He was standing in the lobby of the Marriot Hotel in Cairo, just in front of the reception desk, when I first laid eyes on him. A chubby, pleasant-looking man in his mid thirties, he wore a fashionable black turtleneck and a pony tail that set him apart from the conservative-looking Arab businessmen congregated in the opulent lobby. I nodded at him and flashed him a copy of NEWSWEEK, as we'd agreed on the telephone; he gave me a little smile of acknowledgment and followed me out the glass door and onto the banks of the Nile. As we stepped into a taxi for a trip across town to Cairo's bustling bazaar district, Horus, as he called himself, admitted that his pony tail was a risque statement in today's conservative Egypt. "People give me looks," he said, in near perfect English. "I'm now considered a 'suspect'."
These are perilous times to be gay in Egypt. During the past 12 months, a massive police crackdown against homosexual men has terrified the country's deeply closeted gay community and raised a chorus of criticism from human rights groups in Europe and America. Nobody knows how many gays are languishing in Egyptian jails--the number is certainly in the hundreds--or what prompted the massive dragnet. But because of the strict societal taboos against homosexuality, Egyptian human-rights groups have shunned such cases, leaving it to a handful of local gay activists to raise legal fees and provide other support. The work can be hazardous. Gay activists in Egypt risk ostracism, arrest and even violence. But for crusaders like Horus, one of perhaps a dozen Egyptians who has 'come out' to friends and family, heightening the world's awareness of human rights abuses takes priority over personal safety.
Born into an upper-middle-class Cairo family, Horus came out eight years ago, he told me, following a traumatic breakup with a longtime lover. The man had been a fellow performer in Horus's theater group in Cairo; but he was so ashamed of the relationship that he kept it a deep secret, refusing to let them be seen together in public. Eventually he left Horus, claiming that homosexuality was a "sin". At first, Horus felt betrayed and angry. "Then I thought to myself, 'how can I blame him when I'm doing the same thing he's doing?" he says, sipping thick Arabic coffee in an outdoor stall. " I also was hiding who I really am."
He first revealed his sexual identity to his theater colleagues, most of whom proved to be supportive. His immediate family was far less so. "My brother was very homophobic. He accused me of being sick, called me a faggot and told me I had to be treated by a psychiatrist." His father, a chemist at a Cairo university, responded by walking out of the room and refusing to discuss the subject further. (His mother had died years earlier) Even sympathetic relatives responded with a measure of denial: A favorite aunt still invites him to her house for social engagements--to meet available women. "She still believes that I just haven't met the right girl," he said with a resigned smile.
Gradually, his activism deepened. In 1999 Horus wrote and directed an experimental play for a Cairo theater called 'Harem'--a pun on the Arabic word 'Haram,' meaning forbidden--a semi autobiographical work dealing with homosexuality and other taboos. The play was praised by many Cairo critics and selected as a entry into an international theater competition in Europe. But some members of the Egyptian nomination committee called the work "immoral" and, after a heated debate, the play was withdrawn. Since then, Horus says, he has had difficulty finding financial support or a stage for his plays.
Even as his work in the theater dried up, he was finding a new identity. In 1998 Horus became the "moderator" of an Internet mailing list and chat room for homosexuals that caught on in the Cairo underground; within a year more than 800 subscribers had signed on.
The Internet brought Horus into contanct with other Egyptian gays who had similar stories of shame, self-loathing and deeply closeted lives. He encountered young men who had been locked out of their homes by their parents and forced to sleep on the streets, others whose fathers had savagely beaten them, some whose parents had forced them to seek psychiatric help so they could be "cured" of their "disease." At the same time, he discovered that his chat room was providing a desperately needed service: it was allowing gay men to be candid about their identities, to discuss their frustrations, and develop a support network of fellow gays. "There were three optimistic years when people were finding their way to us and other Web sites, and we started to have hope that maybe one day people will understand that we exist, that we are visible," he says.
Then came the crackdown. Apparently worried about spreading gay activism and anxious to placate its fundamentalist Muslim constitutency, the increasingly conservative regime of President Hosni Mubarak tightened the screws on Egypt's homosexuals. In 2000, Horus says "we started to hear about an Internet crimes department--set up mainly to trap gray men on the Internet." That year, two men who ran a gay Web site were arrested, convicted of various crimes and sentenced to lengthy jail terms. The government also intensified its harrassment and prosecution of gay men gathering in public places.
In 2000 eighteen homosexuals were convicted and jailed for two years following a dragnet of Cairo nightclubs and discotheques. Then in the spring of 2001, came the case that made headlines around the world and became a symbol of Egyptian intolerance: the arrest of 53 gay men at the Queen Boat floating discotheque on the Nile in Cairo, and their highly publicized trial last November before a special State Security Court normally used to prosecute suspected Islamic terrorists.
The Queen Boat case had a personal impact on Horus. Although he rarely attended parties on the boat, three of his closest friends were among those arrested that night. Within days, the Queen Boat case "took over my life," he says. He pressured reluctant attorneys to defend the arrested men, contacted their families, raised funds abroad via the Internet, followed the trial and wrote lengthy reports for international human-rights groups. He even took the dramatic step of appearing undisguised on CNN International to talk about the case. In the end, 22 of the defendants were convicted on charges ranging from defiling religion to debauchery; one was sentenced to five years in jail, while the others drew prison terms of between one and three years.
The last few months have left Horus feeling increasingly pessimistic. His Internet chat room has all but disbanded. Most of the gay men he knows are frightened and have stopped going out at night. Every day brings new stories of roundups of homosexuals in Cairo and other cities; several friends have been held for as long as sixty days without charges and beaten badly in prison.
Horus is now trying to arrange attorneys for eight suspected gays picked up in the Nile Delta city of Damanhur and charged, like the Queen Boat 52, with defiling religion and debauchery; last week police refused to allow the lawyers entrance into the prison where the suspects are being detained. "Egypt was one of the most open minded countries in the area, but now we are more conservative than any other," Horus said, leading me through the labyrinthine alleys of the bazaar. He flinches at the sight of a half dozen Egyptian security policemen making their rounds past souvenir stalls and coffee shops. "I get paranoid whenever I see the police these days," he admits.
He points to a cluster of burqa-wearing women gathered outside a mosque: "Look at that. A few years ago those women would have raised eyebrows in Cairo. Now, nobody pays attention. The fundamentalists are taking over this country."
Horus's increasingly high profile as a gay activist in Egypt has begun to earn him invitations abroad even as he finds himself at growing risk at home. Next week, he is flying to the United States to attend a human rights conference, after which he plans to tour the country for the first time. He says he has often contemplated leaving Egypt for good. "I'm going through ups and downs," he says. "One day I feel the country isn't safe for people like me. Other days I think I should stay and fight." At a taxi stand on the edge of Cairo's old city, Horus bids me farewell. "I try to stay hopeful," he tells me, shaking my hand. "But it's a very dark time right now."