Egypt is considering a draft of a new law officially criminalizing same-sex relations, as part of a wider crackdown on LGBTQ rights after a concert in late September, when a few audience members waived rainbow flags. Reuters reported on Thursday that the proposed law, if passed, would introduced up to a decade in prison for “people engaging in or promoting same-sex relations.”
While the White House has refrained from condemning the arrests and the proposed law (the United States provides Egypt $1.3 billion in military aid each year), rights groups have been calling out the Egyptian state on this issue. Amnesty International said that the law would “further entrench stigma and abuse against people based on their perceived sexual orientation.” Human Rights Watch has also spoken out against the wider crackdown, which has intensified since a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo in September (the lead singer of Mashrou Leila is openly gay, and the band is vocal in its support for LGTBQ rights). Since then, there have been at least 70 arrests, forced anal exams, torture, and trials where defendants have not been given access to lawyers.
According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the situation has reached a “critical stage.”
Many of the arrests have taken place following police infiltration of alleged LGBT ‘safe spaces’, such as clubs and bars. This crackdown has also extended to online platforms, with many people taking to social media to hunt down, bully and harass those suspected of as ‘LGBT’. The police has also utilised dating applications, such as Grindr, and Facebook to find individuals with non-normative genders and sexualities.
But Ahmed El Hady, an Egyptian neuroscientist at Princeton University and a queer activist, told ThinkProgress that the lack of U.S. response on Sisi’s crackdown on rights isn’t unique to the administration of President Donald Trump, but goes back to former President Barack Obama.
“There has been silence and legitimization for the Sisi regime — for them, Sisi is better than having an Islamist government,” said el Hady, who would like to see the United States totally cut off military aid to Egypt and to stop “propping up the security apparatus.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is using a crackdown on the LGBTQ community as part of “his counter-revolutionary toolkit in order to gain ground with the Islamists, because he needs to prove his religious credentials after the coup d’etat he did in 2013,” said El Hady, referring to the 2013 ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood party. In the days following the violent crackdown on Morsi’s supporters, Sisi declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and lost the support of Islamists across the country.
Nour Abu-Assab and Nof Nasser Eddin, co-founders of the U.K.-based Centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration (an outfit dedicated to the promotion of equal rights for women, sexual minorities, and other marginalized groups) told ThinkProgress that the recent anti-LGBTQ crackdown is about rounding up political opponents.
“The Egyptian government often does that — they choose scapegoats. Towards the end of last year they chose feminist organizations,” said Nasser Eddin.
“They do these things to either divert attention from a bigger issue or to gain public support by saying, ‘Even though we’re not the Muslim Brotherhood, we’re still not a government that promotes immorality,'” she said, adding that some of those who have been recently arrested aren’t even members of the LGBTQ community, but are activists who support LGBTQ rights or are seen to be opposed to the government.
“So they’re using LGBT, or the rainbow flag as an excuse.” This, say Abu-Assab and Nasser Eddin, is why their organization is currently doing research to come up with Arabic words and phrasing rather than using the English acronyms and symbols (such as the rainbow flag) as a means of identifying with the LGBTQ community. This, said Nasser Eddin, is a regional issue.
“When we look at the LGBT movement, if we look across the Middle East and Africa, a lot of people think it’s westernized, as if we didn’t have homosexuality throughout history…as if it’s part of a western intervention,” she added. Abu-Assab pointed out that LGBTQ groups in Egypt are unregistered, “so their work is mostly done within the LGBT community itself, and when we try to approach other organizations to collaborate on projects that are related to gender and sexuality and that target LGBT people, most of the organizations refuse that collaboration.”
Within Egypt now, both she and Abu-Assab are certain the proposed law will pass because there’s political will to do so. El Hady feels the same.
“This is at a time when [Sisi is] failing on economic policy, he’s failing in his fight against the [self-proclaimed] Islamic State in the Sinai. So this took the media by storm — you have almost all TV channels denouncing what happened at the Mashrou’ Leila concert,” said el Hady. The Supreme Council of Media has also issued a decree prohibiting any positive coverage of LGBTQ individuals and issues. The only time LGBT people are allowed to be featured in the news is if “they are self-hating and denouncing their own acts,” said el Hady.
Sexual “deviancy and debauchery” has always been against the law in Egypt — and homosexuality is considered “deviant” behavior there — but this law would formalize punishment against gay men. Those who have been arrested (not just in this cycle of arrests) have been detained under this law, with two of them also being tried before a national security court because they are being accused of forming a homosexual group that “endangers national security.”
“The [state controlled media] is doing a big vilification campaign, saying that [the gay men] are western agents who impose western values on a society that is conservative…so now, they’re taking the law from being very vague into a very, very precise homophobic law,” said el Hady. Essentially, nationalistic, xenophobic feelings are at a high in Egypt right now, and calling homosexuality a deviant behavior “introduced by international homosexual lobby trying to infiltrate Egypt,” as the state media is reporting, is a surefire way to gain public support, even from Islamists.
Sisi’s gambit seems to have worked, with Islamists ordinarily opposing Sisi backing calls for the police to arrest LGBTQ individuals.
“In a weird moment, there was an alliance between Sisi and his most ferocious opponents — it was very effective,” said el Hady, adding that the U.S. government and rights groups alike need to step up their efforts to defend LGBTQ rights in Egypt. The U.S. has been particularly silent. Hate groups, however, have not been. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the head of anti-LGBTQ group Family Research Council was among evangelical leaders who met with Sisi in Cairo earlier this month. Inaction, on the governmental level, amounts to a tacit approval of the crackdown, which is why el Hady says statements from rights groups aren’t enough.
“They issued statements, but what is a statement going to do? They have lobbyists and can apply much more pressure to have hearing in Congress — the U.S. government has a lot of leverage over the Egyptian government,” he said. Still, he’s encouraged by the fact that despite the risks, civil society groups within Egypt are tackling the issue.
“Now, the fight is in the open and we can discuss LGBT rights in public, even if a lot of victims will suffer directly from this confrontation,” he said, adding that he believes things will eventually change for the better and that there can be “a very effective push back.”
“We have to believe that the impossible can happen, otherwise, we die,” he said.