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I. Justice at Stake: An Introduction

A. Summary

“Every place we were held, somebody beat us,” the twenty-five-year-old told Human Rights Watch. “We asked, why is it us who are getting beaten? It was like they weren’t dealing with human beings at all. … Like we weren’t even animals, just mud or something they could kick around.”

Another man said, “They punished me only because of my sexual orientation and they condemned me as a criminal for my entire life. … In brief, they killed every beautiful hope and future I ever had.” A young man in his twenties told Human Rights Watch, “I don’t understand why they do these things to men who hurt no one. I don’t understand why they must hunt us down. …I am a human being. Aren’t I? Tell me that I am. No, I know I am. I just can’t believe this happened to me.”

The questions multiplied, but one echoed again and again. A man wrote Human Rights Watch, “Why do they destroy our future, who allowed them to do that? Did they only discover that Egypt is full of homosexuals two years ago? Why do I have to live my life away from my family and my friends, and my city and my country for I don’t know how long? … Why did I see the look of victory in their eyes while interrogating me?” In a provincial city, another man pleaded, “Why is it bothering them so much? Why do they have to torture us? Why do they care? We don’t do anything to anyone else. Who do we harm? Why do they hate us? Why?”

Egypt is carrying out a crackdown. The professed motive is cultural authenticity coupled with moral hygiene. The means include entrapment, police harassment, and torture. The agents range from government ministers to phalanxes of police informers fanning out across Cairo. The victims are men suspected of having sex with men. The violence is aimed not only at their loves but at their lives.

Since early 2001, a growing number of men have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted for having sexual relations with other men. Human Rights Watch knows the names of 179 men whose cases under the law against “debauchery” were brought before prosecutors since the beginning of 2001; in all probability that is only a minuscule percentage of the true total. Hundreds of others have been harassed, arrested, often tortured, but not charged.

More than men who have sex with men are among the crackdown’s victims, however. Its effects reach beyond the broken bodies, wrecked families, and ruined lives lying in its immediate trail. The offense against the marginalized potentially endangers everyone; the offensive against privacy corrupts the principles of public life. Every Egyptian’s dignity and integrity are under threat in a time of torture, when the law accepts violence as investigation and stigma as certainty.

The severity of the brutality inflicted indicates the crackdown’s intensity. Police routinely torture men suspected of homosexual conduct, sometimes to extract confessions and sometimes simply as a sadistic reminder of the burden of shame their alleged behavior incurs. Men have told Human Rights Watch how they were whipped, beaten, bound and suspended in painful positions, splashed with ice-cold water, and burned with lit cigarettes. Men taken during mass roundups may be tortured with electroshock on the limbs, genitals, or tongue. Guards encourage other prisoners to rape suspected homosexuals. Psychological torment complements the physical trauma. One man, showing the scars of excruciating torture on his limbs, said: “I want to scream. I want to cry. I can't let it out.”

Egypt enlists medicine to join the maltreatment. Men arrested for homosexual conduct are forcibly subjected to anal examinations at the hands of the Forensic Medical Authority, an agency of the Ministry of Justice. Doctors compel the men to strip and kneel; they massage, dilate, and in some cases penetrate the prisoners’ anal cavities in search of signs that they have been “habitually used” in “sodomy.” Invasive, abusive, and a form of torture in itself, the practice is predicated on outdated pseudoscience, on myths—of the “marks” left by anal intercourse—which date back nearly a century and a half. Yet doctors continue to invent means of investigating prisoners' anuses, boasting to Human Rights Watch of “new methods” employing electricity.

May 2001 saw the best-known case in the crackdown begin: fifty-two men ultimately went to trial, many arrested during a police raid on a Cairo discotheque, the “Queen Boat,” frequented by gay men. The proceedings, less judicial exercise than extravaganza, accused the men—most of whom did not even know each other until their jailing—not just of dissident desires but of participating in a blasphemous conspiracy. Sensational headlines savaging them as “Satan-worshippers” and “sexual perverts” filled the papers for months. They spread a new image of homosexual conduct: no longer a private matter but a menace to public safety, the code of a cult eroding moral values, a subversive network threatening state security.

The hysteria made the “Queen Boat” case the most public episode in the campaign, and it indeed comprised a watershed in some ways. Before the headlines, Cairo had the tentative beginnings of a community of men who desired other men—people who perceived a commonality among one another, and sometimes (though not always) described themselves as “gay.” A few pubs and meeting-places, circles of friends who shared stories and talked about the meanings of their desires—these were the substance of that incipient solidarity, which remained largely invisible to others, and neither challenged any authority nor impinged perceptibly on the public sphere. The scandal and scare tactics around the trial, the paranoia the press evoked, shut that inchoate community down. Friendships died and solitude set in.

