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.
“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.
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.
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.
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”