When Egypt’s police raided a Cairo hammam, or bath house, on Monday, arresting 26 men they deemed to be gay, news traveled fast. A pro-regime journalist was conveniently on hand to document the men’s humiliation, and her footage spread through Facebook pages nationwide.
Mona Iraqi, who works for an investigative journalism television program called “Al-Mestakhabi” (The Hidden), now promises to air an exposé on the popular hammam.
“Al-Mestakhabi managed to shut down a den of group sex for men, and they were all arrested red-handed,” she wrote on her Facebook page.
Early footage shows the men being herded, naked, into the back of a police truck.
The dramatic spectacle was the latest development in Egypt’s very public crackdown against its gay community. Rights advocates say this is part of the state’s attempt to portray itself as the guardian of national morality, as the military-backed regime reconfigures its power after the fall of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
It also underlined the role of Egypt’s loyalist media in whipping up popular support for the state’s morality crusade. Ms. Iraqi’s presence at the arrest was no coincidence – according to reports, she had actually reported the existence of what she called a “den of perversion,” and then waited to film the raid.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, but it is a social taboo, and allegedly gay men have often been arrested on charges of debauchery. Rights advocates say these arrests provide the government of the day with a convenient distraction from the many social and economic problems it has yet to solve.
“Egypt’s powers that be treat homosexuality and gender dissidence as political, and – like any kind of politics under an ever-more constricting dictatorship – conspiratorial and sinister,” wrote Scott Long, a Cairo-based academic and LGBT-rights activist Monday evening.
During a similar crackdown in 2001, Human Rights Watch documented more than 170 “debauchery” cases that were brought before prosecutors. Since the overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July of last year, police have detained around 150 people on the same charges.
For its part, the Brotherhood has tried to turn the crackdown to its advantage, highlighting the arrests as a sign of the moral weakness of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government.
Last month, an Egyptian court sentenced eight men to three years in prison for apparently taking part in a gay wedding ceremony. Footage of two men embracing, exchanging rings, and celebrating with their friends had surfaced online in mysterious circumstances. Members of Egypt’s gay community suggest it was strategically leaked to whip up support for Egypt’s ascendant security services.
A former Brotherhood parliamentarian later warned that Mr. Sisi’s government was to blame for the so-called wedding ceremony – he slammed the new president for converting Egypt into a “brothel.”
Photographs of the accused in so-called debauchery cases are regularly plastered across Egyptian media outlets, with eyes blanked out in a token effort to hide their identity.
According to Dalia Abdel Hamid, a gender researcher at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the lurid coverage reflects a symbiotic relationship between an Egyptian media wanting to draw in its readership, and security services that want to bolster their popularity.
“They publish their names, their ages, even where they live – and all before they are sentenced,” says Ms. Abdel Hamid. “They try to make it look like a disease or a mental illness that must be fought.”
In a rare piece of public criticism of Iraqi’s coverage of Monday night’s raid, Egyptian journalist Hossam Bahgat wrote on her Facebook page: “You see the picture of you filming with your phone? Your picture will be spread for years to come with every article, investigation, or book on the collapse of Egyptian media ethics.”
In socially conservative Egypt, criticizing a person’s sexuality is a powerful slight. Such criticism is often leveled at opponents of the regime. When a popular actor, Khaled Abol Naga, recently spoke out against the security record of the current government, he was slapped with a lawsuit for insulting the president.
“Anyone who slanders his president, state institutions, and security is not a man – he is a homosexual,” said the lawyer in charge.
Mohamed Ezz contributed to this report.