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CAIRO – Just before midnight, the police navigated down the narrow alleys of an old downtown Cairo district and descended on a rundown bathhouse. They dragged out dozens of nearly naked men, who covered their faces as they struggled to hold up towels, and loaded them into police trucks.
There to film it all was an Egyptian television presenter, who claims she actually triggered the raid by tipping off police about alleged homosexual activity in the bathhouse. Days later, she aired what she boasted was an expose of "a den of mass perversion" spreading AIDS in Egypt.
The raid last week is the latest in a crackdown that gay rights activists say has made 2014 the worst year in a decade for Egypt's gay community. Homosexuals have been driven deeper underground, fearing not only arrest but also the public scare-mongering against the community drummed up in the media.
"I was devastated," a gay woman in Cairo's upscale district of Zamalek told The Associated Press, speaking of the raid and the images aired on "The Hidden," a lurid TV expose program. "Every time there is an incident, the community starts to hide underground ... while police go hunting," she said. Like others, she spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.
"If this interview were a year ago, I wouldn't hide my identity because I love who I am," she added.
Activists say that by cracking down on gays, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi aims to boost its credentials as a protector of morals and religious values in a competition with its rival, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. El-Sissi led the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi from power last year, and since then security forces have all but crushed the Brotherhood, arresting more than 20,000 and killing hundreds as they put down Islamist protests. The government has also arrested secular opposition figures, effectively silencing any voice of dissent.
At the same time, pro-government media have been whipping up fears of threats to society from outsiders, whether foreign plotters, homosexuals, atheists or even devil worshippers.
Gays are taking precautionary measures. They avoid public places where they used to gather and stay away from Internet and dating applications, fearing police traps. Some contemplate leaving the country.
"We are an easy prey, the weakest link," one gay man in his 30s said. "The regime is at war with Islamists and we are small thing they can crush on their way and as part of their propaganda war."
He said he now avoids social gatherings and is careful when talking on the phone or when using dating mobiles apps like Grindr.
"I am even afraid at home with my partner," he said.
Around 150 men this year have been arrested or are on trial in connection with homosexuality, the highest number in more than a decade, said Scott Long, an American activist and researcher on gay rights. He said this is the worst year since 2001, when police raided a Nile boat restaurant and arrested 52 men accused of holding a gay party.
This year, police have made arrests nearly every month, sometimes in raids on houses, said Long, who tracks such incidents.
"There is consistent pattern of invading private life. Arresting people in their apartment, breaking down their doors, looking for evidence of 'deviance', what underwear you wear, looking for condoms in the drawers," Long said. "This is a strong message by the state power to pervade private life."
"It's a cynical, opportunistic kind of power play," said Long. Under Morsi, the ruling Islamists "didn't need to prove their moral credentials," he said, but for el-Sissi's government, "there is a need to show they are defending the moral principles of Egypt."
The men arrested in the bath, Long said, so far have been unable to hire lawyers since private lawyers refuse such cases and even rights groups are keeping a distance since they already fear being targeted by the government. In previous incidents, detainees faced abuse in prison and are often shunned by their families, he said.
In a swift move, Egyptian prosecutors on Wednesday referred 26 men to trial. Five of them were charged with facilitating and inciting debauchery in exchange for money, and the others were charged with "indecent public acts." The trial is to start Dec. 21.
In Egypt — where both the Muslim majority and Christian minority are deeply conservative — homosexuality is strongly taboo, and a gay rights movement has never really been able to gain any traction. No law explicitly criminalizes homosexuality but vague laws against "debauchery" and other charges have been used against gays.
Still, the gay community has long been active underground. Amid the pro-democracy atmosphere sparked by the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, many gays felt cautious optimism, though they feared the rise of Islamists.
This year has firmly pushed gays back into hiding, however.
Last month, an Egyptian court sentenced eight men to three years in prison on charges of "inciting debauchery" after they appeared in a video taken during a party on a Nile boat in which they appeared to exchange rings in what prosecutors alleged was a same-sex wedding.
The media was central in the bathhouse raid, which was shown on "The Hidden," hosted by TV presenter Mona el-Iraqi
A team from the show filmed inside the bathhouse then notified police that homosexual activity was taking place inside, el-Iraqi said on her Facebook page. A force from the vice squad then raided the site. El-Iraqi posted pictures of herself on the scene, taking cell-phone photos of the men being led out of the bathhouse by police. A hidden camera filmed inside the bathhouse but depended on a team member account to describe acts of homosexuality without showing evidence.
El-Iraqi promoted the program as part of campaign against HIV. The Egyptian Association for Combating AIDS later denounced the program and said in a statement that comments by one of its officials who appeared on the show were taken out of context
After coming under heavy criticism, el-Iraqi denied that homosexuality was the target of her program, saying on her Facebook page on Thursday that it meant to address "sex trafficking in a public place" and that her and the police's actions "were taken to prevent a crime that even Western countries prohibit by law."