CAIRO — The scene described by lawyers at a Cairo court on Jan. 4-5 evoked classic paintings of Roman orgies. Quoting a police report, they described how 21 out of 26 defendants standing trial on charges of indecency and habitual debauchery had been caught in various sexual positions during a Dec. 7 raid on a public bathhouse.
Photos of these towel-clad, bare-chested men covering their faces as they were led outside the Bab El-Bahr bathhouse made the depiction plausible. TV reporter Mona Iraqi posted these photos on Facebook under the self-congratulatory title of raiding “the largest den of group perversion.”
The Arabic term for perversion, “shezoz,” is used to refer to and denounce homosexuality.
Iraqi explained over two 30-minute episodes on Dec. 8 and 18 of her TV program "El-Mestakhabi" (The Hidden) that the raid was part of an investigation on HIV. The bathhouse, she argued, was both a brothel and an HIV hub. The raid seemed isolated from other interviews with alleged male prostitutes, therapists and activists, but because of Iraqi’s Facebook post, it became the center of the controversy.
The Arabic hashtag “#policeinformant” marked the online attack on Iraqi, questioning both her journalistic practices and her choice of subject.
“Your picture will be spread for years to come with every article, investigation or book on the collapse of Egyptian media ethics,” investigative journalist and rights activist Hossam Bahgat replied on Facebook, commenting on a photo in which Iraqi appears filming the men led outside the bathhouse during the raid.
Iraqi said she informed the police and postponed airing her report to allow them to take action, or angry neighbors would have “massacred” the clients after watching the show. This type of cooperation with the police isn’t new. Iraqi’s more popular colleague, Reham Saied, is known for filming police raids. In one episode, Saied filmed a conversation with an alleged organ-trafficking broker and reported him to the police. After his arrest, she confronted him on camera at the office of a senior police officer.
“Journalists work for the viewer, not the police,” investigative journalist Ahmed Ragab told Al-Monitor. “Having a crime — say drug dealing, for example — spread to the point where I can find it and report on it means the Interior Ministry isn’t doing its job. People should ask where the police are,” he said.
Iraqi’s report still stoked more outrage than any elicited by Saied’s show. “The obvious way the men were being mistreated, judging from the pictures that Mona circulated and the fact that Mona was so proud of it, … that, I think really outraged people,” said Scott Long, former director of the Human Rights Watch LGBT rights program and the author of the Paper Bird blog that led an online campaign that culminated in the Shnit International Short Film Festival firing Iraqi.
Iraqi dedicated an entire episode to her response. Her defense jumped between claims of prostitution, homophobia (in a short segment, interviewees denounced homosexuality) and the threat of HIV in weakly constructed arguments. Her evidence against the bathhouse was an audio recording of a conversation with a bathhouse staffer about soliciting prostitutes and a comment on condoms being optional, in less than clear wording.
Despite targeting English speakers with subtitles on the online video, Iraqi refused foreign media interviews, fearing the focus on the prosecution of the LGBT community. “I worked on such a case for one reason, which was sex trafficking in a public place, a bathhouse for men in downtown Cairo, and my whole issue is not homosexuality,” she wrote in a statement published in English on Facebook Dec. 18. “On the contrary, I managed to investigate and film this case to stress on the fact that we need help insuring a healthier life for such groups.”
She has removed the controversial photos of the raid from both her Facebook profile and fan page, but they are still accessible in Google's cached version and a screenshot of the post. Since then, her online references to the story have changed from “group perversion” to “group sex.”
I talked to Iraqi repeatedly over the phone to persuade her to do an interview. After declining her condition to film me while interviewing her for a project she is working on, we continued talking. The interview never happened and she left the country for a vacation that was supposed to end on the day of the verdict, Jan. 12, but she was unreachable on and after that day. Throughout our discussions of the case (off the record, based on her request), she asked repeatedly about my opinion of her report and if I thought she was an evil person.
She sought stronger validation from the police officers that led the arrest and whom she interviewed. She said the investigations and the confessions they acquired confirmed her story.
