CAIRO—Mohamed was sitting in the steam room nursing his bad back when dozens of Egypt’s black-clad police officers burst into the downtown Cairo bathhouse with a TV crew in tow and started to arrest everyone. A few days before, friends of the married father of two had recommended the Turkish spa as treatment for his long-term joint and muscle troubles. The nighttime visit had proved to be a disastrous mistake.
Heavily armed riot police herded dozens of terrified men dressed in just the spa’s checkered towels through the changing rooms into waiting trucks. Some who were wearing clothes were forced to strip half-naked in front of the TV crew that kept filming, even as the prisoners tried to cover their faces.
Mohamed found himself swept along with others in the chaos. In the corner, Egyptian TV presenter Mona Iraqi quietly recorded the horrific raid on her iPhone, photos she gleefully posted on her public Facebook page later that evening.
The Dec. 7 raid, in which 26 men were detained, was the single largest mass arrest of alleged gays the country has seen in decades. The last time there was a raid of this scale was in 2001, when 52 men were arrested on Queen Boat, a floating disco on the Nile. The resulting trial in that case sparked an international uproar and marred Egypt’s human-rights record forever.
“I’m not gay, I’m married with kids. I wasn’t doing anything illegal in that bathhouse, I was just sitting there,” Mohamed told his lawyer from his prison cell. But now his life is in tatters—he is facing prison time, he could lose his job, his reputation is in ruins, and his family has been publicly humiliated.
All 26 men were in court last week charged with “debauchery,” all of them subjected to humiliating forensic “anal checks” to determine their sexuality.
Since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the authorities have launched the harshest crackdown on the LGBT community since the days of toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, as the country’s “morality police” look to boost their popularity ratings with the conservative Egyptian public.
There have been at least 50 cases similar to the bathhouse raid in the last 18 months, human-rights groups estimate. This means more than 150 gay and transgender people are languishing in the country’s jail cells despite the fact that, technically, homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt.
These days the Egyptian pro-regime media are increasingly colluding with the security forces who invite them to broadcast the raids—even thought that’s illegal. In Mohamed’s case, TV host Iraqi instigated the bust: She had sent undercover camera crews to the bathhouse weeks before to spy on the men and reportedly alerted the police to what she claimed was a “den of inequity.”
“She worked together with the police—it was a publicity stunt and without her the arrests simply wouldn’t have happened,” said Scott Long, a rights activist closely following the cases.
The only repercussions Iraqi has faced are outside of Egypt, as she lost her place in an upcoming Swiss Film Festival, he added.
“Internationally there has been a lot of horror and contempt for her actions, domestically very little,” he said.
The 26 were beaten by the bailiffs as they filed into a caged dock, sobbing, on Dec. 21. Through the chaos, as police tried to drown out the screams of the distraught families, one of the defendants said they had been badly beaten in detention and forced to sleep on their stomachs.
The trial was postponed until Jan. 4.
Mohamed’s lawyer, who works for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and has represented many other men sent to trial on similar charges, has little hope they will be acquitted.
“It’s extremely frustrating—for a start, we cannot defend them as we still don’t have the case files or know the proper charges. And it comes after several similar cases where people have been jailed on no evidence,” Mohamed Bakir told me after the hearing.
Just last month, eight men were sentenced to three years in jail for appearing in a video the judge said depicted the country’s first gay marriage. In the 60-second clip posted on YouTube, two men wearing tuxedoes exchanged rings, hugged and kissed on the cheek while their friends partied in the background on a Nile riverboat.
They were found guilty of practicing habitual debauchery and inciting others to sexual deviance because of the footage.
“There is nothing whatsoever in the video which supports the charges—it shows no criminal activity,” Bakir said.
The eight appealed the verdict, which was reduced to one year in prison this week but it should have been an acquittal, the lawyer added.
The televised raids—broadcast on national television to dramatic cop-show music— and high-profile court cases are driving the terrified community further underground. The younger members, who, under toppled President Morsi, had felt secure enough to start a fledging gay-rights movement on social media, now say it is too dangerous to even meet online.
The police have stepped up their Internet surveillance capabilities, forcing gay dating apps like Grindr to warn their members about publishing addresses or phone numbers on their profiles. They even switched off their location service—one of the main perks of the program.
“It’s terrifying and crazy—to know that you are targeted by your own government for committing no crime other than being sexually different,” said Amr Ahmed, a young gay man who has frequently visited the bathhouse where the men were arrested.
The 25-year-old student said it was one of the few safe meeting venues left for the poorer members of the community who cannot afford the expensive bars in Cairo’s wealthier districts, where the police are paid to turn a blind eye.
He said the new collaboration of the media with the police was the most worrying development as it meant, aside from a few human-rights lawyers, there is no one left to hold the security apparatus to account and to protect the vulnerable community.
“Mona Iraqi is responsible for 25 families losing their lives,” he said, speaking figuratively. “In my eyes she killed those people… exposing a gay person like this is akin to torturing him slowly to death.”
“It’s simple, we are being hunted—and that, apparently, makes good TV. But it’s not journalism, if anyone has committed a crime it is her,” said Ahmed.
Iraqi faced an enormous backlash internationally for her actions, which she justified by saying the footage was part of a series of programs aimed at educating the population on the spread of AIDS.
Egypt has a comparatively low number of HIV cases compared to the rest of Africa, with just 11,000 infected people nationwide. But according to UNICEF, there is a rising HIV epidemic in vulnerable communities, including among men who have sex with men and for intravenous drug users.
Iraqi claimed in her lugubrious “exposé” that the bathhouse was a hotbed for HIV transmission—a statement human-rights workers fear will misguide the public, as more than 70 percent of HIV transmissions in Egypt occur through heterosexual sex.
“There hasn’t been any attempts by the Ministry of Health to distance themselves from what she said or to spread accurate information,” said activist Long. “It is extremely damaging to HIV education and to the cause of human rights in general, as it shows the government is willing to sell out people’s privacy for the sake of publicity.”
Gay-rights activists, who risk their lives to defend the community, say Iraqi and other journalists like her should face criminal charges for breaking the law by filming the raid and for spreading false information about HIV.
“We need to have clear rules about what is allowed to be posted on media channels—we get crazy people saying non-scientific statements every day, it’s dangerous,” said Ramy Youssef, a young gay man who has bravely started an online campaign against jailing of homosexuals in an attempt to educate the public and undo the damage. The campaign’s most recent hashtag—“stop informer journalists”—encouraged participants to copy in Mona Iraqi’s Twitter account to hammer home the message.
Operations like Iraqi’s TV show will also make it harder for aid workers to reach out to the vulnerable population for testing, treatment, or awareness of HIV.
Youssef, who came out publicly on social media in 2012, said the police are trying to “suffocate” all the places where LGBT community members can meet, because they are an easy target.
“The community is very vulnerable—it is the weakest link in society. Whenever the government gets bad press, they say let’s go for the gays. It diverts people’s attention from what is really happening,” he said.
Youssef says he believes the latest crackdown is part of the current military-backed leadership’s plan to prove it is more Islamic than the one that Islamists ousted in 2013, while bolstering the popularity of the police force, which lost favor with the people after the 2011 revolution.
Jailing homosexuals accused of “sexual pervasion” is a convenient way for the regime to present itself as reputable and a caretaker of public morals.
Youssef said the jailings are not only driving the community underground but pushing many to move abroad.
“Nowhere is safe for us now,” he said, “We have simple dreams to have a partner, a house, to be able to go to a gay bar, but none of these are options in Egypt now,” he said.