Belgium: Het Roze Huis (The Pink House) receives a visit from Egyptian ambassador

Behind The Mask
An Egyptian court will consider the appeal of 23 gay men in March. These men were convicted in November 2001 to prison sentences between 3 and 5 years. All those convicted made use of the possibility to apply for appeal.
That is the information given by Soliman Awaad, the Egyptian ambassador in Brussels, during a very recent visit to Het Roze Huis (The Pink House) in Antwerp, Belgium. 'Egyptian law does not mention homosexuality', the ambassador declared. 'The 23 men were convicted because of lewdness and contempt of religion.'
Het Roze Huis, the GLBT community centre in the Antwerp area, repeatedly focused on the case of the 'Nile boat' in 2001. During the first half of last year, 52 men were arrested at a party on a Nile boat. The arrests caused an international outrage. Apart from the 52 adults, the police also arrested a male minor. After many months, 29 adults and the minor were acquitted. However, 23 men did receive severe prison sentences.

Our consistent attention for human rights and the treatment of gays and lesbians in Egypt led to more intensive contacts with Soliman Awaad, the Egyptian ambassador for Belgium, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the European Union. The ambassador kindly accepted our invitation to make a visit to Het Roze Huis in Antwerp. It was his first visit outside of Brussels since having arrived as ambassador in October 2001. Awaad was the first ambassador ever to visit Het Roze Huis since its festive opening in September 2000.

'The Nile boat case had nothing to do with the persecution of homosexuality', ambassador Awaad claims. 'The men were brought to justice because they committed lewdness (debauchery) and showed their contempt of religion. In Egyptian law, heterosexual and homosexual lewdness are equally punishable. The men concerned had already been arrested in the past. During their parties on the Nile boat, they not only showed lewd behaviour but also ate and drank in great abundance. Their behaviour shocked the (poorly paid) employees on the boat, which encouraged them to complain with the police. Such behaviour is shocking in a society that still knows great poverty and illiteracy.'

The arrested gays gave the prosecutor a unique opportunity to accuse them of lewdness. According to ambassador Awaad, many Egyptian youngsters and students only have few financial means and look for public places to satisfy their sexual needs. 'Sometimes, the police condones this because they understand the situation, in other cases the youngsters only get fined.' High Egyptian circles seem to be aware that it would have been much better to just fine the men in the Nile boat case and to avoid an escalation of the affair. Awaad thinks there is not much chance the Egyptian authorities will treat new, similar cases in the same way.

'The accused stirred great commotion by saying they did not mind about islam and that religion is the cause of Egypt's backwardness. In their homes, the police found writings about their ideas on this. These writings also referred to 'The Witnesses of Joshua', a Jewish sect that has been banned in some countries. These circumstances only worsened the case in the eyes of Egyptian society.'

Het Roze Huis not only talked about the Nile boat case but also drew the ambassador's attention to the recent arrests of 4 men in Bulaq (a suburb of Cairo) and 8 men in Damanhour (the capital of the province of Al-Beheira). All of these men were accused of debauchery. In the Damanhour case, it is known the arrested had to undergo a medical examination.

Ambassador Awaad has some understanding for the international outrage but also defends Egypt's right to apply its own laws. 'There is not a single country where the record on human rights is perfect. This also goes for Western Europe or the United States. Egypt is not the only country where the philosophical or religious beliefs of a prosecutor or judge can influence a trial. In Belgium, nudism for example is socially accepted, but nevertheless nobody has to go and walk stark naked on the 'Grote Markt' (Grand Place) in Brussels or he will be arrested.'

Soliman Awaad thinks the West should take into account the manners and customs of Egypt. 'The member states of the European Union think it is important to consider every country's identity. Quite a just claim, but this also has to apply to a country like Egypt.' According to the high diplomat, western countries (and certainly the US), maintain double standards and only selectively show their indignation.

