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ElKarakhana: History of Sex Working in Modern Egypt between Legalization and Criminalization

This paper aims to examine the historical legal evolution of laws pertaining to sex work. It begins with Muhammed Ali Pasha, who initially criminalized sex work in Cairo, only for it to be relegalized by Abbas I of Egypt and the introduction of the first “law” to regulate the sex work industry in 1896. The favorable relationship between the sex work industry and the government started to deteriorate after Egypt gained independence from British protectorate status in 1922. Egyptian society and the state began to view the industry as an immoral colonial product, and efforts to put an end to it gradually gained momentum. The first order came in 1942 from the military governor, who mandated the closure of all brothels in the country except for those in the Governorates’ capitals. This was followed by another order granting the power to close brothels to the Governorates’ governors, and finally the infamous Order Number 79, which called for the closure of all brothels in the country. However, the first law aimed at eliminating all forms of sex work in Egypt was enacted in 1951: Law No. 68/1951. For the first time, this law included provisions regarding “male sex work” in addition to “female sex work.” Unfortunately, due to a lack of legal resources, it is difficult to determine whether this law was used to prosecute homosexual men, as it primarily focused on ending the legalized sex work industry.

The paper also examines the circumstances surrounding the enactment of the current law, Law No. 10/1961, as well as case studies of significant verdicts from the Supreme Constitutional Court and the Court of Cassation on this law during the 1970s and 1990s. The early 2000s marked the emergence of a new phenomenon: “online sex work,” which coincided with the increase in internet usage in Egypt. The police responded by innovating new methods to entrap sex workers online, notably through the introduction of the concept of “cyber informants” who would pose as customers on dating apps where sex workers were active. The rise in internet usage also provided an opportunity for the empowerment of the gay community in Egypt, which posed a threat to the state, particularly its vice police who rejected any form of sexuality and gender expression outside the narrow heteronormative narrative approved by the state. The Egyptian state de facto criminalized and targeted the LGBTQ+ community, especially gay men, based on the legal definition of “debauchery” established by the Court of Cassation in the 1970s in relation to Law No. 10/1961.

This period also witnessed the infamous Queen Boat case. In the years following the January 25th Revolution, issues related to sexual rights in Egypt became increasingly prominent. This trend intensified after the ousting of Islamist President Muhammed Morsi in 2013, leading to a moral battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the new President Al-Sisi over the Islamic identity of Egyptian society and the state. Sexual rights in Egypt became a primary target in this moral struggle. The paper concludes with a brief overview of the various laws enacted to further restrict sexual and bodily freedoms in the country following the Rainbow Flag incident in 2017.


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