A Gay Voice from Tahrir Square

If the ongoing Egyptian people’s revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak in just 18 days — after 30 years of dictatorship — quickly engulfed the whole country, its beating heart was always Cairo’s Tahrir Square (in Arabic, “Liberation Square”), for many years a gay cruising mecca.

And gay people were among the millions of Egyptian citizens who made the revolution possible and joined the crowds who occupied the square to demand democracy and freedom from oppression.

This revolution was motored by young people through the Internet, and one of them was a well-educated, 22-year-old gay blogger and medical student who uses the pseudonym Ice Queer (“It’s a pun on ‘Ice Queen,’ as I’m a calm, cool person,” he explained). He was present in Tahrir Square during much of the protest, including last Friday, February 11, when Mubarak finally fell.

Ice Queer was an early participant in what has been dubbed the “Facebook revolution” that harnessed the social network to organize the first protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere on January 25. But social networking was a means to an end. What motivations led Ice Queer to join this movement and help mobilize the demonstrations?

“Because we were fed up of Mubarak and his regime,“ he told Gay City News in an interview conducted through a series of email exchanges. “I started participating after I made sure that the protests didn’t have any political or religious agenda from any party and that all protesters are protesting because we are Egyptians and humans who have been oppressed for decades!

“Also it gave me and others a great sense of self, because for so many years most of the Egyptian society was undervaluing the power and enthusiasm of us, the youth! Everything that everyone did mattered, even those who showed up in Tahrir Square just to support and show solidarity.”

On his first day of protest in Tahrir Square, Ice Queer said, “I was holding a sign saying ‘Secular’ in Arabic, English, and French, and also my friends (straight, gay, girls, Christians, and Muslims) were holding similar signs, and we all were chanting that this protest is for the people and not for any party or religion.”

The multitudes in Tahrir Square reflected a veritable rainbow, as Ice Queer witnessed: “Gay, straight, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Poor, Rich, Black, White, Nubian, Bedouin… EVERYONE was in Tahrir in a beautiful humanitarian image that I saw with my own eyes!”

Every step the Mubarak regime took — seesawing back and forth between violent repression and minor concessions — backfired, stiffening the protesters’ resolve to continue and swelling the crowds in Tahrir Square, Ice Queer said. Because he was on call in the hospital where he interns, he was not present in the square on the day Mubarak sent undercover police and thugs from the lumpenproletariat, paid 8 Euros a day, to attack the pro-democracy demonstrators with clubs, knives, and Molotov cocktails. With a tinge of regret, he wrote, “I don’t know if I should feel lucky or sorry that I wasn’t there on these days.”

But Ice Queer was fortunate, he said, to have been in Tahrir Square when Mubarak’s hand-picked vice president and notorious point man in the CIA’s rendition and torture program, Omar Suleiman, read a short statement on national television announcing that the dictator was stepping down and handing power over to the Military Council.

“On 11th of February, I was in Tahrir Square after Friday’s prayers,” he told this reporter, “and it was very peaceful as on most of the protests’ days. Shortly before the announcement of Omar Suleiman, I was on my way with my friends to grab a bite to eat from a place that’s about ten minutes away from the square, and while we were in the middle of that distance we heard a very loud cheer and cars joyfully tooting their horns. We couldn’t believe it because there was a ‘false alarm’ before, so we called our families for confirmation and we couldn’t have been happier!”

Unlike the previous day’s unrealized rumors that Mubarak would step down that evening, which had sent the square’s throngs into paroxysms of joy, Suleiman’s announcement on February 11 was for real.

“When we went back to the square, we were amazed!,” Ice Queer continued. “People were all hugging and congratulating each other, chanting ‘People indeed removed the system,’ ‘There is no people like the Egyptian people,’ and that ‘Mubarak should be prosecuted’. All the women started to do the popular Zaghrouta (ululation), some people were crying with joy, and some were dancing. Basically everyone was expressing his/ her joy the way he/ she knows to!

“For me, I was having goosebumps all of the time after Mubarak quit! I kept dancing and chanting with my friends and called my boyfriend to share the moment with him too.”

In contrast to the vast majority of Egyptian men who have sex with men — he guesses that “maybe five percent” of whom are out of the closet — Ice Queer self-identifies as gay and is out to his parents and friends, and frequently blogs on gay themes.

Homosexuals under Mubarak’s dictatorship lived under a cloud of fear, marked by waves of intensifying repression. A defining event in the regime’s crackdown was the May 11, 2001 arrest of the men known as the Cairo 52, when police raided a gay party being held aboard a floating nightclub, the Queen Boat, anchored in the Nile.

Although homosexuality is not strictly illegal in Egypt, of the 52 men arrested on the Queen Boat, 50 were charged with “habitual debauchery” and “obscene behavior” under Article 9c of Law No. 10 of 1961 on the Combat of Prostitution. The other two were charged with “contempt of religion” under Article 98f of the Penal Code. These laws have regularly been used to prosecute Egyptian gays, as has the Emergency Law — in place since Mubarak assumed the helm in the wake of Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 – which gives the government the right to arrest people without charge, detain prisoners indefinitely, limit freedom of expression and assembly, and maintain a special security court.

