For a while after the Arab Spring, it looked like gay Egyptians were finally feeling safe enough to step out of the closet.
But now, they’re being forced back underground as a result of an escalating police crackdown – one that activists say is being encouraged by pro-government media.
Cairo police stormed a bath house this week after receiving a tip from an investigative journalist. They arrested at least two dozen men for "debauchery."
Journalist Mona Iraqi and her film crew accompanied police on the raid as part of an upcoming television exposé on “perversion” and the “spread of HIV/AIDS.”
On her Facebook page, she promised that her show, "El Mestakhabi," which translates to "The Hidden," would reveal Cairo’s "biggest gay orgy den" and include recorded "confessions" about the "group sex trade."
She also posted photographs of the men being loaded into police vans, wearing only bath towels and handcuffs. She later removed the photographs, but not before they managed to circulate across social media.
"Allah," she also posted, "success is sweet." That post has also been removed.
It didn't take long for the news of the police operation to get out.
“We heard about it Sunday night around midnight,” said gay rights activist Scott Long, who lives in Cairo and blogged about the incident the following morning.
"What was most striking to me was that she [Iraqi] was absolutely unashamed about her collusion with security forces in brutalizing these men. For her, it was a point of pride.”
‘Like being an outlaw’
These were just the latest arrests in what activists say is a heightening crackdown on lesbian, gay and transgender people that began a year ago.
In September, police arrested eight men who had appeared in a gay wedding video posted on YouTube (below). They were sentenced to three years in prison each. Last April, four men were sentenced to eight years in prison for hosting “deviant” sex parties.
In recent years, activists say, social and religious stigma against homosexuality appeared to be lifting, and this encouraged then-20-year-old Ramy Youseff to come out of the closet on Twitter.
But, things began turning backward after the army led by general Abdel Fattah el-Sissi ousted Egypt's first freely elected civilian president Mohamed Morsi of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood last year.
"Today, it’s dangerous being gay in Egypt," said Youseff, who is today a prominent LGBT activist. "It’s like being an outlaw."
Since Sissi came to power, activists say as many as 148 homosexuals have been arrested. Many are subjected to humiliating “medical tests” to prove their sexual orientation.
Same-sex relations aren’t against the law in Egypt, but police have routinely invoked anti-prostitution laws to target the gay community.
Courts have also charged gay Egyptians with “scorning religion” and “sexual practices contrary to Islam.”
“Debauchery” carries a sentence of from one to three years in prison.
“They sometimes tack on additional charges,” Youseff said. “They may add ‘sex worker’ to the charges. Or if [the person being arrested] owns a flat or is renting an apartment, they might also add ‘running a house of prostitution’ to the charges. And if he is arrested in the street, they might charge him with trying to get other people on the street to commit ‘debauchery’ as well.”
All this means that the final prison sentence could really add up.
Boost to police image
“One of the things I think is happening is after the military coup, the el-Sissi regime felt it needed to show its moral credentials because it had overthrown an Islamist government,” said Long.
Targeting the gay community is an easy way for the government to do so, he said.
“Moreover, it’s a very easy way for the government to reestablish the credibility of the police, because the police were widely hated after the revolution for their complicity in human rights abuses,” Long said.
He also blames media for feeding anti-gay hysteria. In a recent post on his “A Paper Bird” blog, Long cites a sensational web story that included a “map of the most popular places for perverts to go in Egypt.”
"Media in Egypt these days is totally under the control of the Junta," said journalist and political activist Wael Abbas in an emailed statement. "It welcomes stories like these to enhance its image as a keeper of morality in the society."
In addition, says Abbas, stories like these help the Sissi government divert attention from the economic challenges facing Egypt's citizens.
Graeme Reid, director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT Rights Program, recently blogged that police vice squads alert the media ahead of “dramatic raids.”
But critics say in the case of the bath house raid, it was the show host who alerted police.
In her own defense
Iraqi believes that she is being judged unfairly, especially considering that critics haven’t seen the entire story.
“The second part is the most important part,” she said. “That shows all the evidence that this [bath house] is a place for the public sex trade.”
She says the first segment of Iraqi’s report aired this week. The second and third parts will air December 17 and December 24, respectively.
“For sure, I will prove that I didn’t hurt anyone,” she said.
She said she is certain that after the public has seen the final episode, they will understand that she is “on the right side.”
“I am confident one thousand percent that they [critics] will apologize to me,” she said.
The cast and crew of the El Mestakhabi issued a statement earlier this week defending their work on the series, saying they have “worked towards achieving the highest degree of accuracy and professionalism in observing international professional, humane and scientific rules.”
Iraqi said they are currently working on translating and/or dubbing the episodes into English for the benefit of international audiences.
The U.S. has not commented on the bath house arrests, but has in the past called on countries to respect the rights of all people, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, to “lead productive and dignified lives, free from fear, discrimination and violence.”