Egyptians and foreigners alike criticized a crackdown on gays in a country where homosexuality is legal, following a raid on a public bathhouse in Cairo.
Writing in The Guardian, long-time Middle East watcher Brian Whitaker, who has written books about marginal groups in the region such as gays and atheists, compared the raid to other incidents in recent Egyptian history. In times of upheaval, the government often seeks to assert itself as the guardian of public decency, in order to outflank other claims to Islamic legitimacy by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, and to distract from more serious sources of public unrest.
As reported by Egypt Independent, the raids were triggered by a TV journalist named Mona Iraqi, who hosts a investigative show called “Al-Mustakhabi” (“The Hidden”). Iraqi tried to enter the bathhouse on Sunday with a cameraman, claiming it was a center of gay activity, and when denied entry by the management she called the police. The show then filmed and broadcast the ensuing police crackdown, which ultimately led to the arrest of 33 men, including customers and employees.
Though she initially bragged on Facebook of having brought down a “den of group sex,” Iraqi later justified the incident by connecting it to World AIDS Day (December 1) and an effort to promote safe sex — a subject that is notably absent from education in much of the Arab world. Newspaper Al-Shorouk pointed out that Egypt’s Health Ministry estimates the national AIDS infection rate at a mere 4,325 cases in a country of over 82 million.
Homosexuality has long been a social taboo in Arab countries, even those like Egypt with secular governments. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center last year, just 3% of Egyptians believe their society should accept homosexuality.
While homosexuality is not outlawed in Egypt, authorities there have occasionally used prohibitions on “debauchery” and “offending public decency” to crack down on the country’s small, underground gay scene. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, Egypt’s media and security sectors both promote racy coverage of “perverse” activity in the country in order to bolster their own reputation among a conservative public. Police often infringe on the rights of the accused, publicizing their identities and sometimes their addresses before they are even sentenced.
Egyptian headlines were indeed full of sensational photographs of the arrest, as well as allegations of wild orgies inside the facility, referring to the incident as an “investigation of public morality.” Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian journalist and human rights activist, called the incident “the worst moment in the history of journalism.”
Traditional bathhouses, called hammams, are a well-regarded element of many Middle Eastern cultures, and comparable to ancient Roman thermae, Scandinavian saunas, Russian banyas or Korean jjimjilbangs. They are not generally associated with homosexual behavior or sexual activity, though Western gay culture’s link between bathhouses and casual sex may have inspired some hammams to serve as a “safe space” for often discreet gay Arab communities in recent decades.
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