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A Nervous Mubarak Government Seeks to Appease Pro-Palestinian Egyptians and Pro-Israel U.S.
By Andrew Hammond
Recent months have seen a rise in tension among Arab countries over Cairo’s moderate stance regarding Israeli treatment of Palestinians during the 11-month-old intifada.
Bringing matters to a head has been Israel’s policy of targeting for assassination Palestinian activists who it claims are militants planning deadly terrorist attacks. Although the policy has been condemned by the Bush administration, the European Union and Arab governments, words without actions have created unease on the Egyptian street, which wants to see the government do more. President Hosni Mubarak, however, who last November recalled Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv, needs to be careful about taking any further anti-Israel measures because, if he does Washington will accuse Egypt of taking a belligerent line and increasing regional tension. His government also believes that maintaining links with Israel is more productive than cutting them entirely.
For that reason, Egyptian diplomatic sources say, only when all other avenues have been exhausted and the situation is crying out for a political statement will Egypt further cut its ties with Israel. The ultimate step would be asking Israel’s diplomatic mission in Cairo to leave, but prior to that Egypt could recall the rest of its staff at its Tel Aviv embassy.
In a sign that these scenarios are becoming increasingly less hypothetical, Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher on Aug. 6 described Israel’s Sharon government as a “gang of assassins.” “Israel’s policy [of state assassination] violates all laws and conventions,” he told reporters. “It is unprecedented for a government to...[use] gang methods to assassinate people.”
Political commentator Salah Issa said Maher’s comments were “the strongest Egyptian statements against Israel since 1976,” before Egypt embarked on its long road to rapprochement with the Jewish state.
Egypt’s state-owned media betrayed the government’s nervousness over Palestinian minister Nabil Shaath’s criticism of Arab countries for rejecting Palestinian calls for an Arab summit. After Shaath made the comments to Abu Dhabi satellite television the Egyptian media accused him of “going beyond the bounds of decency.”
Comments like Shaath’s could contribute to popular pressure on the government to take a tougher line with Israel. Anxious about public protests, police maintained a heavy presence at Friday prayers at major mosques in August. Earlier in the month police arrested some 85 men, including four Russians and an Azeri, whom it said belonged to a militant Muslim group raising funds for the Palestinians.
In fact, analysts say, Egypt’s entire approach to the conflict—based since 1977 on unilateral accomodation with Israel—is being undermined by Ariel Sharon’s right-wing government. “The failure to reach a comprehensive settlement could be considered a failure of the Egyptian approach,” said Mustafa Kamel al-Sayed. Now, following Shaath’s remarks, even Palestinian Authority officials are criticizing Egypt’s moderate approach, analyst Emad Gad noted. “When a Palestinian Authority official criticizes [Egypt],” he said, “it’s a big problem.”
Looming large in the minds of Egyptian policymakers is the fate of Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat. He was gunned down by Islamist militants who felt that by concluding a peace which left Arab East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in Israeli hands, Sadat had sold out Arab and Muslim rights. Although Cairo doesn’t want a war with Israel, it is caught between the rock of Egyptian public opinion and the hard place of Israel and its U.S. supporters.
Alleged Homosexuals on Trial
The trial of 52 suspected homosexuals which opened in July highlighted the sharp clash of Western liberal values with Egypt’s predominantly conservative culture. It also revealed a regime nervous over a string of current social and political tensions in Egypt, and eager to present the public with something other than government incompetence to exercise their passions.
The accused men were arrested in May on a Nile boat bar known as a popular hang-out for gays. Lurid and extensive coverage followed in the local press, and on July 8 their trial opened on charges of “forming a group which aims to exploit the Islamic religion to propagate extremist ideas” and “practising sexual immorality,”—a euphemism for homosexuality, which Egyptian law does not expressly prohibit. Since none of the men actually were caught in flagrante, the charges of twisting religion are central to the state’s case against them. Most are seen as guilty by association, suspected members of a “group” formed by one of the main defendants, who made the mistake of talking at length about his religious beliefs during questioning. Observers suspect the judge will opt for releasing most of the men, the majority of whom are in their 20s and 30s, but throw the book at a core of them. Protesting and sobbing, all pleaded innocent at the opening of the trial, and many covered their heads with towels in an effort to hide their faces from the press—which their families accuse of having ruined their reputations and prejudiced the trial.
