Virginity tests, vile bodies: Stories from Sisi’s Egypt

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

What is this furniture
That speaks of departure?
People take up their folding chairs
And emigrate.

Günter Grass, “Folding Chairs”

Three stories about Egypt today:

ONE.  Women’s vaginas belong to the State. Memorably, in March 2011, Egypt’s army forced 17 women demonstrators arrested at Tahrir Square to undergo virginity tests. One general defended the exams to CNN under cover of anonymity, saying, “These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters … We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place… None of them were.” A suspiciously similar justification for the appalling abuse was offered on the record by the head of military intelligence, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Sisi promised the military would stop inflicting the exams, but said nothing about other authorities. Sisi is president now. The police enjoy unrestrained power. Last night I spoke to a woman in her early 20s, a university student, who was forced to submit to a virginity test this week. She had accompanied a male friend to a Cairo police station to support him when he was summoned under suspicion of a crime. There, officers searched her bag and found condoms. They threatened to charge her as well — with prostitution.

They didn’t ask my consent or explain what was going to happen, just told me that a woman would search me. Then they brought in a woman who worked in [a nearby business] and all the officers left the room. I knew then this was not an ordinary search, because there would be no need to bring in a woman for that — they could have searched my clothes themselves, I was wearing ordinary pants and my blouse had no pockets.

The woman asked me to take all my clothes off. Then, when I was naked, she told me I had to bend over, over a chair. I did it and she checked my vagina. The woman herself was kind: she kept asking if I was OK and trying to reassure me.  She went out, and I put my clothes on, and the officers came back in.

One of the officers said: “Are you a virgin or not?” That was the first question they asked me when they returned. I said, “I am not. I am sure the woman said that to you.” But he said: “No, she told us you were still a virgin.” Then I understood that the woman had lied to try to protect me. I asked him not to blame her. The officer said: “We can make you a lot of trouble. No one is going to doubt you are a prostitute, because you are 20 and for sure you are not a virgin.”

At the end of her interrogation, which lasted all night, police told her she would be released. But first,

They made me sign a paper with the questions and answers they had asked me. Then I asked them to write another paper and attach it,  certifying that they had inspected my vagina.

The officer smiled. “After we do all these investigations, and we set you free, you are trying to put the blame on us! Very well, I can write it. But if I do, it will put the guilt on you, rather than us, and we will send your case to the prosecutor [niyaba]. The shame and the guilt are yours. And the address we have from your ID is your family’s, and if we take you to the niyaba your family will find out everything about your immorality. Is that what you want?”

I felt I had no choice. I agreed not to ask for the paper in order not to be charged with prostitution.

How often do such stories happen in police stations all over Egypt?

"Fear Me, Government": Street art by Keizer, from . Obviously they do.

“Fear Me, Government”: Street art by Keizer, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com. Obviously they do.

TWO. The State decides which bodies are legal or illegal. On November 2, the press reported that in El Waily, a district in the northeast of Cairo, Judge Yasser Abu Ghanima ordered a “sissy” [mokhanath] jailed for alleged fraud after trying to undergo a breast augmentation procedure. Hospital officials, detecting a physical anomaly, had handed the deviant male immediately to the police. Arrests of transgender or gender-dissident people in Egypt are commonplace now. But this one was special. The victim’s state ID and birth certificate actually said she was female. On inspection, though, her body wasn’t good enough for the government.

El-Watan interviewed the woman in jail, and published a story on November 3 which was sensational and sympathetic in equal measure.

She doesn’t know how to live and how to deal with the tragedy. On her official documents it says she is a 26-year-old female and her family treats her as female, but the government, represented by El-Zahra Hospital and El-Waily police station, has charged her with fraud in official documents and impersonating a female.

"A Girl is just like a Boy," stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A girl is just like a boy,” stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

The woman’s story, if El-Watan is to be trusted, is indeed terrible. She grew up in a poor family of five children in a village just north of Cairo. Her parents didn’t send her to school. At ten years old, she discovered that what she had “in my lower half” looked like a penis.

“So I told my mother and my sister, and they said that it is a birth defect and can be removed by surgery. I lived with it until I reached the age of 18. Then a neighbor called on me and proposed to me. I was surprised that my mother and my brothers told him I am engaged. I asked my mother about the reason for refusal. She told me that the reason is a congenital defect, I am half male and half female.”

Though they raised her as a girl, her family seems to have tried to rein in her gender presentation after she reached adulthood, rebuking her severely when she bought a ring and a woman’s necklace from a jewelry shop. “I attempted suicide more than once after the treatment that I got from my relatives.” Finally, more than a year ago, she cut off relations with all her family except her mother. “I rented a room by myself; I left the house without anyone knowing the reason, except I told my mother and she understood.” She got a job as a cleaner in a plastic factory near her village.

”I support myself after my parents and relatives abandoned me, trying to save money so that I can have surgery. The doctors told me that the congenital defect can lead to diseases such as cancer. My colleagues at work didn’t notice any difference. I avoided appearing in girls’ clothes that are too revealing. …

“For a year and a half I’ve been living on my own. I visited more than five doctors in government hospitals …. The surgery in a private clinic costs more than 10,000 pounds {$1400 US], and my salary isn’t more than 700 pounds [$100 US] per month. … I refused to have any romantic relationships or marriage. … No one knows the tragedy that’s inside me.”

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

Finally, she went to El-Zahra University Hospital, in the Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo, dressing herself in full niqab, and asking for surgery to enlarge her breasts.

“The physician examined my upper part. When I asked the doctor, ‘Will it work, doctor?’ she answered by saying: ‘Don’t worry, dear.’ Then they asked me for a urine sample for analysis. It was rejected. It caused a stir of doubts, and the doctor summoned colleagues, and I had to show the lower part of my body revealing I was ‘a girl with a penis.’”

The hospital personnel “ran to report the ‘girl with the penis’ to the police,” according to El-Watan. She was immediately taken to the El-Waily police station. “Prosecutor Wael El Shamy ordered a forensic investigation to determine her gender,” and “assigned detectives to find her family members and call them in for questioning. The prosecution decided to hold her in the waiting room of the police station and not to place her in a men’s or women’s cell for fear of assault.” There, given the publicity, she will probably be shown off as entertainment to guests.

She was “scared and crying” when El-Watan interviewed her in custody. She pleaded for a doctor “with the heart and conscience to cure me.”

“I ask everyone to help me. I am not just a deformity or birth defect. The upper part of my body is a girl’s, with nipples and long hair, and and there are no other abnormalities. I beg the Minister of Health and the National Council for Human Rights to help me to live a normal life.”

Probably, from this account, the girl was born with an intersex condition. Probably she’s never spoken to a doctor who gave her a chromosome test or a clear account of what is happening to her body. What’s striking is that the doctors immediately saw her genitals as a criminal, not a medical issue. With no questions and no sympathy, they sent her straight from examining room to jail.

Sally Mursi

Sally Mursi

Gender variance and gender ambiguity have a varying and ambiguous status in Egyptian law. The famous case of Sally Mursi, dating back 25 years, has become a — the —  lens through which these issues are seen. While a medical student at Al-Azhar University in 1988, Mursi (born Sayed Mursi) made huge headlines by undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, a mufti who later became Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (the highest position in Egyptian Islam) issued a fatwa approving the operation on health grounds; so far as is known, this is the first ruling on transgender issues from a Sunni scholar. The state grudgingly changed her ID papers. But despite the fatwa, the men’s wing of Al-Azhar Medical School expelled her and the women’s school refused to take her; the university defied a series of court orders to readmit her. Mursi could only find work as a nightclub dancer. Other segments of state bureaucracy persecuted her despite her new ID. The Ministry of Culture denied her a dancing permit, the morals police raided her shows, and the government accused her of evading military service, compulsory for men. The Doctor’s Syndicate even expelled her surgeon, Dr. Ezzat Ashmallah, for performing the operation — though he was reinstated later.

So gender reassignment surgery is technically allowed in Egypt, but it doesn’t give the patient a path to a secure legal status. It’s as if the state prefers people in a legal limbo where it can harass them when it likes. The operations are forbiddingly hard to obtain: applicants confront “a long and complicated list of procedures that always end up with the [Doctor's] Syndicate’s refusal to allow gender transformation surgeries,” according to my friend Dalia Abdel Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Sympathetic doctors still face professional opprobrium, even arrest. In 2010, prosecutors questioned a physician in Assyut, in Upper Egypt, after the Doctor’s Syndicate turned him in for conducting male-to-female surgeries. The Ministry of Health complained that the operations did not produce “real,” biological women: the patient “is still physically a male without vagina, uterus or female ovaries,” a bureaucrat there said.

The state is still at odds with itself over what makes a “real” man or woman. Unsurprisingly, then, transgender issues in Egypt are conceptually, medically, and legally tangled up with intersex issues. Both raise the same questions: what (and where in the body) is the truth of gender?

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Some Egyptian doctors have staked out their territory where transgender people are concerned, claiming they can produce the truth, that medicine can resolve the “problem” — though their own professional syndicate punishes them for saying so. Similarly, some doctors are struggling to establish their expertise and control over intersex people’s bodies. Surgeries to mutilate and reshape the genitals of intersex infants, widespread in many other countries, seem mercifully less common in Egypt. One reason: female genital mutilation pre-empts them. One surgeon said in 2004:

“Circumcision is an informal law in Upper Egyptian families. In most villages, they circumcise the girl 40 days after her birth. So in intersexed cases, they simply cut off the penis, putting us and the patient in a more difficult situation,” he says. “We then have to start from scratch, constructing a new penis. Female circumcision is a crime that should be banned by all means. As you can see, it doesn’t only damage a girl’s life, it can also destroy the future of a male.”

Yet news reports suggest that in recent years an increasing number of adults like the woman in El-Waily are seeking doctors’ help because their bodies don’t make sense to them.

Here’s the thing, though: The state wants hegemony over physical existence. And it isn’t about to surrender its power over ambiguous bodies to busybodies in white coats. Despite doctors’ efforts to brand gender identity as a medical issue, which at least takes it out of the law’s ambit, trans* people are still criminals in Egypt. In the last year a massive campaign of arrest and abuse brutalized trans* people and mokhanatheen (“effeminate” men). It conveys a clear message. In Sisi’s reborn Egypt, men must be men, not long-haired revolutionaries, not insidious sissies. The state will decide what’s deviant, and punish it.

Arrest of alleged mokhanatheen in Heliopolis, Cairo, on May 4, 2014, from Akhbar El-Hawadeth

Arrest of alleged mokhanatheen in Heliopolis, Cairo, on May 4, 2014, from Akhbar El-Hawadeth

Intersex bodies are caught in the repression. Your ID isn’t enough to make you safe. You may have lived a life conforming to your legal papers, but if your body doesn’t fit your birth certificate point for point, it’s not a “condition,” it’s a crime. Doctors’ duty is to surrender confusing cases to the police.

Sally Mursi told a reporter how, when her gender reassignment surgery ignited scandal in 1988, she and her surgeon “were summoned by the State Prosecutor’s Office,”

“which was investigating charges against us, claiming I conspired with Dr. Ezzat Ashamallah to cause myself a permanent deformity that stirred up ‘social instability and public disorder.’ Don’t you dare underestimate me … I’m as dangerous as any terrorist!”

Egypt is now suffering another state-sponsored frenzy over fears of terrorism, and bodies that stir up “social instability” are demonized all over again. The story of the woman in El-Waily isn’t just a personal tragedy. It’s a paradigm of a regime that founds its legitimacy on masculinity, mass panic, surveillance, and control.

"Don’t label me," stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“Don’t label me,” stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

THREE. One thing the press stories on Egypt won’t tell you about is the departures. Not loud enough to furnish headlines, the withdrawing footsteps drum in an undertone these days, a slow diminuendo of closing doors. Several well-known rights activists left the country in recent weeks, shadowed by warnings of imminent arrest. Yesterday, November 10, was the deadline for NGOs to submit to the supervision of the “Ministry of Social Solidarity” (Miniluv); recalcitrants may be shut down, their staff arrested. Some groups are already shuttering, some employees discreetly looking for visas. The melancholy and menace of endings suffuse casual encounters. You go to a goodbye party for a friend who’s off for a three-day conference abroad, and find he has no definite plans to return. All my gay friends are talking about leaving, all, without exception; to walk the street with one is to trek haltingly between the windows of travel agents’ offices, plate glass shimmering with flights priced out of reach. And these are the lucky, still free to dream of exits. Prisons and camps are crammed with tens of thousands of political prisoners, most though not all Islamists, who will stay till the regime is done with them.

Annibale Gatti (1828-1909) Dante in Exile, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

Annibale Gatti (1828-1909) Dante in Exile, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

No such exodus ever blighted the Mubarak years. I always felt most Egyptians would never abandon Egypt until the last extremity: even the most endangered used to try to stick it out back then, staying put despite the direst warnings. Yet settling over Egypt’s remaining liberals now is a fear some barely bring themselves to whisper. Nobody ever thought things could be worse than under the old dictator. They can.

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

A decade ago, liberals and activists and democrats led almost charmed lives – seen from the darkness of today. They might be harassed at the airport or threatened by State Security in late-night calls, but they were rarely arrested. If they were detained, the thugs would hold them a few days, even torture them a bit pour encourager les autres, then set them loosethey almost never went to prison. Mubarak didn’t take the liberals seriously. A few kids staging tiny protests, a few offices emitting press releases: this was not where he divined a threat. The most horrific extremes — the electroshock and ice-water tortures, the years or decades in stinking cells with no hope of trial, the disappearance into nameless places where no spouse or lawyer could find you — he reserved for his most feared enemies, the Islamists: the Muslim Brotherhood and those to the right of it.

Sisi’s regime doesn’t just jail and torture the Brotherhood. It kills them. The penalty for guilty liberals has also ratcheted upwards. The main tenet of this dictatorship is that Mubarak failed because he was weak. Leniency seduced him; he relaxed the reins to let human rights groups yammer, reporters report, bloggers blog, students demonstrate. No more. When human rights researcher Yara Sallam is sent to prison for three years, it’s a signal to NGOs that cells are ready for them. When journalists from Al-Jazeera get 7-to-15-year sentences, it’s a sign for foreigners and journalists: neither passports nor press cards protect them. No one is safe.

So much of Sisi’s regime is about dominating people’s bodies. The draconian protest law passed last year criminalizes the physical solidarity and togetherness that produced the Revolution in Midan Tahrir. Sexual harassment controls women on the street. The metastasizing police presence treats almost every gesture as a subversive act. The government doesn’t just want to regulate opinion or suppress dissent; its invasions have a grittily material aim, getting under the skin and in the bones, as if Sisi wants to subject the whole population to a military drill.

"No to sexual harassment," street art by Mira Shihadeh, from

This picture does not represent reality: “No to sexual harassment,” street art by Mira Shihadeh, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com

They control you. They can throw your body in jail at any time; or they can use you to find out what other bodies are up to. Last week police compelled a young man — I’ll call him Walid — to admit he was gay after detaining him for a different offense. I interviewed another person held briefly in the same case, who said:

They told Walid that he had the chance to go free. But the officer who was playing “good cop” added: “If you want to get this case cancelled, here is a pen and paper. Write down all the men you have had sex with: name, and age, and address. We promise we won’t hurt them — it’s just a favor to us.”

Walid hesitated and the policeman said: “While we were questioning you, you must have realized that we know everything. We know the [Internet] accounts of you people, we know your numbers. We don’t even need this. But I am trying to help you. You need to show us you are grateful.”

Walid wrote down a bunch of  names, some foreigners and some Egyptians. When he was finished, the policeman said: “All right. Now tell me which ones are tops and which are bottoms.”

