May 17 marks International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biophobia. While I’m not the biggest fan of global commemoration days, I admit that they do sometimes help to initiate discussions on the deplorable conditions people may face in certain countries. In the context of Egypt, May 17 provides an opportunity to discuss the situation for LGBT individuals.
In December 2014, an administrative court denied a Libyan national’s petition to challenge the Interior Ministry’s decision to deport him from Egypt, where he had resided on a tourist visa since 2006, and subsequently to bar him from reentering the country. The Interior Ministry issued his deportation after the prosecution decided not to pursue a conviction in debauchery charges that are believed to have been initially filed in relation to the man’s sexuality. While homosexuality is not explicitly criminalized under the Egyptian penal code, the statute pertaining to debauchery is often used to prosecute LGBT individuals. In effect, the court ruled that it is within the Interior Ministry’s jurisdiction to deport foreign nationals based on their sexuality, even without a criminal conviction.
As international human rights groups continue to try to combat discrimination against LGBT individuals, some members of Egypt’s rights community, particularly the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), have issued inflammatory anti-LGBT statements. Some rights advocates have supported the court’s ruling, claiming, “The ruling is consistent with religious and social norms. This ruling legitimizes the Interior Ministry’s commitment to uphold society’s morals and the integrity of its values.”
In addition to NCHR’s support, the ruling sets a dangerous legal precedent by placing the Interior Ministry above the law. It allows the interior minister to deport foreign nationals if he thinks their presence poses a threat to national security or public morals. But we don’t know exactly what threat the Libyan citizen posed to religious and social values. The public prosecutor ordered the man’s release without referring him to trial, suggesting that the debauchery charge was unsubstantiated, despite allegations made in the police report.
In its report, solicited by the presiding judge before his ruling, the Supreme Constitutional Courts’ commissioners recommended the court rule in favor of the plaintive on both formal and substantive grounds to overturn the order denying him entry to Egypt. The commissioners’ report argued that overriding the Interior Ministry’s decree would uphold the principle of individual freedom of movement. It also cautioned that allowing the ministry to exercise such broad discretionary power in granting residency to foreign nationals would give it absolute power that is no longer subject to judicial review.
The judge in the case disregarded the evidence and the recommendations from commissioners. In his ruling, he stated that the plaintiff was “a sexual deviant who engages in debauchery in his home for material gain.” Since the plaintiff was not convicted by an Egyptian criminal court, this assertion was based solely on the fact that he was charged. Is an accusation from the Interior Ministry now tantamount to an official court ruling?
The legal history of debauchery cases in Egypt demonstrates that police often fabricate charges against individuals without evidence. To rely solely on police reports as evidence disregards an individual’s right to justice. One need only cast a cursory glance at the police report in the Ramses Bathhouse case to see the extent of the fabrication. In December 2014, security forces allowed TV anchor Mona Iraqi to film a police raid on a public bathhouse that police claimed was a hub for same-sex activity in downtown Cairo’s Ramses area. In the raid, police arrested 26 men. During the ensuing trial, one of the defense attorneys argued that the police report was implausible. According to a press release by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), “the Head of Investigations Unit in the Vice Police Department, Cairo Security Directorate, gave a detailed testimony about the sexual positions exercised by the suspects at the time of arrest. These allegations were denied by all defendants — and were later disproven.” In the end, the judge acquitted all defendants in the case and denied the prosecution’s request for appeal.
There are two entailments that follow from the court’s decision to uphold the Interior Ministry’s deportation order. It not only stokes homophobia, but also fuels hostility toward foreign nationals. Many people fear that police may abuse this authority to deport foreigners whose political activity or opinions it dislikes for one reason or another. This authority could very easily become a tool to punish “troublesome” foreigners whom the state judges to be unwanted.
Of course, the wider context of the ruling cannot be ignored. Since late 2013, police have arrested dozens of people for alleged debauchery. While human rights groups have documented the flagrant police abuses inflicted upon detainees, ranging from beatings and humiliation to sexual harassment and threats of sexual violence, the crackdown on those suspected to be part of the LGBT community has also been accompanied by sensational media coverage. In a show of utter contempt for the safety and security of those arrested, media reports often grossly infringe on individuals’ private lives. To take one example, many newspapers and online media platforms published the Libyan national’s passport number, home address, place of study and other private details. Such violations may seem trivial, but they often have grave consequences for the individuals involved who have lost their right to privacy and thus should be treated as crimes.
When the information that people have been implicated in debauchery cases is publicized, they typically lose their jobs and may be expelled from their homes. The public shame has led some to attempt suicide. One of the defendants acquitted in the bathhouse case attempted to set himself on fire after the conclusion of the trial.
The rabid media assault on LGBT individuals gives credence to the widespread, but erroneous, public belief that homosexuality is a crime in Egypt. Egyptian law criminalizes debauchery, which is legally defined as sexual activity between one man and multiple sexual partners in exchange for material gain. Homosexuality is not a crime.
This article has been translated and edited for clarity. You can read the original Arabic here.