CAIRO — The video showed a gathering of men on a felucca, with two of them seemingly exchanging kisses and wedding rings. The makers of the video have since claimed it was joke, and that the gathering was nothing more than a birthday party. One of the men in question called a TV show to say that the ring was a birthday gift, that he had a girlfriend, and that this video has turned his life upside down.
A misdemeanor court has just sentenced eight of the people in the video to three years in prison, in addition to probation for another three years after the sentence is completed.
The law used to convict them, which criminalizes "debauchery," carries a maximum sentence of three years. But, according to Scott Long, a gay rights activist and author of the Paper Bird blog, they may also have been charged with anti-pornography provisions that criminalize the possession of materials "violating public morals."
Using such charges against LGBT defendants is common, Long argues. And as with many other cases, particularly political ones, justice is seldom served. Opponents claim the police and courts tend to support projections of conservatism by the ruling regime.
In this particular case, Long points to the fact that the video clip, which went viral, isn't remotely pornographic and that there was no evidence that the men were gay, even after the Forensic Medical Authority conducted "abusive and intrusive anal examinations."
"The entire case lacks basis," he wrote on his blog. "The police did not arrest them red-handed, and the video doesn't prove anything."
Long tells Madr Masr that the debauchery law originated as a prostitution law. "There are punishments for providing a house for debauchery, which is patterned on laws against brothels, so they charge whoever's name is actually on the lease with this. The charges can add up,” he says. In one case, an individual was sentenced to 12 years because he was the main tenant of the apartment.
Adding insult to injury
Once they are arrested, gay men are often subjected to "forensic anal exams," which are meant to determine whether they have had sexual activity. The practice continues despite heavy criticism from human rights organizations that claim such examinations are inconclusive.
Furthermore, Long says, testimony from LGBT individuals who have been to jail shows that they are often subjected to sexual harassment from guards and fellow inmates.
Crackdowns on LGBT people by previous regimes have been framed by the state's battle with Islamist powerhouses over who can be more conservative. The belief is that if the ruling regime wants to keep Islamists out of power, it needs to showcase enough conservative tendencies to appease the larger public.
Long agrees, saying of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, "He still feels he has to do something to appease the Brotherhood's constituency. It's really telling that in the wedding video case, the government made this a security issue around the time when the Brotherhood started criticizing the video."
The "gay wedding" video — Source: othmaneottoman
Last April, four men were sentenced to between three and eight years in prison on charges of debauchery after being arrested in an apartment dressed in women's clothing.
Ramy Youssef, an Egyptian gay rights activist, says the recent crackdown is coordinated and that the government is doing it to gain good publicity for the regime.
After the revolution and the 2013 ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi, "the military institution wants credit and validation from the people," he says, adding that the public defense of morals is the best way for the government to get this validation.
Youssef also believes that the crackdown may be a way for the state to distract people from the significant political and economic issues Egypt continues to face.
"Part of me says it's to distract the people from all the corruption that's happening," he says. "The former president and his people are getting out of prison, and things are getting worse with the electricity cuts," he says.
History repeating itself
There were also crackdowns on the LGBT community in 2001, 2004 and 2007. The high-profile "Queen Boat raid" in 2001 ended with 23 people being sentenced to prison, an episode that remains firmly etched in the memory of many LGBT people.
"It's a seasonal crackdown," Youssef says. "It happens every three or four years. The authorities decide we need more morals and they go for gay people, as we are the easiest targets."
Society is also encouraged to play a role, particularly through media smear campaigns. The result, Long says, is that homes are raided, neighbors inform on neighbors, and many people wind up in jail.
They may also be tracked through the Internet. Grindr, a dating application many LGBT people use, recently released a warning urging its users to hide their identities, as the Egyptian government might be posting undercover.
The warning followed a report from BuzzFeed that Egypt has stepped up surveillance of Facebook, Twitter and Skype, along with other forms of social media. According to the report, technology is being used from "See Egypt," a sister company of the American cyber-security firm Blue Coat.
Although the government denies this, Long believes that either the technology from Blue Coat is already in place, or it's just a matter of time until it is.
Taking a big risk
Youssef freely admits that at some point he expects to end up in jail, as he is a public activist who talks to the media using his real name.
Nevertheless, he chooses to remain in Egypt. "I really want to do this, I really want to do something for the community." Leaving, he says, "would make me a huge hypocrite. There is something that I need to do here. Something very unique that I am doing."
He has published a guide on his Facebook page with advice for LGBT people if they are arrested, and he and three of his friends are currently working on a project where they collect the voices and stories of LGBT individuals in a booklet they plan to publish in November.
He also dreams of someday establishing a safe house in Egypt for LGBT people who may have been thrown out of their homes or feel endangered, which currently doesn't exist.
This kind of activism is more personal than organized public activism, but Youssef believes it is just as important. The very fact that some LGBT people are willing to express themselves publicly through their clothes and makeup is a form of activism, he says. Even if they never come out publicly and hide their sexuality from their families, the fact that they express themselves at all is a form of activism, he adds.
There are other, more public, types of LGBT activism happening in Egypt. A group called "Solidarity with Egypt LGBT," whose members are Egyptian but wish to remain anonymous, organized a global protest recently. Because of safety concerns, the protest was virtual, with people expressing support through the hashtag "solidaritywithEgyptLGBT."
Globally there were also protests in front of Egyptian embassies in support of the rights of LGBT individuals.
Members of Solidarity with Egypt LGBT explain that global pressure is crucial to influencing the Egyptian government. "The existence of a peaceful, vocal opposition provokes a situation in which the government will have to change its oppressive policies."