Egyptian gay community facing rise in persecution

Egyptian gay community facing rise in persecution
Feature: Activists and members of LGBTQ community in Cairo say state and social prejudice has increased since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power.
5 min read
15 June, 2015
Last year, eight men were arrested over a 'gay wedding video' [Anadolu]
Last week, a video of an allegedly gay man being bullied in Cairo went viral on the internet. The video showed a man slapping the face of a victim, who was groaning in pain. The final shots show the beaten man falling to the ground.

The video is the latest in a string of incidents that demonstrate the continuing, and possibly worsening, persecution of the gay community in Egypt.

This persecution is not only by society, but by the government.

"In the last period, not only there have been increased attempts to arrest gays, but also crimes against gays have been increasing," said Kareem, a gay Cairine.

There are not explicit rules against homosexuality in Egypt. However, it is a strong social taboo, and people are normally charged under laws against debauchery or public indecency.

"The government treats us as a sickness to get rid of," Kareem added.

Security vacuums and crackdowns

Homosexuals - particularly those who congregate around Cairo's central Downtown area - have found themselves the target of the regimes that followed the 2011 revolution.

"If it isn't for the police crackdowns, the political unrest which leads to a security vacuum... causes a rise in the number of violence incidents, including against the queer community."  said Mohammed R, 28, an activist on personal freedom and diversity issues.

Many activists interviewed by al-Araby al-Jadeed spoke of an increase in persecution after Sisi came to power in 2013.

"The [2011] revolution caused a momentum of activism and freedom for all groups, including LGBTQ people," said Abdallah, a human rights worker in Cairo. "This situation was reversed in 2014 when arrests and raids dramatically increased.

"Many parts of Egypt are more heavily policed, and police are using more violent behavior, like extensively searching people, humiliating them, searching their phones and their use of social media. 

"This of course puts LGBTQ people in danger because they can be arrested based on materials or apps they have on their phones, or if they have condoms with them, or if they appear feminine according to the police."

Abdallah said he believed all of Egypt's recent governments were homophobic, but the current government's battle with Islamist groups had compelled it to find other scapegoats.

"The crackdown on Islamists may make the government appear that it's in a fight against Islam, so they try to dispel this perception by invoking a lot of morality based arrests," he said.

Many members of the gay community put the blame partly on the media for crackdowns, as it publicises them and sometimes drives them.

"There is a growing sense of fake preservation of morals by the media and the regime," said Mohammed. "The media sometimes instigates and drives the Ministry of Interior to arrest gay guys."

Abdallah agrees, saying that crackdowns are "accompanied by homophobic and transphobic coverage by various media outlets, which contributed to more hate and violence.

"Youm7 [a publication] is highly involved with the government", he said.

A prominent blogger who often writes on LGBTQ issues, described Youm7 as the "mouthpiece for the state's moral campaign", cited the case of the newspaper's covering of the arrest of alleged transsexuals in February.

Part of Cairo's culture

Cairo has historically been home to thriving gay subculture. Many of the cafes, bars and streets frequented by the LGBTQ community in Cairo, especially in Downtown, are generally well-known.

Many who spoke to al-Araby said arrests in such areas were planned and serve their own purpose.  

"The police definitely know about all the gay cruising areas and places... they wait for the right moment to launch a smear campaign," said Mohammed.  

One case still painful in the memory was the raid on the Ramses bath house in December, driven by TV anchor Mona Iraqi who had reportedly assimilated herself into the LGBTQ community in Cairo by posing as bisexual.

"It was a move meant to prove to the Islamists that the military regime is also protecting and guarding the morals and keeping Egyptian traditions intact," Mohammed said.

Kareem added: "Every couple of days the media does a loud story, and the Mona Iraqi was an example... the decision [to raid] was there for a long time, but they didn't act on it. They chose when to put a spotlight on it."

A lawyer who specialises in LGBTQ cases and wishes to remain anonymous, said that all men arrested in the sauna crackdown had been offered registration with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, for asylum claims. All refused.

The lawyer said this was possibly due to pressure from families, as acceptance could be construed as some kind of confession of their sexuality.

Since then, one of those arrested raid tried to commit suicide by pouring petrol on himself and setting himself on fire.

Deep roots of social stigma

Those spoken to by al-Araby said homophobia is deeply rooted in society.  

"Our Arab societies never agreed on a lot - religion, politics etc. But they agreed on persecuting gay people," said Kareem. "We will stay as strangers and weak in society, and those who show sympathy only show it from afar... the idea is liberation not homosexuality."

Many LGBTQ activists in Egypt, like elsewhere in the Arab world, distinguish themselves from their counterparts in Europe, and are not asking for developments such as the right to marry.

Both Kareem and Abdallah said the government had threatened Egyptian LGBTQ who wanted to take part in UN conferences on sexual rights.

Mohammed said: "All I hope for is the passing laws of that prohibits discriminations against LGBTQ people. They should at least stop interfering in personal freedoms and protect rights and cease the arrest of people based on their sexual acts.

Abdallah added: "I hope the campaign against LGBTQ people ends immediately, and that there are reasonable channels to have discussions about sexuality and sexual health and wellbeing, starting from school."