A Clash of Cultures in Egypt ; the Trial of 52 Alleged Homosexuals Pits Traditional Values against Calls for Secular Tolerance

Article excerpt

Dozens of men stand shivering in a rusty black cage along a wall - the way defendants are usually held here during trial. Alleged homosexuals, most of the men cover their faces in white scarves, some fashioned into masks with slits for the eyes.

Waiting some two hours for the judge and prosecutor to arrive, some prisoners faint from the cramped, steamy conditions. Fellow defendants slap them awake.

For Egypt's homosexuals, the so-called "Queen Boat" trial is likely to signal the end of a road to a new openness, which had begun to emerge in recent years.

In the trial, being seen by some observers as part of a clash between Islamic traditionalists and proponents of a more tolerant, more secular society, it is unclear what laws were broken.

It is also unclear how many of the 52 accused are actually homosexuals.

Some observers say the proceedings are a government attempt to display what it sees as as corrupting Western influences and spread fear.

"If the government wants this trial to be a deterrent, they will succeed," says a European diplomat who is among several Western observers monitoring the case. "This trial is sure to drive gay foreigners away and gay Egyptians underground."

The trial is unfolding amid a broader Islamic fundamentalist campaign against erotic literature and other manifestations of what many Muslims interpret as Western-inspired moral decay.

The chief prosecutor has repeatedly pointed to Western nations, which he says accept and tolerate what "Islam considers a crime."

"Egypt has not and will not be a den for the corruption of manhood, and homosexual groups will not establish themselves here," said prosecutor Ashraf Helal, addressing the courtroom and the cage of defendants earlier this month.

Most of the 52 defendants were arrested in May on a Nile cruise ship called the Queen Boat, a well-known haven in the world of Cairo's homosexuals. No sexual activities were observed on the boat, but police say they have photos, medical reports, and confessions to back their charges that all the men are gay.

The government's main target is Sherif Farahat, an outspoken homosexual who was on the boat. Mr. Farahat is also being charged with authoring a book found in his house that dubs Egyptian homosexuals as "soldiers of the Lord's army" who would fight for a future Kurdish messiah. The prosecution has tried with some difficulty to link all of the 52 men with their alleged "ring leader," Farahat.

"There is no crime called homosexuality in Egyptian legislation, so the government really doesn't know what to charge these people with," says Gesir Abdul Rezk, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo.

As in other, much smaller, cases in recent years, Egyptian prosecutors are relying heavily on a 1961 antiprostitution law that outlaws fouger, a vague term that means little more than "shameless bad behavior."

Since the trial is being held under the auspices of Egypt's emergency laws - in place since 1981 to fight militant Muslim violence - defendants are expected to have no right of appeal if convicted on the charges, which could send them to prison for up to five years. …

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