The politics of sexuality and the LGBTQ crackdown in Egypt

The politics of sexuality and the LGBTQ crackdown in Egypt

LGBTQ individuals are facing an unprecedented level of persecution in Egypt. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent human rights organization, recently reported that since the military coup in 2013, the average number of persons arrested and taken to court because of their private sexual practices and/or sexual orientation has increased five-fold annually compared to the years 2000- 2013.

To the outside observer, this may be somewhat puzzling: didn’t the current government come to power after the military coup that removed the Islamist President Mohammad Morsi and stopped the “Islamization” of the country? Wasn’t the 2011 revolution a result of the mobilization of millions of Egyptians for rights and freedoms that brought an end to the long-term dictatorial rule of President Hosni Mubarak? With the dictatorship and Islamists stopped, why are gender and sexual minorities subjected to increasing persecution in Egypt?

The answer is two-fold. On one hand, LGBTQ individuals are criminalized as part of the Egyptian government’s escalating repression of human rights activists, civil society groups, and opposition politicians. On the other hand, the persecution of LGBTQ persons is a particularly lucrative political strategy for the government, as it helps the government reassert its power as the custodian of public virtue and national sovereignty against the encroachment of “Western” gay culture.         

The crackdown on the LGBTQ community received broad international attention as a result of the mass arrests that followed the waving of a rainbow flag during a Cairo rock concert in September 2017. The Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila’s lead singer Hamed Sinno is one of the few openly gay singers in the Middle East and similar gestures of sympathy from fans across the region led the Jordanian government to ban the group from performing. The Cairo flag incident initially led to a moment of awe among LGBTQ activists in Egypt. One enthusiastic concert-goer tweeted: “Rainbow flag waving for the first time in #Egypt today at #MashrouLeila's concert. That was such a brave act.” The enthusiasm spread widely across social media platforms but also across social agendas. Before long, the incident came to fuel a public slander campaign against the band and its fans.

State-controlled media outlets portrayed concert-goers as perverts and as part of a broader Western conspiracy that threatened to destroy Egyptian youth and society. The flag also prompted immediate reactions from prominent institutions such as Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni religious authority in Egypt, which called on Muslim preachers nationwide to denounce gays in Friday sermons. Egypt's Supreme Council for Media Regulation banned the appearance or promotion of LGBTQ individuals in the media. In a statement, the council announced that “homosexuality is a sickness and disgrace” and, in order to preserve order and public decency, “it is forbidden for homosexuals to appear in any media outlet whether written, audio, or visual, except when they acknowledge the fact that their conduct is inappropriate and repent for it.”

The incident also triggered the introduction of a draft law to criminalize and imprison those engaging in or promoting same-sex relations, which Amnesty International described as “another nail in the coffin for sexual rights in Egypt.” Egypt has no current law banning same-sex relationships, but public authorities use vaguely defined debauchery and public morality laws to criminalize consensual and non-commercial sexual conduct between men. These laws allow gross violations of privacy, equality, and human rights protections.

Recent arrests represent the spike in the government’s policy of targeting the LGBTQ community. The EIPR reports that between October 2013 and early 2017, at least 232 individuals were arrested. The organization’s report, The Trap: Punishing Sexual Difference in Egypt sheds light on the methods used by the General Directorate for Protecting Public Morality in the crackdown. According to the publication, most were ensnared through social media and dating apps, which Egyptian police use to lure gay men and transgender women to a date, only to arrest them. Police also draw on citizens’ reports such as those of neighbors or hotel staff who suspect or witness same-sex relationships. The foreign nationals who are openly or are suspected of being gay or trans are deported without any court procedures. In many cases, the police utilize published media to indict gay men. For instance, eight men were arrested for spreading a video of a gay wedding ceremony, nine men for celebrating Egyptian Valentine’s Day (November 4) in a villa outside Cairo, and twenty-six men for convening in a public bathhouse in a lower-class Cairo neighborhood as part of a journalist-instigated police raid, allegedly to raise consciousness about HIV. In addition, beauty products, women’s clothing, condoms and other objects whose possession is not criminal in itself is used as evidence to indict transgender individuals in court. The report also documents human rights violations that occurred under police custody, in which arrested individuals were beaten, humiliated, threatened, and sent for a “forensic examination” — a euphemism for an unscientific procedure to check for anal intercourse.

