Ahmed Seif al-Islam: In dark times

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human RIghts Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human Rights Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif al-Islam died one year ago today. I had meant to write something then, but I didn’t have the heart. No one had much heart in those weeks. I went to his wake at the Omar Makram Mosque three days later. Evening, like fusty crape, had settled on Midan Tahrir, five minutes’ walk away. It felt evident that this was also a funeral for the revolution, which had started there and dragged itself this short distance in four years, to die: a valediction not just to a person but to a history of dreams. Thousands of people filed through the small mosque; all of Egypt’s Left was there, but also students and graffiti artists and football fans and people who had only heard, but knew the significance of, his name. His daughter Mona received them, exhausted, by the door. His son Alaa had been released from prison to participate; he was beside her, wearing his prison whites, a garment which in Egypt always makes me think of pilgrimage. Inside, people looked down and said little, to the ebb and swell of the recited Qur’an. Hamdeen Sabbahi — the twice-failed presidential candidate whom Sisi had crushed in a rigged vote two months before — stood against the wall, with a tiny remaining entourage. His chin jutted; he was posing for invisible cameras; he reminded me how, even under dictatorships, politicians acquire the kinds of ego cultivated in our celebrity-sated media democracies, a self-regard that failure cannot shatter. (I’d learned this before in Egypt: in 2003 I met with Ayman Nour, a daring opposition MP who had the privilege two years of later of being similarly crushed by Mubarak in another gimcrack ballot. We were supposed to talk about some arrested demonstrators — he was their lawyer; instead he spent two hours talking about himself.) But no one paid attention to Sabbahi; the flashbulbs had flown like swallows. He’s a tall mountain of a man, but he seemed like hollow papier-mâché compared to Seif’s missing figure, friable and insignificant against the absent corpse.

11070278_981885211844003_7553989013040307034_nYou would have thought then, with the new dictator rigidly ensconced, that things couldn’t get any worse. But they did, as the autumn darkened. By October several of the most famous human rights activists in Egypt had to leave the country. Others were being jailed on pretexts, or banned from travel. I remember the months from then through January as a kind of delirium, when everybody I know — rights workers, journalists, café owners, gay men — believed we were all going to be arrested at any time. Things alleviated a little in the spring: perhaps because the state felt it had intimidated everyone enough, perhaps because the fear had simply become second nature; in any case, those are more or less the same thing.  In fact, the methods of repression only shifted. People were vanishing. Security forces disappeared more than 150 between April and June, pulling them off the streets or from their homes and dropping them (without trial, without hearing, without lawyers, without law) into the country’s immense Gulag. Sometimes they reappear, months later, in a security court; sometimes what surfaces are the corpses. There are death squads now. Torture used to happen behind bolted shutters in police stations; these days security forces will torture and kill you in your own house. Death does home delivery. The government wages a widening war against burgeoning insurgencies, and the insurgencies bomb and kidnap with spectacular impunity in the heart of Cairo. I remember lines by Edwin Muir:

                                                       We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.

That is Egypt in the summer of 2015.

All this makes thinking about Seif the more painful, if the more necessary, a year on. I need to remember him, to make sense of everything since. The obituaries and memorials back then recited the key facts. As a young Communist activist, he faced the first of many arrests in 1972 (at the age of 21). In 1983, the Mubarak dictatorship jailed him for five years. They tortured him: “I was turned into a wreck of a human being,” he told Human Rights Watch. “A small example: each time I had a meal of torture, there was the sound of a bell. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a bell my body shakes.” Finally freed, he made the hard choice to change the methods of his dissent. He became a lawyer, defending everyone from labor activists to accused apostates. In 1999, he helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the main human-rights legal defense group in Egypt. He practiced an activism that transcended the usual insularity of the left. He worked with religious fundamentalists, with accused “terrorists,” with religious minorities, with liberals of all stripes, with LGBT people, with feminists. He constantly looked for common ground between disparate but cognate ways of resisting state control, digging for a deep politics where joint action could begin: in similar visions of social transformation, in congruent loathing of arbitrary power, in shared experiences of torture.

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R_ at Ahmed Seif al-Islam's wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R) at Ahmed Seif al-Islam’s wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

And then there is his family: his wife Laila Soueif, a mathematician and relentless political activist; his daughter Mona Seif, who has spent almost five years fighting military persecution of civilians; his son Alaa Abd el Fattah and his daughter Sanaa Seif, both now serving prison terms for protesting “illegally” — jailed, they could not join him at his deathbed. And his sister-in-law Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and activist (who chronicled some of the family history in her early fiction, In the Eye of the Sun); and her son Omar Robert Hamilton, who writes about the revolution, in Cairo and London. There’s something almost theatrical about a family life lived so intensely in public action; acting and activism are akin, after all, except the second comes without a script. At times they remind me, not exactly of the Barrymores, but of Ferber and Kaufman’s play about the Barrymores, The Royal Family — if it were somehow transported to the world of 1984. One striking thing (and one level, I suppose, of defying the surveillance state) is that, while they live in public, their private lives and loyalties are intensely rich and full. If you raise your kids to be rebels, almost always they eventually rebel against you. I’m sure Seif’s children had their moments of rebellion, but the other striking thing is that their father’s legacy is in their bones and they are unceasingly faithful to it. This is what happens when the political is also personal: a turn on a feminist adage that bears remembering.

I didn’t know him as well as many others. The best tribute I can pay now is to remember some things I learned from him.

