North Africa, West Asia

Sisi, the guardian of sexual morals

The repression of the LGBT community in Egypt stems from the colonial legacy of imperialism and is driven by the middle class in its attempts to create its own version of “modernity.”       

Maged Mandour
13 December 2017

Alisdare Hickson/flickr. Some rights reserved.

25 June 2016, Solidarity with Egypt's LGBTs in Prison - A Man with a Message at London's LGBT Pride in the Square. Alisdare Hickson/flickr. Some rights reserved.

During a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo last September members of the audience raised a rainbow flag. A few days later, after images had gone viral, a campaign of repression by the Egyptian regime followed.

At least 75 people were arrested under Egypt’s repressive and vague laws of promoting “debauchery.” Sixteen men were then sentenced to three years for “inciting debauchery” and “abnormal sexual relations.”

The tactics the regime used were designed to humiliate and torture. The “suspects” had to undergo forced anal examinations to medically ascertain whether they were indeed homosexual. A procedure that has no medical or biological foundation.

This wave of repression was accompanied by intense public debate about the rights of the LGBT community in Egypt; a debate that was anchored in the morality of the middle class, and its Victorian views of sexuality.

In a country that is suffering from economic and social crisis, soaring inflation and a plethora of security challenges, the latest of which has claimed the lives of 305 civilians, one would expect that such issues would not garner much attention.  

Some commentators claimed that this debate was hyped up in order to serve as a distraction from the rapidly deteriorating economic and security situation in the country.

the role repression plays in cementing the regime’s position as the middle class’ guardian of sexual morality.

However, this view ignores the place sexuality occupies in relations of power as well as the role repression plays in cementing the regime’s position as the middle class’ guardian of sexual morality.

In order to understand the views that the Egyptian middle class holds on sexuality, one needs to understand its historical evolution.

In his ground breaking book “Desiring Arabs”, Joseph Massad examines the evolution of the views on sexual practices in the Arab world by exploring Arab literature, poetry, and language. He convincingly argues that even though homosexuality was always forbidden by Islam, the dominant faith amongst the Arabs, the category of “homosexual” did not appear in the Arab view of sexuality until later colonial encounters with the west.

As such, the binary view of homo and hetero did not exist. Sexual practices were seen as more fluid, and homosexuality was tolerated as long as it was not defined as an exclusive identity openly declared as a separate “otherness.”

Massad also argues that the sexual morals of the Arab intellectual and middle class, with their views on homosexuality and sexual purity, were imported from the Victorian west, in an attempt to emulate the colonizer and become “modern.”

Thus, the incident of the rainbow flag and the public debate that ensued, especially amongst the Egyptian middle class, is more logically consistent within this context.

This class, in an attempt to create a hegemonic position for itself of moral and intellectual leadership, perceived the raising of the rainbow flag as a direct attack on its Victorian values of sexuality, and by extension an attack on its position in society.

The middle class perceived the raising of the rainbow flag as a direct attack on its position in society.

This class views itself primarily as heterosexual and male, with all other variations being seen as abnormal and most importantly immoral.  

This class is attempting to create a mythological place, an extension of its class values, an “imagined community” in the words of Benedict Anderson.

This mythological view is not anchored in the reality of Egyptian life, especially that of the urban and rural poor who have a much more fluid view on sexuality with a myriad of sexual practices that would be condemned by the middle class. For example, the prevalence of underage marriages in the countryside and among the urban poor, some indicators suggest that this figure reaches 80 percent.

The reactions of the middle class are a continuation of its isolation from reality and their inability to convert class views to national views - a failure of hegemony.

In order to contrast the reaction of the middle class to the rainbow flag as opposed to other possible causes of outrage, one only needs to look at the case of the street children in Cairo, who numbered 600,000 based on the estimates of UNICEF in 2007.

These children are victims of continuous sexual abuse, violence and rape, which has resulted in the spread of HIV, child pregnancies and a plethora of social problems. This persistent problem, which one would imagine would outrage a conservative middle class, has failed to garner a similar public reaction. This can be attributed to two reasons.

First, unlike the rainbow flag, it is not an open attack on the sexual morals of the middle class. It is tolerated as it does not defy their attempts at hegemony.

The second reason is the constant demonization of the urban poor. Back in 2014, an op-ed in Al Masry El Youm called for a security crackdown on street children, labelling them “stray dogs” and proposing that they should be killed as a solution to the problem.

On the other hand, the repression launched by the regime, when viewed within this context and relations of power, can be understood at a deeper level than a simple diversion tactic, even though this explanation has its merits.

The regime has presented itself as the purveyor of middle class views on modernity against “backward” Islamists, the rural masses and urban poor.

The regime has presented itself not only as an anchor of stability stemming the tide of social and political turmoil, it has also branded itself as the purveyor of middle class views on modernity against “backward” Islamists, the rural masses and urban poor.

The regime is preserving the “imagined community” the middle class has created for Egypt and what it means to be Egyptian, which includes their views on sexuality.

The regime is placed as the protector of sexual morals, and by extension is responsible for the repression of what are deemed “unnatural” or “perverse” sexual acts.

The regime exercises this power through its ability to manipulate discourse and by direct physical repression. It changes and manipulates the discourse by classifying homosexuality as promoting “debauchery”, even though homosexual acts are not illegal in Egypt, however, the term “debauchery” is vague and flexible enough to be used for the repression of the LGBT community as needed.

Another approach is the promotion of myths surrounding homosexuality, the most notable of which is the argument that acts of homosexuality have a physical manifestation that can be detected through physical examinations; a medical fallacy and propaganda tool used to feminize homosexual men.

The other avenue is direct physical repression of those accused of homosexuality, and in some cases their public humiliation and shaming; making their private sexual practices into a public spectacle, turning them into a fetish. Some individuals, for example, were arrested for carrying condoms, as this supposedly provided evidence of their intent to carry out acts of “debauchery.”

In conclusion, the notion that the repression of sexuality in Egypt stems entirely from the regime is not wholly accurate. Even though the regime plays an integral part in this repression, it is more of a societal phenomenon stemming from the colonial legacy of imperialism combined with the position of the middle class within the Egyptian polity.

One could argue that the repression of homosexuality will continue regardless of the nature of the regime in power and that this type of repression is indeed not driven from the top, but rather by the middle class in its attempts to create its version of “modernity.”           

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