While the government’s pressure on gay men has increased in the last three years, this is not the first time they have been targeted in massive numbers. In 2001, fifty-two men were detained and arrested on a boat-turned-club frequented by gay men in Cairo. The “Cairo 52” case marked the first time that openly gay men had been put on trial for their sexual orientation. Twenty-three were convicted for debauchery. The incident was perceived at the time as an end to many years of discreet but, to some extent, tolerated public activity of gay men. After a series of trials, retrials, appeals, and a Human Rights Watch Report documenting torture in custody and prison, the Egyptian government eventually released all but two of these men, convicted of insulting religion, in 2003. The consistent and shrewd human rights campaign, which was strategically tailored to take issue with the systematic torture of the arrested men in the hands of the police rather than sexual rights, eventually yielded their acquittal and helped put a break on their persecution during the Mubarak era.

Today, it is hard to identify a similar international effort. The authoritarian populist trend accompanying political anxieties around the world has engendered a widespread exhaustion among rights activists. In the United States, our concern is more focused on the US government carrying out a similar culture war, employing its federal powers to roll back civil rights for gay and transgender people than on right violations in other countries.

In the absence of protest from rest of the world and with the early 2018 presidential elections on the horizon, President el-Sisi is targeting the LGBTQ community among other perceived political opponents. To date, he has closed down NGOs; blocked websites; raided homes; and imprisoned or forced dissenters into exile. The number of political prisoners is reported to have increased from between 5,000 and 10,000 at the end of the Mubarak era to 60,000 today. This massive attack on opposition is the government’s reaction to its own insecurities and impotence in dealing with the country’s ongoing economic turmoil — high inflation, poverty, unemployment, and an insurgency in the Sinai that became far deadlier following the 2013 coup.  This crackdown indicates a crisis of civil liberties as conservatives react to the revolution that crystallized the demands for freedom and change in the country.

While the persecution of gender and sexual minorities is part of the larger political attack on rights and freedoms in Egypt, it is particularly lucrative in terms of garnering political support. As gender scholars have long argued, governments around the world exploit fears around sexuality and gender to wage cultural wars in hopes of generating moral panics that help divert public attention from other domestic troubles and reinforce collective identities. The association of gay and trans people with Western influence adds an extra layer to the panic about the so-called degeneration of Egyptian society and its youth. In this context, the crackdown helps the government to reassert its power as the guardian of both public virtue and national sovereignty against “Western encroachment.” These arguments also spur government popularity and credibility as “Muslim” with the conservative Egyptian public, in particular because the Sisi regime is still leery of the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood despite killing, imprisoning, or forcing into exile thousands of its members.

Moreover, according local human rights defenders, the recent crackdown has helped strengthen the police, who received a major blow during the revolution but are now receiving significant investment and commanding amplified power.  Finally, as feminist scholars have argued, the persecution of gay men and transwomen carries a deeper symbolic message: the reinforcement of faltering masculine domination. The privatization of the state-dominated economy and the weakening of welfare mechanisms led to emasculating effects on men, whose dominant position in society is based primarily on their ability to provide for their families. Against this background, homosexuality is perceived to pose a further threat to the heterosexual order that supports male dominance, and its persecution exemplifies the government’s effort to secure Egyptian masculinity.  

While the Egyptian government has previously persecuted members of the LGBTQ community in large numbers, the crackdown since the 2013 coup has been the most severe both in terms of size and scope across various provinces. Before jumping on the bandwagon of cultural explanations that link the crackdown to religious conservatism and Islam, one should look at the historical junctures at which gay people became a “problem” and the ways in which this persecution aids the government in displaying sovereignty, asserting moral authority, and claiming legitimacy.


Dr. Ayça Alemdaroğlu is the associate director of the Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Program and is a research assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her research and publications have engaged with a broad range of theoretical and ethnographic issues. These include youth culture and politics, gender and sexuality, constructions of space and place, experiences of modernity, nationalism, eugenics, and higher education. Much of her work concerns the ways in which social inequality is produced and reproduced through bodies, places, and institutions, and thus informs the experiences of ordinary people.