Egyptian police arrested seven people on Thursday for “debauchery,” the charge routinely used against men accused of homosexuality, according to a report in the Egyptian tabloid Al-Youm el-Saba. The paper identified the seven as “transsexuals,” but details of the account could not be verified.
This is the first highly publicized arrest of allegedly gay or trans people since the January acquittal of 26 men arrested in a raid on a working-class bathhouse that was featured in a television broadcast purporting to tell “the whole story of the dens for spreading AIDS in Egypt.” Last week, an April trial was scheduled in a defamation suit against the reporter who made the program, Mona Iraqi, and the owner of the station that broadcast it, Tarek Nour of the Al-Qahera Wal Nas channel.
Major General Magdy Moussa of the Morality Police told Al-Youm el-Saba that the seven arrested Thursday were part of a “network for practicing debauchery” and had been targeted through social media. He claimed police had evidence the group had published naked photos, and said the government created fake pages online to catch “perverts.” They were arrested at a nightclub in Cairo, where police say they had arranged to meet men with whom they intended to have sex.
These arrests fit the template for busts of many allegedly gay men and trans women under a crackdown that began after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in 2013, and which the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights estimates has ensnared more than 150 people. An Interior Ministry official told BuzzFeed News in September that police were monitoring social media in part to target LGBT people, including monitoring closed Facebook groups for LGBT Egyptians. The hookup app Grindr posted a warning to users about police entrapment in September, but reports of specific arrests suggest that police are particularly monitoring sites with desktop platforms, such as Facebook, Manjam, and tsdating.com.
Scott Long, the founding director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT program, who has spent the past two years based in Cairo while working on a book, cast doubt on the police’s account in a lengthy blog post about the arrests. Long recounted “one version” of the arrests that he heard from unidentified sources that suggested the accused did not know each other before that night. However, Long told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview that his sources did not have direct knowledge of the arrests.
This arrest — and the special access police appeared to have given to Al-Youm el-Saba to sensationalize the bust — are a disappointment to human rights activists who had hoped that the acquittals in the bathhouse case would reign in the Morality Police and the news media. The fact that Iraqi claimed to have reported “gay sex parties” at the bathhouse to police and circulated images of the men being taken to the jail naked helped create unprecedented support for men charged with debauchery. For many, the case demonstrated that the Sisi regime had overreached in its efforts to establish control after he took power in 2013 with the media eagerly helping cement his rule.
Multiple editors of Egyptian outlets told BuzzFeed News that they were under pressure from the government to highlight the arrests of people for sex crimes. Despite the fact that the reporter and her network are now facing defamation charges for the bathhouse debacle, Al-Youm el-Saba posted video online of interviews with the individuals arrested Thursday apparently conducted in the police station.
“Some of us hoped the acquittal of victims in Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid would resonate longer than a few days or weeks; maybe prosecutors and police, humiliated by the implosion of a showpiece case, would back off from their pursuit of illusory ‘perversion.’” Long said in his blog post. “But that would be unlike this government. General Sisi, dizzy with his own powers, takes each failure as an opportunity to fail better.”