A friend of mine asked me the other day if it was true he could get Ugandan citizenship and resettle there. He’s gay, and he knows all about Uganda and the gays. That tells you how bad things are in Egypt.

The dissidents, the revolutionaries, the activists, the long-hairs, the ones with weird or unwanted bodies, the gays and the mokhanatheen: They all look the same to the government, grimy deviants. Probably they are, but they are also prophets. Nobody likes prophets, because they are unmoored from the real. They dream of freedom – political, bodily, sexual — when it does not exist and is an insult to the unfree. Mubarak’s dictatorship bred prophets, who turned the crawlspaces and margins where they were ignored into cribs of liberty where they could dream. The prophets saw the light coming, and many saw the darkness that would follow it too. And what is the fate of prophets?

When the locusts occupied our town,
no milk came to the door, the dailies suffocated,
our jails were opened to release
all prophets.
They streamed through the streets,
3800 prophets,
talking and teaching without restriction,
and eating their fill of that gray
and jumpy mess
we called the plague.

So everything was fine and up to expectations.

Soon our milk came again; our papers reappeared;
And prophets filled our jails.

Günter Grass, “Food for Prophets”

Street art supporting  the digital platform "The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’

Street art supporting the digital platform “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’

Tim Cook’s coming out: Leaning in, trickling down

Poster - Coming Out Party_04I’ve lost interest in being gay. Not the sex; the slogans. This has been gathering over time – whose identity wouldn’t shudder under the dark suspicion it was shared with John Travolta?  – but something changed when coming out stopped being a matter of self-affirmation, with its secret thrill of hedonism, and became a moral obligation. What’s the fun of being yourself if you have to?

Everyone must be out now; and it’s not enough to be out, you have to be out enough to affirm the community, uplift the race. Thus Guy Branum (“writer and comedian”) has reprimanded Nate Silver, the numbers man, who announced he was gay a couple of years ago. Silver topped off his moment of candor, however, with a demurral: “I don’t want to be Nate Silver, gay statistician.” Wrong.

Silver’s refusal to fully participate in gay identity is the real problem … We can’t behave like Nate Silver’s choice to distance himself from gay culture is just another choice. … We need to make it safe for a statistician to be gay and have it affect their work, because some people are gay, some people are black, some people are women and all of those perspectives can enrich all fields. Nate Silver being a gay statistician will help that. [emphasis added]

Just as Philip Roth had to be a Jewish novelist, and Toni Morrison had to be a black writer, constrained in the gated communities of identity, so “yes, Nate Silver, you have to be a gay statistician.” Coming out isn’t just a public act because it’s addressed to a public, but because it’s owned by one.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, came out this week, and oh the humanity. People didn’t just congratulate him; they hailed him as Moses or Martin Luther King, as if he hadn’t just written an op-ed in Bloomberg Businessweek but had revised the Bible.

“Tim Cook’s announcement today will save countless lives. He has always been a role model, but today millions across the globe will draw inspiration from a different aspect of his life”

so said Chad Griffin of the Human RIghts Campaign. Apple is “a sponsor of the Human Rights Campaign” (“The work we do with these groups is meaningful and inspiring,” the company says). While it’s impossible to decipher how much money they ladle out, they give enough to make them an HRC “Platinum Partner.” HRC thus slobbers on the hand that feeds it. But some praise for Cook is unpaid. The unbribeable New York Times quoted the unbribeable Lloyd Blankfein, of Goldman Sachs:  “He’s chief executive of the Fortune One. Something has consequences because of who does it, and this is Tim Cook and Apple. This will resonate powerfully.”

A light in the darkness: Cook, with logo

A light in the darkness: Cook, with logo

I love my Apple swag, and God forbid I should be cynical. Yet for days fulsome praise of Cook filled my Mac’s screen, and I resisted just enough to wonder where the enthusiasm came from. How will a rich executive’s painless revelation, offered at the apex of his career, change lives, even save them? What do you mean, it will “resonate” — where, with whom? What does it say about our ritual public confessionals? What does it say about us?

Start with this. The New York Times quotes “Richard L. Zweigenhaft, co-author of Diversity in the Power Elite: How It Happened, Why it Matters … who has closely tracked the progress of minorities in business.” For Zweigenhaft, Cook’s announcement inspired “the same feeling that I had back in 1998, when many were speculating about when the first African-American would be appointed a Fortune-level chief executive.”

It’s odd Zweigenhaft was speculating about that in 1998. The first African-American head of a Fortune firm dates back to 1987. (At least by some counts.) So much for “closely monitoring.” The man was Clifton Wharton, and he was CEO and chairman of the pension behemoth TIAA-CREF.*

Jet Magazine, May 21, 1970, covers Clifton White's elevation to university president. Note that a nun gets higher billing.

Jet magazine, May 21, 1970, covers Clifton White’s elevation to university president. Note that a nun gets higher billing.

Yet questions start. One is: How earthshaking is it for a minority to run an enormous corporation if you don’t even notice when it happens? Another is: Why didn’t African-Americans explode with joy? Thirteen black men and one black woman have headed Fortune 500 companies since then. The “African-American community” seems different from the “gay community” (and not just because the “gay community,” whenever you hear the term, seems to mean a klatsch of people who are exclusively Clorox white). African-Americans didn’t hold a vast potlatch of rejoicing back when Wharton got his job, nor when Franklin Raines took charge of Fannie Mae and Lloyd Ward took over Maytag in 1999. Nor are those successes lodged in some collective memory today. Wharton crops up, for instance, in a book called African American Firsts: Famous Little-Known and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks. Perhaps that’s a warning to Tim Cook: you can go from resonator, life-saver to little-known, unsung in the time it takes to get a gold watch. Fame is a by-the-hour motel.

It’s not that those people’s strivings and stories aren’t important. But they haven’t fed the same hyperbole that Cook has among the gays. It’s’s presumptuous to generalize — yet African-Americans seem to have different priorities for celebration. Conservatives have, of course, a long history of condemning “black cultural pathology”: they cherish what Michael Eric Dyson calls “an updated version of beliefs about black moral deficiency as ancient as the black presence in the New World.” For the Right, this refusal to deify the capitalists in your community would be a prime case study. If ghetto kids only read Ayn Rand and Horatio Alger, as infant gays do, then we wouldn’t have to gun them down! Lamenting the lack of a black John Galt is wrong in many ways. It neglects the obvious fact that capitalism has appeared in African-American history more as pathology than cure. John Galt himself, copper-haired and green-eyed, might have had a complicated relationship to private properties if his color made him one. There’s plenty of room for asking: How, if a system’s past is entwined with enslavement and exploitation, can it suddenly start strewing opportunity? Where’s the catch? 

Loves of the blondes: Dagny Taggart and John Galt fret over the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit, in recent film of Atlas Shrugged

Loves of the blondes: Dagny Taggart and John Galt fret over the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit, in recent film of Atlas Shrugged

Cornel West has written how the “nihilism” he excoriates in black communities stems from “the saturation of market forces and market moralities in black life.” Yet Lloyd Hogan, the African-American economist and theorist of black empowerment, had a slightly different take. That negativity wasn’t just what the market left behind after scouring out all other values; “nihilism” abjured superficial hope, but could nourish a sustaining culture of resistance.

“Legally stolen African-American labor, transformed into non-Black material wealth,” long spelled “the physical death of the African-American population,” Hogan wrote. But there is also an “African-American internal labor to overcome the ravages of death.”

A significant component of that internal labor is indeed the development of a consciousness within the Black community to eradicate the social source of its exploitation.

Inherent in the internal labor of the African-American population is the  … creation of a surplus African-American population above and beyond the exploitative needs of capital. This is reflected in the growing absolute magnitude of unemployed African-Americans, who represent the “freeing-up” of African-Americans from the binding forces of the capitalist market mechanism. Unemployment among members of the African-American population could be part of a process that portends growing liberation of these people from direct capitalist exploitative mechanisms.

There’s a touch of the smugness of the Marxist longue durée here. The not-so-Marxist point is, though, that a liberatory consciousness doesn’t just arise through labor within the system. The working classes aren’t the only potential rebels. Being shut out from the system can emancipate you from its terms. The “internal labor” of developing that freed consciousness is a work of culture. A disparate range of cultural phenomena, seen in this context, start to make sense together. You can recognize the gangsta celebration of gain unredeemed by even the faintest hint of productive purpose, which reveals money for what Brecht and Proudhon said it was – a glint of bling decking the fact of theft; you can recall an exaltation of bodies driven by defiant needs, in dance or sport, no longer drilled and regimented by the factory ethic. These sensibilities deny the nostrums of triumphant capitalism; they form an ungoverned undercurrent in American culture, otherwise bound to the wheel of Work and Progress. To see them as freedom takes only a slight shift in vantage – though something enormous is required to shake white folks away from the heritage of Horatio Alger. Resistance isn’t just rejection; it’s the creation of visions of life alternative to what the prevailing economy has on offer. African-American experience has been rich enough in the legacy of these not to wallow abjectly in the rubbed-off pride of a few singular success stories.

Sublimate this drive: Cover of 1972 edition of Eros and Civilization

Sublimate this drive: Cover of 1972 edition of Eros and Civilization

Didn’t homosexuality stand for something like that once? To claim the flesh is designed for desire and fun, not just assembly lines and breeding, was more subversion than self-indulgence. It formed a dissent and an alternative to the work-and-win compulsiveness of American life. It rebelled against the body’s subordination to morality and economy alike, its subjection to an imperative of production. Back in the Sixties, before Grindr or Lady Gaga, a lonely homo might spend a Saturday night reading Paul Goodman or Herbert Marcuse. For Marcuse, homosexuality “protests against the repressive order of procreative sexuality.” The “repressive organization of sexuality” by culture parallels the repressive organization of creativity by capital:

The sex instincts bear the brunt of the reality principle. Their organization culminates in the subjection of the partial sex instincts to the primacy of genitality, and in their subjugation under the function of procreation. … This organization results in a quantitative and qualitative restriction of sexuality…. it is turned into a specialized temporary function, into a means for an end.

Homosexuality portends a polymorphous sexuality liberating physical existence from the factory floor, fantasy unshackled from the demands of realism. Our future hinges “on the opportunity to activate repressed or arrested organic, biological needs: to make the human body an instrument of pleasure rather than labor. … The emergence of new, qualitatively different needs and faculties seemed to be the prerequisite, the content of liberation.” The great mythic figures who embodied that perversity, Orpheus and Narcissus, “reveal a new reality, with an order of its own, governed by different principles.”

Innocent in the garden: Marcuse

Innocent in the garden: Herbert Marcuse in the Sixties

Those were heady days, when through the thickets of even the densest prose flickered glimpses of an erotic Eden; naked in the undergrowth, Marx and Freud copulated under a fringe of green leaves. The gays were tutelary spirits of this verdant wood, dissidents by definition.

And now, no more. The gay movement put on its pants and wandered in a different direction. Nobody’s interested in liberation anymore; least of all those who praise placidly zipped-up, buttoned-down Tim Cook. Brittney Cooper wrote a few days ago about the gulf between black and white feminisms in the United States: “White women’s feminisms still center around equality …  Black women’s feminisms demand justice. There is a difference.  One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.” It’s tempting to say that here’s the distinction between the gay politics we practice now– the pursuit of belonging — and other movements that retained a tingle of radical aspiration, of transformational edge.

But does the gay movement even believe in “equality”? This is what the Tim Cook carnival makes me wonder. How can you praise equality when your poster boy is worth $400 million?

That’s an undercount. In 2011, Apple paid Cook $378 million, and his price has surely gone up. Business Insider notes that, although “compensated handsomely,” Cook

chooses to live a modest lifestyle. Cook lives in a modest, 2,400-square-foot condo in Palo Alto, which he bought for $1.9 million in 2010. He’s quoted as saying in the book Inside Apple: “I like to be reminded of where I came from, and putting myself in modest surroundings helps me do that. Money is not a motivator for me.”

The threefold refrain of “modest” is sweet. It’s true that most Americans spend much more than 1/200th of their annual income on a house. It’s also true that most don’t spend two million dollars. Cook is too poor to show up on Forbes’ list of the country’s very richest. But that’s OK; he’s Number 25 in its rankings of the most powerful people on the planet, “our annual lineup of the politicians and financiers, entrepreneurs and CEOs, and billionaire philanthropists who rule the world.” That’s an interesting list. It’s not about opportunity; it’s certainly not about democracy. Among the first 25 only five — Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Narendra Modi, François Hollande — are political leaders elevated in reasonably fair elections (unless you count the Pope). The rest are dictators or businessmen. It’s their world. We just die in it.

Equal affection, trickling down

Equal affection, trickling down

The gay movement talks about equality all the time. LGBT groups across the country sport it in their names; you could play a lethal drinking game with it cropping up in speeches; and then there are those damn equality signs, and the profile pictures. But how equal is it when your role model — “trailblazer,” “hero,” “an American Dream story” — has power and money to which no American can aspire?  It means your idea of equality has gone off the rails. “He serves as a shining example that you can be who you are, you can be gay, and become the CEO of the most valuable company in the world.” No, he doesn’t. In this century of spreading poverty, in this country of oligarchy, in this economy of injusticeno sane gay kid can or should grow up with the delusion that the path to infinite acquisition lies open.

Shave off every hair you can find, son, and after that we'll practice cutting your throat to drive out Satan: Father as role model, from right-wing group Focus on the Family's website

Shave off every hair you can find, son, and after that we’ll practice cutting your throat to drive out Satan: Father as role model, in a photo from right-wing group Focus on the Family’s website

What underpins this is the American gay movement’s firm, longstanding belief in a trickle-down theory of culture. We’re not trying to change realities, just opinions. A few well-placed examples at the top of things, a few powerful promoters of tolerance, and enlightenment will leak and dribble down to the mind-starved masses. We don’t need to tinker with the system, we don’t need to ask what keeps patriarchy going, we never need to think about money, we don’t need to wonder how poverty shapes masculinity or limits women or deforms childhood, and remember: race and militarism and the Gulag of mass incarceration have zero to do with sex or gender. All it takes are role models. The obsession with role models makes gay politics seem like a nonstop casting call. Celebrities — LGBT and out, or non-LGBT and approving — are the movement’s moral leaders; it’s as if Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy were the whole March on Washington. It’s all justified by the children — the kids who don’t need child care, or recourses from domestic violence, or protective laws, or better schools and textbooks, or homes for that matter, and who are never black or Latino or poor or anything except gay; they just need a wealthy gay man or occasional lesbian to look up to, otherwise they will commit suicide. In fact, children don’t kill themselves because of the absence of Tim Cook (unless, of course, they are Tim Cook’s children). They kill themselves because their families or communities fuck them over, and it takes more than a Silicon Valley executive to fix that. Cook may be a decent man, but Chad Griffin only calls him a “lifesaver” because Chad Griffin is unable or unwilling to think about the structural changes that might actually save children’s lives.

Trickle-down culture is a retreat from both “equality” and “justice.” It lures the gay movement into a never-never land where images fix facts miraculously, and a magic charisma conveyed by gods through their chosen paparazzi withers all wrongs like blighted figs. Trickle-down politics is a politics of pure recognition, where persuading the powerful to acknowledge your existence with a gesture or a sign calls for an abased, degrading gratitude, and substitutes for getting anything that counts. Trickle-down culture is the perfect entryway to trickle-down economics, the belief that the rich, like the famous, bless us by their mere existence. Contagious success is a lie. “Leaning in” doesn’t help those whose backs are against the wall. But while we beatify Cook as gay gazillionaire, that old Horatio Alger horseshit becomes part of America’s new gay ideology.

Trickle-down politics: Did I ever tell you you're my hero?

Trickle-down politics: Did I ever tell you you’re my hero?

