Egypt's new regime is cracking down on the gay community -- with a little help from the media.
- By Bel TrewBel Trew is broadcast and print journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @beltrew.
CAIRO — Men dressed in checkered towels walk around a Cairo bathhouse changing room as dramatic cop-show music kicks in.
The trailer cuts to a darkened studio, where Egyptian TV presenter Mona Iraqi announces that, for the first time “in the history of Egyptian and Arab media,” she will lead the local morality police “to storm the biggest den for male group sex” in the heart of the capital.
The footage — which Iraqi gleefully posted on her Facebook page — shows dozens of men cowering from her cameras as they are bundled half-naked into waiting police trucks. The voice-over eagerly promises that the contents of the show, broadcast in full this week, are strictly for those over 18 years of age.
Captured on hidden camera, Monday’s late-night raid on downtown Cairo’s “Sea Door” bathhouse was the largest mass arrest of men suspected of practicing homosexuality in Egypt in over a decade. Thirty-three men were taken into custody on charges of “debauchery” — an accusation police used to lock up members of Egypt’s gay community, as homosexuality is not technically illegal here. It’s just the latest crackdown on gay Egyptians under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration, which, ironically, swept into power on the promise of reversing the policies of the socially conservative Islamist government before it. Now, Egypt’s new government has cracked down on homosexuality more than the Muslim Brotherhood ever did.
There are now more than 100 members of the LGBT community who have been arrested on similar charges since last summer’s military takeover, according to rights advocates working on the issue. Many of them have been sentenced to long prison terms in rushed trials, with little legal representation.
Last month, eight men were sentenced to three years in jail for “habitual debauchery” and “incitement” after appearing in a video the judge said showed a same-sex marriage on a Nile River party boat. In the 60-second YouTube clip of the wedding, two men exchange rings, hug, and kiss on the cheek as friends celebrate in the background.
Human rights lawyer Mohamed Bakir, who monitored the case, said there was nothing in the footage supporting the alleged crime. There was, after all, nothing debaucherous about the video itself. The men, who were subjected to humiliating “anal checks” to determine their sexual preference, were also filmed by Egyptian TV crews during their arrest.
Mona Iraqi defended her upcoming program, saying it was part of her effort to combat an AIDS epidemic in Egypt, and accused the bathhouse of being a source of the disease in Cairo. Rights groups fear that this witch hunt will have the opposite effect: By driving Egypt’s gay community to jail or into hiding, it will make NGOs, rights advocates, and health providers unable to access them, which is likely to increase the spread of the virus.
While the number of HIV cases remains generally low in Egypt — around 11,000, according to UNICEF — there is a rising epidemic within vulnerable populations. The HIV infection rate is above 5 percent among injecting drug users and men who have sex with men.
But the bathhouse raid video sheds light on more than Iraqi’s homophobia. It also depicts the pro-government media’s close cooperation with Egypt’s security forces.
In the past, the Egyptian media have eagerly broadcast the sordid details of the gay trials. But these days, TV crews work directly with the security apparatus and are invited to join the raids, breaking the law by filming and revealing the identity of suspects at the moment of capture — before they are legally charged. But Iraqi’s TV show went even further: She actually instigated the raid by alerting the security forces to what she referred to as a den of “sexual perversion.”
In the process, she has horrified Egypt’s beleaguered LGBT community.
“It terrifies me to know that I am the target of my own police and media for committing no crime other than being born different,” said Mohamed, a 28-year-old gay man. Mohamed said that the media portrayal of the Sea Door bathhouse as a den of inequity had it all wrong.
“I’ve been to this bathhouse before — it’s nothing like this so-called journalist depicted,” said Mohamed. “Rather it’s a hangout for those who can’t afford the expensive bars and clubs, so they can have a chance to be themselves in a safe environment. No sex or anything like that occurred when I was there.”
There has been a spike in these televised raids in the past year, as the security forces’ “morality department” increasingly colludes with media. Scott Long, a rights activist monitoring the crackdown in Egypt, said that newspapers like Youm7 and a tabloid website called VetoGate have been only too happy to be spoon-fed stories by the police.
“It is a very symbiotic relationship,” Long said. “The reporters make the police look good while getting increased ratings.”
In May, Youm7 published photographs of one raid on a house of transgender men, with only the eyes of the individuals pixelated, leaving their faces clearly visible. The story included an interview with one of the arrested men, identified as “Ahmed,” who was made to confess to being raped as a child — the explanation the paper gave for his desire to dress as a woman.
Egypt’s pro-government media have also seized on such access to advance their broader political agenda. Four days after Youm7’s story on transgender men, it published a long investigation into the “devastating effect on society” of homosexuality. It labeled homosexuality a “dangerous phenomenon, which has swept across Egypt after the  January 25 Revolution.”
The outlet has since published stories examining the “gay problem,” including a July article that warned parents against allowing their children to watch foreign cartoons like SpongeBob SquarePants, as it included scenes of male characters kissing each other.
The media’s role in stigmatizing the gay community has had a devastating effect on the young men accused of the “crimes.”
Amr, 27, who was sentenced to three years in jail for “debauchery” after attending an LGBT party in November 2013, said he has been on the run from the law for over a year. His life is in tatters.
“When everyone found out, I was disowned by family, I was fired from my job, and most of my friends abandoned me,” Amr said. He described being paraded naked in detention and subjected to an anal test. He managed to avoid attending his sentencing hearing, and so a year later lives from sofa to sofa as a fugitive.
“I have an appeal hearing in March 2015. I am hoping they will commute it to a suspended sentence so I don’t have to serve jail time, as there is no proof of the charges,” he said.
But with the recent spike in jailings and Monday’s dramatic raid on the bathhouse, his hope is fading fast. As a result, Amr is pondering more desperate measures.
“I’m trying to seek asylum somewhere in Europe,” he said. “Anywhere that isn’t here, and where this won’t happen again.”