When fans waved the rainbow flag at a concert, it set off the latest wave of ferocious persecution targeting Egypt’s LGBT community.
Bel Trew, CAIRO—The police guards took turns torturing the man we’ll call Adam, a 31-year-old jailed in Egypt for being gay. When they got bored or “ran out of ideas,” he told The Daily Beast, they would ask his fellow inmates to get creative and join in.
The former business owner was sentenced to three years in jail plus three years under police surveillance in 2015 for “debauchery,” a catchall term the Egyptian state uses to imprison members of the LGBT community. A male work colleague had set him up, filmed him in the act, robbed him, and reported him to the police.
“They beat me with their hands and sticks, sexually assaulted me, and even electrocuted me,” he said, describing his experience in a squalid cell.
“It depended on the mood of the officer. If he was in a good mood he would not touch me. If he was troubled he used me to ease the pressure,” he said.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt but the military-backed authorities, keen to curry favor with the conservative public, use draconian charges like “public indecency” to lock up people perceived as gay.
The crackdown against the LGBT community started under toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, but Adam said it has never been so fierce as now.
Mashrou’ Leila, a popular Lebanese band fronted by an openly gay lead singer, was playing that night. Photos of the concertgoers and their LGBT flags went viral shortly after the gig.
The Egyptian media called gays a disease, the country’s officials compared them to the Islamic State, and members of the public said their actions heralded the collapse of society.
Amid public uproar the Egyptian authorities announced they had arrested seven individuals who allegedly wielded the offensive technicolored cloth.
The whereabouts of these detainees, held on draconian charges of “public indecency” and “inciting immorality,” is still unknown. It was just the start of the arrests.
Since Sept. 22 an additional 26 people, not counting the concertgoers, have been rounded up for their sexual orientation according to Amnesty, which on Monday said this was the worst crackdown on the LGBT community in a decade and a half. One of them, a 19-year-old man, has already been sentenced to six years in prison, followed by six years of probation, according to both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.
The total number of arrests is likely higher, according to Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed Hossam, who is representing several of the accused. He told The Daily Beast 32 men and one woman have been detained. Every time he attends a hearing or interrogation to represent a specific defendant, he meets more detainees who have been deprived access to lawyers and their families. Seventeen of the 33 appeared in court Sunday on charges of “debauchery,” like Adam, and are facing between three- and 12-year jail sentences. The houses of at least four activists, accused of wielding the rainbow flags, have been raided in the last week.
Amnesty said several of the defendants were subjected to humiliating anal examinations.
The Egyptian authorities claim these medical probes can prove whether the accused has engaged in “habitual debauchery.” Rights group the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says it is akin to rape.
“The doctors apply these examinations without consent. Often the defendants are told the tests will lead to them being declared innocent,” said Dalia Abdel-Hamid, EIPR’s gender and women’s rights officer.
If they are selected for a medical examination they are stripped naked. Doctors then look for “six signs” of indecent behavior around the anal area including the “presence of fissures” and “flexibility of anal muscles,” Abdel-Hamid added.
“The tests are truly done to humiliate people. There is no point to them, they are built on complete pseudoscience,” she added.
The office of the Egyptian public prosecutor was not reachable for comment despite repeated attempts by The Daily Beast to contact them. But one judicial source told Reuters that any defendant accused of “debauchery” or “sexual deviancy” is subjected to a medical examination.
“The examinations are carried out by a forensic doctor who swore to respect his profession and its ethics,” the source added, dismissing accusations of foul play or torture.
The Egyptian interior ministry has repeatedly and vehemently denied the use of torture or mistreatment by its officers at its detention centers or police stations.
The authorities, keen to present themselves as the safeguard of public morals, have repeatedly targeted the vulnerable LGBT community since the 2013 military overthrow saw ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi storm to power.
EIPR estimates that more than 250 men, like Adam, have been prosecuted for their perceived sexual orientation since then, often after they were picked up in dramatic raids.
