Middle East / North Africa

Crackdown on LGBT Egyptians: Why now?

A new, extensive police crackdown on LGBT people is under way in Egypt, with 77 arrests since October.  But why is it happening? And why now?

Long-time activist and commentator Scott Long provides detailed answers in his blog, A Paper Bird. These are condensed excerpts from his discussion of the crackdown:

1. Media sensationalism feeds the arrests.

Scott Long says, "A typical headline from Youm7: 'Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, "I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?" ' Photo caption: 'Ahmed, the accused.' " Long states: "I blurred the face: Youm7  didn’t."

Scott Long says, “A typical headline from Youm7: ‘Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, “I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” ‘ Photo caption: ‘Ahmed, the accused.’ ” Long states: “I blurred the face: Youm7 didn’t.”

“Each juicy story gives police more incentives to pursue publicity. Youm7 (“Seventh Day“), a privately owned paper, is the worst offender.

They’ve blared out each new arrest with hungry glee, publishing names and faces, marching into jails with police collusion to capture the miscreants on video camera…  Since the Revolution, (Youm7 has) become unofficial mouthpiece for the military and the security state.

During the Morsi presidency, it whipped up hysteria against the Muslim Brotherhood… More recently, its editor-in-chief was one of the elect anointed to tell a waiting world that Generalissimo Sisi planned to run for President.

A typical headline from Youm7:  “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City.”  Youm7 and its imitators dehumanize the arrested “deviants,” portraying them as both pathological and irrefragably criminal. Each article offers new images and verbiage of degradation.

2.  The government is feeding these stories to the media.

Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012. (Photo courtesy of Scott Long)

Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012. (Photo courtesy of Scott Long)

Spreading stigma is a defining mark of the post-coup military regime. The whole strategy of Sisi’s government has been to divide and conquer Egypt… It started last summer…  The circles of lives unworthy of living, of those expelled brutally from both the society and the species, keep expanding.

Egypt is now devouring itself in an infuriated quest to define who is no longer Egyptian. The “perverts” are just the latest victims.

Police and media together have generated a full-fledged, classic moral panic… Walking downtown during Friday prayers, I heard a sermon piped over loudspeakers in the very heart of Cairo:

“Why do we now see men practice abominable vices?” the imam demanded. “Why do they put on makeup, lipstick, and behave in the way of women?”  …

These forms of “deviance” are now the common topic in corner mosques as well as national news. …Youm7 interviewed pundits about the “problem”:

“Recently a serious phenomenon has surfaced in our society, with devastating effects on individuals, society and the nation. This phenomenon is the crime of homosexuality [“الشذوذالجنسى,”sexual deviance.”]…

“Homosexuality” is an affront to all humanity…

Western criticism of the arrests [“proves”] there’s a foreign conspiracy against Egypt’s morals and manhood.

3.  Manhood is basic here.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version calls the police “gays.” Other activists painted over the insult and made a different statement: “Homophobia is not revolutionary.” (Photo and caption courtesy of Scott Long)

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version calls the police “gays.” Other activists painted over the insult and made a different statement: “Homophobia is not revolutionary.” (Photo and caption courtesy of Scott Long)

The crackdown mainly targets the people in Egypt’s diffuse and fragile LGBT communities who are most vulnerable and visible, those who defy gender norms.

This is despite the fact that, while Egyptian law does criminalize male homosexual conduct [Editor’s note: See below], it says nothing about “crossdressing” or “effeminacy.”

Still, in many of these cases people were convicted of homosexual acts with no evidence but their looks (or the clothes or makeup in their handbags) alone. ….

Many of these folks don’t define themselves as “trans,” nor are they bound to particular gendered pronouns. One way to put this is that “gender identity,” if it means anything in Egypt, often exists in a continuum with “sexuality” rather than as a disaggregated axis for identity…. with being “ladyboys” (a term often heard in LGBT people’s Arabic), or fem, or trans.…

I’ve written here before how the Revolution raised a nervous question about what Egyptian manhood meant. The generals who seized control of the country after Mubarak fell began at once to disparage dissenting youth as effeminate: long-haired, culturally miscegenated, and incapable of masculine virtues … revolutionaries adopted a language of attacking others’ manhood: “Man up,” a call to courage and defiance suggesting that opponents were wusses…

What resulted? An environment where all sides constantly debated masculinity and leveled accusations at its absence. Coupled with a fear of national vulnerability and diplomatic irrelevance… this created ideal conditions for defaming transgressors against gender as traitors to culture and country.

4.  The crackdown is convenient for the reputation of the police.

Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former military commander-in-chief. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former military commander-in-chief. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In the Revolution’s wake, Egypt’s police forces stood discredited and despised… After February 2011, the police almost disappeared from most Egyptian streets…

With Sisi’s ascendancy the cops are back with a vengeance. You see them at every traffic circle, big-bellied, smug, hitting up taxi drivers for their daily bribes… But going after still more despised enemies of virtue gives their image a lift.

The news stories hammer home the moral: when it comes to “deviance,” our security forces are on guard. …

This crackdown so far doesn’t proceed by policing public spaces like cruising areas or cafes, or by sneaking into pseudo-public spaces like Internet pages or chatrooms… It’s private homes the police invade. With each news story, they tout their X-ray ability to peer through the walls like cellophane.

