Cairo's moral panic

On December 7, the police raided one of Cairo’s few working hammams, a run-down bathhouse in the center of the city where gay men sometimes cruised. They marched over twenty nearly naked, cowering patrons out into the street. A female reporter, Mona El Iraqi, and her investigative team instigated and filmed the raid for a program called “El Mustaghabi” (”The Hidden”). She defended her actions by saying she was trying to raise awareness on World HIV Day. The men have been subjected to anal examinations, which supposedly can determine if they are gay. They have been charged with prostitution and debauchery. 

This is just the latest, most shocking instance of what has now become the biggest crackdown in years on gay and transgender people. 

The authorities have also shut down some noisy street-side cafes in Downtown. A month after one venue was closed an official described it as an “atheists’ café,” whose customers also allegedly worshipped Satan.  Presumably said this was said to aggrandize the raid and to justify it. It also sustains a politically useful narrative about the kids hanging out Downtown — those same “revolutionary” ones — being troublemakers and worse. Some of the local media was happy to expand on the theme. A special report by El Watan about “The Street of Apostates’” in Cairo was sub-titled: “Violence and Drugs and Politics and Atheism.” Meanwhile, inviting (presumably terribly naive) atheists on TV only to yell at them, threaten them, kick them off the platform, call their mothers, or diagnose them as psychologically imbalanced remains prime entertainment. Men of religion recently got in on the act, announcing their concern over Egypt’s alleged 886 atheists (a mysteriously precise number that elicited a certain amount of skepticism and hilarity). 

When I was in Cairo recently I also heard that the Greek Club, a Downtown institution, has lost its liquor license. There are rumors that Horreya, a historic bar where in patrons drink Stella beers under high whitewashed ceilings, will be raided soon. 

Some have suggested that President Sisi and his men are trying, through these moral clean-up campaigns, to bolster their religious credentials — to appeal to pious Muslims and show that the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t born of anti-Islamic animus . But I’m not convinced this regime needs to compete for that sort of legitimacy. And there’s nothing particularly Islamist about targeting gays or atheists; this kind of bigotry in Egypt is deep and cuts across social classes and political ideologies. 

There are other explanations. First of all, the mercenary ones. What happened to the wallets and cell phones of the men arrested in the raid on the bathhouse? I would bet you they never saw them again. What does a cafe or bar in Downtown Cairo have to pay in bribes to operate freely, to take over the sidewalk, to have the noise complaints of neighbors ignored, let alone to keep a liquor license? Businesses that exist on the edge of social approval are easy pickings for extortion. 

Furthermore, the way I see it, in the summer of 2013 a terrible mechanism was put into motion. In this mechanism, the media generates hysteria, and the security sector produces repression. This mechanism now continues to run, although its primary target — taking the Muslim Brotherhood out power, putting the military into it, and undermining the aspirations of January 25 2011 — has been accomplished. But journalists still have to report about something, and the country’s economic problems, human rights abuses, and the conduct of its war on terrorism are all out of bounds. Other kinds of headlines are needed. Meanwhile, the police has a dangerously free hand. Officers want to show their zeal, to assert their presence, and to seize opportunities for advancement and profit. And the entire political zeitgeist requires threats. If these happen to be imaginary threats, or even in fact the opposite of threats — society’s most vulnerable minorities and “deviants” camouflaged as threats— all the better. It makes trumpeting the state’s efforts to fight them and its victories against them all the easier.   

There is a moral crisis in Egypt today: It’s the way the powers that be are encouraging and empowering all of society’s lowest, worst tendencies.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.