International LGBTQ Advocates Must Take Action Against the Queer Crackdown in Egypt

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, seen here at the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 20, has used fears of gays and trans women to cement his power.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Next time you see someone waving a rainbow flag at Pride, think about this. In Cairo, on Sept. 22, thousands of Egyptians attended a concert for alternative bands—including the Lebanese group Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay. Three or four youths in the audience ecstatically, boldly waved a couple of rainbow flags. Now at least 57 people are jailed, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

The horrors started within hours. Photos of the flags went viral on social media. A moral panic spread, fed by the popular talk-show host Ahmed Moussa and others in the tightly state-controlled media, who called for immediate punishment of the unknown flag-wavers. The Supreme Council for Media Regulation has essentially issued a blackout on LGBTQ people or support in the media. The Ministry of Interior declared that merely showing the rainbow flag or “inciting” homosexuality, warranted up to three years in prison; one lawmaker threatened to ramp up penalties for same-sex acts to 10 years. Arrests began almost immediately.

The EIPR now counts almost five dozen people seized since the concert, in four cities across the country. Most had absolutely nothing to do with the performance or the flag. In one case, according to local activists, a victim arrested on suspicion of homosexuality two days before the concert—entrapped over the internet by undercover police—was rushed to trial, and his sentence doubled to six years, apparently because police found songs or photos from the band on his phone.

Most of the detainees are held incommunicado, but one, Sara Hegazi, told her lawyer that guards goaded other inmates to beat her in her cell. On October 1, Egypt’s dreaded secret police force, with its long record of disappearances and torture, got involved, arresting at least two more accused flag-wavers. Egyptians have a term that’s sometimes used for disappearing into the state security gulag: going “behind the sun.” Cairo authorities and many straight/cisgender Egyptian citizens now see the rainbow flag—a symbol of peace and diversity—as a national security threat, and homosexuality itself as treason.

We are two activists, from Cairo and New York respectively, who know the Egyptian situation well. While this panic might seem like an outbreak of collective insanity, our experiences—and recent history—confirm it’s not. Egypt’s persecution of LGBTQ people is a calculated strategy. (It imitates an equally political campaign against gays launched in 2001 by the Mubarak dictatorship, this time on a vaster scale.) The only incomprehensible thing is how Western governments, and Western LGBTQ activists, give Egypt’s homophobic brutality a free pass.

Under a 1961 law banning “debauchery,” men who have sex with men in Egypt face three years in prison. And ever since Abdel Fattah El-Sisi overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in a 2013 military coup, his minions have been working the law for all it’s worth. This furor is only the latest, if most convulsive and berserk, stage in a crackdown that started only a few months after Sisi came to power. We know of at least 300 whom police arrested for “debauchery” since then, and there are probably hundreds more.

Cops have raided private homes, picked up people on the street, and ensnared them over the Internet by pretending to be gay. Transgender women have been special targets, along with gay men. Many have been tortured and sexually abused in detention, as well as subjected to fraudulent, humiliating forensic examinations designed to “prove” they had anal sex. Family rejection and social shame redouble the pain. Even though the “debauchery” defendants in a massively publicized 2014 raid on a bathhouse were miraculously acquitted, one later attempted to burn himself to death. Fear infects all LGBTQ Egyptians’ lives.

Egypt now holds over 60,000 political prisoners in concentration-like camps and penitentiaries, according to local human rights activists. Victims of the LGBTQ crackdown make up only a small percent of this massive toll of misery. Yet they occupy a special place in President Sisi’s counter-revolutionary repertoire. The regime doesn’t actively seek out plaudits or publicity for arresting lawyers or demonstrators, for shooting protestors or shuttering human rights organizations. Yet Sisi’s government boasts of persecuting LGBTQ people. It thumps its chest in thundering headlines, it reels out videos in the obedient media.

In the early months of Sisi’s rule, publicizing arrests of a despised minority helped rehabilitate the reputation of the police—who, loathed by the general public for their brutality, had receded from the streets since Egypt’s 2011 revolution. In Sisi’s vision of a restored police state, the agents of oppression needed a shot of popularity. Since then, the regime has discovered new uses for homophobic persecution—particularly as economic collapse and unkept promises erode its base.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which Sisi overthrew, retains a stubborn core of support and remains a focus of resistance. But the LGBTQ arrests help the army reinforce its religious street cred, despite ousting a religious government. They let Sisi claim he’s safeguarding national morals and masculinity, giving political Islamists and other conservatives a reason to back military control. Back in 2014, Sisi’s tame media even began fabricating smears that the Brotherhood itself was responsible for the “spread” of homosexuality. (The Brotherhood, despite its vocal conservatism, had carried out virtually no arrests under the “debauchery” law: They had, after all, no religious credentials to prove.) In one notorious case, headlines blared that a man charged with “debauchery” had been converting other men to political Islam by luring them into bed. The stories claimed he made the four-fingered sign of the Muslim Brotherhood during sex, like a religious form of fisting.

The allegations are often ludicrous. But the arrests of LGBTQ people lend legitimacy to the regime’s other repressive measures. The tortured bodies of trans women and gay men cement the dictatorship’s bloody but insecure foundations.

And the United States and Europe share the guilt.

