Egypt’s Rainbow Raids

Sisi is whipping up homophobia and targeting gay people to distract his base from rising unemployment and inflation.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi looks on as he meets with US President Donald Trump at the White House on April 3, 2017. AFP / Getty

Since September 22, Egyptian security services have arrested dozens of so-called “queer suspects” in an ongoing crackdown on the country’s LGBTQ community.

That day, Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band whose lead singer advocates for gay rights, played in Cairo. A handful of young people waved rainbow flags during the performance, sparking a media uproar and unleashing the current raids — the biggest in roughly twenty years.

Egypt does not officially outlaw homosexuality, but the country’s “Morality Police” have become experts at fabricating charges based on the country’s vague laws against “debauchery” and “prostitution.”

Some detainees have been sent to court swiftly and given prison sentences, while others are still undergoing interrogation. Among them is Sarah Hegazy, a prominent pro-LGBTQ leftist. Her defense lawyers say inmates beat and sexually abused her after a police officer incited them to violence. Other detainees have faced similar treatment, including humiliating anal examinations.

Several government officials, parliament members, and sheikhs from the religious establishment have come out in support of the crackdown. Hani Shaker, the “anti-Satanist” and pro-government head of the Musicians’ Syndicate, announced a new crusade against “queers” and banned Mashrou’ Leila from performing in Egypt ever again.

Unfortunately, these raids are simply the latest — and biggest — in a long history of state violence against the Egyptian LGBTQ community.

A Brutal History

In 2001, the Morality Police arrested fifty-two people on charges of debauchery in what became known as the Queen Boat Case. Detainees were tortured and raped before an international outcry forced the government to temporarily halt the crackdown.

Members of the LGBTQ community members I spoke with told me that, until 2001, the government had largely adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. Though gay people faced occasional arrest, the state informally tolerated specific bars, cafes, and events that served as centers for the gay community. Some leading government officials, intellectuals, and artists were known to be gay, but, because they never spoke openly about their sexual identity or raised the issue in wider circles, they generally avoided harassment.

After the 2001 onslaught, however, the government’s attitude changed completely. Police targeted members of the LGBTQ community, the government raided or closed down their meeting places, and sensationalist press reports demonized them. In 2009, the state-backed General Federation of Trade Unions announced that they wouldn’t accept “queer workers” in their unions or institutions. Morality Police officers began posing as gay people online in order to entrap LGBTQ suspects.

Meanwhile, the Internet permitted Egypt’s LGBTQ citizens newfound degrees of freedom. Some used it to campaign for their rights, while for others, it served primarily as a social and dating network.

During the revolution, a number of the leading anti-Mubarak dissidents were gay, but the LGBTQ movement didn’t evolve on the ground, and gay liberation did not appear on any political party’s agenda.

Nevertheless, Mubarak’s fall ushered in a relatively healthier atmosphere. From 2011 to 2013, taboo issues like sex and gender were discussed even in mainstream circles.

Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s military coup changed all that.

Since 2013, the EIPR has recorded the arrests of at least 232 “LGBTQ suspects.” Meanwhile, the government instructed the mainstream media to “boost anti-gay coverage,” and now sensationalist stories about the arrest of “Muslim Brotherhood queers,” “wife-swapping networks,” and “foreign conspirators promoting homosexual marriage” appear regularly. The Morality Police intensified their online entrapment efforts on social media and dating apps.

The most high-profile arrests came in December 2014, when the police, accompanied by television presenter Mona Iraqi, announced the arrest of twenty-six “queer suspects,” who were arrested in a public bath. Police humiliated, tortured, and sexually abused the detainees, all of whom were subsequently acquitted.

Ironically, amid this ongoing anti-LGBTQ campaign, Egypt condemned the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. By then, Sisi’s homophobic crusade had already gone international. His diplomats boycotted the UN’s monitor on anti-gay violence. In April, Egypt joined Bangladesh, Botswana, Burundi, China, Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States in voting against a resolution condemning the use of the death penalty on LGBTQ people.

What Now?

Revolutions can bring out the best in people, creating structures and organizations that can combat regressive ideas like racism, sectarianism, and sexism — the very issues that the ruling classes use to divide and control the masses. But in moments of retreat, the opposite is the case.

Headline-grabbing raids on “queers,” “Satanists,” “wife swappers,” and other groups deemed deviant allow the Egyptian regime to divert attention away from its political and economic failures. And Sisi needs distractions, as he has led the nation into a deeper economic crisis, whose impact is felt by his wealthy supporters and even more so by the country’s poor. Gay people have become easy targets in post-coup Egypt, and Sisi’s regime has intentionally whipped up homophobia. Efforts to crack down on the LGBTQ community have empowered the police to shut down other forms of dissent at the same time.

Egypt’s opposition parties, both secular and religious, have taken shamefully opportunistic stances. Only the Revolutionary Socialists clearly opposed the regime’s homophobia.

The liberal Ad-Dustour Party’s spokesperson Khaled Dawoud did condemn the arrests. But, according to a source in the party, his statement sparked an internal controversy, and he eventually clarified that he spoke only for himself and not the party.

Sarah Hegazy reportedly resigned from the left-leaning Bread and Freedom Party shortly before her arrest because the organization refused to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community. The party issued a statement denouncing her arrest but did not take a clear position against homophobia.

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the liberal Islamist Strong Egypt Party have so far remained silent.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) jumped on the bandwagon, using the raids to score political points. The official website of the MB-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party blamed “Sisi and the coup regime for allowing the queer group [Mashrou’ Leila] into Egypt to corrupt the youth.” The party’s Alexandria branch lamented “the absence of the Muslim Brothers” at the concert, which “facilitated the rise of the queers.”

Not a single Western embassy in Cairo has issued a condemnation. Then again, perhaps they’re simply too busy selling weapons and signing security cooperation agreements.

As it stands, the future of the Egyptian LGBTQ community appears bleak. But the crackdowns have pushed the cause of gay rights to the forefront, providing a litmus test for the opposition. As the Egyptian left builds a force capable of confronting the Sisi regime, these are the struggles it can’t ignore.