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Egypt’s rainbow raids

Hossam El-Hamalawy

October 16, 2017

The Egyptian security services have arrested dozens of “queer suspects” amid an ongoing crackdown on the country’s LGBTQ’s community, which has intensified since 22 September.

The latest raids–the biggest in roughly two decades–were sparked by an uproar in mainstream and social media unleashed when rainbow flags were waved in Cairo by a handful of youth during a music concert featuring Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band whose lead singer is openly gay and an LGBTQ rights advocate.

The campaign is not confined to the capital, with the arrests extending to at least four other provinces, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

Homosexuality is not officially outlawed, but the country’s “Morality Police” have long fabricated charges using vague legal clauses against “debauchery” and “prostitution” when targeting gay people.

Some of the detainees were referred swiftly to court and given prison sentences, while others are still in custody undergoing interrogation. Among them, Sarah Hegazy, a prominent leftist activist who advocated for LGBTQ rights. Her defense lawyers said she was beaten up and sexually abused by inmates after being incited by a police officer. Other detainees faced similar ill-treatment and torture, including humiliating anal examinations.

Amid media frenzy, several government officials, parliament members and sheikhs from the religious establishment have already come out in support of the crackdown. Hani Shaker, the pro-government head of the Musicians Syndicate, who prides himself on battling “Satanists,” announced a new crusade against “queers” and banned the Lebanese band from performing in Egypt ever again.

Dangerous precedents

While the biggest in magnitude, the current campaign is not the first of its kind. Under Hosni Mubarak, the Morality Police and State Security Police rounded up dozens and referred 52 to court on charges of debauchery, in what became known as the infamous Queen Boat Case in 2001. The detainees were tortured and raped, before an international outcry forced the government to halt temporarily the crackdown.

Members of the LGBTQ community members I spoke with following the Queen Boat Case told me that prior to this onslaught, while arrests of gays took place occasionally, the government had largely adopted a “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” approach. There were specific bars, cafes and events which constituted hangout spaces for the LGBTQ community, informally tolerated by the Egyptian state. Some leading government officials, intellectuals and artists were known to be gay, but were not harassed as they never spoke openly about their sexual preferences or raised the issue in wider circles.

However the government attitude changed completely afterwards. Members of the LGBTQ community regularly faced harassment; their hangout places were raided or closed down; sensationalist press reports demonized them. In 2009, the state-backed General Federation of Trade Unions announced no “queer workers” were welcome in unions or labor institutions. Officers from the Morality Police even went so far as to regularly pose as gay people online in order to entrap LGBTQ suspects.

Revolution and Counterrevolution

Before the 2011 revolution, the spread of internet access and the rise of blogs and social media allowed Egypt’s LGBTQ citizens a degree of breathing space. Some used blogs and social media to campaign for their rights, while others saw it primarily as a medium via which they could meet and date. Some of the leading human rights activists and anti-Mubarak dissidents were members of the LGBTQ community. But neither LGBTQ movement evolved on the ground nor was gay liberation a cause on the agenda of any political party.

The situation did not change much after the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution, though a relatively healthier atmosphere existed briefly from 2011 to 2013, during which some gender taboo issues could be discussed and raised in mainstream circles.

The July 2013 military coup, led by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, ended all that.

The EIPR has recorded the arrest of at least 232 “LGBTQ suspects” between the last quarter of 2013 and March 2017.

The government instructed editors in the mainstream media to “boost anti-gay coverage.” Sensationalist stories are regularly published on the arrest of “Muslim Brotherhood queers,” “wife swappers networks” and “foreign plotters intended to spread the idea of homosexual marriages.”

The Morality Police, for their part, intensified their online entrapment efforts of gay people on social media and dating apps. The most high profile arrests came in December 2014, as the police, accompanied by sensationalist TV presenter Mona Iraqi, announced the arrest of 26 “queer suspects” in a public bath. The detainees were humiliated, tortured and sexually abused in custody, before they were all acquitted.

Ironically, amid an ongoing domestic anti-LGBTQ campaign, Egypt had the audacity to condemn the Orlando gay nightclub shooting in June 2016 in the US. Yet Sisi’s homophobic crusade had already gone international, with his diplomats boycotting the UN’s monitor on anti-gay violence, then later voting (together with the US, Botswana, Burundi, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, China, India, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) against a UN resolution condemning the death penalty for LGBTQ people and other groups.


Sensationalist crackdowns on “queers”, “Satanists”, “wife swappers” etc. is a classic tactic by any dictatorship to divert public attention away from its political and economic failures. And Sisi needs such diversion, as the economy is going down the drain.

Revolutions bring out the best in people. Uprisings help create more conductive foundations for combating the most regressive ideas which have long chained society, like racism, sectarianism, and sexism. Such ideas are used by the ruling classes to divide and rule the masses. But in times of defeats and counterrevolutions, reactionary ideas flourish.

Tony Cliff, the British revolutionary wrote: “For any oppressed group to fight back there is need for hope. If you are on the way down you feel despair. You look for a victim to kick. If you are on the way up you look for a back to pat.”

In post-coup Egypt, the LGBTQ community members are an easy victim to kick, as homophobia is whipped up. Cheering the crackdowns on such easy victims, empowers the police to crackdown on any forms of dissent simultaneously.

Truly shameful are the opportunistic stances being taken by Egypt’s opposition parties, both secular and religious alike. The only political group, as of this writing, to take a clear public position against the crackdown and homophobia is the Revolutionary Socialists.

The liberal Ad-Dustour Party’s spokesperson Khaled Dawoud condemned the arrests, but according to a source in the party this sparked an internal controversy, and it was decided in the end that his statement was solely his and not the party’s.

Sarah Hegazi, herself, reportedly resigned from the left-leaning Bread and Freedom Party shortly before her arrest because the party refused to take a stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community. With her arrest, the party issued a brief, weak statement denouncing the arrest, but did not dare take a clear stand against homophobia. The Egyptian Social Democratic Party remained silent.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, there was no controversy. The official website of the MB-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and Mekammelin TV station were too happy to blame “Sisi and the coup regime for allowing the queer group into Egypt to corrupt the youth.” The Alexandria branch of FJP also lamented “the absence of the Muslim Brothers” which “facilitated the rise of the queers.”

The liberal Islamist Strong Egypt Party, meanwhile, decided to remain silent and did not issue any statements.

Not a single Western embassy in Cairo has issued a condemnation up till now, amid hypersales of arms to Egypt and the signing of security cooperation agreements against “terrorism” and “illegal migration”.

The future may look bleak for Egypt’s LGBTQ community, yet it’s a future organically related to the success or failure of social liberation of other oppressed groups in society. And no progress will ever be achieved on a single track without the solidarity from the rest. While the crackdowns continue to demonize the LGBTQ community, it also pushed the cause to the forefront and provides a litmus paper test for the integrity of the opposition. Such filtering process is always positive in the long run.

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