In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that “gay rights are human rights.” The Obama administration—apparently conscious of the small but concentrated power of U.S. gay voters (and donors)—made support for LGBTQ rights worldwide a very public part of its foreign policy. Many European countries, too, have thrown themselves behind symbolic steps at the U.N. and elsewhere that favor LGBTQ rights. Yet almost no government has conveyed to Sisi’s regime that his campaign of abuse and torture might carry consequences.

Obama and his diplomats never said a public or private word that we’re aware of about the persecution of LGBTQ people in Egypt or, indeed, about most human rights violations rampant there. They urged Mubarak to step down, but very late in the game; they supported open elections, but only tepidly condemned tanks in the streets. Their main concern seemed to be preserving any government in Cairo they thought could provide stability. LGBTQ Egyptians recognized Obama’s professed support for gay rights as rank hypocrisy.

For decades, the U.S. has given Egypt $1.3 billion in annual military aid, making it the second largest recipient of aid after Israel. By law, this money must be used to buy arms from American makers; the largesse thus spawns a powerful pro-Egypt corporate lobby in Washington. After Sisi seized power, Obama briefly claimed to freeze the aid, though nearly $600 million and a fresh shipment of Apache helicopters quickly broke the ice. The faucets quickly returned to full strength, even as torture and repression in Egypt intensified. Obama refused to call Sisi’s military coup a coup, because it would have mandated real restrictions on military aid. Europe has followed suit; countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.K. all continued—and mostly upped—their military support for Egypt. (From 2014 to 2015, global arms sales to Egypt increased almost fourfold.)

U.S. and European security firms also furnish Egypt the surveillance equipment it uses to track down dissidents—and gays. In 2014, for instance, Egypt’s Interior Ministry secretly invited companies to sell it software to uncover “destructive ideas” on the Internet. When the tender was leaked, a Ministry official told BuzzFeed that “homosexual acts” would be a special target of surveillance. The contract went to an Egyptian front business that offered equipment from its sister firm, Blue Coat Systems, an Internet security company based in Sunnyvale, CA. Blue Coat advertises itself as a maker of security systems; it also helps governments break them. It denied the Egypt connection; but it had a checkered record already. (Its Internet surveillance equipment has been detected in Iran, Sudan, and Syria, all viciously repressive states under U.S. embargo.) The Obama administration did nothing to investigate, or hamper the deal. Silicon Valley’s influence, and money, weighed far more than the human rights of Egyptian LGBTQ people.

In other words: A web of economic as well as political allies protects Egypt’s interests in D.C. Yet change is possible. The Trump administration, despite the president’s open admiration for dictators, has recently rolled back $300 million in arms money to Egypt. The State Department vaguely cited human rights concerns, while analysts suggested it was punishment for Cairo’s closeted military ties to North Korea. It’s a small step, but it’s more than the Obama administration ever did.

Yet LGBTQ organizations in the U.S. and Europe still hesitate to hold their own governments accountable for supporting a dictator. Most of these groups have offered at best sporadic statements about Sisi’s crackdown since 2013. They almost never condemn, or even admit, the Western aid enabling his abuses. The largest U.S.-based LGBTQ groups that work abroad, such as the Human Rights Campaign and OutRight Action International, have never fully acknowledged the scope of the Egyptian crisis, or their own government’s complicity.

(Reached for comment, OutRight pointed to a joint statement on the crackdown signed by a range of LGBTQ organzations that read, in part, “we … would like to remind media outlets that inciting hate speech violates human rights’ values, diversity and freedoms; we disapprove with repeated state arrests based on sexual orientation and gender identity; we refuse all acts that violate international laws and conventions such as torture in prison, humiliations and forced anal tests; and we confirm our commitment to freedom of expression and the right to security.”)*

Long-marginalized, most LGBTQ organizations are unused to political power. The influence Obama offered, even if illusory, presented new dilemmas. Politicians who endorse your agenda expect you to endorse their own. Access, and funds, can disappear. (A D.C. lobbyist for international LGBTQ rights told one of us last year that even mild differences with then-U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power left his group feeling frozen out, calls unreturned.) Even though Trump has already shown them a cold shoulder, many U.S. LGBTQ activists still find it hard to criticize U.S. foreign policy.

Whether through lobbying, statements, protests, or reports, international LGBTQ groups should press their governments to end security support to Sisi. We also asked an Egyptian LGBTQ activist to respond. “Egyptians have shown the courage to stand up to the government,” the activist, who asked to be anonymous, answered. “If foreign groups don’t have courage to stand up to their own governments, they are not our partners.”

An Egyptian trans woman raped in prison told one of us in 2014: “I always thought if a human being were humiliated that way, the heavens would cry out in protest.” The heavens are silent. LGBTQ people in Egypt, like other Egyptian human rights activists, demand that the military aid propping up the Sisi dictatorship end. The crackdown on Egyptian trans and gay people is only one among the dictator’s abuses: But U.S. and European LGBTQ people have a special responsibility to speak out. It costs nothing to wave a rainbow flag in San Francisco or Berlin. The next time you do so, think about what it costs in Cairo—and act.

*Correction, Oct. 6, 2017: This post originally included comment from an OutRight Action International employee who was not authorized to speak on behalf of the organization. The post has been updated with an official comment.