And this is the grimmest message… The Revolution rebelled against the policeman’s eyes at the window, his ears in the walls, his clawed hand on the shoulder. That’s over. There is no privacy. The hand is a fist, and it is knocking at the door. The knock is a reminder that the state is still there, that it can control whatever you do, what you wear, what your bodies desire. The knock insinuates itself into your dreams. It’s trans or gay or lesbian people, or effeminate guys or mokhanatheen (“effeminate ones”, “men who resemble women”), who hear and fear it now; …

Accustomed to dread, they’re an attentive audience. (A gay man with nothing exceptional about his appearance told me three nights ago that he is afraid to answer the door these days, afraid to go out of doors lest his neighbors see him and suspect something and report him to the police.)

The Revolution promised “personal freedoms,” but forget it; “our society” couldn’t “apply them correctly”; they’re a corrupt aspiration, an evasion of the necessity of control.

Remember all those dreams of tomorrow? Tomorrow went away.

One hopeful memory

Prior to the present wave of arrests, the last time anything similar occurred was about eight years ago, between 2001 and 2004, when police in Egypt arrested thousands of LGBTI men for “debauchery.”

Long states: “I can say with pride that this crackdown ended because we at Human Rights Watch, together with Cairo activists, documented it in clear detail, including the sleazy methods undercover cops used to delude and capture people.

“It is the end of the gay cases in Egypt,” a high Ministry of Interior official told a well-placed lawyer in 2004, “because of the activities of certain human rights organizations.”

Edited by Denis LeBlanc and Colin Stewart

For more information, read the full article in A Paper Bird: “Brutal gender crackdown in Egypt: The tomorrows that never came”

 

36 thoughts on “Crackdown on LGBT Egyptians: Why now?

  1. this article incorrectly states that male homosexuality is criminalised by law, which is not true. Homosexuals get arrested under a “debauchery law” which has very vague guidelines that gives law enforcers the ability to do so.

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    • Dear Ahmed,

      Thanks for pointing that out. I’m sure that the author of the piece is aware of the specifics of the law, and was using “Egyptian law does criminalize male homosexual conduct” as shorthand. As ILGA’s 2013 report on State-Sponsored Homophobia states about Egypt, “Sexual relations between consenting adult persons of the same sex in private are not prohibited as such. However … several articles of the Penal Code have been used to imprison gay men in recent years.” Those include Article 278: “Whoever commits in public a scandalous act against shame shall be punished with detention for a period not exceeding one year or a a fine not exceeding three hundred pounds.”

      I added a note about those specifics to the article.

      — Colin Stewart, editor of this blog

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  2. This is simply infuriating…and the hunt down won’t stop there. With dakhlaya now sniffing around people’s online presence, who knows what crime will be knocking on one’s door tomorrow.
    Its the era of the zombie, army loving, conformists.

    A sadly spot on article.

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  3. There is plenty of dispute in Egypt about whether “homosexuality” is “criminalized” or not. The term “fugur” is of course vague, but so are “sodomy” and “buggery” and “unnatural acts” in the English legal tradition. (“Sodomy” originally could refer to sex between humans and animals, or between Christians and Jews or Muslims. In many jurisdictions it still includes bestiality and anal sex between a man and a woman.) Nonetheless, there is no question that these terms have come to include homosexual conduct between adult males, and to criminalize it. “Fugur” is a very comparable term. It meant a lot of different things when first introduced into Egyptian law (from French law, where it usually meant moral corruption of another person). However, a widely cited Cassation Court decision of 1970 clearly established that it criminalized consensual, non-consensual homosexual conduct between adult males. This decision is the standing interpretation of “Fugur” in Egyptian law. So I don’t see how the term is any vaguer than “sodomy”; it is, in fact, quite comparable as a term of art. In any case, there is no question that as long as that Cassation Court decision stands, homosexual conduct between men is a criminal act.

    The ILGA report is wrong. They didn’t read the relevant court decisions, and they seemed to have the notion that if an Arabic law didn’t say “homosexuality” (for which, of course, there’s no exact synonym in Arabic) it couldn’t be said to criminalize it. This is a misconception which certainly didn’t govern their approach to “sodomy” or “buggery” laws.

    The notion that the law (no. 10/1961, actually passed in 1951) doesn’t “really” criminalize homosexual conduct stems from a strategic decision that Egyptian activists made in 2003-2004. The idea was that a case could eventually be taken to the Cassation Court, which could be asked to reverse its decision of 1970 and find that only commercial sex was criminalized under the aw. I wasn’t crazy about this strategy, since it would have sold sex workers down the river. However, it’s a moot point now. Given the present composition of the Cassation Court, and the erosion of judicial independence in Egypt, there’s almost no chance the Court would reverse itself. I don’t see the point of carrying on the pretense that “fugur” doesn’t “really” include male homosexual conduct.

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  4. Article 278 of the Penal Code, by the way, has not so far as I know been cited in any case involving homosexual conduct since 2003. Even then it was quite rarely cited, and was only used in cases involving Internet ads (the “scandalous act” committed “in public”). The core charge was absolutely always “fugur” under article 9c of Law 10/1961, to which occasional other charges were tacked on. I don’t know why ILGA got these facts so wrong.

    The “guidelines” around “fugur” and its application to male homosexual conduct are not vague. They are clear, and they were set out in the Cassation Court ruling mentioned above (I’m afraid I got the year wrong: it was 1975). The exact citation is Cassation Court case no. 683/Judicial Year 45, May 12, 1975.

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