Whenever protests are planned and the Egyptian tanks roll into Cairo’s main squares, Mariam, 25, takes a longer route to work, the one that avoids the police checkpoints. Her ID carries the name she was born with (a boy’s name) and a number that signals her original gender (male). These details are not easily changed, and they could get her arrested.
“Last time I got stopped, I panicked and pretended I was going to a fancy-dress party. The officers made fun of me but it worked and they let me go,” she says. It was a close call. The policemen ridiculed her for a bit, and called her names, but she played along and once they got bored they let her pass.
With dozens of members of the LGBT community in prison on so-called charges of “debauchery”, she does not want to risk it again: “I now avoid checkpoints or places where illegal things happen.”
As a sex worker, Mariam is at double risk, so she also avoids the capital’s nightclubs and “cabarets” – the decadent venues where men and women dance on stages in a shower of small bills thrown by wealthy guests and potential punters. Instead, she sits drinking tea at a scrubby downtown Cairo café, known in the industry for soliciting, and meets her clients there, hoping she is not arrested in the process.
Being gay is not illegal in Egypt, and neither is being transgender, but since the military pushed out the unpopular Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in the summer of 2013, the country has been engaged in a fierce crackdown on both communities. Human rights workers say at least 150 LGBT people have been arrested by the country’s “morality police”. and around 100 are still behind bars on draconian catch-all charges of “debauchery” or “inciting sexual perversion”.
In February, seven trans men were arrested for allegedly holding meetings where “perverts” would “participate in debauchery”, according to local Egyptian newspaper Youm7. Its reporters then interviewed and photographed the terrified men, chained to each other at a Cairo police station, without bothering to properly blur the faces.
It’s as fierce a crackdown as the brutal days under ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, whose police arrested 52 gay men in one raid, most at a floating nightclub called Queen Boat in 2001. Twenty-one of them were sentenced to three years in jail in a trial which marred Egypt’s rights records for more than a decade.
Men were being randomly picked off the street by police, officers were infiltrating gay associations, there were vice patrols raiding venues every week. Almost 1,000 “gay” men were arrested over a two-year period, along with alleged satanists and anyone accused of being a prostitute.
Under Morsi – whose organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, does not tolerate homosexuality – there were a few arrests. But, partly because Morsi did not have such a strong hold on the security forces and partly because the police force was still rebuilding after the 2011 revolution, the fledging gay community was able to flourish.
So, despite the Islamist leadership and the growing police state, Morsi’s Egypt saw a change: the first public acts of gay activism on social media, people saying they could meet without fear of arrest, the murmurings of a social revolution.
Today, the vast majority of detainees are stripped and subjected to humiliating anal probes to “check their sexual orientation”. Many are sentenced in short trials to long jail terms, with judges handing down as much as seven years.
“It feels like a game between the Islamists and the military, and we are somehow stuck in the middle,” Amr, a 30-year-old gay man, tells me during a late-night underground party in Cairo. (These parties, he says, are the only way the community can now safely meet.) “The government is trying to arrest our people to prove to the public that even though the Islamists are out of power, the new regime is not letting go of public morals, it is not less Islamic.”
When Adam, 25, was swept up in a raid on a downtown Turkish bath last November, he experienced another indignity. Twenty-five men, all dressed in nothing but their spa towels, were filmed by Mona Iraqi, a local television host, as they were bundled into police trucks.
Pro-regime news outlets are often invited by the security forces to cover this kind of raid, and reporters often force the “suspects” to give on-the-spot interviews and publish their personal details and photos, ruining the detainees’ reputations – and often their lives.
This high-profile case, which made news around the world, sparked accusations about Adam’s sexuality that never stopped. Many of the men lost their jobs, and one of them – from a middle-class family in Cairo’s TK north-eastern district – doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire. “It was because of the public humiliation. People were calling him gay everywhere, which is just not accepted in Egypt,” said the man’s lawyer, Tarek al-Awady. “Even when the court ruled he was not guilty, the horrific taunts did not stop.”
Iraqi may come to regret her “gay sting” television programme, however. She claimed its purpose was to raise public awareness about HIV/AIDS (despite the fact that almost half of all detected HIV cases in Egypt occur through heterosexual transmission) but photographs of the female reporter filming the half-naked men were too blatant a breach of media ethics for even the pro-regime local press. Facing intense pressure, the Egyptian public prosecutor took action against both Iraqi and the director of her channel on charges of defaming the men.
The trial will take place in April, but the damage is already done. Adam’s reputation, and his chances of living a normal and happy life, can’t be salvaged. The proceedings won’t help the young man who set himself on fire . (He’s still recovering in hospital.) And there has been no action taken against the members of the “morality police” who allowed Iraqi to film the arrest. But it’s not just the inside of a jail cell that the community fears; there’s also a constriction of supposedly free space outside of prison.
