Middle East Politics Society and Culture

The Fight for Sexual Rights in Post-Revolutionary Egypt

Two of the 26 men arrested and then acquitted in the bathhouse raids, Cairo, January 12 2015
Two of the 26 men arrested and then acquitted in the bathhouse raids, Cairo, January 12 2015

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Dalia Abd El Hameed is the Gender and Sexuality Officer at Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights and a Global Fellow at PS21. Follow her on Twitter: @dalia11_7

The aftermath of the 30th of June, which marked the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood and the army restoring its power over Egypt, has also witnessed an intensifying crackdown on gender and sexual non-conformants–specifically gay and trans people or those who are perceived as such based on their sexual practices or their attire. The persecution did not only target LGBT individuals; this is part of a larger climate of repression where protesters, journalists, and religious non-conformants are also under attack.

This vicious policing of gay and trans people was augmented by a parallel media campaign aimed at dehumanizing and pathologizing homosexuality, transsexuality and sex work. Starting from October 2013, rights groups have documented the arrest of more than 150 individuals based on their sexual orientations and practices. The accusations almost always included “debauchery” and “prostitution.”

The police force contributed to the media frenzy by allowing certain regime-loyal journalists in police stations and giving them access to photograph and videotape those who were arrested with scant protection for their identities and privacy–and definitely without their consent. Some media outlets published the names and the addresses of the defendants using sensationalist headlines that described the crackdown as “dismantling a third sex trafficking network.” This is not to mention referring to gay and trans people as “perverts,” “effeminates” and many other demeaning terms.

Some independent media personnel even believe that the state is issuing direct instructions to media to increase their anti-gay coverage and focus on sex-related scandals. This is not a far-fetched accusation, especially after the recent leaks in which high governmental officials were heard giving instructions to what the regime-loyal media should say and how they should steer the public’s attention.

This unlawful partnership between the state–more specific the morality police–and the media culminated in the heinous incident known as “Bab al-Bahr” or the “Bathhouse Incident” where the TV presenter and director Mona Iraqi, who works for a private TV channel, participated actively in orchestrating a raid on a public bathhouse in Ramsis district in Cairo. After spending some time doing “undercover” investigations for her TV show, she reported the bathhouse to the police claiming it was being used as a hub for homosexuals. On the 7th of December, she was accompanied by the police to the bathhouse and 26 men were arrested while she filmed them naked in brutal violation of their privacy and dignity. She aired the footage and posted the photos on Facebook as a sign of victory against “debauchery” and “prostitution”.

On their war against gays, both state and media were banking heavily on the social rejection for homosexuality where huge segments of society would look at such acts as proof of loss of manhood and a grave infliction against the religious beliefs. The state builds on this to garner social support for (or apathy towards) its illegitimate practices against these individuals in police custody, including but not limited to humiliation, beatings, and sexual violence and the infamous forensic anal examinations, which are done without the consent of the defendants.

Yet this social condemnation of homosexuality could not work for long as a cover for the state’s violations. Surprisingly, the bathhouse raid stirred a huge social denunciation. People were astonished and shocked by the level of infringement of private lives and personal liberties.

Mona Iraqi
Mona Iraqi

Commentators had many theories about the impetuses of the crackdown but none of them could be definite or final. Among the most popular explanations is the state attempt to publicize itself as guardian of morality and that it is capable of doing what the Islamists themselves did not do. Others sought an interpretation in viewing this attack as a way to distract people from more pressing issues related to socio-economic strife. Some lawyers believed this was part of a wider police comeback as a proof of demonstrating control over society.

In many arrests, the defendants were penalized by harsh court verdicts reaching up to nine years of imprisonment in some cases. In an incident known as the “gay marriage incident”, a case which was at the center of the media hype and social outcry just before the bathhouse raid, defendants received a three-year imprisonment sentence that was later reduced to one. The bathhouse incident was the first incident to generate public sympathy and to most people’s surprise the court acquitted all the defendants and refused the appeal that was submitted by the persecution. Further, Mona Iraqi is now facing defamation charges.

How can we better apprehend this acquittal and, more importantly, the paradigm shift in popular reactions to the state’s anti-gay campaign? Partially, the state and pro-regime media outlets are to be saluted for this shift. I believe that when oppression and violations reach unprecedented levels, sometimes the resistance is equally unprecedented. In other words, we can argue that the grave violations by media and the morality police contributed to the radicalization of people’s responses.

Acknowledgment should definitely go to many human rights, LGBT and feminist activists who tried to scandalize state practices using a variety of discourses. The campaigns organized to resist the crackdown were not apologetic, some of them used language like “against gay arrests” and “freedom of sexual orientation,” while others adopted a different approach, emphasizing people’s right to privacy and the danger of turning journalists into police informers. Regional and international solidarity also helped to shed light on what these groups are being subjected to.

All of this has contributed to the phenomenal refusal and condemnation of what Mona Iraqi did and what the state is continuing to do by controlling people’s private lives. The acquittal and the social denunciation should not be looked at as a strictly LGBT issue; it is a broader victory. It is advancement for a (more) rights-based language in tackling such issues, and a more comprehensive understanding of people’s freedoms and rights. The fight for sexual rights in Egypt is far from being over, and those who are fighting state violence should not be working in silos since any victory in this regard mount to the larger struggle for rights and liberties in post-revolutionary Egypt.

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