We are ruled less by ourselves than by the rich, and everybody knows this, and the organized gay movement isn’t fighting that, just trying to get the rich on our side. This isn’t a job for activists, but for courtiers. Most other social movements in the US have figured out this won’t work, and why. They know by heart what Brecht said: “When everyone’s pursuing happiness, happiness comes in last.” If any African-Americans ever needed a lesson in the failure to trickle down, they got it in Franklin Raines, who became the first black CEO of Fannie Mae. What kind of role model was he? Raines enthusiastically drew the lending giant into the subprime mortgage business. His motives aren’t clear; perhaps, like many others at the time, he genuinely wanted to get the very poor invested in the economic system by making them homeowners. Or perhaps he wanted to raise his corporation’s short-term earnings, because his pay was based on them. (His creative accounting ended up overstating the earnings by more than $6 billion anyway, possibly in a conspiracy to inflate his bonuses.) Plenty of African-Americans took out mortgages and invested in the system, and when the system collapsed in 2008 it left them destitute. The money went to Raines and the banks. It trickled up.

I’m reasonably sure Tim Cook is a good man, personally. I fear the possibility he’ll be the gay community’s Franklin Raines. Apple makes beautiful things that gays love; but amid the euphoria, isn’t it reasonable to ask just what else the corporation does for us? Cook has tried to lever up Apple’s philanthropy, including to the Human RIghts Campaign. (“Unlike cofounder Steve Jobs who thought his company should focus on maximizing shareholders’ value so they can donate their own wealth, the new boss is adamant that Apple must do more.”)  In 2011, the corporation gave away $150 million, against $100 billion it had in the bank. This generosity takes on a paltry cast when you realize that, though now valued at more than $118 billion, Apple pays only a pittance in taxes. Anywhere. It’s one of Earth’s biggest tax cheats. For instance, Apple may seem to you like a Silicon Valley firm; on paper, though, it’s settled itself in Ireland, a notorious tax haven. It routs its international sales — 60% of its profits — through dummy companies in Dublin. From 2009 to 2012 it attributed net income of $30 billion to another offshore subsidiary which “declined to declare any tax residence, filed no corporate income tax return and paid no corporate income taxes to any national government for five years.” It’s as though Apple were a spaceship. A Congressional report estimates Apple evaded $9 billion in 2012 US taxes. Forbes, not usually a a Marxist rag, blasted the “vanity and contempt for government … amply displayed in Apple’s tax figures.”

Not giving at the office: Apple's profits vs. Apple's taxes, 2007-2011

Not giving at the office: Apple’s profits vs. Apple’s taxes, 2007-2011

Apple’s philanthropy redistributes to private causes what it robs from public coffers – a tiny mite of what it robs, anyway. Instead of paying its dues to democratic governments, where disposing the proceeds would be a shared decision (you vote on what to with tax money), Apple gives what and when it wants to whomever it chooses. That’s neoliberalism in action. Here it’s the gays who profit at the public’s expense. I don’t grudge them. But LGBT groups could get other donors to support their battle against bullying in education; whereas dwindling tax dollars are the only thing that supports the education. End school bullying. Don’t end the schools.

This meme was made on a Mac: From Americans for Tax Fairness

This meme was made on a Mac: From Americans for Tax Fairness

One area where Apple did something nice for the gays at last, after a string of mistakes, was privacy. True, it took long enough: years of bad publicity and stonewalling before the corporation showed it was truly serious about information safety. Data protection is vital to LGBT people for obvious reasons; not everyone is out, and cops and blackmailers in many jurisdictions would love to learn who isn’t. When Apple issued a new, sweeping privacy statement last month, promising not to share information with either marketers or governments, it was especially important to those customers. For sure, it’s part of the corporation’s branding:

Apple has always tried to build an emotional connection between its devices and customers. With its increasing focus on privacy, it’s clear that Apple not only sees privacy as important to maintaining this bond, but as a means of differentiating itself from the competition.

It’s also imperfect – cops can seize information even if it’s not handed over — and Apple needs to answer many more questions. (Why does the Mac operating system still send Apple keystroke-by-keystroke data on what you do?) Yet the protections will let vulnerable users rest a bit more easy.

EyePhone: BIg brother thinks different

EyePhone: Big brother thinks different

“Privacy” is an interesting idea, though. It was a key theme in Tim Cook’s coming-out op-ed, a month after Apple’s your-data’s-safe-with-us campaign started — suggesting he saw his honesty through the same lens, perhaps as part of the same PR. “Throughout my professional life, I’ve tried to maintain a basic level of privacy,” he intoned, but “my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important.” Could this be a way of saying, Listen, geeks, there are bigger things than your selfish insecurity about your silly secrets? What’s certain is: Cook is willing to forgo his personal obscurity and become a news story and symbol; but Apple, by contrast, protects its corporate privacy to the death. Literally.

On July 16, 2009, Sun Danyong, 25 a Chinese factory worker for Apple’s manufacturing supplier Foxconn Technology, killed himself by jumping from the window of his 12th-floor apartment. Three days earlier, he’d told the company he’d lost a prototype model for the next-generation IPhone. Foxconn security forces searched his home, interrogated him, and beat him. Two hours before he died, Sun texted his girlfriend:

“My dear, I’m sorry, go back home tomorrow, something has happened to me, please don’t tell my family, don’t contact me, this is the first time that I have ever begged you, please agree to that! I am so sorry!”

And he wrote to a friend: “Even at a police station, the law says force must never be used, much less in a corporate office. … Thinking that I won’t be bullied tomorrow, won’t have to be the scapegoat, I feel much better.”

Sun Dan YongSun’s death drew attention to the human consequences of Apple’s obsessive concern with secrecy. It also pulled back the veil on working conditions for those who make your IPhones and IPads. In 2010 alone, 18 Foxconn workers attempted suicide, and 14 died. Mic.com describes Tian Yu, a17-year-old migrant from rural China:

Her managers made her work over 12 hours a day, often without a day off for up to two weeks, and attend unpaid work meetings on top of that. Tian Yu’s demanding work schedule in Foxconn’s sweatshop-like conditions forced her to skip meals and accept the manufacturer’s restricted toilet break policy.

The company finally sent her on a bureaucratic run-around to get the meager monthly wages of just over $200 it owed her. She bussed from office to office in a futile quest: “Why was it so hard to get what I’d earned? Why must they torture me like this?” she asked a reporter later. That day, she jumped from her dormitory window, and barely survived.

A Hong Kong-based watchdog investigated working conditions at Foxconn, and found its factories were more like military labor camps. A Hong Kong professor, Jack Qiu, made a powerful short film on Foxconn’s sweatshops:

A former Foxconn manager told the New York Times that “Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost. Workers’ welfare has nothing to do with their interests.”

Apple promised audits and produced its own figures, but showed angry indignation that anyone dared impugn its motives or inspect its claims. Tim Cook said in a company-wide email that he was “outraged”: but by the abuses, or the reporting?

Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple’s values today … We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. …. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. … For the many hundreds of you who are based at our suppliers’ manufacturing sites around the world, or spend long stretches working there away from your families, I know you are as outraged by this as I am.

What stands out is Apple’s fierce concern not just for its customers’ privacy, but for its own. Corporations are people too, and they have their intimacies. If they enjoy the full rights of free speech, surely they’re entitled to keep the state out of their bedrooms. Would you fuck somebody – the workers, in this case — with a whistleblower watching?

Apple’s philanthropy is a good investment. By buying up shares in US civil society, they ensure noisy activists will side with them, and ignore the nameless foreign workers. Apple donates to HRC in part to give itself a, well, righteous gloss. How could a bigtime patron of the Human RIghts Campaign flout human rights?

Hello down there, little man: Tim Cook tours a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China, in 2012

Hello down there, little man: Tim Cook tours a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China, in 2012

But all this exposes still another scandal: The complicity of US social movements with corporate abuse.

There’s nothing new here, and it’s not unique to Apple. In 2012, Bil Browning revealed how “One day after several leaders from LGBT orgs met to talk about American Airlines’ anti-union activities and how it’s been affecting their LGBT employees, the Human Rights Campaign sent out an email urging their supporters to purchase airline tickets from the company.” American Airlines is another big donor to HRC; just like Apple, it’s a “Platinum Partner.” Effectively, these companies pay the gays to pinkwash them, to do their PR work. Purchasing social movements through philanthropy is remunerative traffic for the Fortune 500, and the gays come cheap. All I can say is: when onetime activists for liberated desire become hired flacks for the profiteers of sweatshop abuses, we’ve come a long, long way from Marcuse.

It's my party: Movie poster from 1934

It’s my party: Movie poster from 1934

Coming out is so complicated! I began by citing somebody’s demand that Nate Silver come out as a “gay statistician.” What is a “gay statistician?” Presumably it means you deal in gay statistics. And what are those? If you’re gay, or black, or Jewish and a novelist, I get how you may write gay, or black, or Jewish novels – a novel tells stories, and the teller’s identity is free to enter. But how professional is it to pass pure numbers through the sieve of self? Or maybe it’s all about the subjects you research. Should gay Nate Silver serve us up statistics about the gay community, then? Yet that might include statistics the gay community’s leaders wouldn’t like us to hear. You know — figures like:

  • How much does Apple pay the Human Rights Campaign to advertise for it?
  • How many praise-filled Tim Cook-related press releases were funded by Tim Cook-related money?
  • How much money do groups that rate corporations’ “gay-friendliness” take from corporations?
  • What percentage of the US LGBT movement’s funding comes from corporate donors, or donors high-placed in corporations? And on what terms?
  • What percentage of LGBT groups taking cash from corporations have ever criticized the human rights record of those corporations?

No, that won’t do. I’m sure the Human Rights Campaign prefers fewer, not more, gay statisticians.

I have nothing against Tim Cook. I wish him well. We spend too much time looking for individuals to blame for the horrors we dimly discern in the world; it diverts us from thinking about the system that dictates individuals’ acts, and constrains their desires. Cook’s coming out, I think, is an attempt to be a personality in a career that provided few chances for it: to claim a little corner of real, old-time personhood, not the corporate kind, inside a structure where selves subordinate themselves to shareholder value. (Even Steve Jobs, as quirky a figure as any leader in US life, tried with Zen obsessiveness to erase and efface himself down to desireless degree zero.) But if being gay can be bought and sold, it’s not a realm of self-expression anymore. Rebellious soul and body dwindle to a market niche. Cook at least has a distinctive prose style: “We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick,” he wrote in his op-ed. “This is my brick.” But where is that stone cemented? Is it the yellow brick road? Or another brick in the wall?

* NOTE: TIAA-CREF has always been enormous, but it doesn’t seem to have appeared on the Fortune 500 list until 1998, I suspect because the magazine tweaked its rules then to include non-profit corporations. It’s been on there steadily ever since. So does Wharton’s 1987 accomplishment count? Was TIAA-CREF technically a Fortune company in 1987, since it was later? In any case, Wharton lists himself as the first African-American Fortune 500 CEO: here, for instance, and here. Either the Times didn’t acknowledge him as it should, or Wharton shows how CEOs — perhaps including Cook as well — are not to be trusted to measure their own importance.

Booya

Booya

Two trials, two travesties

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover the faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover their faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Eight men were sent to prison today in Cairo, because their faces flickered through a video that prosecutors said showed a “gay wedding.” They got three years; after that, they’ll serve another three years’ “probation,” sleeping every night from dusk to dawn in a police station. Their lives are ruined.

It’s not even clear yet what charges they were convicted of. The heavy book thrown at them seems to have included “incitement to debauchery” (fujur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct in Egyptian law); that’s article 14 of Law 10/1961, in itself worth up to three years in prison. There were also articles 178 or 179 of the criminal code, anti-pornography provisions that punish “manufacturing or possessing materials that violate public morals,” or “inciting passersby to commit indecency on a public road.” The charges were ridiculous. The defendants didn’t spread the video or incite anyone to anything — when the film went viral on YouTube, those who were in it tried desperately to get it taken down. The film clip wasn’t remotely pornographic. YouTube is not a public road. There was no proof the men were gay. A representative of the country’s Forensic Medical Authority — who inflicted abusive and intrusive anal examinations on them all, and found even by those bogus standards they were “unused” – said, “The entire case is made up and lacks basis. The police did not arrest them red-handed and the video does not prove anything.” In Egypt, though, trials no longer proceed through proof, just prejudice and fear. Rampant political opportunism trampling the remains of rule of law: that’s General Sisi’s Egypt.

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

On October 26, in a court in a sun-baked Cairo military compound, 23 defendants also got three years in prison, and three years of further dusk-to-dawn confinement. They included my friend Yara Sallam, a feminist and human rights activist, and six other women, and sixteen men. Among them also were Sanaa Seif, a young democracy activist, the daughter of the late, heroic human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif el-Islam, who died in August while working on her defense; a well-known photographer, Rania El-Sheikh; Mohammed Anwar or “Anno,” a revolutionary veteran who was a gifted member of a modern dance company as well; and more. Their crime was being on the scene of a peaceful June 21 demonstration near the Presidential Palace. The protest was against Egypt’s new, repressive protest law, which the military government imposed by decree last year. The law lets the state imprison anyone who voices opposition in the streets without permission. It’s meant to put any and all dissent in its proper place: a penitentiary.

If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

“This is a politicized sentence. There isn’t any evidence against the defendants,” one of the defense attorneys told the media after the verdict came down. Who the hell cares? The day after the verdict Sisi excreted a new decree. It gives military courts jurisdiction over crimes committed in almost any public spaces. The security establishment saw its powers expand exponentially at a penstroke, like a black mushroom cloud ballooning out to darken the country. More and more civilians will appear before military prosecutors and military judges, to face military sentences, their civil rights shrunken to scraps and rags. Meanwhile, Sanaa Seif’s sister Mona Seif (who has campaigned for years against military trials for civilians) and her mother Laila Soueif are on a hunger strike to protest the increasingly total reach of state repression. Before last week, they refused food; since the verdict, they have refused liquids as well. No one doubts: the government would like to see them die.

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Three years for peaceful protest; three years for exchanging rings. Every trial in Egypt these days is a travesty. “Travesty” has many meanings, among them a joyous play with gender; in Latin America, in Turkey, travesti refers to trans people, whose communities subvert some of the most rigid social norms. And trans people have been among the victims of Egypt’s regime, rounded up in bars and on streets and in private apartments for defying the military definition of conformist, nationalist, ideal manhood. Self-expression looks like dangerous deception to the Sisi state.

That’s the state’s inward irony, its private joke. By the draconian terms of Egyptian law these travesties of trials themselves should be jailed: for assuming false identities; for conspiring to deceive; for defrauding the public they claim to defend; for cross-dressing as justice.

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

اسئلة قانونية بخصوص المثلية في مصر

بعد أن صار المثليون ومتحولو النوع الاجتماعي والجنس في مصر هدفاً لاعتداءات الشرطة كصورة من صور الحماية الزائفة للأخلاق، فقد قمنا بجمع اسئلة من المجتمع المثلي والاجابة عنها بواسطة متخصصون قانونيون بهدف حماية المجتمع المثلي من هذه الاعتداءات قبل وفي حال وقوعها. برجاء مشاركة هذا المنشور مع جميع الصفحات المتعلقة بالمثلية الجنسية والمتحولين/ات جنسياً حتى يتاح لأكبر عدد من الاشخاص الاستفادة بها

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Meet the Businessmen Who Want Egypt’s Internet Users Jailed, Tortured, and Killed

هي هذه المادة متاحة باللغة العربية هنا
This article is available in Arabic here

0,,1162637_4,00If you are a nerd, you’ll like this post, because it’s about computers. But wait! — it’s also about sex, and stuff like that. (You practically can’t have sex these days unless you own at least a smartphone.) It’s about combating the corporations that send the most vulnerable of us to jail. So if you’re not a nerd, read on; the good stuff is coming.

