Egypt’s gay community goes deeper underground, fearing crackdown

In this Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014 photo, an Egyptian lesbian poses for a photograph in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt’s gay community is going deeper underground in fear after police arrest dozens of men at a Cairo bathhouse in a raid that was then featured on a lurid TV tabloid program stirring up public panic over “debauchery.” Nariman El-Mofty, AP

Eight Egyptian men are convicted for "inciting debauchery" following their appearance in a video of an alleged same-sex wedding party on a Nile boat leave the defendant's cage in a courtroom in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. Saturday's verdict that sentenced each of them to three years in prison is the latest in a crackdown by authorities against gays.Hassan Ammar, AP

Eight Egyptian men are convicted for “inciting debauchery” following their appearance in a video of an alleged same-sex wedding party on a Nile boat leave the defendant’s cage in a courtroom in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. Saturday’s verdict that sentenced each of them to three years in prison is the latest in a crackdown by authorities against gays.

CAIRO — Just before midnight, the police navigated down the narrow alleys of an old downtown Cairo district and descended on a rundown bathhouse. They dragged out dozens of nearly naked men, who covered their faces as they struggled to hold up towels, and loaded them into police trucks.

There to film it all was an Egyptian television presenter, who claims she actually triggered the raid by tipping off police about alleged homosexual activity in the bathhouse. Days later, she aired what she boasted was an expose of “a den of mass perversion” spreading AIDS in Egypt.

The raid last week is the latest in a crackdown that gay rights activists say has made 2014 the worst year in a decade for Egypt’s gay community. Homosexuals have been driven deeper underground, fearing not only arrest but also the public scare-mongering against the community drummed up in the media.

“I was devastated,” a gay woman in Cairo’s upscale district of Zamalek told The Associated Press, speaking of the raid and the images aired on “The Hidden,” a lurid TV expose program. “Every time there is an incident, the community starts to hide underground … while police go hunting,” she said. Like others, she spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.

“If this interview were a year ago, I wouldn’t hide my identity because I love who I am,” she added.

Activists say that by cracking down on gays, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi aims to boost its credentials as a protector of morals and religious values in a competition with its rival, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. El-Sissi led the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi from power last year, and since then security forces have all but crushed the Brotherhood, arresting more than 20,000 and killing hundreds as they put down Islamist protests. The government has also arrested secular opposition figures, effectively silencing any voice of dissent.

At the same time, pro-government media have been whipping up fears of threats to society from outsiders, whether foreign plotters, homosexuals, atheists or even devil worshippers.

Gays are taking precautionary measures. They avoid public places where they used to gather and stay away from Internet and dating applications, fearing police traps. Some contemplate leaving the country.

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“We are an easy prey, the weakest link,” one gay man in his 30s said. “The regime is at war with Islamists and we are small thing they can crush on their way and as part of their propaganda war.”

He said he now avoids social gatherings and is careful when talking on the phone or when using dating mobiles apps like Grindr.

“I am even afraid at home with my partner,” he said.

Around 150 men this year have been arrested or are on trial in connection with homosexuality, the highest number in more than a decade, said Scott Long, an American activist and researcher on gay rights. He said this is the worst year since 2001, when police raided a Nile boat restaurant and arrested 52 men accused of holding a gay party.

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