Cairo 52

by by Marc Briz

In between Cairo's high-rise hotels and dusty highways, riverboats lie anchored along the Nile, pumping Egyptian pop songs and multi-colored lights. On a Thursday night, a group of policemen entered the Queen Boat that was moored in the upper-class, palm-lined district of Zamalek. At the floating nightclub, the officers arrested 30 men and placed them in two cramped cells with 22 other men picked up off the street. All 52 men were suspected of homosexual conduct, and from May 2001 to 2003, they were subject to public condemnation, denial of their basic civil liberties, and torture.

On May 11, 2001, the 52 men were tried for suspected consensual gay sex acts. The episode is referred to as the Queen Boat Trial, or the Cairo 52. International media called it a massive attack on human rights. The incident involved swift denunciations from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations. The trial dragged on for three years, with numerous convictions, acquittals, and verdicts overturned. A retrial ended in March 2003 with two men still serving their original sentence of five years of hard labor, 21 men serving three-year sentences, and 29 acquitted. Human Rights Watch understands the difference between sentencing as arbitrary and sentencing as testament to the Egyptian court’s mistreatment.

John, a 24-year-old living in Cairo who self-identifies as gay, called the episode “an injustice,” yet the Egyptian populace at the time widely approved of the trial as a consequence of religious tradition and political maneuvering by the Mubarak government. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the final Queen Boat Trial convictions, and more arrests of suspected homosexuals are reported.


"They captured me because they just needed a body,” yelled one of the Cairo 52 into a microphone in the courtroom. A YouTube video, “52 gay men go on trial,” captured a few minutes of the initial court proceedings in 2001. Before the judge arrived in the chamber, reporters crowded near the cage that held the men. The man answering questions in English wore a piece of white cloth over his face like all the other men. The reporter asked him why the men had been arrested. “I have no clue about this trial,” the man yelled.

The court charged all 52 men with fujur, roughly translated as “debauchery” or “promiscuity.” The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, “In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct,” published in 2004, explains fujur as “encompassing a concept of sexual excess.” The charge stemmed from a law against prostitution passed in 1951. The report explains, “A law without distinct limitations lent opportunity to a criminal justice system under diminished restraint.” Judges were free to interpret the law at will, allowing any measure of their biases to inform the verdicts.

In a predominantly Muslim country, Egyptians widely reject homosexuality as an immoral choice. Among the Cairo 52, two men were charged with additional “contempt for religion” and served the heaviest sentence, five years of hard labor. The report states that officers labeled one of the men as the “ring-leader” of the group, though the Cairo 52 repeatedly stated they did not all know each other. Investigators ignored the details, opting for prompt censure. Local leaders responded quickly, fueling public desire for guilty convictions. “From my religious view, all the religious people, in Christianity, in Judaism, condemn homosexuality. It is against the whole sense in Egypt. The temper in Egypt is against homosexuality,” said Dr. Essam Elarian, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, in a 2002 BBC article. The chief government spokesman, Nabil Osman, echoed a similar sentiment in the article, explaining that what the justice system did was “actually an interpretation of the norms of [their] society, the family values of [their] society. And no one should judge [them] by their own values. And some of these values in the West are actually in decay.”

Liberal Egyptian voices captured the domestic press’s moralization of the episode, which placed homosexuals in a category of degeneracy and malevolence. The English language commentaries (intended for both the Egyptian expatriate community and an international audience) were published at the same time as the start of court proceedings in 2001. In the Cairo Times, Hossam Bahgat wrote that Al-Ahram, the state-owned Arabic language newspaper, “published [the morning after the arrest] in its crime page that the defendants were members of a new devil worshipping cult.” The state-owned media framed homosexuals maliciously, echoing the court’s official statements that “accused [the Cairo 52] of engaging in acts of sexual immorality.” Other media outlets pushed the lines further: “Egyptian press have published the names and workplaces of the defendants,” reported Rana Allam for Al-Ahram Weekly. This was one example of the country-wide shaming campaign that destroyed the mens’ reputations and put their families’ safety in danger.

