Egyptian men on trial for doing a video prosecutors claimed was of a gay wedding enter the courtroom in Cairo on November 1, 2014. The video, filmed aboard a Nile riverboat, shows what prosecutors said was a gay wedding ceremony, with two men in the center kissing, exchanging rings and cutting a cake with their picture on it. (AFP/Getty Images)

Egypt’s government has aggressively cracked down on Islamist and liberal opponents over the past year. Now officials are increasingly targeting another group: gay people.

Police raided a public bathhouse in Cairo this month and arrested at least two dozen men, parading them half-naked in front of television cameras before hauling them off to prison.

It was the latest in a series of police busts at suspected meeting places of homosexuals across the country. Arrests of gay people have been on the rise since President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi seized power in a military coup in 2013, but in recent months the arrests have escalated, rights groups say.

“It’s a full-on crackdown on all sorts of freedoms,” said a prominent gay rights activist in Egypt, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing crackdown. “There is a lot of fear in Egypt’s gay community,” he said. “Many people want to leave the country.”

As a fiercely conservative, largely Muslim society, Egypt has never openly accepted gay or transgender people. In the early 2000s, the government of then-president Hosni Mubarak staged similar raids on gay-friendly hangouts and jailed dozens of people. Gay activists are comparing the current campaign to the darkest days under the Mubarak government.

Homosexuality is not illegal per se under Egyptian law. But prosecutors charge defendants under a section of the penal code that criminalizes prostitution and debauchery. In April, four men were sentenced to between eight and 12 years in prison each for debauchery after a raid on an all-male party they attended at a villa in a Cairo suburb. About 150 people have been arrested in such raids since 2013, rights groups say.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the detentions at the bathhouse, and it was not clear what charges the men might face.

Hope gives way to fear

When protesters rose up to oust the long-ruling Mubarak in 2011, many gay, lesbian and transgender Egyptians had hoped they would finally be able to secure their place in a new, democratic system.

“After the revolution, there was this intense feeling of euphoria,” said another Egyptian gay rights activist. He, too, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears for his safety. He is working outside the country.

“People began to embrace each other and began to feel at least partially accepted,” he said. “The community was more visible, and the public became more aware that we exist.”

But now many gay Egyptians are living in fear.

Activists say the current persecution of homosexuals is part of a broader state clampdown on dissidents. Since the coup, the government has jailed tens of thousands of Islamists, liberal activists and anti-government students.

But the gay community is not being targeted for its members’ political activism. Rather, in an era of fervent nationalism and pro-military sentiment, homosexuals are seen as failing to uphold traditional standards of manhood, activists say.

“The government is pumping out nationalist rhetoric and xenophobic speech all the time. They want to enforce a stereotypical vision of masculinity,” said the first gay activist. “But of course that vision sees homosexuality as a weakness and as against nationalist values.”

TV station’s role in raid

The bathhouse raid, on Dec. 7, was particularly troubling for the gay community, activists here say. Not only was a television crew from a popular satellite channel on hand to document the operation, but the channel’s own journalists also had prompted the arrests by informing police that gay men went to the location to have sex.

The channel, Al Kahera Wal Nas, had planned to feature the bathhouse, or hammam, in a special report on AIDS in Egypt, calling it a “den of sin” but offering no proof that any illegal activity had taken place there. Bathhouses are popular in the Arab world, with men and often women visiting them to relax in hot baths or steam rooms.

“This is the first time I have seen such close coordination between the media and the security forces” on an anti-gay raid, said the activist who is outside Egypt.

The television host responsible for the report, Mona al-Iraqi, immediately posted photos of the bare-chested detainees on her Facebook page.

“With pictures, we reveal the biggest den of group perversion in the heart of Cairo,” she wrote, in a post that was later taken down.

Rights groups say people detained in such operations are particularly vulnerable in the penal system.

“From the beginning of the process, they are beaten, verbally abused, threatened with rape,” said Dalia Abd el-Hameed, the head of the gender program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a local human rights organization.

“If they have long hair, it is forcibly cut, because it’s seen as a sign of effeminacy,” she said. “People are treated in the most humiliating way.”

The suspects are sometimes forced to undergo anal examinations, the results of which are then submitted to the court as evidence of homosexual activity, rights groups say.

Because of the shame of being arrested under such circumstances, detainees often don’t want to contact friends or family members. There are few Egyptian defense lawyers willing to take on such cases, meaning sometimes the accused are left without representation.

“Sissi and the police, they want to assert this idea that they are the guardians of morality in Egypt now,” said the activist who is outside the country.

“So the state is trying to shame people for their private behavior and destroy the lives of anyone with a voice.”

Heba Habib contributed to this report.