Yet the Queen Boat trial, for all its consequences, marked neither commencement nor climax of the crackdown. Even before the bar raid, agents of the Vice Squad (a morals police within the Ministry of Interior’s national police force, with divisions in each jurisdiction) had started surveillance of the Internet, answering personals advertisements placed by men seeking men, arranging meetings with them, and arresting them. Internet entrapment has expanded till by early 2003 it appeared to reach a rate of at least one arrest a week. It both builds on and reinforces the growing fragmentation of friendships and atomization of trust. Warnings of danger, words of caution, no longer move through shattered circles of increasingly suspicious men. Having closed down places where community could be affirmed and communication could happen, police are now in position to pick off men one by one.

In other cases, police in Cairo and elsewhere have raided private apartments, or wiretapped phones to collect and arrest contacts, or used “trusted secret sources” to finger men suspected of homosexual conduct. Vice Squads maintain lists of homosexuals; massive roundups may follow if a gay man is murdered, with dozens or even hundreds arbitrarily detained. The victims are interrogated and tortured, sometimes for weeks. An extensive network of informers supports the crackdown, feeding names and information to avid authorities. One Vice Squad officer in the Giza section of greater Cairo has informers invite guests to parties, then hand them over to the police: Human Rights Watch has documented twenty-three arrests accomplished by that officer alone.

Egypt’s government has publicly claimed that the surveillance and suppression of homosexual conduct defend its cultural values, its “unique norms and evolving practices.” Yet torture and entrapment, the key tools of the campaign, are not defensible norms or values. They insult the dignity and integrity of the human being. They break the bonds of trust that culture and religion protect.

Not cultural inheritance but an ineptly written law underlies the crackdown. Egyptian officials have deceptively claimed that the country codifies “no distinction or discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation.” In fact, as Human Rights Watch shows in this report, legislation originally meant to penalize prostitution swelled, during its drafting, into a sweeping instrument punishing “promiscuity” in general. The law is now clearly understood to criminalize consensual, non-commercial homosexual conduct, under the name of “debauchery” (fujur)in provisions which work comparably to so-called “sodomy laws” in other jurisdictions. A growing roster of states rejects such laws as intolerable assaults on privacy and equality, and as breaches of international human rights protections.

A law without distinct limitations lent opportunity to a criminal justice system under diminished restraint. Both activists and commentators in Egypt have called alarmed attention to the failure of oversight of police and prosecutors in the last decade, as well as the deterioration of judicial expertise and independence. Criminal justice now serves less to uphold the rule of law than to enforce brutal social control. The spread and routinization of torture—the degree to which police abuse has become not the exception but the rule—reveals a crisis in Egyptian justice.

The physical and psychological cruelty meted out to men who have sex with men is only one aspect of this crisis. Yet it foregrounds the factors which both allow abuse to spread and create particular vulnerabilities to it. Vicious campaigns of vilification in the state-owned media foster ideas of homosexuality as a national danger: no paper protections against official abuse deter authorities from using any available means against the menace. Police brutalize victims and fake reports. Prosecutors press charges based on a defendant’s looks or walk, the style of his hair or the color of his underwear. Judges rule by rote, regardless of whether evidence is fraudulent—or even whether it adds up to the elements of a crime according to the letter of the law.

The arbitrary is the usual: torture becomes normal. The attacks on individuals are also an assault on the abstract principles that cement society. The victims’ shattered dignity reflects the degradation of justice.

The assault on basic rights must end.

B. Methodology, Terminology

This report is based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch during a mission to Egypt over three months in the early 2003, as well as on documentation and legal research and analysis carried out by human rights activists in Egypt. Human Rights Watch interviewed sixty-three men who had been arrested on suspicion of homosexual conduct, in Cairo and in other cities in lower Egypt. One fact registers the reach of stigma and fear: all those arrested asked us not to reveal their identities.

We also interviewed families, friends, and partners of arrested men; attorneys and judges who have worked on “debauchery” cases; government officials; and human rights activists. Human Rights Watch also examined official files in the cases of 126 men arrested on “debauchery” charges since 1997.1 Human Rights Watch studied press articles and legal texts, and consulted Cassation Court and Constitutional Court decisions in cases relating to sexual offences heard over five decades.

Many voices thus make themselves heard in this report, those of the powerful as well as the profoundly powerless. In such a polyphony, terminology itself becomes a matter of debate, and a question of power.