The Cairo 52 were brutally beaten and tortured by police. In a series of hugely publicized trials — during which the uniformly homophobic Egyptian media sensationalized the Queen Boat incident and vilified the men arrested — nearly half of them received prison terms of three years. During the same crackdown, all gay websites were closed down, either by censorship of the Internet or by the arrest of those who ran them.

The persecution of the Cairo 52 was Mubarak’s attempt to throw a sop to the Islamist fundamentalist imams and the Muslim Brotherhood, who were campaigning against homosexuality.

Crackdowns on gays served another purpose as well. When critics of the regime disseminated rumors the dictator’s son, Gamal — whom he hoped to install as his successor as president — was gay, repression of queers was used by Mubarak to cauterize accusations that his government was guilty of “Western decadence.”

Arrests, brutality, and torture of gay men by police — designed, in part, to ferret out the names of other homosexuals — were common in the Mubarak years.

“They even used to make some of them a deal that they will let them go if they lead them to other homosexuals or if they work for them to trap other homosexuals online,” Ice Queer noted.

He went on to explain, “Mubarak knew very well how fear could make him fully control people. The Cairo 52 catastrophe is in the mind of every gay guy in Egypt. Whenever I go to or host a gay party, I always had to a certain degree the fear of ‘This could be another Queen Boat catastrophe.’ Although I wasn’t actively gay at the Cairo 52 time, I remember very well that time and how I was following the case in newspapers though I was only 12 and didn’t fully know about homosexuality back then.”

Ice Queer’s first sexual encounter occurred when “I was 13-14,” he said.

“My parents were away for summer vacation and I was home alone,” he recalled. “I chatted with someone on Yahoo chat and then I brought him home. It was a horrible experience — he was totally not my type, but thankfully it wasn’t hardcore.”

The young blogger elaborated, “I went through the phases of self-struggle like most gay guys, but what made me get quickly out of them into self-acceptance were my friends, reading, doubting, and questioning until I reached balance. I didn’t choose to come out to my parents. It’s a very long story, and they saw it coming anyway, as they indirectly asked me many times before whether I’m gay or not. They knew all along but were in denial and had no ‘evidence’ against me, until one day my sister and my mother confronted me with a chat history that I forgot to delete, so I had no other choice. Their reaction was very surprising actually, because I always thought it would be a disaster and that they would ground or violently punish me.

“They just sat me down and asked me if I was molested when I was a kid and whether I had sex or not, then they said, ‘It could be a psychological problem, would you like to see a shrink?’ and so I did! I saw my shrink for a year and half, then I stopped going and told my parents that I’m ‘cured.’ (You can check my blog posts about the whole experience starting January 2009).

“My closest straight friends knew way long before my parents because I was sick of living a lie and having to pretend to be someone else in front of them. Some of them are still my friends up till now and some are not. Their reactions were mostly positive, but some just tried to preach and gave me religious books because they don’t want me to ‘suffer’ and they wanted ‘what’s best for me.’ Anyhow girls’ reaction was much smoother than guys’.”

Ice Queer, like most self-accepting Egyptian gays, believes that winning the basic human rights of free speech, freedom of association, and freedom of the press are necessary preconditions to the educational process that alone can change hostile cultural attitudes toward same-sex love in Egypt. Now that Mubarak has fallen, this reporter asked him if he believes that raising the question of gay rights must wait until those freedoms are clearly and unalterably established.

“Totally!” he replied, adding, “We need first to realize basic human rights and establish a democratic secular atmosphere before fighting for our LGBT rights. In recent years, homophobia hasn’t really changed in our media, and the post-Mubarak Egypt will depend on which political party will rule.”

The optimism of the will that animated young Egyptians in overcoming their fears and launching protests that led to the revolution is evident in Ice Queer, who voiced no doubts about the army being held to its promises of full democracy.

“If we were able to get rid of Mubarak’s regime in 18 days, I guess we are able to do anything if we unite again for our freedom,” he declared.

What does Ice Queer want from the new, post-Mubarak Egypt?

“To always enjoy the ‘freedom’ that I’m enjoying in these days, to be able to express my point of view without censorship, to be living in a real secular country, to not fear that I’d be prosecuted one day because I’m gay or because I’m atheist,” he responded. “To simply be able to enjoy my humanity by all its means!”

But the army now in power has been part and parcel of the corrupt, repressive regime and owns hundreds of highly profitable businesses in the poisoned, top-heavy economic system from which its generals have profited handsomely. The Interior Ministry’s security apparatus — which numbers one and a half million paid agents and informers — has yet to be dismantled, and the draconian Emergency Law remains in full force.

Observers can only hope that the optimism of the Egyptian youth — as illustrated by Ice Queer’s confident enthusiasm — is not misplaced, and that the democratic revolution in which they believe will not be sabotaged, deformed, or debased by the country’s power elite in the months and years to come.

Ice Queer’s blog— which he could not update during much of the revolution due to the Mubarak regime’s shutting down of the Internet — is at http://confessions-room.blogspot.com/. The Human Rights Watch 2004 report on the Mubarak regime’s anti-homosexual campaign and the Cairo 52 incident, “In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct,” is online at hrw.org/en/node/12167/section/2. Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at direland.typepad.com.