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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 17:38 GMT 18:38 UK
Anger over Egypt gay trial
Cairo at night
The men were arrested at a floating night club
By Caroline Hawley in Cairo

The trial of 52 gay Egyptian men accused of offending religion and practising debauchery has attracted international concern, with gay demonstrations planned in other countries in protest.

The men were arrested in May when police raided a disco on the luxury Queen Boat, moored on the Nile in the Zamalek district of Cairo.

In all the Egyptian media they've been attacking homosexuals ... of course they don't mention the word 'homosexuals' - they say 'perverts'

'Horus', gay activist
Dozens of men without women partners were detained. Later, in custody, they were subjected to internal medical examinations to see if they had had gay sex.

The floating disco was a popular gay hang-out because - unusually for an Egyptian nightclub - it allowed men in alone.

It had been raided before but never on quite this scale. Now, the Queen Boat says it is under new management and has - emphatically - changed its entry policy.

No confusion

"Couples, couples, couples - man and woman," says the manager.

Filipino protester
The trial has triggered international protests
The clientele are also seemingly anxious to make clear that there was no confusion over their sexual identity:

"I am not gay, I am a man ... this is something that's not allowed under my religion," says one man.

"We are in Egypt and we have rules and we have religion. If you would like to do this then you can go to Europe, you can't do it in Egypt," he says.

In fact, Egyptian law does not criminalise homosexuality. The charge against the men, of practising debauchery, is usually used against prostitutes who are tried in criminal not state security courts.

Nigad Bor'ai, a pro-democracy activist, says there is not one article on the penal code against homosexuals.

He believes the case, at root, is an attempt by the authorities to deflect people's attention from other problems.

Diversion tactic

"We're facing a very, very bad economic situation. We're facing a very bad political situation. Then from time to time it's better for the government to divert attention from the real problems that they face," he says.

They used to say that we don't have homosexuals ... homosexuals are only in the West

'Horus', gay activist
Some gay Egyptians believe their increasing visibility on the internet may have prompted the authorities to act, but they say they also make an easy target.

Homosexuality is a major social and cultural taboo, and there is little sympathy on the street for the 52 men now on trial.

A cultural clash has now erupted between Egyptian and foreign human rights activists, who are disappointed that local groups have not wanted to get involved.

Hisham Kassem of the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation says that taking on gay rights could jeopardise other work, saying the government would use the issue to discredit pressure groups.

'Lurid accounts'

Human rights activists have also condemned the way the story has been handled by the Egyptian press.

Accused man arrives at court
The accused were subjected to medical examination
There were lurid accounts of what was alleged to have happened on the Queen Boat, including false reports of a gay wedding on board. The names and workplaces of the defendants were also put into print.

One gay activist has been monitoring the way the case has been reported.

To prevent himself being identified he now calls himself Horus, after a Pharaonic god who had an affair with his uncle.

"In all the Egyptian media they've been attacking homosexuals and describing them as agents of Israel and of course they don't mention the word 'homosexuals' - they say 'perverts'," he says.

Change of attitude

Horus says that as Egypt's gay community has come out on the web, there has been a change of attitude on the part of the authorities.

"They used to say that we don't have homosexuals ... homosexuals are only in the West. Just lately they started arresting homosexuals through the net by going to matchmakers websites and making dates with gay men and then arresting them," he says.

Now most of the mailing lists have closed down, and Horus says gay Egyptians, who can, are trying to leave the country.

An already stigmatised community has been pushed even further underground. With the current trial, more than 50 men could face up to three years behind bars.

See also:

15 Aug 01 | Middle East
'Extremist' gay trial resumes in Egypt
18 Jul 01 | Middle East
'Extremist' gay trial opens in Egypt
24 Jun 01 | Americas
Muslims step out at Gay Pride
08 Jun 01 | Middle East
Protest at Egypt 'gay detentions'
01 Apr 01 | Middle East
Dubai closes club after gay night
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