Thursday, 10 June 2010

Egyptian dissident a double outsider

Source: Los Angeles Times

By Jeffrey Fleishman and Amro Hassan

Bahaa Saber puts himself at risk to fight for human rights and democracy under the authoritarian Mubarak regime. He also is persecuted for being a homosexual, a taboo in the Muslim nation.

Stiff and sore from his latest police beating, Bahaa Saber wiped back the tears of a man trapped in two lives: a homosexual seeking acceptance from Islam, a political activist marching against a state that counters his demands for democracy with truncheons and tear gas.

Saber's voice is hoarse from years of yelling, his eyes weary from watching all that has not changed. His life has become a series of bruises and protests, of thrusting his fists into the air and scanning crowds as black-clad officers in helmets close in on placards calling for better salaries and freedoms denied.

"You start thinking whether it matters," Saber said. "You can't change a police state or force a revolution with a bunch of activists with different agendas. You can't keep shouting slogans into the wind. It's been like this for 30 years. People are working too hard just to get by. They don't have time to make life better. The government put us [in] this box."

Saber sat in a coffee shop the other day, whispering protest strategies into his cellphone, waiting for the scruff of shoes on pavement. Two blocks away, riot police watched government employees chant outside parliament in a daily ritual of sweat and discontent.

Anger against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak has intensified as the nation prepares for legislative elections in the fall. Workers are striking, human rights groups are seeking to limit police powers, and opposition leaders are pressing for constitutional change. So far, though, the Egyptian government, a close Western ally that receives about $1.2 billion in U.S. aid annually, has not budged.

Those who defy the government are often arrested and sometimes tortured; their names slipped into security files, their futures blighted.

Few, though, are like Saber. His homosexuality has made him an outcast from his religion and from the nation he wants to improve; a judge once told him that gay men should be shot on sight. He lives as if on a wire, dividing himself between who he is and what he wants to accomplish. He walks the streets in rage and disguise.

"My family suggested that I marry to duck the suspicion of being gay," he said. "I married my brother-in-law's sister. I have a baby. That was proof to my neighborhood that I wasn't HIV-positive, that I was a good man.

"Some political activists stay away from me because I'm gay. It changes me in their eyes. Whether as a dissident or a homosexual, you get used to being an unwanted person."

Saber's political fervor was born of his sexual identity. In 1997, he was convicted of debauchery, a euphemism here for homosexuality, and served six months in prison. He has since been arrested but never convicted on similar charges, as well as on drug counts and crimes related to political protest, such as insulting the president and disorderly conduct.

"After a while," he said, "you stop paying attention to the charges they stack against you."

With each jailing, he said, he met activists, laborers, professors, taxi drivers, Islamists, journalists and others arrested by security forces. Saber, who once wrote for a leftist newspaper but is now jobless, is not the ideal Arab dissident; his homosexuality has made him a curiosity to opposition groups and an easily vilified target for police and religious conservatives.

"Bahaa's main problem is that his sexual orientation has become his Achilles' heel," said Saber's lawyer, Ashraf Milad Ruxi. "Authorities have made sure to defame him and ruin his reputation by revealing his homosexuality and detaining him whenever they have the chance to do so."

During an April 13 march, security forces stormed a crowd of protesters and pulled Saber away. Video and pictures of the incident show demonstrators clashing with police while Saber, shouting against Mubarak, was dragged into the street and stripped of his shirt. He was driven to a police station where, he said, "an officer ordered street cops to take off all my clothes and my underwear." He said he was then beaten and sexually assaulted.

"The officer said he wouldn't stop until I said, 'I am a faggot.' I said it loudly to satisfy him and he stopped."

Saber was charged with disturbing the peace and attacking police. He has filed a suit against the Interior Ministry, accusing officers of torturing him and seizing his computer. Egyptian security forces are frequently accused of sexually abusing suspects; a 2007 video that ended up on the Internet showed police officers assaulting a bus driver with a stick.

A prosecutor who interviewed Saber in the hours after his arrest said, "Every part of his body seemed beaten and hurt." The official said a medical examination ordered by police found that "the bruises and scrapes on his body could have occurred while he was being pulled away from the protest rather than result from officers' torture."

Saber wondered the other day whether he saw the world the same way as a mill worker or a machinist. He protests with them, but afterward they slip into their separate lives and he is left wandering, restless, a father with a child conceived not out of love but out of necessity to keep up appearances in a neighborhood set in its ways.

"The problem is that many activists, despite how liberal and open-minded they claim to be, regard a homosexual as someone who's not valid enough to represent them," said Saber, who has been arrested five times and spent about 11 months in prison.

He waited in the coffee shop. More police gathered outside. He said he was contemplating seeking asylum in another country, but didn't want to betray all those years on the protest line, all those months spent in prison. His body shook. He wiped his eyes; he said that no matter what, he would never fit in here.

He stepped out, turning the corner toward riot policemen peering through the wire mesh of transport trucks. About 200 protesters were chanting for better wages. He rushed toward them, throwing his fist into the air.

The police spotted him, but this time, Saber slipped away unscathed.

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