rejected by every prison? Do you have vaginas? And he told us a story that really upset him: “One month ago, we caught some khawalat from Italy, she-males [in English] on a boat in the Nile. And public opinion approved of that, but Italy interfered, and they got them out.”
Finally, the appeals court acquitted them, after more than six months in prison. They’ve moved to a different city, but they still fear that police may find them and jail them on some new pretext. “I want to get out of this country,” Nadia told me. “I can’t go through that hell ever again.”
2) “Look at the faggots in the cage”
Mazen is also in his early twenties. He is a top, and straight-acting. A couple of years ago, he says, “I met some guys from downtown, and one thing led to another, and I admitted to myself that I am gay. Some of these friends told me I should do it in business.” He became a part-time sex worker, and he teamed up with some “she-males and ladyboys” (words he uses in English). “In their case, they simply couldn’t find any other kind of work.”
“We were in our apartment. I lived there with Manar and Hala” –who identify as transgender, though Mazen mostly uses male pronouns for them. Two male friends were visiting that evening, one more “effeminate” than the other, Mazen says. “One of them was not in business, the other one does business from time to time.”
There’s a website for she-males specifically; and Hala had her picture on there with her mobile number. So this man called Hala on her phone and asked for a meeting. But she didn’t accept; she was afraid he was an officer. She was sticking to regular customers because of the arrests—she was afraid the new person would be an informer or an officer or something.
Then after she refused, he called Manar, my lover. Manar showed Hala the number, and talked her into trusting him. And so he came over. And it turned out that man actually was an undercover officer.
When I came in, the man was already in the apartment. I went upstairs to the balcony and sat there watching if anyone else was coming – any police – while the man sat inside with the others. He said he some alcohol in the car and he went downstairs to get it. But we watched and noticed he was calling someone while the car was still running, and he stayed talking about then minutes. Then he came back up, but he said he was going to the bathroom, while holding his mobile phone, and there he talked over the phone some more.
I was on the balcony, checking the area, and the two guys came up and asked, “Is there anything going on?” And then suddenly, two cars came in fast and stopped directly in front of the building.
We knew immediately it was police. Manar went to the bedroom and changed out of women’s clothes. Hala was just frozen. I went to the door to run … The policemen were on the stairs – two officers and a bunch of plainclothes. … Hala went down the stairs and tried to get past them. I went up the stairs. There was a window in the staircase and from it I shimmied down the pipes to the street.
But the officers caught them all.
It was a big operation. Ahmed Hashad, the intelligence director of the Adab [Morals] police, was there, and he was telling the neighbors, “Don’t worry, we are just arresting the she-males of Egypt.” They had two private cars, plus a car like a box for the transport, and a microbus. … Hala was the only one of us wearing women’s clothes, baby doll clothes [Egyptians often use the English expression “baby doll” for skimpy women’s outfits] ….
One of the policemen beat me, and took all my money and two mobiles. There were four laptops in the apartment, two new and two older. The two new ones and my mobiles, the officers took them and shared them out for their own. In the police report they only mentioned the older laptops. In the bag that the officer had used to bring the alcohol, they put some of the baby doll clothes, as evidence.
They took us to the Mugamma el-Tahrir [the huge government building in central Cairo], to the department of Adab. There, three officers beat us, while Ahmed Hashad watched them … They were hitting us on the back of the head, and beating me and kicking me on my legs, and they stomped on my foot and injured it.
They tried to recruit Hala to help them: Was there any meeting place for she-males? They said if she told them they’d let her out. She said she didn’t know. Manar was wearing men’s clothes; they told him to take them off, and he refused, so they started to light cigarettes and burn his body with them. They got a baby doll dress and made him wear it.
They wrote a report but none of us was talking while they did it – the police wrote the report themselves. They took a photo of all five of us, and they made us sit in a part of the office where there’s no roof, and it was freezing – the weather was cold. They called us names, shouting “khawal” and asking, “What is wrong with you?” …
At 9 or 9:30 AM, they took us out of the Mugamma to go to the niyaba. The square was crowded and while we were walking, an officer hit Hala and she screamed. And everyone was pointing and looking at us and gossiping.
When we entered the office of the wakil niyaba, he started shouting, “You are the khawalat! Why are you doing this?” and so on, with foul language. He wasn’t questioning us, just cursing. ….
Another wakil niyaba interrogated me and the other guy. He started calling the other guy a khawal. The guy denied it, trying to defend himself. But the wakil kept insisting, “Yes, you are a khawal, because you look like one.” And he checked his mobile for messages that could convict him, and checked the pictures on my laptop. ….
The scandal site Youm7 published a photo of Hala in women’s clothes, showing her face clearly. Police or prosecutors had leaked it to the paper. Meanwhile, the prosecutor charged them with “debauchery.” Though they were engaged in sex work, that was legally irrelevant: the provision punishes men who have sex with men regardless of whether money was exchanged.
They brought men’s clothes for Hala and Manar and then they took us to the police station in [our neighborhood], which had jurisdiction over the apartment. … At the police station they put me and the other guy in cells with other prisoners. His had maybe 85 prisoners, and mine only 75. But Hala and Manar and the other one of us were put in a cage “for observation,” next to the visitors’ entrance. And they put them there partly because if they were in a cell with other prisoners, they would be raped or tortured. But also, the cage was directly by the front door: so whenever someone was entering or going out, the police would point and say, “Look at the khawalat in the cage.” They were zoo animals on display.
The parents of the guy in the crowded cell paid bribes to get him moved to another cell, for people convicted of stealing public money. It was for 23 people only and was stylish [in English]. My mother pulled some connections and got me moved there too. We told the prisoners we were there because of hash dealing and a fight, so no one bothered us. …
We saw a judge four days after the arrest. We had six lawyers and they were good lawyers but they hadn’t even been shown the court papers. After a week’s delay the court met again … The police reports were all lies. They said that four of us were having sex in pairs when the police came in, two in each room, and I was the one who opened the door. They said we were caught in the act. They didn’t mention the undercover officer at all. The lawyer argued this was ridiculous: “Even if they were having sex, they would have gotten scared and stopped when the police knocked on the door.” The judge took a break for a bit to read the statements. Then he returned and said the verdict. Manar got 12 years; Hala and the more effeminate of the guys got I think 7 years; I got 4 years.
In the reasons for the verdict, the judge mentioned some stuff from the Qur’an about men who resemble women. The lawyers and our parents were shocked; no one expected this. They took us to the waiting room. Manar wasn’t able to move or speak, Hala was crying … For 15 minutes I was thanking God that no more than this had happened; then I turned hysterical. I started screaming and shouting, I don’t even remember …
We went back to the police station. The officers were saying, “You deserve it.”
The appeals process started. They hadn’t given us the forensic medical examination before the first trial … So this time we were sent to the Forensic Medical Authority.
They were found “unused.”
After that, the only evidence left was three guys wearing feminine clothes, and the pictures they got from the Internet or from our mobiles. The lawyer blamed them on photoshop – he said, “You can manufacture whatever you want.” By the time of the hearing, my beard was fully grown. The judge asked the wakil niyaba, “How can you present a girl’s picture and claim it is this guy?”
At the final hearing, the judge “wrote on the case that we were innocent. And he closed the case file and threw it at us, and told us, ‘You are innocent, you khawalat.’”
We spent seven months in prison, total. We were so happy when we walked out. But Manar and Hala are in terrible shape still. They can’t work in any normal job because of the way they look. And they can’t work in business because they are so afraid.