Gay and Transgender Egyptians, Harassed and Entrapped, Are Driven Underground
CAIRO — The last days of the government of Hosni Mubarak and the turbulent revolution that followed were tense, occasionally gut-wrenching times for many in Egypt. But for gay and transgender Egyptians, it was also a period of unaccustomed freedom.
They socialized in bars and sidewalk cafes and met partners over cellphone dating apps with a greater degree of openness and comfort than they had known.
But that era came to an abrupt end with the return of military rule.
Since the 2013 military intervention that established former Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the country’s ruler, at least 250 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have been arrested in a quiet crackdown that has shattered what had been an increasingly vibrant and visible community. Through a campaign of online surveillance and entrapment, arrests and the closing of gay-friendly businesses, the police have driven gay and transgender people back underground and, in many cases, out of the country.
Before the crackdown, “there was no deliberate campaign of arrest and monitoring,” said Dalia Abdel Hameed, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “But now the police are going out of their way to arrest gay men and trans women.”
Between the unraveling of the Mubarak government and the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people faced little threat from the police, who were focused on other matters and largely ignored what happened at house parties or bars in Cairo’s crumbling, bohemian downtown.
The crackdown began in earnest when a military curfew imposed after the removal of Mr. Morsi ended in fall 2013, said Scott Long, a human rights activist who lived in Egypt for many years and wrote a landmark report for Human Rights Watch on the last major crackdown.
At the time, control of Egypt’s streets was passing from the army, a relatively trusted institution, to the police, a hated symbol of the Mubarak government.
“Somebody in the Ministry of Interior realized this was a way to get good publicity for the police,” Mr. Long said.
The arrests signaled the return of an aggressive approach by the morality police division, which has participated in a larger crackdown that has jailed tens of thousands of people since 2013. Using tools last deployed in a campaign against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people over 10 years ago, the division has reasserted the authority lost by the police before and during the revolution.
Other branches of the security forces have also flexed their muscles since the return of military rule, arresting protesters or clamping down on unlicensed street vendors, activists said.
“The police want to show they have a strong grip on society,” Ms. Abdel Hameed said. “So this is the morality police having their own campaign to arrest L.G.B.T. people.”
There is no law in Egypt specifically banning homosexual acts, so gay and transgender people are charged with “habitual debauchery” under a 1961 law that is used to prosecute men for homosexuality and women for prostitution, Ms. Abdel Hameed said. So far, the sentences have ranged from two to 12 years.
The crackdown has primarily targeted gay men and transgender women, some of whom have been arrested in raids on private homes or picked up on the street if their appearances raised suspicions. (Transgender women are usually prosecuted as men because the police, courts and news media in Egypt, unlike those in the West, make no meaningful distinction between gay men and transgender women, activists said.)
Most, however, have been arrested after officers entrapped them on dating apps like Grindr, which now greets its users when they log in with a warning message about a possible police presence on the site.
Ms. Abdel Hameed said the police used the apps to flirt with people, engaging in sexual banter and asking for risqué photos that could be used as evidence in court before asking them out on dates. When the unsuspecting targets of the stings arrive for the dates, they are swiftly arrested.
This is not the first time these tactics have been used against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Egypt. A crackdown that began in 2001 is still remembered for a raid on the Queen Boat, a nightclub where the police arrested dozens of men accused of being gay. Their trials dominated Egypt’s headlines for months and sent a wave of terror through gay circles.
“There was the Queen Boat and its aftermath, then there was our normal life, and now this is the biggest crackdown after the Queen Boat,” Ms. Abdel Hameed said.
Perhaps the crackdown’s greatest physical manifestation is in the proliferation of police checkpoints in downtown Cairo and the closings of cafes and other businesses that were gathering spots for activists, intellectuals and gay people during the heady days of political upheaval.
One 24-year-old gay man, who asked to be identified by only his middle name, Ali, for fear of arrest, said the police campaign had devastated his community.
“Everything leads to getting arrested,” Ali said. “The huge threat is being arrested or losing your friends to prison, because after the failed revolution there was a huge crackdown on the downtown community, especially. This is my community, and it is being destroyed.”
Many gay and transgender people who are able to leave the country have done so or still hope to, Ali said, adding that he wanted to move to Europe or North America. “I am running out of friends because they are all being arrested or they are leaving Egypt,” he said.
The police also seize detainees’ phones and “search their data to find others,” Ms. Abdel Hameed said. When they find them, they often torture them to produce lists of gay friends and former sex partners. Detainees are also subjected to forced anal examinations, a form of torture that the police believe can prove if a person has engaged in homosexual conduct, a contention that Egyptian jurists have said is false.
Mr. Long said that online entrapment had become especially effective in the last two years, because the shutdown of gay-friendly spaces had left many with no place to go.
“There aren’t many queer places left in downtown or in the rest of the city, so people become more reliant on apps and social networks,” he said. “People are lonely and they meet someone who seems like they’re interested, and bang, they’re arrested.”
Ali agreed that despite the dangers, the internet was one of the few public spaces left for gay and transgender people.
“There is no other way,” Ali said. “It is Egypt.”