Start with this spring. One fine day, Egypt’s Ministry of Interior announced that companies could bid to sell the country new technologies, for monitoring both posts and private conversations on the Internet. Of course, they only announced this to the companies, not the Egyptian public. (Would you send the rabbit a press release about the hunt?) However, the newspaper El-Watan managed to publish a leaked copy of the tender. It’s an anthology of a repressive government’s fantastic fears about cyberspace:

Unfortunately, increasing numbers of users of social networks spread destructive ideas …  They threaten the security of society and prejudice its stability, with the growing influence of the “Internet” network and social networking sites, representing the beginning of the era of news transmitted without borders, and the consolidation of the concepts of democracy [apparently a bad thing] ….

Bureaucrats fear the Internet: Cartoon from China by the Kunming-based studio Yuan Jiao Man’s Space (圆觉漫时空)

Bureaucrats fear the Internet: Cartoon from China by the Kunming-based studio Yuan Jiao Man’s Space (圆觉漫时空)

Among the “destructive ideas” were:

Defamation and questioning of religion; regional, religious, ethnic or ideological incitement; publishing malicious rumors and intentionally misrepresenting facts; fabrication of charges; defamation and abuse of reputation; ridicule; sarcasm; slander; profanity; the call to escape community constraints; encouraging extremism, violence and rebellion; calling for demonstrations, sit-ins and illegal strikes; pornography, decadence, and lack of morality; teaching methods of making explosives and assault, chaos and riot tactics; calling for normalizing relations with enemies and circumventing the state’s strategy in this regard; fishing for honest mistakes … taking statements out of context; and spreading hoaxes and claims of miracles. [Presumably the government’s own recent claim to have cured AIDS didn’t fall in the last category.]

The State wanted systems that could search for keywords in both Arabic and English “and the flexibility to add any other language in the future,” across networks including “Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Google,” and phone apps such as Viber. They wanted to trawl for “terminology and vocabulary that are contrary to law and public morality or beyond the scope of custom and community ties” — guess what that might include.

You see how it is in Egypt. For most of us the Internet is 99% cat pictures and listicles. But the generals decode terrorist messages beneath the fur and fluff. (They also see those messages in cloth puppets. It’s a dangerous world.)

Ali Miniesy, CEO of See Egypt. Picture taken, without the use of Deep Packet Inspection, from his Facebook account. Change your privacy settings, Ali.

Ali Miniesy, CEO of See Egypt. Picture taken, without the use of Deep Packet Inspection, from his Facebook account. Change your privacy settings, Ali.

Ten Egyptian human rights groups condemned this move: “Privacy in the public sphere is necessary for a free and stable political life. Assaulting it is a sign of totalitarianism.” It takes more than that to stop the State. On September 17, BuzzFeed reported that an Egyptian company called See Egypt had won the contract. It would sell the government technology from its “sister company” Blue Coat, an Internet security firm based in Sunnyvale, California. This included Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, which “enables geolocation, tracking, and extensive monitoring of internet traffic.” Ali Miniesy, the CEO of See Egypt, told BuzzFeed that “Our job as a company is to give them the system. I train the government how to run it and we give them the program. … [It] can also be used to penetrate WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, or other programs if needed.”

For those who aren’t nerds: Information you send over the Internet is usually bundled into what are called “packets.” It’s more efficient for Internet service providers to send these bundles than to transmit each keystroke separately. Some programs, though, can open these packets and inspect their contents. As Wired magazine says, “when a network provider engages in deep packet inspection, it does the equivalent of opening up letters in a postal depot, and reading the contents.” Repressive governments love this; it tells them exactly who to torture. DPI technology is big business. And Blue Coat is a major profiteer.

Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim: Photo from Al-Ahram

Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim: Photo from Al-Ahram

Denials launched at once, as if these guys were scared of something. Off in California, Blue Coat blasted out a statement: “See Egypt is a Blue Coat reseller, but is not otherwise affiliated with Blue Coat. See Egypt has assured us that they have not bid or resold Blue Coat products to the Egyptian government for any social network monitoring operation.”  In Cairo, the Interior Ministry cried: “This piece of news is completely false,” a farrago aimed at “spreading mistrust, stirring public opinion and dismissing the Interior Ministry’s efforts and its sons’ sacrifices.” All these people claiming they didn’t even know each other, in such a coordinated way! The strangest response came from See Egypt. They posted a denial on their website:

The company has neither applied, installed, participated in tender for the supply of a system to MoI [Ministry of Interior] not trained or participated in training of MoI staff … The company is not a sister or affiliated company of “Blue Coat” The company is one among few resellers of “Blue Coat” products in Egypt and the region, The company is totally owned by Egyptian investors and operated and managed by Egyptian staff.

That screed stayed up for a few hours, maybe. Then they took the entire website down.

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See Egypt’s informative and consumer-friendly website, 24 hours after the story broke

Really. This is 2014. Taking a website down is pointless; even cavedwellers like me know about Google Cache. I found the cached copies of the old website; I’ve saved all the pages as PDFs, and you can read them here. What a weird company! Notice several things. First, the entire website was in English, which is pretty remarkable in Egypt. Plenty of companies show off English sections of their sites, to look international and glossy; but the whole thing?  (When a foreign reporter tried to call See Egypt the day after BuzzFeed‘s article appeared, the receptionist told him no one in the office could speak English. When I tried calling, I got no answer.)

Seeing Egypt I: The Lidless Eye

Seeing Egypt I: The Lidless Eye.

But there are other fascinating facts. See Egypt says, for instance, that its name doesn’t stand for the Eye of Sauron at all. It means “Systems Engineering of Egypt,” which has the synthetic ring of a folk etymology, recently invented. The company says it’s 30 years old. It says it is a 250 million LE business (about $35 million US).  It has an “Airports Division” — they sell “a complete line of airfield lighting and control, airport counters, waiting area furniture,” and oh, lots of “Computer Data Network” stuff. There’s a “Banking Systems Division.” Then there’s the Data Communication Division (“Since 1984 SEE is the Pioneer in the Egyptian Market in the design, implementation and support of Data Communication Infrastructure solutions”), and buried way down there, Internet “Security Services,” including some “milestones”:

  • First Implementation of end-to-end Security solution in Banking Sector
  • First Implementation of end-to-end Security solution in Public Sector
  • First implementation of end-to-end Security solution in the Oil& Gas Sector

That sounds impressive. But why hide this light under a bushel?

I am the President of See Egypt, and I can see you.

Seeing Egypt II: The Nameless President.

More oddities. There’s a list of customers, which includes sixteen government ministries (MoI included), plus the Cabinet itself, the upper house of Parliament, and the Military Police. There’s a list of partners, which, yes, features Blue Coat Systems. There’s a letter from the company president (“See has been participating in building almost every large and sensitive application data network in this country”), which has his picture, but not his name. (His name is Abdel H. El-Sawy. And his Facebook page is here.) 

What is this place, blandly opaque even by Egyptian standards? Let’s go back to Blue Coat Systems for a moment.

Blue Coat says it’s all about helping businesses keep vital info under wraps: “Blue Coat has a long history of protecting organizations, their data and their employees.” Bullshit. Blue Coat also sells technology to governments to let them crack data protection and hunt down dissent. Reporters Without Borders named it one of the worldwide Enemies of Internet, and said it “is best known for its Internet censorship equipment.” RSF writes that with Blue Coat’s DPI tech,

it is possible to look into every single Internet Protocol packet and subject it to special treatment based on content (censored or banned words) or type (email, VoIP or BitTorrent Protocol). DPI … makes single users identifiable and, in countries that flout the rule of law and violate human rights, often exposes them to arbitrary imprisonment, violence or even torture.

Blue Coat describes PacketShaper, one of their products as follows: “It’s your network. Own it …  PacketShaper analyzes and positively identifies traffic generated by hundreds of business and recreational applications.”

Blue Coat Planet: Map of Blue Coat's surveillance spoor, from Citizen Lab

Blue Coat Planet: Map of Blue Coat’s surveillance spoor, from Citizen Lab

Blue Coat’s spoor turns up wherever an overweening government represses rights. Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto project on human rights and the Internet, searched for its traces almost two years ago. Their detailed report found:

Blue Coat devices capable of filtering, censorship, and surveillance are being used around the world. During several weeks of scanning and validation that ended in January 2013, we uncovered 61 Blue Coat ProxySG devices and 316 Blue Coat PacketShaper appliances, devices with specific functionality permitting filtering, censorship, and surveillance.
61 of these Blue Coat appliances are on public or government networks in countries with a history of concerns over human rights, surveillance, and censorship … We found these appliances in the following locations:
Blue Coat ProxySG: Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.
PacketShaper: Afghanistan, Bahrain, China, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, and Venezuela.

Only through third parties: Nidal Taha, Blue Coat's Middle East Regional Director (from http://www.tcf-me.com/client_portal/blue-coat-systems/biographies/927866167 )

Only through third parties: Nidal Taha, Blue Coat’s Middle East Regional Director (from http://www.tcf-me.com/client_portal/blue-coat-systems/biographies/927866167 )

And Blue Coat has a long history in the Middle East. Before Ben Ali’s dictatorship in Tunisia was overthrown in 2011, his government used DPI technology to track dissidents — “provided by the American companies Blue Coat System and Netapp and by the German company Ultimaco.” In 2011, according to Citizen Lab, Blue Coat admitted under pressure that 13 of its DPI devices were in Syria, in defiance of a US embargo; it claimed they were “initially shipped through a distributor from Dubai and [intended] for the Iraqi Ministry of Communications.” (Similarly, Blue Coat devices have been detected in Iran and Sudan, both also under US embargo.) In 2013, the hacktivist group Telecomix found that the Assad regime had installed 34 Blue Coat servers. These used DPI to “analyse and control the activities of Syrian Internet users – censuring [sic] websites, intercepting emails, obtaining details of sites visited and so on.”

In 2013, Blue Coat replied to the painstaking inquiries of RSF and its allies, insisting that “its products were sold in accordance with the laws governing the sale of its technology. It said all of its sales were channelled through third parties and it expected the same compliance of them.” But think about that strange business model. Why do everything through middlemen who skim the profits?

Blue Coat's Minister of Love: CEO Greg Clark will protect your data, except against his own technology

Blue Coat’s Minister of Love: CEO Greg Clark will protect your data, except against his own technology

There’s only one reason all Blue Coat’s sales are “channelled through third parties”: it allows the company to deal with despicable governments, and keep its hands — and rap sheet — clean.

All signs are that Blue Coat has had a productive relationship with Egypt for years. In the Mubarak era in 2009, the company’s CEO, Greg Clark, was already being quoted in Egypt’s Daily News: “Security has traditionally been steeped in fear – of the unknown, of new technology, of loss of control – and that fear has driven a rigidity that stymies growth in the business.” (That’s got to change. Bread, freedom, dignity!) Back in those days, the Cairo dictatorship was busily learning Internet surveillance. They were acquiring DPI — mainly, it seems, from Narus, an Israeli military-security firm that Boeing bought in 2010 and relocated to the US. ( Mubarak’s sinister intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was known for his close ties to Israel.) But either they didn’t have good equipment, or they didn’t know how to use it. Mubarak’s response to Internet dissent remained hammerlike and ham-handed. It’s telling that, faced with a Facebook- and Twitter-fueled revolution in 2011, he responded not by arresting Tweeters or disrupting particular programs, but — famously — by shutting the entire Internet down.

EGYPT INTERNET 5395027368_7d97b74c0b_b

Into that darkness: The despot shuts down the Internet, January 27, 2011

Since the Arab Spring, the generals in Cairo have sought a targeted, sophisticated response. Clearly this is where Blue Coat comes in. But what’s the story behind its mysterious Egyptian partner firm?

Here’s another odd thing. On See Egypt’s cached website, there was a downloadable brochure (also in English) that described the organization as “wholly owned and founded by Egyptian Technical group investing basically their long and deep experience in the areas of computer and Communication.” Meanwhile, I located another Egyptian computer firm, with the Orwellian name of MindWare. It has its own brochure, which says: “Mindware was founded by an Egyptian technical group that investing their long, deep professional and academic experience in the areas of computer, security and communication technologies.” Such similar blurbs, down to the bad English — almost as if the same people wrote them. Why does See Egypt have this peculiar twin?

Mindware is a known name in the region. The Egyptian firm seems to be a branch of a multinational based in the United Arab Emirates. That Mindware was founded in 1991. “Today, the business has risen to $200 million a year, and the company has 130 employees, with offices in Dubai, Riyadh, Cairo, Jeddah and Beirut.” Eventually Mindware UAE was bought by the Midis Group, a Lebanese computer products firm with strategic investments into the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa. For technology leaders interested in these destinations, the Midis Group … can be an ideal partner.” Of course, those three regions have a history of repressive governments, censorship, and surveillance.

Mindware sells security, though it doesn’t advertise the fact much. Mindware crops up, for instance, as a “partnership” on the website of a UAE-based security firm, EMW. Among other things, EMW is a consultant to NATO in defending America’s Middle Eastern empire (“From Oman to Afghanistan, EMW has been supporting the communication needs of those who serve”). And EMW is another reseller of Blue Coat’s security technology. Blue Coat signed a deal with EMW in 2009 as it “beefed up its Middle East channel.”

Back to the BatCave, Batman: Mindware Egypt company logo

Back to the BatCave, Batman: Mindware Egypt company logo

But Mindware Egypt, founded in 2009, is a different thing. It doesn’t feel like a branch of a slick $200 million multinational, judging from its vacuous website — also all in English. For one thing, it’s not based in Cairo, it’s in provincial Alexandria. For another, the partial list of customers buried on the site is unimpressive: mostly Egyptian schools and hospitals, not places with money to burn. The enterprise seems far more low-key than See Egypt; it’s hard even to make out what its specialties are (its website says ” Data Communication & security systems”; its Facebook page says “Home Security” and “Automation Services”). Indeed, it’s difficult to see how they turn a profit. The firm seems just to be parked there, waiting for something to happen.

I’ll tell you what I think is going on.

See Egypt and Mindware Egypt are both fronts set up by associates of the security establishment and the Ministry of the Interior. Ministry officers or other bigwigs rig up such spurious firms using family members, for instance, or retired colleagues. They’re not exactly dummy companies: they do some real marketing, exploiting their government connections. (Think of all See Egypt’s cabinet clients, or the schools and hospitals that are victims of Mindware’s sales.) Mindware headquarters in the UAE is happy to adopt these Egyptians as a token “branch,” because they can open doors in the Ministries.

But their real usefulness kicks in when a multimillion-dollar security deal, like the Ministry’s surveillance tender, comes along. Then these firms have a twofold value.

  • For a company like Blue Coat, they give deniability: Blue Coat can claim it isn’t selling tools to the torturing State, just to an Egyptian business.
  • For the Egyptian side, they grease kickbacks. These firms make a profit in reselling the technology to the Ministry. They can then share these proceeds with the Ministry officials who helped set them up in the first place.
Don't be corrupt, let us do it for you: Official anti-corruption poster from Egypt's Ministry  for Administrative Development, 2010

Don’t be corrupt, let us do it for you: Official anti-corruption poster from Egypt’s Ministry for Administrative Development, 2010

Based on the two companies’ suspiciously  twinned descriptions, I’d bet the same people who run See Egypt also established the Egypt “branch” of Mindware. I also suspect See Egypt’s days as Blue Coat’s reseller are numbered, now that it’s been exposed. Its usefulness is over; you can almost feel the stage sets folding. The Blue Coat account, the technology and the training staff will all be shifted to another front firm: Such as Mindware.

