On December 7, a large group of men were arrested for “practicing debauchery” in a bathhouse in Cairo. Reports vary on the numbers, but there is no doubt that this was a huge raid, with estimates ranging from 25 to 33. A pro-government television show released images of the semi-naked men being bundled into awaiting police vans. The show’s host claimed to have tipped off the police and included footage in an exposé broadcast on December 8. She then had the temerity to defend her role by claiming the show is part of a broader campaign to punish deviant sexual behavior.

The deliberate, public humiliation of these men conducted in tandem with the media is shocking, but typical of an intensifying and troubling government clampdown on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in Egypt.

The publicity surrounding the crackdown is no coincidence. Indeed, alerting the media in advance of their dramatic raids is a deliberate tactic of the police force’s moral department. 

Why is President Abdel-Fattah Sisi making a very public show of this crackdown on the LGBT community? The answer is that this public theater appears aimed at shoring up Sisi’s tattered legitimacy. 

After the military coup in July 2013, Sisi found himself in a predicament. Dalia Abdel-Hamid, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, observed that the clampdown is part of a sustained effort by Sisi’s administration to appear more “Islamic than the Islamists.” In an effort to bolster its political standing, this supposed secular state is acting with a religious fervor that was not seen even under the Muslim Brotherhood.

This cynical political strategy comes at a great cost to the LGBT community as people are arrested under vague laws criminalizing “sexual deviance,” “debauchery,” and “insulting public morals” that carry sentences of between 3 and 12 years.

This was the largest single arrest of alleged gay men since the days of Hosni Mubarak when 52 men were arrested in the infamous Queen Boat raid in 2001. At the time, like today, police trawled the Internet to entrap targets, and the media stoked a moral panic about a perceived foreign threat to Egyptian culture.

The Interior Ministry is fine-tuning its surveillance capabilities including its capacity to scan social media sites. A moral campaign such as the one being waged by Sisi helps distract attention from the broader crackdown on the media, and on the political opposition. For LGBT people, arrested in a glare of publicity whether in public places, or in the privacy of their homes, or entrapped in sting operations on the Internet, there is seemingly no place to hide.