Since the night police stormed into a Cairo bathhouse and dragged out a group of near-naked men, Hassan Sherif fears a widening police crackdown on homosexuals in Egypt.
The 32-year-old gay man, who lives with his boyfriend in a Cairo apartment, feels they could be among the next targets of police action that activists say has intensified under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
“There is a constant fear and anxiety. I never had this kind of feeling in my life. Now you are afraid in your own home,” said Sherif, who did not give his real name for fear of retribution.
A doctor by profession, Sherif is still haunted by television images of the December 7 night-time raid on the public bathhouse.
Police targeted the hammam after television presenter Mona al-Iraqi tipped them off, saying the bathhouse had become a “den of male sex trafficking”.
Days later she aired the footage of the raid on The Hidden, a weekly programme shown on pro-regime private satellite channel Al-Qahira Wel Nas.
‘They are scaring us’
On Sunday, a Cairo court will hold the second hearing in the case of 26 men arrested for alleged debauchery amid accusations of homosexual activity at the public bath.
“I am innocent. I was in the hammam [bathhouse] for therapy, I swear in the name of Allah,” said a defendant as he wept inside the cage, indicating that he was in the steam room of the bathhouse to treat back pain.
“The police beat us every day and force us to sleep on our stomachs,” said another.
In another case, eight men were recently sentenced to one year in prison for broadcasting a video that prosecutors said was of a gay wedding on a Nile riverboat.
“The problem is not the family, or society,” said Sherif.
He pointed instead to the police, saying: “They are scaring us.”
Egyptian law does not expressly ban homosexuality, but gays have previously been arrested and charged with debauchery in a Muslim society that is deeply conservative.
The authorities have regularly conducted controversial forensic anal tests on detainees, and homosexuals have been jailed on charges ranging from “scorning religion” to “sexual practises contrary to Islam”.
Activists feel Sisi’s regime is targeting homosexuals with renewed force, with more than 150 people arrested since November 2013 for alleged debauchery and prostitution.
“There is a systematic security clampdown against homosexuals,” said researcher Dalia Abdel Hameed of the human rights watchdog Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“The state could be trying to prove that it’s more Islamic than the Islamists … or it could be a message to show the return of the police,” she said.
The police are also spearheading a deadly crackdown against supporters of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader who was ousted by then-army chief Sisi in July 2013.
Since then at least 1 400 people have died in the crackdown.
Bothaina Halim, a 34-year-old vivacious gay woman living in an upscale Cairo neighbourhood, is also extremely worried after the arrests of suspected gays.
“It shows that we are less protected than we think … We are the perfect target for the state,” said the aspiring writer who is in a serious relationship.
“For most Egyptians, homosexuality is a crime or a disease.”
Halim told her friends at 18 that she was a lesbian, but she refuses to discuss her sexuality with her family with whom she lives.
A report by the US-based PEW Research Centre said only three percent of Egyptians accept homosexuality.
‘State must ban filth’
“We are the punching bag for the state … The state is trying to show they are the guardians of Islam,” said Sherif.
“I remember a time when everyone used to go to the same parties, and hang out in the same places … Now we live in clusters,” he said, acknowledging that he had previously visited the Cairo bathhouse that was raided.
Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious seat of learning that is closely linked to the Egyptian bureaucracy, defends the police crackdown.
“There is a difference between freedoms and degeneration,” said Sheikh Abbas Shoman, a senior official at Al-Azhar.
“The state is not the guardian of religion, but it is the protector of religious values … If the state and the president don’t ban such filth, what is their job then?”
Halim sees a “super bleak” future for Egyptian gays.
“It’s a constant struggle to adjust not just in the space the state has allowed, but also within us to reaffirm … that we have the right to our own bodies,” said Halim. – AFP