The case follows a string of publicized incidents involving homosexuality in the past year—including reports of gay soliciting on the Internet—which prompted one paper to call for the death penalty for homosexuals. But the decision to try the men in a state security court under Egypt’s emergency laws—which have been in place since 1981, technically to counter Muslim militant violence—has raised eyebrows in Egypt and abroad. The court’s verdict can be overturned only via a petition to President Mubarak. “This case exhibits some of the worse features of Egypt’s justice system,” said a joint statement by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in July.
Many commentators are wondering what prompted police action now against Cairo’s thriving underground gay community. Several have surmised that the authorities sought a high-profile case to deflect public attention from Egypt’s current economic recession or to appease Egypt’s large Islamist lobby. The leading Muslim fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been a strong voice in parliament since winning seats in last year’s elections—despite heavy policy harassment designed to exclude them. In a clear sign of the group’s growing influence, the Ministry of Culture earlier this year acceded to Brotherhood demands to stop publishing three novels containing sex scenes.
The government’s tactic seems to be to out-Islamize the Islamists. “I can’t see any reasonable reason to send them to a state security court,” said rights lawyer Negad al-Borai. “Perhaps they [the authorities] want to establish some balance—they try Islamists, so they want to do the same to the other side [liberals].”
The general atmosphere in the country is one of nervousness. Egyptians are largely prevented from expressing their anger over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians because the government will not tolerate street protests. In addition to political tensions, Egypt is in the midst of an economic crisis, and hundreds of unemployed graduates clashed with police in July. The government is ever mindful of the 1977 bread riots and rioting in 1985 by underpaid police conscripts.
Gays themselves see in the government crackdown against them similarities to the state’s dealings with the Muslim Brotherhood since 1995. In a bid to deflect attention from the country’s many social ills, they suggest, state security wants to make gays share the limelight with Islamists as Egypt’s official public enemy number one.
“State security has been cracking down on gays for months now. It’s the same strategy as they used with the Brotherhood: arrest some to frighten the rest,” said a 22-year-old gay man who asked not to be named. “They [the Interior Ministry] think that as a community we have become too open and confident,” he added.
Police have arrested a number of men in recent months, he said, after luring them on false dates advertised on the Internet. In a move that was seen as partly aimed at monitoring gay activities, the Interior Ministry two years ago set up a unit to monitor Internet usage. Although Egypt’s gay community is used to periodic police raids on Cairo’s multitude of discos and bars whose business is mainly gay-driven, this time many will lie low for months because of the seriousness of the blow.
Maintaining morality, of course, doesn’t always make economic sense. GayEgypt.com, a London-based Web site, is advising all gay tourists against visiting Egypt. Heterosexuals as well might be put off from visiting the country because of the bad publicity the case has received in the West, the source of Egypt’s lucrative tourist industry. “One day we hope to take legal action against those who authorized this operation,” says GayEgypt, whose owner was forced by police threats to move the site outside Egypt. “Gay rights are human rights. Homophobic violence is a crime.”
For now, the subject of homosexuality remains such a taboo that there is huge social pressure on all sections of society to tow the anti-gay line. No one on trial is fighting for his right to be gay, although at least some of them no doubt are. Only one local human rights group is providing legal support for any of the defendants. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Egypt’s main rights group, is distancing itself from the case, since, says secretary-general Hafez Abu Saada, support would “subject us to problems with public opinion.” The group has sacked one employee for reporting on the case for a foreign publication.
“If you judge this incident by the measure of other societies, such as Western ones, it comes out wrong, unacceptable, and even strange,” says sociologist Jawad Fatayer. “But here it [homosexuality] is considered wrong, and this society does not want to accept it or even negotiate with it.”
Yet, Fatayer acknowledges, the phenomenon is as entrenched in Egypt as it is in any other society, and extends to a number of well-known public officials and tinseltown stars. Given the campaign of police harrassment and media vilification, however, most homosexuals will continue to adopt a policy of kiss and don’t tell.
Andrew Hammond is a free-lance journalist based in Cairo.