Egypt's 'homosexuality' arrests

Earlier this month several gay websites reported a rather puzzling story from Egypt. According to Gay Star News and Pink News, 14 men had been arrested for "homosexual acts" at a "medical centre" in El-Marg district of Cairo.

Neither story gave any details about the "medical centre" or any clues as to why gay sex was supposedly going on there. Meanwhile Pink News, apparently unaware that the military had taken over Egypt last July, warned:

"Activists and LGBT citizens also fear that the new government, lead [sic] by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, may soon ... crack down on LGBT Egyptians."

The reports from Pink News and Gay Star News were basically rehashed from an English-language report circulating in Egypt which in turn had been rehashed from a report in Arabic.

By describing the place as a "medical centre", these English reports gave the impression it was some sort of clinic run by people with stethoscopes and white coats – but it wasn't. Scott Long of the Paper Bird blog writes:

"It was a small gym and sauna, converted from a private apartment and operating as a business for years. It’s well known in the surrounding streets; when my friend went there about three years ago – before the revolution – and asked directions, the neighbours said 'Oh, the hammam!', or baths, and pointed the way."

The gym/sauna appears to have turned into a "medical centre" because an Arabic report in Akhbar al-Youm referred to it as a markaz tibbi catering exclusively for "queer men". Markaz tibbi can indeed be translated as "medical centre" or "health centre", though in this case the term was probably a euphemism. Here is a full translation of Akhbar al-Youm's report (via Long's blog):

"The niyaba [prosecutor] ordered the [continued] detention of the manager and specialists and workers at a health centre that was open for perverts [shawazz] only, in El-Marg. He also ordered the detention of 14 men who were caught practising immorality [fahesha] inside it, and the closure of the establishment.

"Information had been received about the centre’s illegal activity, and that it welcomed perverted men and boys to practise immorality in its rooms. The investigation has proved the information correct; the centre was raided, and 14 men were caught, in positions that are against religious precepts.

"Also, the management staff were caught along with a large quantity of pills and sexual stimulants. It emerged that the centre only engages in this illegal activity in return for payments of between 50 and 200 pounds [$7-$28 US] for one encounter.

"The defendants confessed in front of Mohammed Sayed Ahmed, the chief El-Marg prosecutor, that they had been frequenting the centre to practise immorality [fahesha]. The niyaba ordered their detention and referral to the forensic medical authority, and ordered the centre closed and the evidence preserved."

Scott Long disputes the scale of payments mentioned in this report, saying that the admission charge three years ago was only 20 Egyptian pounds ($3.50) but perhaps the higher charges were for additional "services" (the report seems to be hinting at prostitution).

Since the gym/sauna was well known in the area and had been operating for some years, it is unlikely that the police only discovered its existence a couple of weeks ago – so why has it been raided now? 

Possibly someone made a formal complaint, perhaps it got into a dispute with police about protection money, or maybe the local police simply wanted to show they are back in business after the chaos of the revolution. Another possibility is that the military-led regime decided to crack down in order to acquire some "moral" credentials.

Similar questions were raised by the notorious Queen Boat case in 2001, which some saw as an attempt by the Mubarak regime to distract the public from its political difficulties at the time and/or demonstrate that its "Islamic credentials" were a match for those of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Scott Long is very familiar with LGBT issues in Egypt. In 2004, while working at Human Rights Watch, he was largely responsible for the ground-breaking report, "In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt's Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct". In his blog post about the "medical centre" raid, he is at pains to point out that El-Marg is a very ordinary and basic suburb of Cairo – not at all up-market:

"It's a shaabi neighbourhood, a word sometimes translated 'popular' and sometimes 'working class', but carrying other, deeper connotations: down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth, the country transported to the city on migrants’ backs. The place has the resentful pride of poverty ... Nobody aspires. The local dreams seem leaden, not golden. The main hope is simply to survive in an economy and country where that gets harder all the time."

On that basis, Long takes issue with Joseph Massad and his controversial book, Desiring Arabs:

"The arrests certainly call into question the celebrated thesis of Joseph Massad: that the 'visible' people experiencing, indeed mischievously inciting, persecution for 'homosexuality' in Egypt are 'westernised upper- and middle-class Egyptian men who identify as gay and consort with European and American tourists'. There aren’t too many people like that around El-Marg."

What Long sees in the El Marg case is a "consumerised" idea of masculinity spreading downward through the class system:

"A different kind of consumerised identity, built not around sexuality but around masculinity, has been creeping into places like El-Marg for well over a decade now. It comes from movies and magazine ads and it consists in a cult of the sculpted body, perfected from nature’s raw materials, designed to elicit admiration quite apart from anything it does ...

"A longstanding fetish of health and exercise in Egypt dates from the colonial period – periodic pushups helped show that “natives” could be as strong and self-sufficient as their masters. Yet it was largely confined to the upwardly-pushing middle classes, as Wilson Chacko Jacob has demonstrated in an intriguing study. Only more recently has working out, and a fullblown Chelsea version of it at that, become a defining feature of shaabi manhood."

For anyone who wishes to delve into this further, there's a lengthy but interesting discussion thread at the end of Long's blog post where supporters and critics of Massad argue about whether or not the El Marg case undermines his thesis.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 21 October 2013