Over the past six months many of the venues deemed sympathetic to LGBT gatherings have been shut down. Others have mysteriously lost their alcohol licences, or been forced to implement mixed-gender “couples only” policies.
And it’s more than just physical locations that are under threat. Grindr, a gay hook-up app, and TSDating.com, a trans dating site, had become popular and safe spots for Egyptians to connect as pressure was put on the street. But last September, the authorities stepped up their online surveillance capabilities. Police now post fake accounts and arrange fake meet-ups, use the contact details to tap mobile phones, and even wire apartments, all to help set up stings.
Last summer, the usually pro-regime newspaper el-Watan caused uproar by publishing leaked details of an Interior Ministry scheme to carry out mass surveillance of social media – combing through Skype, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to find more people to arrest and weed out anything deemed “contrary to the law or public morality”. Grindr issued a warning to its users and sent several messages to members – including one which offered advice on seeking asylum.
“First Grindr warned us not to trust people easily on the app, then they stopped the GPS location services for fear of police tracking our whereabouts, and finally they sent a message providing a link to a Q & A about being an asylum seeker,” says Khalid, another young gay man in Cairo.
He hasn’t stopped using Grindr – but is worried enough to change the way he uses social media for dating: “I have a rule. I only reply to people reaching out in English or French, as it’s less likely to be an undercover police officer,” he says. “I do not reply to people who contact me in Arabic.”
From the street outside Amr’s apartment, a swell of party music swings in the dusty evening air. Lights flicker on and off, leaving a colourful imprint on the smog outside. It seems like just another weekend gathering in a city that doesn’t sleep.
“This,” the computer science graduate adds, gesturing toward his friend’s living room, where clutches of young men chat and dance, “this is the only safe space we have left to meet people. Bars, cafés, clubs, online forums, mobile apps – forget it. It is all too dangerous now. We have our homes left… just.”
Both Amr and Khalid acknowledge they are lucky. They come from a moneyed class that can afford smartphones, private apartments to host gatherings, and the few open-minded bars – typically the most expensive ones – that haven’t yet been shut down or raided. But they are both planning on taking jobs abroad, part of a recent exodus of gay men from Egypt as things have worsened. It’s another unachievable dream for the poorest.
Ahmed, a penniless Cairo street-food vendor, has been hiding his sexuality since he was a young child. He has had to live a lie, or risk losing his job, apartment, friends and family. The police have been targeting affordable gay-tolerant venues like the bathhouse, where for just £1.30 the poorer members of the community could meet. Now that it’s been closed down, Ahmed meets up with potential dates in the same battered corner cafe where we have coffee. Even there, he fears he is under constant surveillance.
“If my family knew any of this, they would kill me. I mean literally kill me. I would bring disgrace to my relatives and religion,” the 27-year-old says. “I cannot be found out.” As he approaches 30, he is desperate to “correct and protect” himself. He is planning on marriage. For, despite the acquittal of the bathhouse detainees and the lawsuit against Iraqi, the community has been devastated.
“People are hunkering down. Anyone who can is going underground,” says Scott Long, a human rights activist and researcher based in Cairo. “People are far too scared. There is a sense of police pressure on any nonconformist group.” Important elements of the community’s identity are being abandoned as well, he adds, such as its secretive “ti” language.
Speaking “ti” as a homosexual man means exclusively using feminine endings (which in Egyptian Arabic are often “-ti”), effectively referring to yourself as a woman. No one really knows when or where the idea originated, but it became widely popular in the 1980s in the country’s major cities. It has become a means of reclaiming Egyptian society’s insulting taunts that sleeping with a man makes you a woman, but many are now too afraid to slip into it, since it’s so recognisable.
One 22-year-old gay rights activist, who started several electronic campaigns on Facebook and Twitter to fight homophobia tells me it is “a coping mechanism” – a way of producing an alternative culture by deconstructing the way society perceives gender roles. And there are a brave few who are publicly trying to challenge Egypt’s norms, most recently creating “Stop Jailing Gays” and “Put Mona Iraqi on trial” hashtags in Arabic. They hope to run awareness campaigns in the future, if the security situation permits it.
“We need to put the gay issue in the spotlight so we can correct how people see us: not as perverted people with a disease that can be spread, who only hang out to perform gangbangs,” says Khalid. He helps with the social media campaign because the more the community is driven underground and the less people correct misconceptions, the more dangerous the situation becomes.
“Gays are the biggest – and yet the most silent – minority in Egypt. We make up around 15 per cent of the whole country. And it’s time we were properly heard.”
Additional reporting by Diaa Galal © Medium
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