Taher (not his real name) was eighteen, a law student, and terrified when I met him. One of his best friends had just been arrested, charged with consensual homosexual conduct—a crime under Egyptian law. Taher himself knew first-hand what can happen when power and prejudice meet. A policeman who stopped him for walking too “effeminately” through one of Cairo’s main squares had raped him a year before.
I talked to Taher while I was working in Egypt in early 2003. Then he fell silent for a long time. I now know that a few weeks ago—on February 17, 2004—Taher went to meet someone he had encountered on the Internet, through a website where gay men place personal ads. The man who had answered his ad seemed kind and trustworthy, and Taher was desperately lonely. At their meeting place on a street in Cairo’s trendy Heliopolis district, he was arrested. His date had been an undercover policeman.
Taher is in a Cairo jail as I write, facing a three-year sentence for the crime of merely wanting to have sex with another man. Friends who talked to him through the bars of a courtroom cage say prisoners and guards have beaten him severely.
Since early 2001, hundreds of men have been arrested in Egypt on suspicion of having sex with other men. The best-known case saw 52 men tried before a repressive state security court ordinarily used for terror suspects and political prisoners. Yet innumerable others have been seized and abused. I spent over three months in Egypt last spring, interviewing dozens of men and documenting the crackdown. Human Rights Watch has shown how police use wiretaps and cast a net of informers to capture victims. Undercover officers trawl Internet websites and chatrooms used by gay men, arrange meetings, and arrest them. Police accuse the men of fronting for foreign influences—sometimes insinuating their sexuality amounts to espionage.
Victims face brutal torture. Men arrested for homosexual conduct in Egypt have told me how they were whipped, bound, and suspended in agonizing positions, splashed with ice- cold water, and beaten by guards—or raped by other prisoners with the guards’ connivance. One man showed me his limbs scarred by cigarette burns; he described being electro-shocked on the hands, feet, and genitals. “I want to scream,” he said. “I want to cry. I can’t let it out.”
Egyptian officials have one refrain when confronted about the brutality of the campaign. Last year, Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Maher abd al-Wahid, told me: “We are dedicated to protecting society against perversion, from a religious, social, and cultural point of view. This kind of conduct”—that of the tortured, not the torturers—”is simply not accepted.”
Egypt’s crackdown may be extreme in its sweep, scope, and ferocity. But it reflects a growing trend in which sexuality becomes a battleground for other contested issues. In Zimbabwe, faced with a collapsing economy and the unraveling of his regime, President Robert Mugabe has for years used homosexuals as both scapegoat and distraction, calling them agents of foreign imperialism and “worse than dogs and pigs.” In Russia, politicians have threatened to revive Stalin-era sodomy laws.
In many ways this rhetoric reflects a real powerlessness. Governments face a world dominated by a single superpower, where capital flows allot prosperity or misery almost randomly, and mock the permeability of national laws and borders. Their own fears of vulnerability—their feelings of political penetrability—are translated into a different form of customs control. States no longer able to ensure their citizens’ welfare police cultural borders with increasing brutality—a cost-free way of reasserting control.
At the United Nations Commission on Human Rights next month, countries will debate a ground-breaking resolution declaring that basic human rights cannot be denied on the basis of sexual orientation. A marriage of convenience between Islamic states and the Vatican is already preparing a furious charge against the resolution—calling it a tool of Western imperialism. It seems the “culture wars” are now a global phenomenon.
Scott Long is director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Project at Human Rights Watch, and author of In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct (see www.hrw.org-lgbt).