Two words are particularly crucial, and contested, here. Hossein—a young man from a desperately poor background, illiterate though gifted and creative—told Human Rights Watch how he came to be on the Queen Boat: a friend “told me that there is this disco which is a ‘gay disco.’ I didn’t know what ‘gay’ meant, because of my education. He told me what it meant, and because I thought I was ‘gay,’ I went.”2

The word “gay,” describing men who have sex with men, emerged out of a North American subculture in the twentieth century. Its more scientific-sounding synonym, “homosexual,” is not much older—coined by a central European doctor in 1869.

The relative youth of the words should raise caution in ascribing antiquity, or ubiquity, to what they purport to describe. The identity of the “homosexual” is a recent, regional development. The concept of “sexual orientation”—constructing a personal and public identity around the sex of the person one desires—is only one way of understanding the fact of homosexual conduct, and attaching meaning to it.3

The political ethics as well as the propriety of employing terms such as “gay “ has recently become contentious. One writer sympathetic to protecting homosexual conduct per se accuses international human rights groups, and Western lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organizations, of imposing identity categories on Arab experience, in an endeavor to “transform” intellectually and sexually colonized men “from practitioners of same-sex contact into subjects who identify as homosexual and gay.”4

Yet even such an argument acknowledges that the conduct called “homosexual”—the desire for, and erotic acts or emotional relationships between, people of the same sex—is wholly indigenous in Egypt, not imported. Egyptian society, like all others, has perpetually attached interpretations to those acts and desires.5 Another writer controversially contends that sexuality in Arab societies is essentially “inegalitarian,” with sexual relations “understood as relations of power linked to rigid gender roles.”6 Clearly the distinction between penetrator and penetrated in particular sexual acts runs through many stories in this report, and remains an important axis for understanding sexuality. Yet these roles are not absolute or rigid. To assume that they always reproduce “inequality” denies individual inflection or equivocation. People negotiate: taking one role in one act or situation may give way to another elsewhere.7 Whatever power sexual roles confer is redefined by other social forces. The symbolic system of sex never works in isolation from the rest of experience.

Not all men who have sex with men—in Egypt or elsewhere--regard themselves as “gay,” or “homosexual.” This is not just idiom or idiosyncrasy. Men may see the sexual role they play—as penetrator or penetrated partner, “top” or “bottom”—as the constituent element in their identity, not the sex of the person they desire. Men may, however, also see themselves in multiple roles, which may offer multiple self-definitions not reducible to the straightjacket of a single adjective.

Another word reverberates through this report. Khawal (plural khawalat) was a term for male transvestite dancers in the nineteenth century. They performed at many public celebrations, as a respectable substitute for dancing women.8 The term now vilifies rather than describes. As its meaning has become derogatory, though, its scope has also shifted. In some cases it is used abusively for men seen as the “passive” partner in intercourse—clearly its older usage.9 Yet in instance after instance here, it encompasses both partners. Much as many of those men employ a version of “gay” to describe a common identity regardless of role, khawal increasinglyinscribes a suddenly common stigma.

Social understandings of sexuality are not fixed. Constantly mutable, they move in the context of larger forces of cultural change and interchange. Those borrowings and revisions negate the notion that any interpretation can be pinned to permanence, accused of alienness, or applauded as “authentic.” Hossein, visiting the Queen Boat, found a term which seemed to describe a part of himself. The term was foreign; but in adopting it he adapted it, and gave it his own meaning.

The language of rights—protecting basic freedoms of expression and thought—includes rather than precludes the right to define oneself. Human Rights Watch has tried to use the terms people themselves used in self-description. Where we call men “gay,” it is generally because they called themselves that. Where we call men “bottoms” or “tops” (“passive” or “active” partners in sex: in local slang, kodyana or barghal) it is because they embraced the attribution. Our aspiration is to respect the voices and vocabularies of those who speak in and through this text.

C. Creating a Moral Panic

The question “why” remains. Arrests did not begin in 2001. As this report shows, the law used against homosexual conduct dates from five decades earlier. Harassment of men who had sex with men had been happening for a long time before the Queen Boat case—on a smaller scale, and often not ending in prosecution.

In Cairo, police had routinely carried out campaigns against various populations whose public presence detracted from the capital’s preferred image. Street hawkers, street children, and sex workers recurred as victims.10 The next chapter demonstrates that men having sex with men had joined such groups at least by the late 1990s: the Vice Squad targeted them on Cairo's streets. This mounting harassment apparently drew energy from the violent animus of the Squad's head in Cairo, Taha Embaby.