Can I prove this? No. I’m just a semi-retired professorial type. But there are investigative reporters in Egypt and beyond who should be looking at these incestuous connections.

All I know for sure is, Egypt’s regime is desperate for what Blue Coat has to offer.  And I know who’ll suffer when they get it. There will be the usual suspects, revolutionaries and Islamists — but also labor activists, atheists, feminists, Shi’ites, kids with foreign friends, sarcastic people. In fact, almost anybody.

LGBT Egyptians will suffer too. Already a Ministry of Interior official told BuzzFeed that the technology would hunt down people engaged in “homosexual acts,” “for the protection of Egypt.”

No gay allowed: The results of Blue Coat blocking software

No gay allowed: The results of Blue Coat blocking software

In the US, Blue Coat Systems has a checkered record with LGBT people. In 2013, under pressure, they finally stopped selling the US military filtering software that blocked LGBT websites. They still help governments censor anything “porngraphic,” though — and their definition is elastic as an old jockstrap. Earlier this year, Citizen Lab found:

As of this writing, the websites of the New Braunfels Republican Women, the Kiddie Kollege Nursery School, the Freemasons’ District Grand Lodge of East Africa, the Weston Community Children’s Association, and the Rotary Club of Midland, Ontario are all categorized as “pornography” by Blue Coat Internet blocking software.

But in Egypt, Blue Coat goes beyond the call of duty, ready to help LGBT people rot in jail. Police are arresting suspected gay and trans people all the time. Just this Tuesday they seized another, in Western Cairo: Youm7, the cops’ favorite tabloid, announced that she had a “female body and male genitals,” and that “the accused put a picture and phone number on the networks of pornographic sites on the Internet with an announcement to get ready for the practice of debauchery and fornication.” Fears of sex and of cyberspace feed each other. Imagine how it will be when a policeman can sit in his office following victims’ flirtations on Viber, or perusing their “private” pics on Facebook.

No privacy where the press is concerned: Humiliating “interview” with apparent victim of Tuesday’s arrest, published by Vetogate.com

Blue Coat is evil, and they work with corrupt and evil people: veterans of the military-security complex who have the blood of the tortured under their fingernails. If LGBT activists in the US can put the fear of gay into a corporate gorilla like Mozilla, they should be protesting the hell out of Blue Coat Systems — because Blue Coat sells the tools that send LGBT people to prison. Activists, hit the smartphones and the streets, stop the sales to Egypt!

Otherwise, the tortures will intensify. People will die. (Egypt’s regime loves death. It shoots down “terrorists” and plaits the noose for dissidents; Sisi decrees new capital crimes as if he’s signing birthday cards.) Technology has its own momentum, indifferent to human bodies and lives. Sadists everywhere, prick up your ears. The good stuff is coming.Internet-privacy

Egypt: Tweet and blog against homophobic brutality, September 24 and 25

Prisoners in the courtroom cage during the Queen Boat trial wear masks to protect themselves from sensation-seeking photographers: Cairo, 2001

Prisoners in the courtroom cage during the Queen Boat trial wear masks to protect themselves from sensation-seeking photographers: Cairo, 2001

URGENT! This Wednesday and Thursday, September 24 and 25, Egyptian activists want a worldwide storm of tweeting and blogging to protest the recent, massive wave of brutal repression of LGBT people.

Here’s the call to action in English, followed by Arabic. (You can learn more and join the event on Facebook — and while you’re at it, check out the Solidarity with Egypt LGBT page as well.) The Arabic version below includes sample Arabic tweets (in red) but please write your own in English! Paste the hashtag
#ضد_حبس_المثليين
in Arabic, or use it in English –  #stopjailinggays. Please share widely and join in!

TWO DAYS OF TWEETING AND BLOGGING: #STOPJAILINGGAYS

Because the Egyptian government has recently focused its efforts on monitoring people’s private lives, whether in the bedroom or on their facebook accounts …
Because the police have paused in chasing “terrorists” and are going after people for their sexual orientation and gender identity …
Because since October 2013, police have arrested more than 80 people for the “crime” of being gay or transgender …
Because some of these people receive humiliating treatment including physical violence and rape threats in detention …
Because the Forensic Medical Authority conducts anal examinations on these people, considered sexual assault and a violation of human rights and medical ethics …
Because they are sentenced for up to 10 years on charges of debauchery — a vague word …
Because the media has been waging a sensational campaign against LGBT people in Egypt, violating people’s privacy by publishing names and photos …
Because of all of this, on September 24 and 25 we will be tweeting and blogging using the hashtag
#ضد_حبس_المثليين
which means “Against the Jailing of Gays.”
Join us. Invite your friends. Raise your voices.

يومين للزقزقة والتدوين #ضد_حبس_المثليين

بمناسبة إن الدولة متفرغة في الفترة الأخيرة لمراقبة الناس في أوض نومهم وعلى صفحاتهم الخاصة، وبدل ما الشرطة تقبض على الإرهابيين مخصصة وقتها كله لملاحقة المثليين من أول أكتوبر السنة اللي فاتت الدولة قبضت على أكتر من 80 واحد بتهمة المثلية، بعضهم بيتعرض لمعاملة مهينة جوة السجن من ضرب وذل وشتيمة، وتهديد بالاغتصاب، غير إن الطب الشرعي بيطبق عليهم كشوفات غير آدمية وبيكشف على فتحات الشرج بتاعتهم عشان يثبت هما مثليين ولا ﻷ، بعضهم أخد أحكام بالسجن بتهمة الفجور، اللي هي تهمة مطاطة ومش واضحة، ولإن الإعلام قاعد يخلق أساطير حوالين المثلية الجنسية زي إنها مرض نفسي والقنوات والجرايد بينتهكوا خصوصية الناس وينشروا أساميهم وتفاصيل حياتهم

فاحنا يوم 24 و25 سبتمبر هنزقزق وندون باستخدام هاشتاج #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية الجنسية مش جريمة والدولة المفروض عندها حاجات أهم تعملها من مراقبة مين بينام مع مين،

شاركونا بالتدوين والكتابة خلال اليومين دول ودي نماذج من التويتات اللي ممكن تستخدموها:

المثلية هي ميول عاطفية أو جنسية ناحية انسان من نفس الجنس. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش جريمة. إزاي حبس المثليين في السجون هيحل المشكلة؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش اختيار. محدش بيختار يكون جزء من فئة مهمشة ومرفوضة من المجتمع. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

أكبر مؤسسات الطب النفسي بطلت تعتبر المثلية الجنسية مرض نفسي من السبعينات. مفيش علاج نفسي معترف بيه عالميا للمثلية الجنسية. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثليين جنسيا بيتعرضوا لعنف مستمر، سواء من الدولة اللي بتجرمهم، أو من الأهل أو في الشارع. المثلية مش مقبولة بس العنف مقبول؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش تقليعة ولا موضة ولا بدعة من الغرب. المثليين موجودين في كل العصور وكل الحضارات. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

جسمي أنا حر فيه. عاوز تتحكم في جسمي ليه؟ تقبل حد يقولك تعمل ايه وماتعملش ايه في جسمك؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

من حق كل شخص بالغ انه يختار يدخل في علاقة ولا لأ ويختار مين الشخص المناسب ليه من غير تدخل من أي جهة. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش مرض نفسي ولا بتسبب أمراض نفسية ولا جسدية. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

شهد العام الأخير تصاعد في عدد المثليين والمتحولين جنسيا الذي تم القبض عليهم فيما يزيد على 80 شخص. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية غير مجرمة بالنص في القانون المصري ولكن يستخدم مصطلحات فضفاضة مثل الفجور لملاحقة المثليين جنسيا #ضد_حبس_المثليين

عقوبة الفجور المستخدمة للقبض على المثليين تصل ل 3 سنوات ويضاف أحيانا اتهامات أخرى ليصل الحكم ل 10 سنوات #ضد_حبس_المثليين

الشرطة لم تستهدف فقط المثليين جنسيا ولكن استهدفت أيضا المتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا #ضد_حبس_المثليين

النيابة بتحول المتهمين للطب الشرعي والذي يقوم بعمل فحص شرجي ضد إرادتهم بمخالفة حقوق الإنسان ويعتبر انتهاك لكرامتهم وخصوصيتهم

التغطية الإعلامية لعبت دور كبير في التحريض على المثليين والمتحولين جنسيا واستخدمت ألفاظ سلبية مثل الجنس الثالث أو الشواذ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

الإعلام انتهك خصوصية وسرية المتهمين عن طريق ذكر أسماء المتهمين أو نشر صور وفيديوهات لهم مخالفة للمهنية ولأخلاقيات الإعلام #ضد_حبس_المثليين

Egypt’s “gay wedding” furor: A ship of fools

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

In Egypt any man can harass, brutalize, and rape a woman. It happens all the time. The State will ignore it for as long as possible; the media will say she asked for it. Just try a harmless expression of mutual, consensual desire, though. They’ll hound you to within an inch of your life.

Let’s start with the video. It came out of nowhere, but by Saturday morning it was everywhere. That day — it was August 30 — I spent with some young, impeccably liberal Egyptians. They kept staring with stunned fixation at their smartphones, repeatedly hitting “play,” watching it go viral, wondering what was going to happen to the men.  The YouTube comments could have told you what was coming: “They’re outside of prisons; they should worship God within them,” one outraged viewer wrote. That night I met with some of the men in the clip. One of them kept breaking uncontrollably into tears. They were trying to report the invasion of privacy, get YouTube to take it down. No use: By next day, it was on the website of Youm7 — the tabloid that’s been carrying on a homophobic campaign for months — and on TV. You think you are just a private person, contained in the fences of your skin; then suddenly you find you’ve escaped yourself, become a common spectacle and possession, a fetish cupped in the palms of everybody’s hands. No doubt this is why politicians and movie stars are so vacuous, stripped of self; but imagine sitting in ordinary obscurity and abruptly discovering you’re now an infinitely duplicable, circulating flash of light. “Mirrors and copulation are both abominable,” Borges wrote — it was one of the aphorisms of his invented world of Tlon — “because they multiply mankind.” But that was before the Internet.

Yesterday, some of those accused of being in the video went on trial. They face years in prison. The whole fiasco reminds many Egyptians of another moral panic that crushed innumerable lives: the Queen Boat show trial of 52 men, back in 2001.

I won’t link to the video here; the men have been exposed enough. It lasts little more than a minute; it shows some kind of party on one of the boats that cruise the Cairo Nile. (You can buy a ride individually or rent the felucca for a group.) The cameraphone tilts and pans past some celebrating people; there’s a cake, and two seem to exchange rings. When it went viral, it was instantly dubbed “Egypt’s First Gay Wedding.”

4549887301409591956-الفنان محمد صبحي

Mohamed Sobhi attempts to keep gay marriage from spreading to him

Some of the men I talked to asserted the whole thing was a joke. One of the alleged grooms called the popular talk-show of Tamer Amin to say as much — that he had a girlfriend and was just “playing around with rings.” If it was a marriage between men, then in a sense it was intrinsically unserious, since the law doesn’t recognize that. Nor does the law punish playing at marriage. The furor kept mounting though. Amin, on his show, called for retribution. (Tamer Amin is eager to anathematize people he thinks are gay, but equally happy to excuse rape. When a Cairo University student was sexually assaulted earlier this year, Amin told viewers that “She was dressed like a prostitute … The sexually repressed boys couldn’t control themselves … I blame her for dressing like this, and her parents for letting her leave the house in that dress.”)  Mohamed Sobhi, an actor notorious for his paranoid rants against Jews, demanded the State “respond’ to the “the spread of the phenomenon of gay marriage.”

And the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the dictator’s most feared opposition, berated the regime that overthrew it, for going soft on perversion. A former MP for the Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party warned that “For the first time in Egypt, we hear of gay marriage. The coup leaders embrace the Western agenda of demolition and decay of religion, and Egypt is converted into a brothel.” She added that the “authority of the coup” lay behind the wedding.

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

The supposed ceremony thus became a political crime. The State took up the challenge: it started arresting people. Last Wednesday, September 3, police picked up at least 13 people in the streets around Ramsis Station, and interrogated them about the video. The next night, they seized an unknown number as they were leaving a club downtown — I’ve heard figures as high as 26. Most were released, but somebody pointed an incriminating finger. On Saturday, the media announced that men from the film had been arrested, by police directed by Major General Magdy Moussa. (The exact number is still not clear. Most news reports say seven people were arrested; Al-Mogaz says two more are being sought; Youm7 claims ten are involved, and even after a confused hearing Tuesday, where the lawyers were denied access to court papers, it’s impossible to verify a figure.) [NOTE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has now confirmed eight defendants have been arrested.] Youm7 showed grainy video of people being hauled to jail. The full names of nine victims, some presumably still at large, appeared in the press.

Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

We will hurt you when we find you: Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

The charges against the men aren’t clear, but they reportedly included incitement to “debuachery” (fugur, the legal term in Egyptian law for homosexual acts), and “publication of indecent photographs.” The images showed “the purpose was the celebration of attachment to one another, in scenes deemed shameful to the maximum degree.” Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, personally intervened in the case to show its seriousness, ordering quick action. Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority conducted anal examinations on the arrested men — an intrusive, abusive, torturous and medically worthless procedure. They found no evidence of homosexual conduct. That didn’t stop a court, on September 9, from ordering the men jailed for another 15 days so the furor can continue.

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medica Authority, who said the "bride" had turned out "normal"

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medical Authority, who said the “bride” had turned out “normal”

I spoke to one of the men trawled up in the police nets last Wednesday night: picked up at 3:30 AM on a street near Ramsis Station. This is his story:

I was standing with a friend — he had tight jeans, that was probably why they thought we were gay. Suddenly a policeman came out of nowhere and grabbed us. We were thrown into a microbus nearby. I tried to scream and the policemen told us to shut up. There were about 13 of us crammed in there, all picked up in various places.

In the past, Cairo police often looked for gays by riding in a microbus with an informer, who pointed out victims passing in the street. Almost a third of the Queen Boat defendants were arrested that way (not on the boat!) This time, the microbus took them to the Mugamma, the huge Stalinist building in Tahrir Square, a symbol of State bureaucracy. There police broke the men into groups for interrogation. One man “scampered off by a different door” — possibly he was the informer.

Soldiers in front of the Mugamma in Midan Tahrir, January 2011, by Joseph Hill

The Mugamma looms above Tahrir Square, guarded by soldiers, during the Egyptian revolution, January 2011: by Joseph Hill

My group was me, my friend, and another man I didn’t know. We were taken up to the 12th floor, the “Adab” [morals] division.
At first the police were very aggressive with us. They beat us with sticks, and called us many names. Then the boss came in to question us.

The boss was very civil. He said for months they had been arresting gays as a way of stopping the spread of AIDS, because these men were having sex without condoms.

This is false. So far as we know, no evidence that anyone transmitted HIV through barebacking has been presented in any cases so far. The manipulation of public-health rhetoric is a bit strange coming from a government that claims it can cure AIDS by turning it into sausages.

But now, he said, there is this video. He said we have a new president, and Sisi is determined not to let this kind of thing happen, and will not let the Muslim Brotherhood get any benefit from it. I told him I didn’t know anything about the people in the video. All the same, they took our phones and made backups of all the information on them.

We were kept there for six hours, till after 10 AM. After the boss left the other policemen came back and made fun of us, calling us female names and asking if we were carrying condoms. My friend and I were set free; they held on to the third guy who was with us, because they said there was a theft charge against him. I don’t know what happened to the others.

The information on the phones — particularly if passwords were stored on them — could help the police open the victims’ Facebook and other social-media accounts. Plenty more could be rounded up that way.