The investigation was ripped apart in court. In addition to the lack of confessions in official documents, lawyers argued that the case depended solely on the account of one police officer, Ahmed Hashad, who appeared on Iraqi’s show. The forensic examination of the defendants didn’t mention HIV and said only three had signs of anal intercourse. These three were among 15 charged with public indecency and did not figure among the six charged with habitual debauchery, the accusation leveled against homosexuals. The remaining five were accused of aiding and abetting these crimes.
The police report made no mention of Iraqi’s presence and referred to a “secret source” that tipped off police, a detail lawyers argued was tantamount to forgery. It was “unrealistic” that the officer managed to see and name 21 defendants, paired in detailed sexual positions in the report, in the brief moment of entering the steam room, lawyer Tarek El-Awady told the court.
Lawyer Islam Khalifa, part of a team of volunteers representing 14 of the defendants, argued that there was no evidence of habituation, a requirement for debauchery charges. The official surveillance of the place went on for only two days, several lawyers told Al-Monitor, quoting court documents.
The case is the work of an officer and a TV reporter seeking fame at the expense of the poor, Al-Awady said. The families reiterated the same theory, vowing to sue Iraqi and the Al-Kahera Wal Nas TV station for defamation. Several families said that fearing disgrace, they lied to their neighbors about the cause of the defendants' absence.
Throughout the four sessions of the trial, the families directed their anger at the journalists present. They warned reporters against taking pictures of the defendants, accusing them of causing and taking advantage of their plight. Female relatives covered their faces. Before the verdict, as one of the defendants entered the cage that barely fit the 26 men, he angrily shouted at the reporters, “You infidels, sons of dogs.”
The judge, Ihab El-Raheb, called me and two other journalists to his office a week earlier to ask why the foreign media was interested in the case. The other cases he heard at this misdemeanor court that day were about bounced checks and neighborhood fights. We told him the way the arrest was handled in the media mandated such interest. The elephant in that small room shared with the young prosecutor was the LGBT factor: This was the biggest single arrest of allegedly gay men since the 2001 Queen Boat trial, and came at the end of a year that saw numerous arrests and convictions of LGBT members.
Instead of implicating the 26, “Why didn’t she turn in the men she interviewed?” Omar, a brother of one of the defendants, asked Al-Monitor, referring to the male prostitutes Iraqi interviewed and asked her critics to help.
These sex workers described their social and financial predicament as the result of society’s denunciation of their sexual orientation. “Has Mona Iraqi's show helped lift the stigma surrounding LGBT lifestyles in Egypt? Has she addressed the underlying problems of social rejection these people face?” Adel Iskandar, professor of global communication at Simon Fraser University, asked Al-Monitor. “The answer to all of these is a resounding no. She has scandalized, victimized and shamed them further.”
On Jan. 12, the judge acquitted all defendants. The heavily guarded courtroom erupted in celebration and the defendants and their families started smiling to the cameras.
Was it a victory for LGBT rights?
To begin with, there is no evidence that any of the defendants is gay. The bathhouse is featured in a lecherous recommendation on gayscout.com, but a couple of shop owners on the same street denied such activity. No one in court argued that homosexuality is not a crime and the verdict doesn’t address this. Defendants covered their faces every time they were led handcuffed into the courtroom. For them and their families, homosexuality remains a disgraceful scandal.
“Where is the press, the men are here,” joyous relatives chanted outside the courtroom after the verdict. “You have to correct everything that was said about them, … things like perversion,” said Azza, a sister of one of the defendants.
“These reports defame Egypt. There’s nothing wrong with Egypt’s men,” said Omar.
Yet, the verdict is unprecedented. According to Long, the judiciary has a history of issuing convictions in similar cases despite the lack of evidence.
“Homosexuality is not an obvious issue for liberal activists to take up. It has never been. I think Mona was banking on that. She assumed people would side with her rather than against her,” he told Al-Monitor before the verdict was read.
Labels such as “den of perversion” didn’t prevent journalists from condemning Iraqi’s practices and didn’t overshadow the details of the case and the inconsistencies in the police report, as has happened before. In that sense, the verdict could be a small victory. Families, lawyers and gender and LGBT activists present in the courtroom were in tears, hugging each other in disbelief.