At the same time, and on a broader level, Egypt’s government has increasingly manipulated moral panics—sensationalized scandals in which groups are singled out for stigma, and made focal points of popular fears and resentments.11 In the late 1990s, a series of such panics filled the press; Shi’ites and teenage rock fans became, at various points, unlikely victims of vilification as “Satanists” and conspirators.12

These panics served multiple purposes. On the one hand, they diverted the media from the mounting crises of a political system mired in inaction and mass immiseration, unable to address growing poverty or popular discontent. On the other hand, they served up sinister enemies—often literally demonized, smeared as offenders against religion—to be blamed when that discontent demanded scapegoats. And a government that routinely repressed religious fundamentalism could improbably recast itself as defending orthodoxy from the blandishments of organized deviance.

The Queen Boat arrests sparked another panic, on a scale to stun and fascinate citizens for months. The state exploited sexuality as sideshow: but the prurient spectacle strengthened its Puritan credentials. As an Egyptian writer contends, the government skillfully used the sensation not just “to divert public attention from economic recession and the government's liquidity crisis,” but “to present an image as the guardian of public virtue, to deflate an Islamist opposition movement that appear[ed] to be gaining support every day.”13

Politics thus bolstered police practice. The moral panic and the quieter clean-up campaigns met. The Queen Boat scandal let the state assert its power over a figurative form of customs control: the authority, unchecked by irritant claims of privacy or freedoms, to patrol cultural borders and to excise what it found unacceptable even in the recesses and reticences of intimate life. It also reinforced local policemen's perception that homosexual conduct was a lurid and immediate enemy—and gave officers across the country every incentive to step up raids and intensify harassment.

The results have multiplied the arbitrary arrest and torture of men who have sex with men. Despite the publicity the Queen Boat case garnered, many of the most serious abuses have gone unreported until now. Even the cases Human Rights Watch has uncovered undoubtedly represent only a fraction of the whole. It is time for the detentions and prosecutions, the torture and betrayals, to stop.

D. Key Recommendations

Human Rights Watch calls on the government of Egypt to:

  • End arrests and prosecutions for adult, consensual homosexual conduct.
  • Amend its laws to eliminate all references to “debauchery” (fujur) as well as other vague language that can be used to target people on the basis of adult, consensual homosexual conduct.
  • End police surveillance and entrapment of persons based on their suspected homosexual conduct.
  • Protect the right to free expression over the Internet.
  • Train all officials of the criminal justice system in international human rights standards, including issues of sexuality and sexual orientation; and punish officials who engage in, encourage, or condone maltreatment of, or discrimination against, people based on their homosexual conduct.
  • End the practice of forensic anal examinations of men accused of “debauchery” or any other crime.
  • Prevent and punish the crime of torture, by bringing legislation into line with international standards, and ensuring full and fair investigations of allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
  • End illegal arrests and incommunicado detention.
  • Repeal legislation that permits arbitrary detention and establishes courts that allow no ordinary judicial appeal.
  • Invite United Nations human rights mechanisms to scrutinize its protections against torture and other forms of abuse.

Human Rights Watch calls on donors offering aid to Egypt to:

  • Condemn the criminalization of consensual homosexual conduct in Egypt, along with the entrapment and torture that accompany it.
  • Demand progress reports from the Egyptian government on concrete steps taken to end abusive practices and improve its human rights record.
  • Ensure that all aid or training programs for Egyptian criminal-justice officials contain a human rights component, and include issues of sexuality and sexual orientation in a way designed to eliminate prejudice and stigma.
  • Ensure that technological support or aid does not contribute to surveillance or persecution of vulnerable groups, such as men who have sex with men.

Detailed recommendations can be found in the conclusion to this report.

1 In many cases, Human Rights Watch has suppressed details from the case file, including the case number, to protect the identity of the victim. All court documents cited are on file at Human Rights Watch.

2 Human Rights Watch interview with Hossein (not his real name), Cairo, Egypt, March 4, 2003.

3 Among the extensive literature on the history of “homosexuality,” Michel Foucault's Histoire de Sexualite, vol. 1, La Volonte de Savoir (Paris: Sodis, 1976) remains the most significant statement. David Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love (London: Routledge, 1990) expands on Foucault's thesis, contrasting modern homosexuality to a Greek construction of sexuality bearing a strong resemblance to that—organized around axes of public/private and penetrator/penetrated—which has been identified as “Mediterranean” or “Middle Eastern” by some observers.

4 Joseph Massad, “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World,” Public Culture, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2002), pp. 361-85.