In November 2013, police stormed a private party in a western suburb of Cairo packed with 300 people. They arrested 10 people who were also subjected to anal tests. A year later 26 men were arrested for sexual deviance at a bathhouse in downtown Cairo, although they were later acquitted. Controversial Egyptian TV host Mona Iraqi filmed the dramatic police sting, parading men, who cowered in towels, in front of her cameras.
It echoed the largest crackdown to date, which took place in 2001 under toppled president Hosni Mubarak. Fifty-two gay men were arrested on a party boat on the Nile and tried for “public depravity” in a very public case. Twenty-three of them were sentenced to hard labor in prison.
Rights groups believe the LGBT community is an easy scapegoat for public wrongs, and punishing them in waves of highly publicized crackdowns is a useful distraction.
The flag-wielding incident has dominated Egypt’s increasingly state-controlled media at a time of growing discontent amid an economic crisis and a rising terrorism problem.
In the grips of a dollar crisis, Egypt was forced to float the Egyptian pound last November, halving the value of the currency. Unwieldy fuel and energy subsidies were slashed. Since then inflation has touched 30 percent while food inflation hit 40 percent. The soaring prices have put pressure on all Egyptian households, just months ahead of a presidential election in 2018.
The rainbow flags sparked a furious circus, with members of the public, TV hosts, and government officials intermittently praising the security forces and berating the authorities for not cracking down harder.
Reda Rageb, head of Egypt’s musicians’ union, vowed to ban Mashrou’ Leila in a boisterous interview with pro-regime TV host Lamees al-Hadidy, who spoke about needing to “treat” gays.
“Is it not enough that we have the Muslim Brotherhood, that we have the Islamic State? Does Egypt need this?” Rageb railed before asking if the whole “world has become homosexual.”
Anyone who tried to defend the LGBT community faced furious backlash. Mohsen Bilasy, an Egyptian writer who tweeted that sexual orientation was “an individual’s right to choose,” was invited onto Egypt’s private Mehwar TV channel to explain himself. He was quickly forced to leave while he was live on air, and faces a potential lawsuit for harming public morals and “insulting Egypt.” In a heartbreaking phone interview on Dream TV’s “10pm” show a young man who admitted to being gay and present at the Mashrou’ Leila rock concert faced a torrent of abuse from TV host Wael Ibrashi. The terrified youth said thousands of members of the LGBT community were “trying to get treatment” but that fake doctors who promised to help weren’t able to cure them.
Egypt’s Supreme Council of Media Regulation meanwhile announced it was banning the appearance of all gay people in the media, calling homosexuality a “disease and a shame,” local daily Al-Ahram reported.
Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Muslim body and the world’s foremost seat of Sunni learning, compared homosexuals to terrorists, vowing to stand against “sexual perversion” in the same way they stand against “extremists groups.”
Egypt’s Coptic Church, meanwhile, announced it would be holding a conference entitled “The Volcano of Homosexuality” to combat and discuss ways to treat “the abomination.”
Salah Salem, a prominent member of the state-sanctioned National Council for Human Rights told paper Youm7 : “There is nothing called homosexual rights in an islamic country… The subject is closed.”
Rights lawyer Hossam said the debauchery trials were the “worst possible,” often chaotic and quick. Defendants like Adam are subject to horrific and humiliating abuse in jail, beaten and harassed by officers, soldiers, and inmates.
“The cases are somehow politicized or used to serve the regime in one way or another,” he said.
For the convicted their lives are ruined. Although Adam was released from jail two years into his prison sentence, no one will employ him, his reputation is destroyed. From March 2018 he will be under police surveillance and so, he says, will have to check into a police station each day between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. There he claims the police will humiliate him by making him sing or dance for them, or by sexually assaulting him.
“Life will never be the same again. I cannot sleep at night. I keep my head low and avoid talking to anyone,” he told The Daily Beast.
“My dream now is to leave Egypt and seek asylum somewhere,” he said with deadly seriousness. “If I do not manage to leave I will probably kill myself.”
With additional reporting by Mohamed Ezz