Don't blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

Don’t blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

This whole uproar raises several issues. First: why now? The men I spoke to told me the video was made last October. One theory, seized on by the press, is that someone released it now to get revenge on a participant. It’s not implausible, though, that the authorities somehow obtained it earlier, and have been waiting for the moment when it might prove useful. There is plenty to distract people from in Egypt these days. Rolling power outages afflict the country; September 4 was promptly dubbed “Black Thursday” because the blackouts were so severe. Meanwhile, no sooner did Sisi win his rigged Presidential election than he announced massive cuts to fuel subsidies, pushing up prices for many basic goods. In such straitened circumstances, the spectre of “gay marriage” has long-proven value as a distraction. In Morocco in 2007, a YouTube video allegedly showing such a ceremony provoked riots — and jail terms for participants — in the town of Ksar el Kbir. In Kenya in 2010, similar stories stirred up vigilante violence in Mombasa. In Egypt itself, the first, sensational press reports in the famous Queen Boat case said a same-sex wedding was taking place on the raided vessel; some months before that, the press had pounced on unproven rumors of a marriage in the Delta town of Zagazig. “Gay marriage” has become a perfect encapsulation of cultural powerlessness before the imperial West.

Second, of course, the video leaked amid a months-long campaign of arrests and vilification of people accused of homosexual conduct or of dissident gender expression. Transgender people in particular have been rounded up in clubs and on the streets, and seized in private homes. These arrests continue. In early August, police arrested a woman and two men in Rehab City, a gated community on Cairo’s outskirts, and charged the latter with homosexual conduct. I’m reliably told the cops stopped one of the men at a checkpoint, on his motorcycle; finding him suspicious, they went to his home, and found the conclusive evidence — condoms. (So much for the officers’ concern for public health.) Later that month, “security forces” arrested ten people in what they called a “prostitution ring” in Giza, in western Cairo. They included, it seems, a trans woman, whose photo was singled out to appear in El-Watan. (Only the eyes were imperfectly blacked out; obscuring the face was done by me.)

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

But it’s not just alleged gays and trans people who are victims of the atmosphere of repression. The police presence in downtown Cairo is formidable now. Just under three weeks ago ago, cops raided a host of sidewalk cafes, forcing them to shutter because they had tables on, well, the sidewalk. (I recall when Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved similarly against street life in Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district, Western conservatives condemned it as creeping Islamic totalitarianism. When Sisi does it, nobody bothers.) The next day, they cracked down on street vendors. Grim, barred trucks from Central Security palisaded the avenues, filling up with hapless men whose crime was hawking scarves and jeans in the passageways off Qasr el-Nil. There is a general campaign of social control going on, and a general rehabilitation of the reputation — and power — of the police. Homosexuality is simply another convenient bogeyman. Its particular convenience, though, is that it unites several things Sisi despises: “Western” influence (as in those marriages), abnormal gender roles, and the youth culture and revolutionary decadence symbolized by the downtown world. Attacking “debauchery” allows him to set the State firmly against all those debilitating forces.

Third: the fact that the latest arrests came after criticism by the Muslim Brotherhood shows where Sisi senses his greatest vulnerabilities. Having overthrown the conservatives, he needs to prove his moral credentials. It’s significant that no comparable wave of repression happened under the Brotherhood itself: they had no credentials to prove. (It’s also significant that this panic has burgeoned during the week the government sentenced several Brotherhood leaders to decades in prison.) Sisi’s Minister of Religious Endowments — who more or less controls all the country’s official mosques — explained the official line elegantly to the media last week. Every Egyptian should reject “all anomalies” such as homosexuality, “because in the end they only serve the forces of extremism and terrorism, which claim to be the protectors of religion and morality.”

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gomaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gumaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Finally, what all this produces is fear, comprehensive and immobilizing. No one can guess what will come next, how far the crackdown will go. There are vague stories the State has planned a massive trial of alleged homosexuals for later this month, or next month; no one knows whether this mini-Queen-Boat is enough for them. Cairo Scene, a English webzine for the privileged party set, has claimed the police are already arresting gay men over Grindr; no one has been able to confirm a single case, but the rumor only adds to the terror. My sensible colleagues are pruning their phone lists, taking down photos from Facebook, and waiting — waiting for what, nobody can tell. Even I have drawn up a list, for friends, of things to do if I’m arrested; when insouciant I behave that way, you know something is wrong. A full-fledged moral panic is spreading in Egypt. It even has a song — by an Egyptian band, proclaiming that something must be done to stop the she-men with skinny jeans:

The panic infects political discourse, turning everything to triviality. The contrast between the indifference accorded real and terrible stories of violence against women, and the seriousness with which a mock wedding is reviled, remains ominous. The men on the boat may have been careless or presumptuous, but the whole country increasingly resembles a ship of fools. The absurdity isn’t innocuous, though. The point of moral panics is that they can always find new victims.

 

Government by moral panic

A separatist militiaman looks at  the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

A separatist militiaman looks at the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

I met Pim de Kuijer once or twice, perhaps, and Martine de Schutter once, I think. He lobbied in the Dutch parliament on behalf of Stop AIDS Now; she fought for universal access to HIV prevention at Bridging the Gaps. They were both smart and young and full of enthusiasm, and they are both now dead somewhere in a field in eastern Ukraine. The enthusiasm is what I will remember. You can rebuild expertise, reconstruct lost formulae of scientific knowledge, but whatever you do you can’t recapture that intangible spirit which wants more than anything for the world to change. It seems to me that the loss of that spirit alone has set AIDS activism, which has never had much time to lose, back years.

Martine de Schutter

Martine de Schutter

Still, the mourning for them and other colleagues who were on the way to the 20th International Aids Conference in Australia was disserved and distracted by a numbers game. Less than 24 hours after Malaysian Air Flight 17 crashed, a Murdoch paper reported:

More than 100 AIDS activists, researchers and health workers bound for a major conference in Melbourne were on the Malaysia Airlines flight downed in the Ukraine.

It is believed that delegates to the 20th International AIDS Conference, due to begin on Sunday, will be informed today that 108 of their colleagues and family members died on MH17.

International media have been tossing this figure around for days, The airline has released the flight manifest, and there’s no sign that anywhere near a third of those aboard were actually bound for the Melbourne conference. The figure may have come from an interview with a single person, in shock but with no direct knowledge of who was on the plane:

images cIn a slower era, journalists might have checked what he actually knew before reporting, but this is the age of short attention spans. In fact, the International AIDS Society (IAS) has identified six passengers as traveling to the conference. More may be named in time, but those deaths will certainly be “an order of magnitude smaller than what has been reported,” as Chris Beyer, the IAS’s incoming president, said. This is one of many confusions in the speculative fog. (Fox News, for instance, reported that 23 US citizens died; in fact there was one holder of dual US and Dutch passports.)  It’s minor; except it means that some chronicler of AIDS activism, looking at the real toll of six dead against the initial reports of eighteen times that, will say, “It wasn’t so bad.” An ersatz relief, impossible without the initial extravagance of error, will blur the real gravity of the loss: a small affront to the dead, to what they did, to their incendiary enthusiasm to do more.

Nearly everybody believes that Russian separatists using Russian weapons shot down the plane: everybody, it seems, except for the Russian media, its readership, and regular viewers of Russia Today. Unanimity is itself cause to preserve a sliver of skepticism. We still don’t have absolute proof, and the forensic investigations haven’t even begun. (This is largely thanks to the separatists: they’ve moved the bodies, tampered with the wreckage, seemingly looted the site, and held investigators at bay.) Nearly all the evidence points that way. But David Remnick, in the New Yorker, keeps the focus on what we do know:

What’s far more certain is that Vladimir Putin, acting out of resentment and fury toward the West and the leaders in Kiev, has fanned a kind of prolonged political frenzy, both in Russia and among his confederates in Ukraine, that serves his immediate political needs but that he can no longer easily calibrate and control.

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Remnick interviewed Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser who broke with the boss in 2011. If a parasite could guide you through the guts of its host, it couldn’t speak with more exactitude than Pavlovsky does of the Russian security state and its intestinal windings. He knows Putin’s interests in Ukraine well. Remnick delicately omits this, but back in 2005 leaked tapes (possibly doctored, possibly released as part of a Kremlin power struggle) implicated Pavlovsky in the poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, dosed with lethal dioxin midway through a campaign in which he condemned Russian interference. But let Pavlovsky speak:

Pavlovsky said … Putin has “created an artificial situation in which a ‘pathological minority’—the protesters on Bolotnaya Square [two years ago], then Pussy Riot, then the liberal ‘pedophiles’—is held up in contrast to a ‘healthy majority.’ Every time this happens, his ratings go up.” The nightly television broadcasts from Ukraine, so full of wild exaggeration about Ukrainian “fascists” and mass carnage, are a Kremlin-produced “spectacle,” he said, expertly crafted by the heads of the main state networks.

“Now this has become a problem for Putin, because this system cannot be wholly managed,” Pavlovsky said. The news programs have “overheated” public opinion and the collective political imagination.

“How can Putin really manage this?” Pavlovsky went on. “You’d need to be an amazing conductor. Stalin was an amazing conductor in this way. Putin can’t quite pull off this trick. The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down.’”

Putin has been running a historically unusual sort of government: government by moral panic. He promotes pandemics of fear, viral outbreaks of outrage at imagined enemies. And he doesn’t conjure threats to security or values just to boost popularity, but as a basic tool of governance.

You could say that dictators and demagogues do this a lot, but Putin’s different. Hitler kept up an unceasing propaganda war against the Jews. Stalin’s ferocious demonology exorcised enemy after enemy – Social Revolutionaries, engineers, Trotskyites, German spies, eventually the Jews too, always with some overlap between them. But totalitarian ambition subordinated public outrage to state power. The occasional “spontaneous” pogrom in Germany, like Kristallnacht – carefully stage-managed, in fact — quickly gave way to the action of the police, the Gestapo, the forces of order. The anger enabled but never displaced the task of expulsion and the ultimate end of genocide, which only a dispassionate bureaucracy could efficiently commit. Meanwhile, under Stalin, in 1930s Moscow, anybody holding a spontaneous, unauthorized protest against enemies of the State would have been declaring himself an enemy of the State too: here I am, a Kautskyite deviationist, Kolyma here I come. It wasn’t just that Stalin was an “amazing conductor.” He shot the orchestra members one by one, while the audience stayed frozen in their seats, hands on the armrests, humming patriotic songs in unison, no sudden movements allowed.

Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, alleged gay Uzbek, July 2013, from a social-media page

Russian Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, allegedly gay “Uzbek,” July 2013, from a social-media page

Putin’s panics, on the other hand. whether about evil Ukrainaians or subversive homosexuals, aren’t meant to efface other movements and players, to erase other institutions in a coordinated exercise of power. They enlist the Church, the neo-Nazis, school administrations, nationalist intellectuals, diasporic allies in the near abroad — but without subordinating them. It’s all chaotic. The government’s bloodthirsty rhetoric charts a general direction, but everybody is set loose to follow it as best they can. This is in the best tradition of moral panics, which offer wide scope for what the sociologists call “moral entrepreneurs,” opportunists of anxiety, to stake out arenas for action and go after enemies in their own way. The anti-homosexual legislation may be the best example. Draconian though it is, almost nobody has been prosecuted since its passage. The State hasn’t actually done much. Rather, the law encourages everybody from priests to foreign “pro-family” ideologues to right-wing gangs to launch their own campaigns. It asks them, in fact, to support the State, which desperately needs their help in rooting out perversion. In its weird way, it’s thus an instrument of that most stereotypically American of political practices – coalition-building, uniting disparate interests into a party of shared goals. The dictatorial law seems almost democratic in the way it works.

Or consider Putin’s strategy in Ukraine. Pundits and politicians compare it to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland and its ethnic Germans. Yet what’s missing in Russia is the triumphal confidence that State power can always prevail. Look back at Nazi propaganda during the Sudeten crisis; it showed German might irresistibly smashing the country cousins’ chains:

Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938

Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938

Or it depicted Hitler as savior to little blond Sudeteners dreaming of deliverance:

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

By contrast, Russian propaganda on Ukraine has a pathetic stress on victimhood. There’s a genocide going on in the potato fields, Russians are being exterminated, but Russia seems powerless on its own to prevent it. (The #SaveDonbass hashtag campaign, which started on Twitter a couple of months ago and showed ostensible ethnic Russian victims, almost exclusively exploited images of sheer wide-eyed helplessness.)

images

Hence the reliance on militias, generously armed but semi-independent rebel groups, uncoordinated actions compensating for what the State can’t do. Neither Stalin or Hitler would ever have tolerated this wild welter of assistance. The Gestapo would have rounded up the anti-gay thugs with their vigilante delusions, and the insurgents would have been handed not missile launchers but tickets to the Gulag. Something’s changed.

Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP

Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP

You could point to many things, but one is overriding. Russia is a nuclear power and a near-dictatorship, but it’s a weak state. This is paradoxical given the overweening authority Putin manages to project, but it’s true. Putin has full authority over the security establishment, but that is no longer enough to endow unquestioned solidity upon the state he built. For one thing, Russia is no longer an isolated command economy. It’s been integrated into the capitalist world. While Putin has bullied the unruly Yeltsin-era oligarchs into submission, that still doesn’t help him control the country’s livelihood, dependent instead on international vicissitudes of supply and demand. This is particularly true since a single commodity sector — energy — dominates everything, and prosperity rides on fluctuations of markets out of the government’s hands. You can police dissidents, but you can’t police the price of natural gas abroad. If the old Soviet economy has been “privatized” — more precisely, in neoliberal fashion, parcelled out to a bunch of ill-coordinated players — so, too, have other parts of Soviet power. Corporate conglomerates, a military-industrial complex, rich and insecure churches, noisy social movements (more of them on the Right than the Left), local governments carving out their own extortion zones, and many more mini- and mega-oligarchies multiply. As happens when a once coherent power is privatized, each tries to establish its own small dictatorship over whoever it can influence. This Russia, one scholar says, is ” a highly corrupt state that still cannot fully control its borders, monopolize the legal means of violence, or clearly articulate its role in the contemporary world.” For all his shirtless preening, Putin is no muscle-man able to wield top-down control. Instead he must exhort, scare, cajol, and distract the rest of society till he gets his way.

Government by moral panic is a way of governing when the government fears impotence, as in a morning nightmare where your legs won’t move: its power shaling into paralysis, its strength sloughing off like sand.

We’re going to see more of this. We live in an era of weak states. The most authoritarian among them can’t muster half the authority its ancestors did. The neoliberal state has big biceps to flex, but it hobbles along on crutches. How can a leader feel secure in his position when foreign bankers who price your bonds can make or break your popularity, your ministers, your country?

Vote if you want to, it won't make a difference: Thatcher's mantra of neoliberalism

Vote if you want to, it won’t make a difference: Thatcher’s mantra of neoliberalism

More and more, continent after continent, governments are promoting moral panics as ways to govern. These conflagrations of fear can convulse society, but they convince people they need the state again, for all its frailty and fecklessness. Look at Egypt, where a military regime reestablished control over a fractious country through a year-long campaign of demonizing (arresting, shooting) Islamists,and journalists, and refugees, and Palestinians. Or Israel, where Netanyahu’s administration hid and lied about the deaths of three Jewish teenagers to aggravate a fever of popular panic and rage, and stoke pressure for a saving intervention by the state’s favorite instrument: its troops. Or, for that matter, the United Kingdom, where a weak coalition government (the first of its kind in almost a century) keeps looking for bogeymen to justify its existence. It’s tried Muslims and Romanians so far, with limited success, but there are more to come.

