CAIRO — Coverage inside Egypt of people arrested on charges of homosexuality has skyrocketed as a direct result of government pressure, with one editor going so far as to say it is happening under "instructions" from the state.
"These are instructions from the state apparatus" to cover sex scandals and other "silly" issues, Ibrahim Monsour, editor-in-chief of a leading Egyptian liberal newspaper, the Tahrir News, told BuzzFeed News.
Monsour said he believed the government wanted coverage of arrests for homosexuality and other "morality" charges in order to distract from political stories that could expose how the government had betrayed the hopes of the revolution that toppled the 30-year rule of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
"The regime is claiming that they represent the revolution and none of the revolution's demands have been met," Monsour said. News outlets, eager to keep their share of the market, have eagerly picked up the government's line also because it serves their financial interests — sex sells, and it can continue drawing readers when the hot-button political topics are off-limits. "Unfortunately, money talks," he said. "The problem is that there is no decency, no conscience among the people who work in the field."
Direct evidence of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's office seeking to dictate coverage to the media surfaced this week in the form of a phone call taped during his presidential campaign that leaked online. In it, Sisi's office manager, General Abas Kamal, is heard instructing spokesperson Ahmed Ali to give orders to journalists about what to say about Sisi.
For many in Cairo, the arrest of 26 men accused of participating in a "gay sex party" at a working-class bathhouse in December was an especially egregious example of the close relationship that has developed between the media and the Sisi regime.
In a Facebook post on Dec. 7, 2014, a television presenter named Mona Iraqi claimed to have reported what she called Cairo's "biggest den of perversions" to the police, and she rushed to publish pictures as the men were dragged naked to the police station. Even some writers at outlets that generally write approvingly of such arrests said Iraqi's involvement in this case crossed the line.
Those men were finally brought to trial last week. The court's surprise decision to dismiss the charges brought a faint hope to human rights and democracy activists that it could force the press to re-examine its relationship to the Sisi regime as it extends its power deeper into Egyptians' everyday lives.
"That cooperation between the police and the media, I think it was supposed to sensationalize the public against LGBT people," said Dalia Abd El-Hameed, a member of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights group whose attorneys handled the defense of 14 of the defendants. Instead, common Egyptians — especially the working-class Egyptians who rely on neighborhood bathhouses like this one for their bathing needs — actually sympathize with the accused. A clear sign that this case was being received differently than other homosexuality charges was the fact that many family members of the defendants came to the trial. In other cases, families tried to distance themselves from the scandal.
"They are articulating it as this is a battle against the state, which is fabricating these charges against these people," El-Hameed said.
The courtroom was packed with supporters when the judgment was handed down on Monday, and they didn't hide their anger toward the police or the press.
"I think it mattered that people said, 'No, you went too far,'" El-Hameed said.
Before the judge handed down his ruling, the families' anger at the press exploded as the defendants were dragged from the back of the packed courtroom shackled together at the wrist. Half of the court's pew-like benches were stuffed with reporters, and the defendants stumbled as they desperately tried to pull hats or scarves over their faces. Cameras were banned in the room, but one of the defendants thought he saw a reporter snap a picture with his cell phone as the men were locked in a metal cage at the front of the courtroom before the trial began.
"Infidel!" he yelled, and suddenly almost everyone in the room was screaming. It took several minutes for the police to calm the uproar.
The shouting was even louder after the judge quietly pronounced the men not guilty. (Several reporters snapped photos of the defendants in this chaos, which generally went unnoticed by the ecstatic relatives.) The defendants and their families joyously cried, "Alahu akbar!" — God is great — but after the relief had subsided they began shouting for the press. Relatives gathered in a circle in the courtroom's trash-strewn lobby and punched the air, chanting, "Where are the press? Here are the real men!"
They not only wanted reporters to clear their families' names, but they wanted to hold the press accountable, or at least the reporter at the center of this case. One relative at the hearing who gave his name as Mahmoud told BuzzFeed News that he wouldn't rest until Mona Iraqi was behind bars, along with the morals officer who led the raid, Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad.
"We will not leave Mona Iraqi.... We will not leave Ahmed Hashad," he said. "If I have to sell the furniture in my house to bring a case [against Iraqi] to send her to jail, I will not let her rest until the end of her life."
Iraqi was in Paris when the verdict was announced. She portrayed the trip as a vacation on her Facebook page, but critics widely speculated it was timed to avoid further backlash. She returned to Cairo later in the week and initially agreed to speak with BuzzFeed News, but did not show up for a meeting and did not answer several subsequent calls or text messages.
The scene outside the court was profoundly different from the one at Egypt's last mass trial for homosexuality in 2001, when 52 men were put on trial in a case identified by the name of the floating nightclub where some of them were arrested, the Queen Boat. Then, almost all of the families washed their hands of the accused because homosexuality was such a toxic charge, said Scott Long, founding director of Human Rights Watch's LGBT program, who first came to Cairo to document that trial and has lived in the city for the past two years while working on a book. In the one unusual case where a mother wanted to come show her support for her son, he was so ashamed that he instructed lawyers not to tell her where the trial was being held.
