Matthew Boyle examines the recent government crackdown on Egypt’s already highly-marginalised LGBTQ community
Systematic violence against groups that are perceived as different is often portrayed as irrational, as something only a barbarian or a madman could possibly consider worthwhile. In reality, government violence against minorities is usually done for cynical and ruthlessly pragmatic reasons. Egypt’s brutal campaign against the LGBTQ community is a case in point. The targeting of LGBTQ people has less to do with President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s personal beliefs than with his political calculations. While President Sissi is a military dictator in everything but name, he still cannot afford to be too unpopular with the people. After all, he is president partly because the last military dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown during the Arab Spring.
While the LGBTQ community is targeted across the Middle East, the Arab Spring provided an unprecedented opportunity for gays to come out. The government of Hosni Mubarak, in particular, was far too busy collapsing under populist pressure to police such personal matters. However, as with many of the hopes and aspirations of the Arab Spring, celebrations proved premature. Things quickly went back to “normal” when Sissi, a member of the same military apparatus that had terrorized Islamists, LGBTQ and social liberals during Mubarak’s reign, seized power from Egypt’s democratically elected president in 2013.
Sissi’s rise to power came at a political cost, though. The president he ousted was an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood, a radically conservative Muslim group that some countries consider terrorists. Since then, he has engaged in violent and widespread repression of anyone who challenges the status quo, including Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is politically problematic for him because groups like the Muslim Brotherhood promote conservative Muslim values which are widely held by Egyptians. Therefore, Sissi risks coming across as a secularist who is not protecting social morals. By terrorizing and criminalising the LGBTQ community, Sissi is able to reassure socially conservative Muslims that Islamic values will be protected and that “perversions” like homosexuality will not corrupt society. In fact, raids and arrests of LGBTQ people are one of the few instances where Egypt’s repressive security forces get positive press coverage. As such, they widely publicize their raids and even inform the press beforehand that they are going to happen.
However, the raids, arrests and entrapment of the gay community became markedly more aggressive after a concert last September for a Lebanese band called Mashrou’Leila. The lead singer of the band, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay and many of his lyrics have a political message. During the concert, some in the crowd started waving the gay pride flag. The next day, 60 people were arrested for waving the flag or suspected gay conduct. The arrests signified the start of an anti-gay campaign that has only intensified since then. The arrested were officially charged with the coded accusation of “debauchery,” and there are reports that they were subjected to forced anal exams to “prove” they had anal sex – an ordeal that human rights groups say amounts to torture.
Despite these horrible human rights abuses, no Western government has condemned or even commented on the events in Egypt. Western media also largely ignores this humanitarian crisis. They have their own cynical reasons for remaining silent; Egypt is an important ally in the war on terror and the West is loath to delegitimize or punish such a reliable military. Moreover, the last time Egypt was able to hold free and fair elections, they elected Islamic fundamentalists in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, from the West’s security-oriented perspective, President Sissi is the best they can hope for. Ironically, the ideals of the West and fundamentalist Islam only matter when they are politically convenient.