Ahmed Alaa sits in an Egyptian detention center, awaiting trial. Last week his remand was extended by 15 days. Alaa was among those arrested in September for waving a rainbow flag at a concert by the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila.
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Waving the flag is not against the law in Egypt, nor is being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. But that could change soon, if a law is passed making homosexuality an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The bill is currently before the parliament, and is unlikely to be rejected by a majority there. In the meantime, the Egyptian state prosecutor’s office is resorting to imposing other relevant laws that ban “the spreading of wantonness” and “harming public security.”
What does homosexuality have to do with public security? “It’s a disgraceful disease,” says Makram Mohammed Ahmed, a leading Egyptian journalist and chairman of the body that regulates the country’s media. If it’s a disease, it has the potential to harm public health, which could lead to general turmoil and thereby undermine stability. It’s surprising, though, to hear such a belligerent position coming from Ahmed, who is known as a liberal intellectual and formerly headed the large Dar al-Hilal publishing house and edited Al-Musawar, a major newspaper.
Ahmed remarks were part of the explanation he offered for the injunction that was recently issued by the regulatory council he heads, prohibiting the press from publishing anything that could be construed as supportive of the LGBT community. “A homosexual may only be invited to appear in the media in order to express remorse, or to acknowledge that his behavior is inappropriate,” he noted.
While making his announcement, Ahmed was flanked by clerics and officials from the Al-Azhar Mosque, who declared that homosexuality constitutes a serious violation of holy law and goes against what God intended when he created mankind.
For their part, the Egyptian security forces don’t generally seek out activists from the community. In Cairo there are bars and clubs that are known as havens for LGBT individuals, but for the most part they are not subject to attacks by the government. However, once in a while, especially when pressure from religious circles grows, state authorities flex their muscles and carry out some type of action for show.
For example, in 2001, the police raided the Queen Boat, a floating nightclub known as a gay-friendly hangout, which is permanently docked by the Nile corniche; several dozen people attending a party on board were arrested, including a few foreigners. In 2014, a video was posted on YouTube showing the wedding of two men in Egypt. The authorities arrested the people who posted the video and one member of the couple. The second man managed to escape.
Predictably, such persecution is not met with any civil protest. In 2011, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights declined to defend the country’s LGBT community, arguing that “if the organization embraces the community, it will spell the end for all the other human rights that are left in Egypt.” Hisham Qasim, chairman of the group at the time, explained that there were red lines that it couldn’t cross, and that in order to preserve its legitimacy, it could not act in areas that were not a matter of consensus among “the entire public.”
Under heavy international pressure to improve its human rights record, Egypt is prepared to expand the rights of Copts and it feels that is a sufficient response to the U.S. Congress’ call for the country to take steps to halt the wave of terror attacks directed against Christians. But in Cairo’s view, LGBT rights are a domestic matter that not only touches on Islamic religious law, but also on preservation of Egypt’s independence as a sovereign nation.
Egyptian MP Mustafa Bakri, a Nasserist with no religious ties, has asserted that homosexuality is a Western plot devised to prove that Egyptian youth is degenerate. On another occasion, Bakri decried homosexuality as a scheme whose goal is to dictate Western values to Egypt – i.e., that international criticism isn’t meant to improve human rights in Egypt, but rather to impose a code of conduct that will destroy the country’s traditions, religion and customs, and therefore fighting this scourge must be seen as a national mission. Bakri has thus called for the dozens who were arrested at the rock concert in September to be tried (some already have been), and also for those who permitted the concert to take place to face the same consequences.
Egyptian LGBT activists have decided to go underground and curtail its presence on social media. The community’s main Facebook account, Rainbow Egypt, recently stopped updating, and in the last posts to the site, people were generally being more cautious about how they expressed themselves.
The writer of one post did talk mockingly about how in Egypt it’s okay to issue a religious ruling permitting a husband to have sexual relations with his dead wife, but homosexual relations are forbidden. The writer was referring to the ruling issued last month by an Al Azhar University expert on religious law. It caused a major uproar, in religious circles as well, and the man was dismissed from his position.
The anti-LGBT crackdown as well as the moves to rein in some of the more outrageous clerics are part and parcel of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s efforts to introduce a new religious discourse in his country. To this end, Sissi is trying in equal measure to go after all those perceived to be on society’s fringes. As he sees it, if religious extremism is to be uprooted, LGBT rights must be reduced in tandem. A balance must be preserved.