News & Politics

Activist Fights for Gay Rights in Egypt

When Maher Sabry's friends were arrested and convicted in Cairo for being gay, his activism challenged state-sanctioned homophobia in ways large and small.
On the eve of May 10, 2001, three of Maher Sabry's friends were nagging him to go out dancing with them on the Queen Boat, a floating disco known in Cairo as a local gay hangout. But Sabry, a 36-year-old playwright and director, was too tired. He just wanted to stay in for the evening and unwind. It may have been the last time Sabry was able to relax.

That night the Egyptian police rounded up and jailed 52 men from the Queen Boat. Officially, the men were accused of charges such as "indecency and debauchery" or "obscene behavior." But it was clear they were being persecuted for being gay.

It wasn't the first time gay men had been harassed and arrested in Egypt. But the sheer numbers of men rounded up -- combined with the fact that this time they would be tried in a special "emergency" court that forbids appeals -- made this case different. While 29 of the men were inevitably found "guilty" and sentenced to jail time, the case garnered international attention and condemnation. But without the work of Sabry it might have gone unnoticed.

In the years before the Queen Boat incident, a tiny but determined gay and lesbian movement was germinating in Egypt. Most of it was Internet-based.

"It was the only free space to express our ideas," says Sabry, who got online in 1997 and immediately became a cyber-activist. "The Egyptian media likes to say homosexuality came through the Internet from the West, but the forums and discussion groups were all Egyptians."

Meanwhile, people met cautiously at certain coffee shops and hotel bars, or got together for private parties.

By 1999, Sabry was feeling bold enough to stage his play, "The Harem," which included overt portrayals of society's oppression of gays and lesbians. The play had a three-day run before it was closed down by the government.

The government also began cracking down on the gay Internet, closing Web sites and jailing their owners. Police and government authorities created a climate of fear by arranging meetings via the Internet, only to arrest the men who showed up for what they thought would be a date. Still, when one site closed, another page or listserv would pop up.

With the Queen Boat incident, however, "even those who had been activists disappeared because it was so unsafe," says Sabry. "Suddenly, all gay life seemed to evaporate."

Despite the worsening situation, Sabry refused to retreat. Instead, he went online and, under a pseudonym, broadcast the news of the arrests and convictions to international human rights groups, hoping some international exposure would bring pressure upon the Egyptian government.

"We couldn't count on the Egyptian press because it is more or less controlled by the government," Sabry said.

Sending out the information was risky. Internet accounts in Egypt and e-mails coming out of the country are closely monitored by law enforcement. At one point, police attempted to crack the pass code to Sabry's e-mail account in an attempt to identify him.

Even more dangerous than his postings to the rest of the world was Sabry's courage on the ground in Cairo. For at least two weeks after the arrests, only immediate family members were allowed to see the prisoners. Much of the Egyptian press published the names and pictures of the jailed men on their front pages -- along with outlandish allegations that the men were perverts and Satanists.

In a culture where shame is a powerful weapon, some families were afraid to visit their relatives in jail. Sabry contacted many reluctant relatives, even risking arrest himself by going with them to the jail to talk to the prisoners, cull information from them and arrange legal help.

During one meeting where Sabry escorted a man to see his jailed brother, the guards took note of Sabry's long ponytail -- an unusual site in conservative Egypt.

"Why do you have a ponytail, faggot?" asked one policeman, who searched Sabry's bag and found newspaper clippings and notes on the 52 arrested men. Sabry said the policeman taunted him and made obscene gestures.

"Then he started to touch my crotch, to humiliate me and show he could dominate me," recalls Sabry.

In a moment of quick thinking, Sabry insisted on making a phone call to a high-ranking police officer, who, Sabry told the guard, was his uncle.

"In truth, the officer was a very distant relative who would have done nothing to help me if he thought I was gay," Sabry says now. Luckily, the guard did not call his bluff, and he was released.

Sabry continued to go to the jail and courts to monitor the situation, sending whatever information he acquired to international human rights groups. "I couldn't just leave my friends [in jail]. Many of the guys in there, they had nobody else to help them," he said.

He also refused to cut his hair. "It's a symbol of protest," he says now with a laugh. "After the arrests, I'd be walking down the street, and people would call out, 'Queen Boat faggot!' All my friends were telling me I had to have short hair, that long hair was too dangerous. But I couldn't stand the feeling that I was submitting. I would have felt like a coward."

Sabry's bravery was honored recently by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission as a recipient of the organization's Felipa Awards. The awards are given each year to individuals who make a significant contribution to fighting abuse based on sexual orientation.

Mubarak Dahir recieves email at [email protected].

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