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Two years after Egypt’s ‘rainbow flag arrests’, LGBTIQ people face an ongoing security crackdown

The backlash continues, led by the state with help from media and religious groups. Being LGBTIQ in Egypt means living an insecure life.

Patrick Soliman
22 September 2019
Fans of the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila holding a rainbow flag at the concert in Cairo, Egypt, 22 September 2017.
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Picture by Benno Schwinghammer/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The Egyptian state continues to forcefully combat liberal ideas, especially those that embrace diversity in gender and sexual orientation. Today marks two years since LGBTIQ people, activists and allies unfurled a Pride flag at the 22 September 2017 Cairo concert of the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila (whose lead vocalist is openly gay). This simple action led to a violent backlash which continues to this day.

Seventy-six people were arrested in the following months – individuals who raised the flag but also other people who are or were perceived to be LGBTIQ, and activists seen to be supporting the community. Forced anal examinations were carried out in the crackdown to supposedly determine whether arrested men had engaged in gay sex. International human rights groupes condemned this as torture.

The state’s attacks reflected how it treats political activists as terrorists. Both Ahmad Alaa, a 21-year-old law student and blogger, and Sarah Hijazi, member of left-leaning Aysh wa Horriya (the Bread and Freedom Party), posted photos of themselves on Facebook holding a Pride flag at the concert. They were charged with belonging to “a transgressive group”, “subverting the constitution”, “immorality” and “debauchery”.

After spending 90 days in detention, Alaa and Hijazi (independently) fled to Canada to seek asylum. Meanwhile, the state’s backlash has also targeted LGBTIQ people in general. Already, the average number of LGBTIQ people arrested in Egypt each year, between 2013 and 2017, was five times that of the preceding 13 years (2000-2012), according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, where I work as a researcher. It rose from an average of 14 to 66 people a year.

However, these figures, which do not include the ‘rainbow flag’ arrests, are mere indicators of the scale of criminalisation – with this information under the firm grip of state security, the real number of LGBTIQ people arrested each year remains unknown to the public. It would be easier to count the number of lawyers who are willing to defend these cases. Those I spoke to described harassment at police stations and criticism from other lawyers to “stop dishonoring the revolution”.

“It is an assault on divine laws”

The Egyptian Coptic Church has been a key supporter of the backlash against LGBTIQ people. In 2016, and again after the Mashrou’ Leila concert in 2017, it called for followers to be “vigilant” and to watch closely over “our children” in order to prevent or stop them from expressing non-heterosexual orientations and identities.

Just days after the 2017 concert, in response to fans waving the Pride flag, the Coptic Church announced that it was organising a conference titled “Volcano of Homosexuality”. Dr Awsam Wasfi – an Egyptian Christian psychologist famous in the region for his claim to ‘cure’ LGBTIQ people – was a keynote speaker. Other speakers included priests who the Church said were also specialised in such ‘treatment’.

The Church’s Pope Tawadros said in his weekly meeting: “Since Adam and Eve, humankind knows only one form of marital relations”, adding, “imagine the world after one, two, or three generations of this kind of marriage… how would the world be then?!”.

On the other hand, Al-Azhar – Egypt's most prominent Islamic institution and highest authority – did not issue an official statement after the concert, though a Facebook post from deputy Abbas Shouman proclaimed that “what happened during the organising of the deviants’ dirty concert and their raising of the flags which clearly state their homosexuality in the Al-Azhar’s Egypt is a disgrace”.

“It is an assault on divine laws and on good human norms”, Shouman continued. “Every person who took part in it or who allowed for it to happen must be held accountable”.

Media and legal attacks

In the days after the concert, both conservative, pro-government and privately-run media whipped up a vicious backlash, calling LGBTIQ “sexual deviants” and homosexuality “as terrible as terrorism”. Television talk shows also hosted LGBTIQ people to denounce them on screen, treating them as if they were criminals, or sick, and the media widely covered the supposed success of so-called ‘conversion therapy’.

In November 2017, Parliament intensified its crackdown too, when MP Riad Abdel Sattar introduced a draft bill to criminalise LGBTIQ people, after collecting 67 signatures from other MPs.

The bill, which is still being discussed by parliament, would impose prison sentences of up to 15 years on people convicted of engaging in or promoting same-sex relations. What’s more, it would allow state authorities to publicly shame people convicted of ‘debauchery’ by publishing their names and sentences in national newspapers. It would make life for Egypt’s LGBTIQ people even more difficult.

Currently, homosexuality is not technically illegal – while the state uses other tools, including a 60-year-old “debauchary” law, to criminalise them via other means. The Egyptian legal system is notoriously slow and courts can, and often do, postpone verdicts for an infinite number of hearings. But when it comes to LGBTIQ cases, especially if the accused is not well known or media-visible, courts have been quick and harsh.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights documented that by October 2017, just weeks after the rainbow arrests, ten LGBTIQ people had already received harsh prison sentences, ranging from one to six years.

“You don’t even know what these people are capable of”

Lawyers describe a myriad of challenges defending LGBTIQ people in such cases. Alaa Farouk, at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said that many people arrested have no prior records nor previously-appointed lawyers. Arriving at police stations, lawyers who are willing to defend them are often denied access to arrestees.

Farouk’s colleague, Huda Nasrallah, defended Sarah Hijazi after her 2017 concert arrest, when she was accused of “debauchery” as well as involvement in an “illegal group” and communicating with foriegn activists. Nasrallah remembers how the state security prosecutor had questioned why she took the case, concluding: “It’s just that you’re sheltered, you don’t even know what these people are capable of”.

“Police officers always ask me why I attend all the infamous cases”, Nasrallah added, describing routine harassment at police stations and tense conversations with some other lawyers who “advised me to stop working on such cases, to salvage whatever is left of my activist history, and to stop dishonouring the revolution and those who identify with it”.

On several occasions, ‘news’ reports have claimed that lawyers defending LGBTIQ people are actually journalists who are out to defame their clients – leading to harassment from clients’ relatives as well.

‘They told me to stop dishonouring the revolution’

Egyptian civil society, including the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, was significant in creating international pressure to curb the arrests in the months following the 2017 Mashrou’ Leila concert.

But this did not prevent an ongoing security crackdown. If you are part of the LGBTIQ community in Egypt, or seen to support it, this still means that you live an insecure and unstable life on multiple levels.

Earlier this year, an Egyptian TV host who had previously spoken out against homosexuality was sentenced to a year in prison and fined after interviewing an openly gay man on his show. The host was charged with incitement to debauchery, immorality and contempt of religion as well as for promoting homosexuality himself, by broadcasting the interview.

In March, people who went to another Cairo rock concert, with the US band Red Hot Chili Peppers, posted on social media that police officers at the gates asked them if they had any “flag for the gays” with them, saying that rainbow flags were “not allowed” at the venue.

Amidst the backlash, however, the Egyptian LGBTIQ community has made some gains. Escalating attacks over the last two years have shocked and opened many people’s eyes, who now see what this community is facing: a violent, state-led backlash against rights.

This has aroused some new forms of resistance. Dating apps are now improving their level of security to prevent the government from using them to track LGBTIQ people. The few, fearless lawyers that do exist have started informally working together, to prevent duplicating work and to ensure they stay on top of as many arrests in the country as possible.

Most importantly, I’ve noticed that much of the younger generation in Egypt is open, accepting and embracing LGBTIQ rights.

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