Or the United States. America is always different – exceptional, they say; it’s the home of private enterprise, after all. And the panics are privatized too. Occasionally, true, you get governments whipping up people’s anxieties. (Remember those color-coded terror alerts of the vigilant Bush years? Today my Fear is Orange, Mr. Ashcroft!) But just as often you see entrepreneurs drumming up the fear and loathing for their own ends.

Increasingly the US is a classic weak state, a casualty of neoliberalism in its several forms. Years of right-wing amputations whittled its government down, and now conservatives committed to a big-business version of Russian Nihilism refuse to allow the legislative process to exist. Its politicians still praise it as the “indispensable nation,” but it governs itself like Somalia. Like any weak state, it falls prey to warlords, though they have offshore accounts and paid talk-radio pundits rather than weapons caches. Usually they stir up panics to pressure the government into deploying its dwindling powers on one of their pet causes. It’s a competition: to get what’s left of the state on your side. Immigration is a wonderful source of panics, all in this entrepreneurial spirit. The goal almost always is to get the government to abandon its remaining responsibilities to people inside the border (food, jobs, health care, those vague things called civil rights) and devote all its energies to policing the border itself. Imagine you have a plot of land, and a limited number of bricks. You could waste the bricks building a house to live in, or you could put up a nice thick wall around the whole vacant lot. The answer – Who needs a roof, anyway? – becomes more obvious as the panicked voices keep shrieking, Do something! They’re walking on the lawn! 

I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891

I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891

Moral panics come in many kinds, but one feature is consistent. They always have victims. Scapegoating is intrinsic to the package. Governing by moral panic means governing by exclusion.

Immigrants, minorities, the irresponsible and perverted, sex workers and trans women, the sick and susceptible, wayward young or useless old: somebody’s going to suffer. As our states get weaker, those marked for marginality multiply. In a kinder, gentler, more condescending era, states justified themselves by providing for people’s welfare. In the neoliberal age, states will justify themselves increasingly by their capacity to exclude. Legitimacy will derive from the quantity of victims.

i started with the fog of speculation shrouding a terrible disaster, uncertainty created by the compulsory celerity and fake urgency of the Internet. These days, rumors have wings while facts slog in leaky galoshes. This, too, makes government by moral panic possible. Strong states survived on facts. How large was the grain harvest? How many gallons of water in the reservoir? What is the average height of army conscripts from the southern province? Only that kind of exactitude made their interventions, whether for welfare or security, work. In the world of moral panic, facts disappear. What’s left are speculations; and governments that want to rule, politicians who want to keep their power, learn to surf the waves of supposition, like a traveller in a dream who realizes the road has become a river.

Everything that’s solid melts. Those floating numbers of the dead– six? eight? 100? 108? — are a symptom of our fluid and oblivious condition. They speak of a world of nameless panics and unattributable terrors, inaccessible to the consolations of proof, where the one thing certain is that there will always be more victims.

Ethnic Russian self-defense units stand guard at of  local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Ethnic Russian self-defense units at local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Five arrests for “homosexuality” in Uganda: A fuller story

Demonstrator at 2012 anti-homosexuality protest in Kampala, from www.pbs.org

Demonstrator at 2012 anti-homosexuality protest in Kampala, from http://www.pbs.org

On Wednesday, the Daily Monitor, a state newspaper in Uganda, headlined a story, “Five Suspected Homosexuals arrested.”

Police in Pader district have arrested five people suspected to be promoting the act of homosexuality in the district.

The suspects were arrested in the period of one week after the tip off by the locals, who accused the suspects of moving within the schools in the district, promoting the practice which was early this year criminalized by the Anti-homosexual [sic] Act 2014.

It’s alleged that the suspects have been carrying out clandestine movements in both primary and secondary schools in the district luring the pupils and students into the practice.

The story was foggy, but certainly made it sound as though these were early victims of the country’s months-old Anti-Homosexuality Act. It came only a couple of days after Uganda’s Foreign Ministry had issued a palliative statement aimed at donors, saying the new law had been “misinterpreted as a piece of legislation intended to punish and discriminate against people of a ‘homosexual orientation’, especially by our development partners,” The government “will continue to guarantee equal treatment of all persons on the territory of Uganda,” it promised sunnily. 

The coincidence was too rich and sinister not to stress, “Five Ugandans have been arrested under the country’s draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act,” said the US-based Advocate magazine.  Somewhat to my embarrasment, I got on this bandwagon myself, at first tweeting:

Ugandaa 1 copy

–then correcting myself a day later, as we heard more from Ugandan activists:

Ugandaa 2 copy

Neither message was accurate. In the last two days, a team from Uganda’s Human Rights Awareness and Protection Forum (HRAPF) A team from HRAPF and Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG)  went to Pader, in Uganda’s north. “The team spoke to the Officer in Charge at Pader Police Station, the District Police Commander of Pader, one of the persons arrested, and visited the school where the incidents of promotion of homosexuality were said to have taken place. ” According to a message from Adrian Jjuuko, HRAPF’s Executive Director, this is what they found:

1. It is true that five people including a minor were arrested in Pader on allegations of homosexuality. The arrests took place on 26th and 27th of June 2014. The five persons are: an 18 year old who was the original complainant, a 34 year old businessman; a 16 year old student who stays with the businessman, and a 21 year old and a 30 year old.

2. The background to the case is that one of the arrested persons, the now 18 year old (who was a minor at the time the case was first reported) was arrested on 10th October 2013 for attempted suicide. When asked about the reasons for attempting suicide, he stated that his employer with whom he had been staying had started acting violent towards him. That they had been living together for sometime as ‘husband and wife’ but he had turned violent after he had accused him of stealing his money. That is why he attempted to take his life by stabbing himself. The Police did not arrest the employer at that point. On or around 25th June 2014 he once again stabbed himself and he was arrested by the Police. He repeated the story and that is when the Police arrested the other four.

3. They were not charged with any offence but statements were taken from them.

4. They were subjected to anal exams which were inconclusive.

5. The file was forwarded to the Resident State Attorney who did not advise on any charge but instead sent the file back to the police commenting that there was no evidence of any offence related to homosexuality.

6. The police released all the persons who had been arrested on Police Bond. The file however remains open and ‘investigations’ are ongoing.

7. On the allegations of promotion of homosexuality, no one was charged with this, and the Headmaster of the school denies that there are cases of recruitment that have been heard in the school. The Police also do not mention any facts on which this [newspaper claim] was based.

Location of Pader district in Uganda

Location of Pader district in Uganda

Three things are noticeable. First: a minor claimed that he was a victim of domestic violence. The legal case started, though, when he was arrested as a result, followed by the alleged perpetrator and others. In other words, the story shows again that even Uganda’s old, colonial-era sodomy law (never mind the new one) denies people accused of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender the basic protection of the law. The rhetoric surrounding the new “Anti-Homosexuality” law was that it was meant to protect “children and other vulnerable groups,” as the recent government statement reaffirmed. That’s nonsense. Children are at threat, deprived of any protection under the law.

Second, while we don’t know what else these people underwent during the police investigation. the “inconclusive” forensic anal exams, while medically valueless, are also an intrusive and abusive form of inhuman treatment that, conducted in carceral conditions, can amount to torture.

Third, the “investigation” continues to hang over the heads of the abused men, with no indication of whether or when they could finally be exculpated and freed from the threat.

Torture, abuse of children, absence of safety or protection, unending and debilitating uncertainty: even without the Anti-Homosexuality Act being invoked, the legal menaces to the lives of LGBT Ugandans are real enough.

Sodomy in Zambia

James Mwape (in mask)  and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by Lusaka Times

James Mwape (in mask) and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by the Lusaka Times

On July 3, a court in Kapiri Mposhi, in Zambia, acquitted Philip Mubiana and James Mwape. They had been held in jail for almost fourteen months, charged with homosexual sex under Zambia’s sodomy law, which carries a sentence of up to fourteen years. (NOTE: see comments) The presiding judge didn’t comment on the justice of the law itself; he only found that there was no substantive evidence against the accused, who were arrested on hearsay and suspicion, reportedly turned in by family members.  According to the blog 76 Crimes, which has followed the case from the start, Zambian LGBT and human rights activist Juliet Mphande said: ““We have fought long and hard and this victory does not belong to us but to all Zambia’s sexual diverse and gender variant children.”

The triumph for the two is mixed; with their faces and names published all over Zambian media, their lives in the country are wrecked. Still, the court’s decision reflects the strength and persistence of Zambian LGBT campaigners. It brings back memories for me, vivid and piercing. I first visited Zambia sixteen years ago, in 1998, when the country was in the midst of a huge collective frenzy about the dangers of “homosexuality.” With every public figure from university professors to the President himself taking turns deploring the incursion of perversion, it seemed unlikely that there would ever be a Zambian LGBT movement, much less a court victory to celebrate. What happened back then holds lessons not just for Zambia, but for other movements today. Some indulgence in my own memories of sodomy in Zambia may thus be justified.

Back then, I worked for IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The turmoil in Zambia in 1998 had one identifiable origin. On July 13, a young man named Francis Yabe Chisambisha, who is one of the bravest people I’ve ever known, decided he’d had enough of self-concealment, and he wanted to come out. It says something about anomie in Zambia’s shifting society that for him, this meant coming out not to friends or to family, but to the biggest audience imaginable. He walked into the largest national newspaper’s offices in Lusaka, told them he was gay, and asked if they’d like to interview him. They did. Next day, The Post published his photo on its first page with two-inch headlines: “I’m 25, gay, with 33 sex partners …” Inside the three-page article, Chisambisha explained why he wanted to speak:

“Firstly, what I want is to tell society that this gay thing has been there even before our generation.  I want society to be aware that it is happening in Zambia and there are people who want to be respected for their choice.  It’s just that in our African culture, it’s believed to be taboo and hence people do it in hiding … But the fact that I am doing it, shows that this practice is there and will continue to be there as long as man is there.”

And then a massive moral panic started, the most mammoth I’ve ever seen. As I wrote later,

The response was instant.  The day after Chisambisha’s confession, the Post was already receiving hand-delivered indignant letters.  “There is totally nothing good in being gay that one should feel that it is an achievement to come out in the open,” one read. The rest of the press scrambled to rival the scoop; when, weeks later, a headline screamed “Another gay surfaces,” it seemed like relief for desperate reporters.

Homosexuality had never been openly discussed in Zambia; now the country talked about nothing else. Daily headlines and nightly news stories boomed and threatened and condemned the danger. At the end of November I went to Zambia on behalf of IGLHRC to witness first-hand what was going on.

I reached Zambia on the third day of my first trip ever to Africa. You have to plumb my inexperience to grasp how we did human rights work back then. I’d landed in Johannesburg and spent a night in a doss-house run by awful white people. The next day I flew to Harare. There, I had one lovely evening with Keith Goddard and Romeo Tshuma and other members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), drinking beer around a glowing braai in their garden, under the jacaranda leaves and the unfamiliar stars. Early the next morning Keith came to my cheap hostel, rousted me from hungover dreams, drove me to the far edge of the city, and left me by the road to wait for the bus to Lusaka.

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

It started as a demure urban bus, prim passengers carrying suitcases. Approaching the Zambezi, it became more and more one of those rural nightmares, the luggage giving way to chicken coops, then to chickens that scrabbled neurotically up and down the aisle. Near midnight, nearing Lusaka, the obsidian windows showed buildings billowing up, distended, surreal; with each dis- and embarkation, as if in a Cinderella story, the chickens turned back to suitcases again. I scrambled up to the driver and asked if he could leave me near a taxi stand. “Do you know where you’re going?” he demanded. I said I didn’t have a hotel. He looked at me in utter astonishment. I had an acute sense of the absurdity of my whiteness, a pale incarnation of presumption. In the end he parked the bus on a clogged street in the center, got out with me, took me to a churning café, and handed me over personally to a taxi driver. “Guard him,” he told him dramatically, “like an egg.” The inns were all full. It took two hours to find a motel on the margins of Lusaka, where spiders the size of espresso saucers kept watch like sour theater critics on the wall above my bed.

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in The the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in  the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

The next day I started trying to decipher things. Speaking to Francis, it was clear they’d gone very, very wrong. After Chisambisha came out, a local human rights Big Man had taken him under his wing. I’ll call him Mr. Mubanga; he led an NGO, the Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMT). They’d made their name doing election monitoring, so their interest in gay rights was, if welcome, slightly weird.

Yet Mubanga (who insisted he was heterosexual) quickly positioned himself — so I later wrote – as “the country’s main spokesperson on the issue of sexual orientation.” He showed courage; at a forum about homosexuality before infuriated college students, he “narrowly escaped lynching,” a newspaper said. But he was also dangerously, deliberately provocative. Almost immediately after Chisambisha’s coming-out, he told the press – completely falsely — that “We have been visited by Netherlands and US-based gay organizations who have expressed desire to sponsor the protection of gay rights in Zambia and lobby for the removal of statutes that are against those with a variant sexual orientation from the Penal Code.” He fed reporters bluster, declaring one day that Zambia had 10,000 homosexuals, another day that there were half a million. He announced plans to form an LGBT organization, LEGATRA, under ZIMT’s auspices.  He talked as well about establishing a branch of IGLHRC in Zambia, or a version of ILGA. All his language seemed calibrated to confirm that gays were both a huge threat and a foreign influence. And the more outrage crescendoed, the more he made the case for money. Whenever I sat with him, he spoke not of Francis’ situation or LEGATRA’s status, but of grants and aid. How much did IGLHRC have, and where did it get it?  His assistant took me to a party at the Finnish Embassy. I chewed reindeer meat – the only time I’ve ever eaten it was under bougainvillea trees in Lusaka – while he buttonholed diplomats and demanded how much they would give to help the endangered gays of Zambia. Mubanga’s rapacity was personal.  He’d cadge money from me every afternoon, saying he needed it for gas to drive to Libala or Kabulonga to meet some endangered gay man. I stopped giving it when a woman who worked for him hissed to me, “You know he’s using the money to go visit his mistress.” But these were peccadilloes next to the harm he did to lives he was defending.

Forced to choose sides, the rest of civil society uniformly condemned Chisambisha and “homosexuality.” A dean at the University of Zambia intoned that “Every society has minimum standards of acceptable behavior and those for homosexuality championing those filthy practices should not be condoned at all.” Another election-monitoring NGO called it “a matter of urgency that the campaign for the rights of homosexuals and lesbians be nipped in the bud.” The President of Focus for Democracy (FOD) told Francis Chisambisha in a public panel, “You chaps are sick. You need help. You need what I call sex therapy…. I wouldn’t want any of my children to be spoiled just because of you chaps.” Leaders of mainline churches lined up to voice indignation, but evangelicals found the most fodder. One newspaper reprinted materials from Exodus International, providing it one of its first firm footholds in African public discourse. When, in September, the Norwegian Embassy gave ZIMT a grant, partly for its work with the still-imaginary LEGATRA, the issue became political and diplomatic, and “homosexuality” wound up still more isolated. The Minister of Health and the Vice-President blasted the move, and in October, in a speech on Zambia’s thirty-fourth Independence Day, the President himself said: “Homosexuality is the deepest level of depravity. It is unbiblical and abnormal.  How do you expect my government to accept [it]?” The Times of Zambia warned:

We have reason to suspect that many of those behind the alliance formed by gays and lesbians in Zambia are money-mongers who are more interested in donor funds which … the West has promised them.

