In the late 90s, life for gay men in Cairo was drastically different than how it is today; a number of bars, restaurants, and public spaces across the city were friendly towards men who preferred the company of other men. Cairo's gay community thrived, men from all over the city were safely interacting, meeting, dating, and expressing their sexuality in relative freedom. This was, in part, due to the government's preoccupation with a long and painful insurgency against a wave of terrorism that devastated the country through the 90s. "The scene was much more alive. We met on the streets, at bars and cafes. There was a gay-party scene so active that most parties had hundreds of attendees," says Youssef*, a 37-year-old Egyptian man who leads a prominent career in the beauty industry.
As extremists halted violence towards the end of the decade - as a result of a deal struck with the government in return for more freedoms and political participation, Mubarak's regime sought to reassert its role as a protector of traditional values by carrying out a public morality campaign. This was the main drive for the famous 2001 police raid on gay-friendly night club Queen Boat in Zamalek. The incident - widely referred to as Cairo 52, which caused an international human rights outcry, led to the arrest of 52 allegedly gay men on charges of "habitual debauchery" and "obscene behaviour", with most local media outlets partaking in the character assassination of the victims by publishing their full identification details and causing irreversible damage to their lives. "I was at the Queen Boat on the night of the raid. I have seen people jumping in the Nile, others getting dragged by the hair and thrown into police vans, it was a scarring scene. Me and my friends managed to leave unharmed because of a friend's connection in the Ministry of Interior."
Queen Boat, Zamalek
After the horrifying incident, which was followed by a very public and lengthy trial, the once-flourishing gay scene virtually disappeared; bars and public places stopped allowing single men in, and the Egyptian police kept a close eye on any activity they deemed 'not normal'. The Cairene gay community was forced into hiding and panic, feelings that prevailed for a long time. Around mid-decade, the internet was becoming increasingly accessible, which was a total game changer. "Our friends in the police told us to maintain a very discrete behaviour after Cairo 52, as the government was monitoring everything. We couldn't call each other or meet anywhere. The only way we would get together would be to show up at each other's places unannounced, we were forcefully thrown back in the closet. Most people who could find a way out of the country left around that time," Youssef recounts.
Cairo 52 Trial
At the time, word on the street was to get off it, and that's what everyone did. No one was dancing in clubs or cruising in public places anymore. Instead, everyone hid behind on-screen nicknames and moved their dating lives into the safety and darkness of their own bedrooms. Thousands upon thousands of gay men were crippled with fear, but their will to live and desire for normal lives endured. "The internet changed everything. Aside from the fact that we could finally talk and meet others in relative safety, we also gained access to studies and facts about our sexuality, which enabled us, and the generation that followed, to be more at peace with ourselves and learn to stand up for our rights," says Mohamed*, 28-year-old corporate employee.
Towards the last quarter of Mubarak's 30 year iron fist rule, the government allowed minimal social and civil liberties in order to appease its critics in the west and appear democratic. The period saw a strong anti-Mubarak movement that sparked courage and hope in the hearts of the country's youth; gay and otherwise. The community began coming out of its shell again, taking over bars and clubs, but unlike the 90s, they were no longer confining themselves to certain bars or places, they dispersed across the city. "I call these the golden days, the city was full of expats and open-minded Egyptians who were out to have fun and meet others. I made most of my friends during that time. We were still cautious, but the horror stories we used to hear became a thing of the past," Mohamed says of the era.
One of Kefaya's (Enough) Protests Against Mubarak's Rule, 2008
By the end of the millennium's first decade, a younger, bolder, and more knowledgeable generation jumped in the driver's seat. This new generation hasn't lived through the trauma of Cairo 52, and was better equipped with technological savvy, exposure, and awareness to deal with the hardships which came with their innate desires. They didn't seek validation or feel ashamed of their sexuality. This fearless generation came out to their friends and families, led powerful careers, dressed as they saw fit, and would not be told how to live. The power of this new generation as a whole, coupled with the rising influence of social media, led to one of Egypt's most glorious moments; the overthrowing of Hosny Mubarak. After the revolution, an explosion of art and self-expression took Egypt by storm, with the country's homosexual population taking a leading position. "We were suddenly free; for a good year or two, we were safe from prosecution, as authorities got pretty occupied with politically stabilising the country again. We spoke up on social media, said what we really thought, and fear finally took a backseat to the myriad of hopeful emotions we were feeling at the time." Yehya*, an artist who was 18 at the time of the revolution, says with a subtle yet proud smile.
Anti-homophobia graffiti in Egypt's iconic Tahrir square
It wasn't long before the government started paying attention again, and in another attempt to fight off the Islamists as the guardians of traditional values, signs of another crackdown began surfacing after the 2013 ousting of unpopular Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Police traps were set using gay dating apps, public places adopting a look-the-other-way attitude with their gay frequenters were either warned or shut down, and life for the community, once again, took a turn for the worse, except that things were different this time. "The gay community has always been targeted for primarily political reasons," says Yehya. "It's never about traditional values or religion. The government arrests a bunch of us when they want a strong distraction or seek to make a powerful statement."
In December 2014, Egyptian police forces stormed a local bathhouse in Downtown Cairo, and arrested everyone inside on charges of debauchery. The arrest was made after receiving a tip from TV host Mona Iraqi, who claimed the bathhouse was a den for "group perversion acts." Videos and pictures of the televised incident went insanely viral on Egyptian and international social media, sparking a fierce online campaign against the TV host. The furious campaign led to countless international condemnations, which eventually cost Iraqi a managerial position at Shnit, a Swiss-based international short film festival, and landed her on trial for defaming the men arrested at the bathhouse, who were all - in an unprecedented ruling - eventually released for lack of evidence, under tremendous social media pressure.
The televised police raid on Downtown Bathhouse Hammam Bab El Bahr. Mona El Iraqi is seen on the right holding up her phone
The social media campaign, which followed the incident, was a true testament to the power of digital activism, and signalled an attitude change on Egyptian society's part; 13 years earlier, Egyptians stood by, watched and even applauded the government for Cairo 52, this was no longer the case. "You would think such an incident could have easily scared us again, but it didn't. Instead we took to social media and expressed our anger and frustration, and to our pleasant surprise, we were joined by an army of Egyptians who were forever changed because of the revolution. We've come a long way," Yahya concludes.
Today, the community stands in a unified spirit, yet scattered and divided. Some are still primarily looking for a way out, others choose to live in safe social bubbles of like-minded individuals. While those with no such luxuries either take the risk of stepping out on the city's streets wearing their true colours, or silently remain locked away in their dark closets. Safety for the community, similarly to other prosecuted minorities in Egypt, remains subject to the political agendas of consecutive ruling regimes.
*Names have been changed to protect the interviewees' identities.