Egyptians have got themselves into a lather over revelations about middle-class swinger parties
-Cairo - October 2008
-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
Shell-shocked would be something of an understatement to describe the Egyptian reaction this week to news that a married couple have been hosting swinger sex parties in their painfully middle-class Cairo home. The "wife-swap scandal", as dubbed by an incandescent media, is dominating front pages, blog posts and streetside chatter and has sent the country's moral guardians into a lather of self-righteous piety.
While anyone seeking a thoughtful, balanced debate on the pros and cons of wife-swapping should probably look elsewhere (the practice having been almost uniformly labelled by the press as "disgraceful", "degrading" and "a horror"), the feeding frenzy has brought to the surface a vibrant undercurrent of debate over sexual mores in this profoundly conservative society, forcing Egyptians to confront usually unspeakable taboos.
First, the facts. Magdy, a 48-year-old senior civil servant and Samira, his much-younger schoolteacher wife (who wears a veil – no small detail when it comes to the evaluation of a woman's integrity in the public eye) allegedly set up a website to arrange swinger sessions with other partners and promoted it through various Arabic porn sites. It proved successful – no fewer than 44 couples expressed an interest in holding a rendezvous with Magdy and Samira, all of whom were carefully interviewed in downtown Cairo coffee shops to weed out the dull, unattractive and unmarried (Magdy believed married couples would be less likely to spill the beans to the police). Out of all those interviewed, at least four passed the test.
Many commentators have declared dramatically that this is the first time such a thing has occurred in Egypt – a claim regularly trotted out with regard to all manner of sexual perversions here, and one which is always highly doubtful considering this is a nation of more than 80 million citizens. It is certainly, however, the first time anyone has been caught in the act, and Magdy and Samira (the couple's internet aliases, not their real names) are currently languishing in police cells, charged with inciting debauchery, prostitution and immoral advertising. The pair, who have three children, could face up to three years in jail if convicted. Others suspected of partaking in the "debauchery" are still being rounded up.
The response has been one of almost universal revulsion. Message boards on mainstream media sites have been flooded with comments expressing dismay at the "degradation" of Islamic society, anger at the apparent lack of shame on the part of the couple themselves, and even pleas to newspapers not to give any more coverage to the story lest it inspire similarly morally-vacuous people. The strength of feeling Magdy and Samira have provoked is a useful reminder to those of us, including myself, who spend most of our time analysing Egypt's political divisions that the country's social and cultural boundaries are far more blurry; even politically-liberal, anti-regime bloggers like Zeinobia have called the wife-swappers "sick perverts" and condemned the human rights groups who have come to the couple's defence.
What lies behind the fury? Of course the most obvious answer is simply that Egyptian society is socially conservative – dynamic, certainly, and in a state of constant flux, but fundamentally rooted around the importance of Islamic values, at the heart of which stands the sanctity of family and marriage. Naturally many in the west might also find the idea of swinger orgies distasteful; the difference is that most would argue the actions of consenting adults in the privacy of their own home is their own business, a viewpoint that has remained largely absent from debate here. But I think there is another reason for the intensity of emotion on display, and it derives specifically from the twin economic and demographic crises that have engulfed Egypt in recent years.
Marriage is social oxygen in Egypt: an absolutely essential prerequisite for any long-term romantic union or child-rearing, and officially the only legitimate means of having sex at all. Yet spiralling unemployment and crippling price rises have made the cost of wedlock prohibitively expensive for most young people; whereas in 1976 almost a quarter of women were married by the age of 19, today that figure is less than 10% and there are more than nine million unmarried Egyptians of both sexes over the age of 30. Despite the credit crunch, tradition holds fast when it comes to marriage and the bill (especially for the groom) is exorbitant: an apartment must be found, furniture and appliances acquired (these are expected to be brand new, regardless of the economic situation of the families involved) and the Shabka must be purchased – a symbolic gift (usually of jewellery) for the bride that represents the "tying" of the couple. The price of the average Shabka alone starts at £2,000, in a country where a teacher earns about £30 a month.
Combine that with a demographic explosion that has seen the proportion of the population under the age of 30 climb to 60%, and you've got an awful lot of frustrated individuals in Egypt, most of whom are dreaming of marriage. And perhaps it is this reverence for an institution that appears so unattainable for so many that has really fuelled the outrage at Magdy and Samira's free-wheeling bedroom antics. After all, the Egyptian press is never short of other sex scandals to be feasted upon: in the last few months we have seen controversy erupt over "explicit" teen movie scenes, the whirlwind surrounding a new book depicting a licentious divorcee, and a furore over leading Islamic scholar Gamal el-Banna's call to stop condemning youths who kiss while dating. But none of these rows has inflamed passions quite as sharply as this one, despite being equally anathematic to conservative norms – possibly because all of them involve the sin of sex outside marriage, an activity still severely frowned upon but one which garners at least a smidgen of sympathy among those for whom a wedding remains a distant fantasy.
In contrast, wife-swapping entails those who have already been lucky enough to achieve that fantasy rubbing it in everybody's faces. It's one thing to bend the rules when the opportunity for legitimate sexual relations seems like it may never come knocking; it's quite another to debase the purity of that opportunity once you've taken it. And despite all the rhetoric about declining ethics and bad examples, I suspect the resentment many feel towards Magdy and Samira really stems from their heartfelt belief that marriage is unique, desirable and precious, and not something to be cheapened once you've been fortunate enough to obtain it – a belief reinforced daily by the poverty and lack of opportunity standing between many young people and matrimony.