Zambia's President Chiluba: in the big chair

Zambia’s President Chiluba: in the big chair

In fact this was more or less true of Mubanga, though not of the “gays and lesbians in Zambia,” who had no say in what was said on their behalf. Neville Hoad, a South African scholar, has written that Mubanga

needed threats of state oppression and expressions of national homophobia to mobilize an international gay and lesbian constituency and, more problematically, to obtain funding for its attempts to use homophobia to produce a local constituency. “More than 20 gay and lesbian Zambians” joined LEGATRA. Where were the five hundred thousand, or even the ten thousand? While these numbers were clearly fabricated, they were important in establishing a movement that transnational activists could step in and claim to support. Yet given the short-lived nature of the debate and the actual numerical support LEGATRA could muster, it is far more likely that the movement has been an effect of transnational organizing rather than a grassroots movement.

Hoad is broadly right. However, there was no real “movement”  at all– it was a fabrication — and neither was there much “transnational support” for ZIMT, beyond the one Norwegian grant. That too was mostly smoke and mirrors Mubanga tossed up.

In Hoad’s intepretation, the months of outrage helped cement a particular version of a “homosexual” (or “LGBT”) identity in Zambia. In a flagrantly Foucauldian way, even enemies collaborated:

The state needs to produce its population as always already heterosexualized in reaction to the traumas of globalization. The transnationally fueled local organizations need to produce a population always already homosexualized and in need of protection from the defensively homophobic state. What both camps collude in foreclosing is the diversity of desires, practices, and possible identities and communities

This is true to the extent that “homosexuality,” a word almost never heard before in Zambia, became a catch-all for those desires and practices post-scandal. Yet it was itself a word in flux. In all the brouhaha, nobody treated “homosexuality” as if it had a pinned-down meaning. They didn’t use it for specific kinds of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” the terminology in the colonial-era law. It ballooned away, unmoored to any dictionary, meaning whatever the speaker thought was bad: Western values, Western money, atheism, misplaced development priorities, youth led wild. This is of course exactly the environment in which a case like the recent one can flourish, without evidence or prospect of proof. An identity was developing, but it was elastic in the hands of its enemies.

Only rarely did I talk to people (other those who actually called themselves “homosexual”) who used the word more stringently. These conversations weren’t encouraging. ZIMT had a project on the rights of traditional chiefs. One of the chiefs was in the office one day, an old man in a dark blue suit, frowning in the involuntary way the well-educated often do among idiots, unhappily shuffling papers. I sat across the table from him; he asked what I was doing in Zambia, and when I explained, he nodded. “It’s nonsense to say those people didn’t exist,” he said. “Of course, we always had those people.” He thought a bit. “The punishment was, we used to throw them on a fire and burn them alive.” It turned out he didn’t know of this actually being inflicted. It was a theoretical punishment, like plucking out the offending eye: the rhetoric had its own dissuasive value. I didn’t ask – I wish I had – how old he thought these rigors were, or whether he thought them inflected by Christian custom, or a lot of other questions. Relative to all the weirdness whirling outside the room, he seemed almost a voice of pragmatic calm.

When I came back in 2000, I encountered a purely modern understanding of homosexuality, untempered by any pragmatism. I met with the head of the Criminal Investigations Division of the national police – more or less, the FBI.  He was a carefully-spoken man disfigured by teeth that went wildly widdershins, as if somebody had inserted a small model of Stonehenge in his mouth. He launched on the usual stuff about how “homosexual” sex didn’t exist in his country. I asked why he thought these practices, absent in Zambia, seemed so common in the West. He mulled this. “In countries where life is full of plenty of stress and nervous agitation,” he said, “it is to be expected that people should engage in many mentally deviant activities, such as ‘gay and lesbian’ ones. Therefore it is no surprise that they should capture young men and engage in unnatural acts upon their bodies, and kill them, and preserve their body parts, and eat them …”

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

I realized that the most powerful policeman in Zambia had derived his own definition of “homosexuality” entirely from reading about Jeffrey Dahmer. I also realized that my IGLHRC card, lying belly-down on his desk, said “Gay and Lesbian” prominently on its face. I felt an overwhelming impulse to retrieve it before he looked at it. All I remember of the rest of the meeting are a series of furtive snatching attempts, my hand twitching like a hedgehog. I don’t recall whether I got the card back. Probably not.

If I wanted, I could tell the whole story as if written by V. S. Naipaul, or his brilliant and reprehensible brother Shiva: those tales of poor Southern people driven crazy, by the paucity of inner culture that Naipaul superciliously deplored. But there was no paucity. Nor was the craziness crazy. Under the panic were perfectly sane, consistent logics. One was a narrative most Africans know all too well: economics.

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by  Chewe Chabatama

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by Chewe Chabatama

Civil society, pace Hegel, is not a natural aspect of humankind. It happens when both citizens and donors want it. Before the 1990s, the big money men – the IMF and the World Bank – saw no need for civil society. It meant unpleasant aggregations of people who stood in the way of dams. However, as the lenders began bringing their favored neoliberal nostrums, called structural adjustment, to Africa, they saw the wisdom of paying for a new social stratum. Structural adjustment meant forcibly stripping the state of its old functions: health, education, welfare. It would be convenient for an NGO sector to arise and take over some of these tasks (the ones that couldn’t be purely done for profit). The official line of the international lenders was that these organizations would be less “corrupt,” more “transparent” than governments. Bilateral donors, mainly Northern governments, followed the lenders’ lead. They all waved a wand, and lo! there was civil society. Development NGOs, service NGOs, even human rights NGOs sprouted across Africa like mushrooms after rain.

Meanwhile, structural adjustment plans, downsizing the government ruthlessly, disrupted the traditional, secure career path of educated youth – formerly straight into the arms of the state, the civil service. These kids were forced to build a new, entrepreneurial middle class; and the ones who didn’t like private enterprise went into nonprofits. On a long Lusaka taxi ride, a young gay professional offered to write the contact info of “all his NGOs” for me, since he didn’t carry business cards. There were three. I only remember the last: He was President of the Zambian Youth Anti-Smoker’s League. As he scrawled this in the back seat, he was puffing his fifth Marlboro.

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

The problem was, predictably, that the sudden growth outstripped the available funds. People founded NGOs on hope, then found the grants didn’t come through. By the late 1990s resources were drying up, and all civil society withered in the drought. To a thoroughly entrepreneurial mind like Mr. Mubanga’s, discovering the LGBT issue was like finding an untapped aquifer. There were organizations doing gay rights in the West; this meant there had to be resources. From a certain perspective this was funny, since the available funding for LGBT rights then was a mere fraction of the (inadequate) figure now. Still, my salary that year (about $35,000), which barely kept me afloat in New York, could power a small NGO in Lusaka. You might not give a shit about gays, but if you cared about feeding your employees, building an IGLHRC in Zambia made a certain sense.

A side-effect was that this opportunism fed other, malign popular fantasies about homosexual acts.  One of these was a belief I also heard in Zimbabwe: no sensible African man would do that kind of thing except for money. (I’ve encountered this explanation in many countries, but it seems especially potent in places where white settlers outlasted settler colonialism, and where the structural – and sexual – power that had been political now took economic form.) If that were true, then gays in the great Abroad must have a lot of cash to corrupt people. Stories about how individuals could be debauched turned into myths about how societies were.  “Homosexuality” looked less and less like sex, and more like a conspiratorial nexus between foreign money and foreign morals; it acquired something of the character that Jewish or Masonic conspiracies had in other, more European mythologies.  These fears comprise an excellent way of yodelling up resistance, as any number of fascist movements know. A clear line stretches from the rhetoric in Zambia to what has happened in Uganda.

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L, need I say) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: "In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia.  I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls."

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: “In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia. I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls.”

But as the donor spigots tightened, politicians and activists and ordinary folk turned to another source of money and expectation, infinitely greater than anything poor foreign queers could offer: the vast largesse of religion.

In 1996, Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s first democratic President, changed the constitution to define his homeland as a “Christian nation.” Chiluba was a trade-union leader who’d unseated the longtime dictator Kenneth Kaunda partly on a wave of rage against structural adjustment. He turned around to enforce structural adjustment (and make himself very rich) in office; militant Christianity undoubtedly helped him feel there was moral backbone behind his copious betrayals, but it also gave the people he betrayed a bit of hope, however gossamer. And it lent him support, some ideological, some financial. Western preachers descended on Zambia like locusts, in a preview of what would befall Uganda a little later. They bought up friendly politicians’ services and souls. Before apartheid’s fall, most of these ecclesiastics’ energies had been confined to the congenial white-ruled countries to the South. Now their “Rhodesian” passport stamps were no barrier to infesting democratic Africa, and they needed a regional base.

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

In Zambia, religion became an export good. By the mid-1990s, the country was sending missionaries to the rest of southern Africa. Whenever I flew out of Lusaka to Harare or Joburg, the plane was full of earnest, suited young Zambian men studying Bibles.  Returning  in 2000, I found one of the three TV channels had been handed to Christian programming. These were mostly US and Canadian televangelists I’d never heard of; one of them sat in a gold chair and talked nonstop about getting rich, and I learned volumes about the prosperity gospel. It would be easy to suppose these principally ensnared the poor and desperate. In fact, I think, their main appeal was to the new entrepreneurial middle class – the businessmen and activists whom structural adjustment had made, now worried for their status and their future. The preachers told them they were right to be rich (richer than their parents, anyway). The added message that homosexuals were after their prosperity was wired to set their anxieties violently in motion. And Mr. Mubanga knew just how to push those buttons too.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

The 1998 panic over homosexuality was dreadful: not just a practice run for what later happened in Uganda, but a disaster in its own right. It destroyed lives. Estranged from his family, jobless, facing death threats, Francis Yabe Chisambisha left the country; he spent a decade trapped in the dystopian asylum process in South Africa, hiding in Hillbrow in poverty and limbo. When I came back to Zambia in mid-2000, almost every lesbian or gay Zambian I’d met eighteen months before had also fled, or gone deep underground. Nascent communities were devastated, some people arrested, a few imprisoned. LEGATRA, which had never really existed, was conclusively banned, and Mubanga eventually lost interest. In 2000, ZIMT collapsed, amid charges he’d embezzled money.

You can’t blame Mubanga exclusively for what happened, but he and the enormous forces of repression, apparently at violent odds, were actually joined in a bizarre tango-like tandem. They used him to whip up public anger; he used them to wheedle for international support. Trapped between were not just Francis Chisambisha and the few who joined LEGATRA, but all those who had “gay” sex or “gay” desires in Zambia, dissident and gender-dissonant bodies, folks who mainly just wanted to find ways to live their lives, but got caught up in a conflict they never planned.

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in cases of difference

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in case of difference

Inexperienced as I was when I climbed down from the bus in Lusaka, I figured out fast enough that this lopsided confrontation wasn’t going to help anybody’s human rights. IGLHRC, at least, did what it could to defuse the situation; I stayed out of the media mayhem, struggled quixotically to temper Mubanga’s financial dreams, provided what little moral support I could to Chisambisha and those around him, and tried to warn the “international gay and lesbian constituency” against ladling help that wouldn’t help Zambian LGBT people. The scandal eventually died down. The long-term damage was that it left no space for Zambians to organize around sexuality or gender identity or expression, for many years. In the ruins of communities, there was little room to discuss what identities were relevant or what freedom might mean. (You’ll notice that Francis Chisambisha insisted in 1998 that being “gay” was a “choice.” The space for that kind of heresy also shut down.)  In 2008, Friends of Rainka, an LGBT-identified organization, was founded in Zambia, and others have arisen since. That’s a ten-year gap, a lost decade. Those activists combine bravery and strategy with building a real constituency. They’ve campaigned courageously against clerical hatred, media incitement,  state repression. They’ve defended the persecuted and jailed, even as some (like the HIV activist and human rights defender Paul Kasonkomona) were jailed themselves.

Friends of Rainka member speaks out about the human rights of LGBT people while calling into a program on Radio Phoenix, April 12, 2013. Posted by http://76crimes.com/tag/zambia/

Still, if 1998’s fiasco were happening in some other country today, I’m afraid things would be much worse. Plenty of international groups and activists wouldn’t even ask whether a figure like Mubanga actually could speak for a social movement at home. They too would join the tango, needing his deceptions as he needed their press releases. There would be petitions, blog posts, boycotts, Twitter campaigns, and lots of fundraising. Nobody would care much whether they succeeded; isn’t raising awareness the point?  It’s LGBT people in the country in question who would lose, and probably on a larger scale.

I have another group of memories of Zambia which I think matter here, though I confess I am not sure how. They are all about death. Dying was everywhere in the country. New undertakers’ shops seemed to stand on every street corner, crisp plywood coffins stacked outside the threshold, the only growth industry. Wherever you travelled beyond the capital, funeral processions stretched down the road in the long light of evening, with women keening in the back of open trucks. A friend late for a morning meeting explained that her neighbor had died during the night. People spoke about death casually; it was more predictable than the weather. Someone had a fever one day; the next they were gone.

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174. DHS = Demographic and Health Surveys.

HIV/AIDS prevalence among adults in Zambia had reached somewhere between 12 and 20 percent by 1998. There were more than a quarter of a million children orphaned by AIDS, most living on the streets. (A lesbian I knew, thrown out by her family, had moved to a tin shack in a mud flat on the edges of Lusaka, where she worked with orphan street children.) Among the factors contributing to the catastrophe, global capitalism’s exigencies played a role. As late as 2005, out of a million or more Zambians living with HIV/AIDS, less than 45.000 had access to anti-retroviral therapies, largely due to pricing and Western corporations’ patents. (By 2013, the numbers of the fortunate with a chance to survive had at last expanded to nearly half a million.) Structural adjustment had also done its bit to ravage people’s bodies. As soon as it began to destroy the country’s health care systems in the 1980s, the rate of tuberculosis infection began to rise. From 100 per 100,000 in 1984, it more than quadrupled in the next twenty years.

Top graph: From "The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce," at www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

Top graph: From “The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce,” at http://www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

One memory stands out. In 2000 a Zambian lawyer friend and I rode in a microbus to Kabwe, north of Lusaka, to get the court files in a case of a man convicted under the sodomy laws the year before. After we found the record of his five-year sentence (“accuseds behavior is alien to the African Custom.  … We are living in an HIV AIDS area and this behaviour couldn’t be condoned by this court”) we went to a prison farm not far away, Mukobeko Prison, to try to see him. Past the gates and barbed wire, in the visiting room, we spoke to the victim, still stunned and inarticulate. Afterwards, the commandant, a genial man inordinately proud of his efforts to sustain the institution on a desperately inadequate budget, showed us around parts of the penitentiary. (Twelve years later, the Vice-President of Zambia would call conditions in Mukobeko “hell on earth.”) We came to a shedlike cell where some forty men were sprawled. All lay on the mud-and-concrete floor except for one man, who’d been given a filthy foam-rubber mat. I went up to him. He was obviously dying. Possibly he had TB, probably AIDS; his eyesockets were rimed, his breathing labored. He could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. I took his hand. I asked him some questions about medicines. He said something else to me; it wasn’t about drugs. I have no memory of what he said. I only remember that he stared deep into my eyes. In a long life of seeing various forms of suffering, I have infrequently been so close to someone so imminently about to die. I do not remember his face, I only remember his eyes. I held his hand. We had to leave, and we left him there, and I do not know his name.

We die alone; the “we” vanishes with the breath. I suppose if I remember that so vividly, and if I think the memory is relevant here, it’s because it brought home to me how deeply death is loneliness, the limit-point of the “we,” beyond help, insusceptible to documentation. Our activism is a struggle against being alone. Two years earlier Francis Chisambisha said to me, explaining why he came out:  “I was alone and I wanted not to be, and I wanted to help others not to be. I found out that being alone was legal. Wanting not to be alone was criminal. Wanting to help others was the worst crime of all.” This fails, like most things. There is loneliness, and that too is a memory of Zambia.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a lockup, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.org.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a police lockup in Kapiri Mposhi, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.com