Egypt is a country with a deep, profound, and unique cultural history; a history that in fact still shapes the country’s largely positive worldwide reputation today. Although in recent years the country’s history have been a tumultuous one, consequently leading to a plethora of views concerning the country’s economic standing, its human rights abuses, and its social policy changes, Egypt is still viewed by many Western countries as being one of the most tolerant and liberal states in the MENA region.
Nevertheless, growing up in Cairo, although I felt (and still feel) intense admiration and love for my country and its people, what I did not feel was this so-called tolerance. It is undoubtedly true that in comparison to other countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, and Iraq, the Egyptian people enjoyed many more freedoms and could exercise many more rights. However, (most likely due to the Western-style education I received) I could perceive that Egypt had a poor human rights track record, especially in relation to gender equality and LGBT rights.
One of the first occurrences that increased my awareness of this unfortunate fact was the infamous “Cairo52” incident. On May 11, 2001, a group of policemen entered the Queen Boat, a floating nightclub known for hosting “gay” parties and arrested at least 55 men, with 3 of them released over the course of the next few days. Before facing trial, the men were kept in alarmingly adverse conditions and beaten, electrocuted, and forced to undergo invasive examinations to deduce whether they had engaged in sodomy. The eventual verdict condemned 21 men of debauchery, 1 man of desecrating religion, and 1 of both. They all received five years of hard labor. This case puzzled and perplexed many individuals and human rights organizations. While it was known and accepted that the Mubarak administration did not advocate LGBT rights, homosexuality was not declared illegal and neither was cross-dressing. Instead, there was a legal loophole, in that Egypt’s criminalization of debauchery was extended to homosexual relationships between adults. For example, in 2000, an Egyptian homosexual couple was arrested and accused of “practicing immoral and indecent behavior” (Wikipedia). Their lawyer argued in their defense that homosexuality was not illegal, but his declaration fell on deaf ears as the judge declared that the men had violated religious morals, which was enough to jail them. Those who were anticipating public outcry against the couple’s treatment would be disappointed. It is true that there was a substantial media response, but it was highly supportive of the judge’s decision, with many high-profile figures condemning homosexuality as a Western-influenced mental disease that was pervading Middle Eastern society. And thus emerged the social stigma surrounding homosexuality in Egypt, which has only been aggravated ever since. Perhaps a simple yet revealing indication of the societal disapprobation of homosexuality is the fact that the word used to describe gay men in Arabic is “shezoz,” which can literally be translated to mean “abnormality.”
The two dominant religions in Egypt are Islam and Coptic Christianity, both of which outlaw homosexuality. This significantly contributes to the stigma surrounding being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans, with many commentators arguing that the Mubarak government engaged in a crack-down against the gay community in order to placate Islamist fundamentalists who were gaining significant amounts of political power. Nonetheless, with Mubarak’s ouster, the situation did not improve. In fact, although Tahrir Square was notoriously a popular space for gay Cairenes to meet, during the 2011 revolution requests for the recognition of LGBT rights could not be heard amongst the protesters’ demands in Cairo’s reputable square. This is because, as stated by Khalid, a 22-year old gay rights activist, “gays are the biggest-and yet the most silent- minority in Egypt.” Unfortunately, it is not evident that they will be granted a voice anytime soon.
With ex-army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi gaining control of Egypt’s presidency in June 2014, the country has seen the revived crackdown on the LGBT population. Most commentators are in consensus that the increase in arrests and surveillance is an attempt to prove to the public that the new regime is not any less moral or Islamic than the Muslim Brotherhood. According to a report published by The Independent, Egypt’s “morality police” have arrested at least 150 LGBT people since the toppling of Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013, with 100 more behind bars on the perplexing “debauchery” charge, and judges issuing sentences as high as seven years. Two high-profile cases occurring during Al- Sisi’s rule have thus far proved that justice for the LGBT population is a dream fiercely disconnected from reality. The first was a video, rapidly circulated on Egypt’s social media platforms, which allegedly featured a wedding ceremony between two men. Although the men were acquitted on charges of homosexuality, CNN reports that they were still arrested and sentenced to 3 years in prison for the distribution of pornographic material, revealing the duplicity and the injustice of the new regime.
In 2015, Egypt’s morality police again arrested 26 men in a television raid on a public bathhouse in Cairo, broadcast by Egyptian TV host Mona Iraqi. Images of scantily clad men, being pulled by police through the hammam, thankfully shocked the city’s activist groups, and the men were eventually granted acquittal and Iraqi due to face trial. Although the verdict delighted the defendants, their families, and those advocating for LGBT rights, Sarah el-Sirgany is doubtful as to whether the verdict indicates greater equality to come for LGBT individuals in Egypt. She writes, “no-one in court argued that homosexuality is not a crime and the verdict doesn’t address this. Defendants covered their faces every time they were led handcuffed into the courtroom. For them and their families, homosexuality remains a disgraceful scandal.” This is proven by the fact that one of the men doused himself in petrol, setting his body on fire as a result of the “public humiliation.” Although the verdict was a victory, it is still a slight one. It does not change the fact that the country now needs to focus on the reversal of the social stigma surrounding homosexuality. What is shocking is that psychiatrists in Egypt believe that homosexuality is a “disease” that can be “cured.” Dr Wael Abu Hendy claims that he has had many successes with the “treatment,” although the view amongst leading psychologists in the West is that homosexuality cannot be reversed.
Unsurprisingly, Egypt’s LGBT community is now more silent than ever, with the government infiltrating apps like Grindr, and closing down the majority of “gay” bars and cafés. Scott Long, an activist based in Cairo, describes how “anyone who can is going underground. People are far too scared. There is a sense of police pressure on any nonconformist group.” However, in light of recent events that have proven the resilience of the Egyptian people, arrests and clampdowns won’t keep the LGBT community silent for long. All that is needed is any decisive and effective indication from the general population that they are willing to support LGBT rights in the country. In all likelihood, this can only be achieved through a thorough reorganization of the public education system, and the existence of an organization, either controlled or recognized by the government, to champion LGBT rights. Although this seems impossible, one can only dream that the Egyptian people will once again rise up against the administration to demand not only LGBT rights, but also their right to free speech, healthcare, education, and gender equality.
Malak Azer, Staff Writer