This photo taken in 2001 of some of those arrested in the Queen Boat case arriving for court and trying to hide their faces.
On Saturday charges were brought against fourteen “suspects” into allegations that they engaged in homosexual acts. They were arrested at what media outlets described as a “medical centre” in Marg, a poor overcrowded neighbourhood in North East Cairo.
However the place might be better described as a small hammam complex situated in a narrow cul de sac – around a fifteen minute walk west from the metro. From memory and a quick look at Google Earth I think it’s possible that it lies just off Al Khulafa Al Rashideen street.
It was not usually very busy, with a few lockers, a small changing room and just one small traditional hammam area as well as a small shower and a couple of rest areas. The price for entry was modest – just a few Egyptian pounds.
As you would expect, there was no obvious outward indication that it was designed for gay men to meet each other – nothing mentioned on the internet and not even a discrete rainbow flag anywhere.
On the occasions I visited, some while ago, there was never any sign of any sexual activity on site although it was obviously “gay friendly” and it was easy to meet people there.
It was also regarded very much as a home for many regular gay customers who could find few places elsewhere in Cairo where they could be themselves and laugh and joke together. Presumably the police have known about the location for years but had opted for tolerance over repression – even under the Islamist Morsi regime.
But years of tolerance have now come to a sudden end. The authorities are charging the Marg fourteen with “homosexual acts” and some media reports are suggesting these took place within the centre although it’s not entirely clear whether they are alleged to have taken place inside the complex or elsewhere.
The entrance to the establishment is small and the hammam and rest areas are accessed after a corridor so it would have been difficult for a raid to have caught anyone in the act even assuming sexual activities were taking place on site – more likely the charges have just been invented.
This is possibly the reason that those detained, who vary in age between eighteen and fifty seven, now face the horror of forced “medical” examinations in order to “prove” that such acts took place.
Authorities have ordered the closure of the centre and those arrested will be detained for four days prior to their next hearings before a magistrate. A quantity of drugs and “sexual stimulants” were allegedly found on site.
Life for the gay community in Egypt has never been easy – with most gays living in constant fear of discovery by relatives or employees – however in the last ten years there hasn’t been a high profile case of mass arrests until now.
The charges may turn out to be the largest such case since those against 52 men for alleged homosexual acts after the 2001 Queen Boat raid.
One can clearly see the motive for these arrests. The Government is yet again attempting to distract people from focusing on the real and serious issues facing the country and instead blame anyone, except itself, for Egypt’s current economic and political crisis.
It’s interesting but also depressing that the recent raid did not take place under Morsi’s Islamist presidency, but under the stewardship of the avowedly more secular minded military. However the generals are keen to stamp a fascist uniformity on society with absolutely no tolerance for “sexual deviants” who they would see as undermining Egyptian manhood.
The government may also wish to prove that it has not forgotten “Islamic values” in the hope that it might yet win over the support of Islamist groups and voters, not otherwise aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.
It must be a terrifying time for those arrested. God knows what threats of exposure they are facing and who can imagine what types of humiliating torture they may have to endure while they remain in custody.
How will Western governments and human rights organizations inside and outside Egypt react to this if the charges are pressed and the men convicted and sentenced ? We can only hope that Egyptian human rights activists as well as those outside Egypt, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, will take up this case strongly.