Gay activist Horus (who chose to speak under a pseudonym) explained in a 2001 BBC article that issues of language inflamed the public’s revulsion with the Cairo 52: “In all the Egyptian media they’ve been attacking homosexuals…of course they don’t mention the word ‘homosexuals’— they say ‘perverts,’” he said. In Alexandria, I observed the use of the word mithli to refer to homosexuals. The word’s root denoting “same” or “like.” Mithli, though gaining currency in liberal, college environments, is still not as popular as the slang word, shaiz, or deviant. The discourse surrounding the trial, even the word used to refer to the Cairo 52, signaled the public’s disdain. John expressed a word of caution to queer-identifying men in Egypt. “There are limits,” he said. “There are gay clubs, but [men] should keep a low profile because their families got very hurt. People who hear this might think I’m one of the people suppressing gays.”


The torture and physical harrassment the men experienced in their two cramped cells during their trial was arguably worse than the outside vitriol. The 21 men interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they were “whipped, beaten, bound and suspended in painful positions, splashed with ice-cold water, and burned with lit cigarettes.” State security officers subjected the men to electroshock, psychological torment, and forced rape between prisoners. One of the men, Mazen, moved to Paris after 12 months in jail (before the re-trial occurred) and participated in an interview for The Oprah Show.

“These two guys started beating me on my head and on my face,” he said. He described being stripped naked as doctors forced objects into his rectum to determine if he was homosexual. He did not have contact with his family for six months and said, “My mother was looking for me everywhere.” At the end of the interview he admitted, “I tried to kill myself twice in jail.”

Domestic human rights groups stayed silent on the episode both because of their fear of retribution and for their disinterest in protecting homosexuals’ rights. Hisham Kassem, director of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), offered his views for a BBC article published in 2002: “What could we do? Nothing. If we were to uphold this issue, this would be the end of what remains of the concept of human rights in Egypt…We let them down, but I don’t have a mandate from the people.” In other words, Kassem believed defending the Cairo 52 would hurt the organization’s other human rights efforts. Yet, Hafez Abu Saada, the Secretary-General of the same organization, told the Cairo Times, “Personally, I don’t like the subject of homosexuality, and I don’t want to defend them.”

Hossam Bahgat also worked for EOHR and was dismissed from his position after criticizing the organization’s inaction regarding the Queen Boat Trial. Bahgat decided to launch the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). In reaction to the public’s outcry against homosexuals, Bahgat defined his organization’s focus as “personal autonomy, bodily integrity, and privacy.” EIPR’s campaigns are not based on identities but on a wider circle of individual rights that extend to issues of religious conversion, marital rape, and incest. Addressing and propagating labels such as “gay,” “homosexual,” or “LBGT” held connotations of immorality but were also understood as a sociopolitical identification to the west. “They said you’ve all been part of an organization,” said the English-speaking reporter in the YouTube video before the trial began. “That is not true at all. Because we don’t know each other…We’ve been together six months. Some people did not even know the names of other people,” explained the prisoner, continuing to hold up the white cloth to his face.

According to the HRW report, homosexual conduct was often considered “a subversive network threatening state security,” most likely due to homosexuality’s visibility and broad acceptance in countries that were former colonial powers, such as the United Kingdom, or current allies with Israel, such as the United States. Horus said homosexuals were also described “as agents of Israel” by the Egyptian media. Bahgat has argued that the Mubarak government fueled these accusations in order to distract from recent economic failings.

The same tactics occur under Mohamed Morsi’s reign. The often-criticized justice system benefits from prosecuting homosexuls— a case most Egyptians can agree on and media outlets can profit with sensationalist spins. Five months ago, seven men were arrested for the same charge of “practicing debauchery.” Scott Roberts, of OutQ News wrote, “The story has been reported heavily in the Egyptian press, and EIPR has told OutQ News that it remains difficult for the group to convince the men that it’s safe to talk with them.” The jail sentences of the Cairo 52 have all ended, but new convictions continue to be made, whether they are products of an intolerant brand of faith, a political maneuver, or both.

MARC BRIZ B’14 is without distinct limitations.