'The West for example attaches great importance to the freedom of speech and the freedom of gathering, but what about the right to be fed, to get shelter and to receive education? We consider cultural and social rights to be just as important as civil and political rights. A hungry, poor citizen will not get much consolation from free elections. More than 50 percent of Egyptians still suffer from illiteracy. I have to stress however that the number of political parties has risen quite strongly since the Nasser regime. There is a ban on religious parties because we want to avoid a religious civil war as the one we saw in a country like Lebanon.' Many Egyptians, muslims as well as Coptic christians, have more or less conservative views.

According to the ambassador, Egypt is different from other Arab nations. He thinks Egypt cannot be compared to the Arab Gulf states. 'Egypt once helped other Arab nations to write their laws. It was the first country on the African continent that built railroads. Since the 1930's, Egypt began to open embassies abroad. Other Arab countries waited much longer to do this. We were one of the countries that founded the United Nations in 1945 and put our signature under many international agreements on human rights, women's rights, children's rights, crimes against humanity and the fight against torture and genocide. The Egyptian movie and music industry are very renowned in the rest of the Arab world. Egypt earns more money by exporting movies than it gets income from the Suez canal.'

It is still to early to expect an official recognition of same-sex relations in Egypt, the ambassador says. He does believe however this will come at a certain time. Awaad says that gays have high functions in Egyptian politics, the movie industry and the arts. He refers for example to the Egyptian movie director Youssef Chahine who included gay characters or homoerotic scenes in films like 'The Nile and its People' (1972) or Al-Masir (1996). Chahine, who is famous because of his talent, is gay. According to Awaad, Youssef Chahine will visit the International Film Festival of Flanders in Ghent (Belgium) in February.

Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer who received the Nobel prize for Literature in 1988, also wrote about homosexuality in his books. 'In his work 'Medak Alley', which was translated in many languages, a gay man plays an important role', the ambassador explains. 'This man is the owner of a coffee shop. There is no sign of discrimination or insults in the book. Egyptian gays and lesbians enjoy a certain degree of tolerance, just as their counterparts in for example the US. That does not mean everything is possible. For me, sexuality is a gift to humanity, and if you have sexual intercourse in an intimate atmosphere, there is no problem in Egypt. Sex in public however does imply certain risks. Egyptian society still is quite conservative.'

During his diplomatic career, Soliman Awaad worked in cities as New York (United Nations), Tokyo and Oslo. He contributed to the struggle against the genital mutilation of women, a highly sensitive topic in the islamic world. The diplomat has no problem with homosexuality as a social phenomenon. 'I would never show less love towards a member of my family who would turn out to be homosexual', he says. Awaad recalls how an student of medicine in Egypt once made public he wanted to become a woman by undergoing surgery. 'This case gave cause to much commotion and debate in our media, but in the end the student got his surgery. He succeeded in getting his degree and started to work as a doctor.'

The board of directors of Het Roze Huis expressed its sincere appreciation for the openness that ambassador Soliman Awaad demonstrated by wanting to exchange views face to face. Nevertheless, Het Roze Huis continues to monitor the situation of gays and lesbians in Egypt closely en hopes the 23 gay Egyptians will soon be released. Awaad was not able to say whether president Hosni Mubarak will pardon those in prison. 'Normally, our president prefers to stay out of the judiciary process', he says. The ambassador is prepared to have a permanent dialogue on human rights in his country. 'Every letter deserves to get an answer.'

Het Roze Huis still is concerned about the faith of gays and lesbians in Egypt and stresses that Louis Michel, the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, shares this concern. The Antwerp LGBT community centre thinks it is important that the Egyptian authorities contribute to developing a social climate that allows more for gays and lesbians to organize themselves and to come out for their sexual preference, also in public.

'We still urge the Egyptian authorities to release all gays that are in prison without having committed real crimes', Het Roze Huis says. 'According to us, having shown contempt of religion does not justify putting and keeping citizens in prison. Human rights are universal and cannot be compromised by taking into account cultural or religious considerations. No religion, and this includes islam of course, has the right to discriminate against citizens.'

4 February 2002
Het Roze Huis (The Pink House), Draakplaats 1, B-2018 Antwerpen