"The [bathhouse] case has become a kind of fulcrum for different kinds of people to say 'no' to different kinds of oppression from the regime," Long said. "The families were acting out a small-scale resistance in the courtroom by insisting the system was the offender, not their children. Meanwhile, for many activists, the case also became a way to show resistance to the regime's control over the media and over public discourse. It's a small case in itself against the many monstrosities going on in Egypt, but it's had big echoes."
The ruling seemed to agree with the overwhelming sentiment in the press that Iraqi had gone too far in this case, even by the standards of outlets that regularly rush to sensationalize sex charges. Prosecutors have appealed the acquittal, and the dynamic could change if an appeals court reverses the lower court's ruling and sends the men to prison. But if the ruling stands and the families succeed in bringing Iraqi to court, it could draw an important boundary for the press under Sisi even if it doesn't create a sea change in coverage.
"I hope that she goes to jail," said Mohammed El-Desoky Roshdy, editor of the print edition of al-Youm el-Saba, a tabloid that critics consider very sympathetic to the regime and that devotes some of the most extensive coverage to charges of homosexuality. "She deserves to be jailed. She destroyed reputations, and she broke all the ethical rules of journalism."
Roshdy said his publication would not back off in covering these cases, however.
"We will keep speaking and writing about what we think it's our freedom to write about," he said. "There are well-known codes when you deal with criminals, no faces, no names. But we can discuss these cases, and the readers have a right to know about them."
Contrary to Roshdy's assertion, BuzzFeed News found multiple cases in which al-Youm el-Saba published the pictures of people accused in criminal cases with faces clearly visible or with eyes blacked out but still easily identifiable. But Iraqi did more than publish their faces — she showed the men nearly naked as they were taken from the bathhouse, an extreme insult to their honor in a place where nudity is very sensitive.
Roshdy disputed the claim that the government was pressuring the media to steer clear of politics to cover sex scandals — in fact, he disputed that they're writing about sex more than they did before the revolution. Instead, he said they write about sex scandals because sex sells, and it's just more noticeable because political stories are less exciting since protests have subsided.
"We can never say there is no freedom of speech," Roshdy said. "It is not somebody came and said, 'Talk about this, don't talk about that.'…. If we have one headline saying '30 Dead at Mohamed Mahmoud [Street protest]' versus 'Prostitutes [Arrested] in Giza,' would you read the story about the prostitutes?"
But Ahmed Rageb, the editor of the online edition of El-Masry el-Youm, Egypt's largest newspaper, said it didn't take direct orders for media to get the memo on shifting their coverage to accommodate the Sisi regime. The shift to cover sex scandals was largely driven by television talk shows chasing audiences while covering permissible subjects. Sex is just the best way to grab eyeballs if politics is off-limits, and it also conveniently fits the story that Sisi is telling about his quest to make Egypt a moral leader in the region.
"They understood that this is the wave of the regime, and they flow with the current," Rageb said. "They by their feeling got that the regime [sees itself as] more 'ethical' and more 'moral.'… When genuine hot [political] topics disappear, don't be surprised when other 'hot topics' replace it. There will always be another [morals] case."
Human rights activists are hoping that Rageb is wrong. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights estimates that at least 150 people have been arrested on charges of homosexuality since the military brought Sisi to power in 2013. Beginning around October of that year, the country's morality police — an office created during the one-year rule of Sisi's democratically elected predecessor, President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood — began stepping up enforcement of the country's law against "debauchery." Assuming the bathhouse ruling isn't overturned on appeal later this month, activists hope the morality police are sufficiently embarrassed by this case that it will back off arresting people on homosexuality charges.
But El-Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said it is hard to predict how the department will respond — it could easily increase arrests as a result.
"We hope it's the end of the crackdown," she said, but "the state might get more aggressive — you never know."
The people who fight these cases in court are hoping that the ruling at least will encourage trial courts to look more closely at the evidence. Charges of homosexuality are sometimes struck down on appeal, but courts almost always convict when they first take up a case.
The ruling "means that the rule of law still exists in our country," one of the lawyers for the defendants, Tarek el-Awady, told BuzzFeed News outside the courtroom on Monday.
But without a substantial change in both the courts and the press, the simple act of being charged with homosexuality could still be enough to destroy a person's life and the lives of family members who are perceived as being dishonored. The public consequences of being accused of homosexuality in Egypt are generally pretty close to being convicted.
One 22-year-old man told his story to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity: He was arrested with four others in a sting in May 2013. A police officer posed as a client and set up a date with the man's transgender partner after finding her number on a website where trans sex workers advertise, TSdating.com. Police planted evidence, acted without a warrant, and invented a story about walking in on two couples having sex in the apartment, the man said.
A judge ultimately threw out the charges. But that was only after another judge found them guilty and meted out sentences ranging from four to twelve years. They spent six months behind bars while their case was in the system.
"This ruined my life," the man said. "I lost almost a year of my life, I can't get a job, and I'm too scared to talk to anyone, even other gay people. I'm afraid of the same thing happening all over again."