5 Literature on sexuality, and particular the construction of sexual “deviance,” in Arab societies is small but growing. Works worth attention include As'ad Abu Khalil, “A Note on the Study of Homosexuality in the Arab/Islamic Civilization,” Arab Studies Journal Vol.1, No. 2 (Fall 1993), pp. 32-34; Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, Sexuality in Islam (London: Routledge, 1985); Bruce Dunne, Sexuality and the “Civilizing Process” in Modern Egypt, unpublished doctoral dissertation submitted to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Georgetown University, 1996; Mai Ghoussoub and Emma-Sinclair-Webb, eds., Imagined Masculinities: Male Identity and Culture in the Modern Middle East (London: Saqi Books, 2000); Mervat Hatem, “The Politics of Sexuality and Gender in Segregated Patriarchal Systems: The Case of 18th- and 19th-Century Egypt,” Feminist Studies, Vol. 12 (1986), pp. 251-74; Deniz Kandiyoti, “The Paradoxes of Masculinity: Some Thoughts on Segregated Societies,” in Andrea Cornwall and Nancy Lindisfarne, eds., Dislocating Masculinity: Comparative Ethnographies (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 197-213; and Basim Musallam, Sex and Society in Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

6 Bruce Dunne, “Power and Sexuality in the Middle East,” Middle East Report, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring 1998), p. 8-11. Massad dissects the “inegalitarian” thesis in the best pages of his own article. Yet Massad also liberally criticizes both Western constructions of sexuality, and Western interpretations of Arab sexuality, as “inauthentic” to the region, without ever detailing what constructions bear the seals of indigeneity and authenticity. At times it appears that his vision of true, local sexual experience in the Arab world is a vast venue where men have sex a great deal without ever thinking about it. Such a place has never existed. Sex is too fraught with symbolic meaning ever to go unmediated, unconsidered, or unconstructed.

7 Thus one researcher finds that “notions of hegemonic masculinity” in Egyptian men are understood through, and undercut by, class and money: “poverty demasculinizes.” Kamran Asdar Ali, “Notes on Rethinking Masculinities: An Egyptian Case,” in Sondra Zeidenstein and Kirsten Moore, Learning About Sexuality: A Practical Beginning (New York: The Population Council, International Women's Health Coalition, 1996), p. 106.

8 Bruce Dunne, Sexuality and the “Civilizing Process” in Modern Egypt, unpublished doctoral dissertation submitted to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Georgetown University, 1996, p. 116.

9 One anthropologist says that in the urban districts of Cairo she studied, “Being branded a homosexual, bitaa' 'ir-rigaala, describes only those men who are the 'passive' partner … [People] use the term xawal to refer to homosexuals and use it as an insult against men when they want to challenge their masculinity.” Diane Singerman, Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics, and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 99.

10 See “Charged with Being Children: Egyptian Police Abuse of Children in Need of Protection,” A Human Rights Watch Report (February, 2003) for an analysis of one ongoing campaign.

11 Stanley Cohen seems to have coined the concept of moral panic: he argued that “Societies appear to be subject… to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person, or groups of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests. … The moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges and deteriorates, or becomes more visible.” Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of Mods and Rockers (New York: St. Martin's, 1980), p. 9. Gayle Rubin, in “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Henry Abelove, et al., eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1993) pp. 3-44, has applied the concept specifically to sexuality, as has Jeffrey Weeks in Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800 (New York: Longman, 1981).

12 Observers of the Queen Boat case often compared it to the “Satanist” scandal that had struck early in 1997, when dozens of teenagers in the Heliopolis district of Cairo, as well as in Alexandria—numbers given ranged from seventy-eight to ninety-seven—were arrested, most taken from their homes by State Security officers. Mostly children of middle-class or wealthy parents, they were accused of worshipping Satan in dance clubs and other venues playing heavy-metal music; their names and pictures were published. In that case, however, the youths were never charged, and were freed after a few months. The teenagers’ case parallels a mass persecution of working-class Shi’ites in the preceding year, in which religious dissent similarly took on Satanic hues. See James J. Napoli, “Cairo Communique: A Satanic Khamsin Blows Through Egypt,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,” April/May 1997; Philippa Nugent, “Satanic panic grips Cairo,” at (retrieved June 11, 2003); “Search for a Scapegoat in the Satanism Affair,” Cairo Times, March 6, 1997; and “Two weeks in the life of …an alleged devil-worshipper,” Cairo Times, April 17, 1997.

13 Hossam Bahgat, “Explaining Egypt’s Targeting of Gays,” Middle East Report Online, July 23, 2001, at (retrieved May 5, 2003).

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March 2004