A Cairo judge’s Jan 12 acquittal of 26 men arrested in a journalist-incited bathhouse raid last month is hardly a victory for gay rights in Egypt, local activists say.
The men were charged with debauchery, a makeshift accusation used by Egyptian authorities to target gay men. Although homosexuality is not technically illegal in Egypt, the country has seen a series of police raids on local gay gatherings. These arrests are usually surrounded by media hype glorifying the police actions.
However, this raid is unique in the way it developed: a local journalist named Mona Iraqi attempted to film inside the bathhouse, looking for a sensational story about homosexuality in Egypt. When the owner of the bathhouse denied her request, Iraqi contacted the police, then filmed the ensuing raid as dozens of naked men were dragged from the bathhouse to police cars waiting outside.
Iraqi’s actions sparked global outrage on social media and the hashtag #MediaInformant. Daily Xtra’s renewed attempts to contact Iraqi, who is currently vacationing in Paris, were futile.
Observers of the hearing at which the men were acquitted say it lasted barely a minute. The judge read the names of the 26 men, followed by a single pronouncement of “innocent.” Immediately after the verdict, the men, their families and supporters erupted in a cheer — even as the men reportedly hid their faces out of fear that cameras might reveal their identities.
The details of their arrest remain murky at best. In the official document, Police Lieutenant Ahmed Hashad, who led the Dec 7 raid, describes monitoring the bathhouse twice beforehand, each time for half an hour. “I saw many men and boys entering the bathhouse,” Hashad writes in the document, obtained by local independent newspaper Mada Masr. “From my secret hideout, I managed to see many negative deviants.”
When he raided the bathhouse, Hashed says, he found 23 men inside. “The deviants were all naked,” he writes. “They were having an orgy.” The report includes each man’s name, followed by the sexual role Hashad assumed each prefers, and the names of their alleged sexual partners.
Ahmed Hussam, a member of the accused men’s defence committee, challenges Hashad’s report in an interview with Mada Masr. “How could a man who stood outside a bathhouse for half an hour decide on the sexuality of a person?” he asks. “Not only that, but also the role they prefer?”
Hussam says the report is clear evidence that the police investigation wasn’t serious. Still, the acquittal comes as a surprise to many observers.
“You have to understand: acquittals happen rarely in Egypt; when they do it’s generally because of an appeals judge who cares about the rule of evidence,” Scott Long, an American activist who lives in Egypt, writes on his blog. “This is the only high-profile human rights case since the 2013 coup that ended with such a success.
“Egyptian activists who worked on this case, documented it, and helped mobilize journalists and intellectuals and other activists to express their horror at what Mona Iraqi did — they deserve credit for this,” Long continues. “I don’t know exactly what motivated the judge to look at the facts and not the headlines: whether he cared about the public pressure or about his own reputation (at the last session, he called the journalists to the bench to ask why they were so interested in this case) or whether he got a message from above that the state was ready to back down. But it wouldn’t have happened without ordinary people, gay and straight, from the families themselves to bloggers to tens of thousands of folks on Facebook and other social media, in Egypt and abroad, who had the courage and energy to speak out.”
Some hail the judge’s decision to acquit the men as a victory for the LGBT rights movement in Egypt. They recall the infamous Queen Boat arrests of 2001, when police arrested 52 men on a boat anchored on the Nile and accused them of debauchery. Of the 52 arrested, 29 men were acquitted, while 21 received three-year jail sentences.
Others are less hopeful. “It is not a victory for gay rights,” says Georges Azzi, director of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, “since they were found innocent of homosexuality but not freed as gay.”
The office of Egypt’s attorney general has announced its intention to appeal the acquittal.
The medical forensic report, which is attached to the court order, adds salt to the injury: it reports that all 23 of the men arrested say they were forced to undergo anal testing. “When examined, the man’s anus was found to be normal looking, the skin around it has normal curves, and the Anus Nerve Reaction is clearly functional,” the report says.
“The only way to get those men out of jail was to prove that they are not gay,” Azzi tells Daily Xtra in an online interview. In appealing the acquittal, the attorney general “is trying to prove that they are gay,” Azzi says. “The judiciary system in Egypt is far from admitting any rights for gays.”
“Isn’t the question itself homophobic?” asks Maya, an Egyptian lesbian who asked that her real name not be used, as she fears the reaction of her family and society should they find out about her sexuality. “Like what Mona Iraqi did, you assume that these men are indeed gay, adding to the stigma. The truth is: their sexuality doesn’t matter. It wasn’t a violation against gay people. It was against human rights of privacy and dignity, led by a journalist on a witch-hunt mission.”
Ayman, a closeted gay man in his late 30s who lives in Cairo and asked Daily Xtra to publish only his first name, finds the whole parade brings unwanted light to an issue that has been hanging in the air for a while. “This journalist has been but the latest of a series of informants compromising the lives of gay people for their own glory,” he says, explaining that he fears for the lives of other LGBT people.
“Many LGBT people stay in the closet in this part of the world, understandably to escape persecution,” he says. “The media’s role is to report truths, not to compromise some for the late-night entertainment of others.”
“[Mona Iraqi’s] actions and the actions of the state shouldn’t be forgotten just because those men are freed,” Maya adds.