The first dates to the first time I met him, in November 2001. Most Western obituaries of Seif stressed how, staring down political and social risk, he provided lawyers for men arrested for homosexuality in the famous Queen Boat case and the years after. Seif himself never made much of this: certainly not because he was embarrassed, nor because he thought it unimportant (he knew how important it was to the victims) but because it did not strike him as extraordinary. At the time, I was program director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). I came to Egypt that month for the verdict in the Queen Boat trial; Hossam Bahgat (then a 22-year-old university student) and I went to meet Seif in his office. I’d e-mailed and phoned him often from the US, but I wanted to thank him personally. (This was, it strikes me, one of the first times that Hossam had sat down face-to-face with Seif as well; they later became firm allies.)

I launched a little speech of gratitude for a difficult and dangerous decision. Seif listened, sucking his teeth ruminatively. This he often did. The mannerism seemed to have a deeper meaning, a way of coming to terms with an unpleasantness buried in life’s innards: as though the world had just given him something bitter to eat, a cosmic rotten quince or a transcendental grapefruit soaked in alum, and rather than spit it out, he was trying to decide what this implied about the universe. After I’d rambled on a while, he cut me off. “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I was startled. I stammered, we didn’t exactly, we were an LGBT group, but we understood the (fill in some words).

“No, no,” he said. “Really, I just want to know simply. Does your organization take a position on the freedom of Palestine?”

Well, not quite, it was not entirely within our mandate, but

Seif’s lips set. “I want you to know that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

Seif, in his office at the HIsham Mubarak Law Centre

Seif, in his office at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre

The next time I saw Seif, I was working for Human RIghts Watch — which did have a position on Palestine and Israel, though not one he respected. But he wasn’t looking for a final answer. He wanted me to understand that I was a political actor whether I wanted to be or not, and he was going to treat me as one.  He wanted me to understand that “universality” is a choice and practice, not a generalization. Principles weren’t the opposite of the quid-pro-quo he posited; it was principle that demanded we both widen our horizons. For Seif human rights weren’t Platonic ideas glassed in some abstract realm; they took meaning in the concrete world through politics. They are absolute values we work out in real life. Their reach becomes universal through the labor of arguing out alliances to make them so. Seif’s turn to the law hadn’t changed his basic beliefs at all. He worked for human rights, but he was a revolutionary, and he thought only radical change could make them real. And only through the give-and-take of politics would change begin.

This political precision also affected his attitude toward lawyering. Seif was one of the finest constitutional lawyers in Egypt. This meant he was expert at finding cracks in a document crafted for repression. He had little of the craven fetishism with which American lawyers approach their own constitution, hammered out in slavery times. He knew legal argument was a means to an end, and the end was change, not the reification of a text. “Do you believe in this constitution?” I asked him when we were talking about Egypt’s emergency laws. He smiled. “I believe in the tools we have.”

Seif

Seif at a seminar on “contempt of religion” laws, 2012

A second memory. I saw Seif in Cairo in the summer of 2011, when the military government — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — was deepening its grip on the country. I sat in on a meeting Amnesty International organized for human rights activists. There were some 25 people at the table, and we went through a round of introductions and saying what our “core concerns” were. Seif looked half-asleep. When his turn came, he mumbled something almost inaudible. Then suddenly, as if someone had stuck an electric wire in his spine, he jolted to life. “I will NOT,” he shouted thunderously —  slap of palm on table — “accept that the American government, or Amnesty, or anyone will tell me that I need to tolerate military dictatorship in order to avoid a takeover by Islamist people. I will not accept such false choices. Anyone who wants to dictate that should leave this country alone.” I don’t remember the rest of what he said, but I don’t remember a word of what anyone else said either.

And that was a second lesson about politics. You may compromise on strategies or goals. You don’t have to compromise on saying what you believe. Seif would sit with almost anybody on a panel if it advanced a just, joint cause — Salafi preachers or American human rights organizations; but not if he had to mince his words, or lose his capacity to be critical.  He would sign an open letter sponsored by Human Rights Watch one day, and start an open letter blasting Human Rights Watch (usually about Palestine) the next. Coalitions don’t mean abandoning all confrontation.

A third lesson. While I lived in Cairo for a few months in 2003, demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq wracked the city. The Mubarak government arrested over a thousand students and activists when the war broke out, torturing most of them. My work for Human Rights Watch was to document this; and so for hours every day I camped at Seif’s chaotic desk in the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, where, as I’ve written before, “He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest.”

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defense attorney in one of his son Alaa's trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defending his son Alaa in one of his trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Everybody who had been demonstrating, and their families, knew Seif. This was true of Salafis, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Nasserists, of every political complexion. The Hisham Mubarak Centre was on the sixth floor of a leprous Belle Époque building in Souq el-Tawfiqiyya downtown; the offices branched off from a common room with blue chipped-plaster walls, once a pasha’s airy and erudite salon, and that vaulted space was always available for any group to meet, anybody to hold a press conference or a debate, any agitators to plan their agitation. Seif had turned his headquarters into the crossroads of dissent in Cairo. I remember, during those desperate days, interviewing a hijabi woman of about twenty, a college student who’d been active in the demonstrations. One night at her parents’ home, she’d received a phone call from Amn el-Dawla, from State Security cloaked in all its terror, demanding she come in the next day for interrogation. I asked her what she did. She said, “I called Seif, of course.”

But my point, the lesson, is: never did Seif make himself central. He had no interest in advertising himself or “leading.” His work was about others, not himself. (One detail is telling. Seif taught his lawyers what he called the “bag rule,” which sounds like a Mafia custom but was quite simple. He ordered them never to neglect to look at the bags of documents that poor and working-class Egyptians carry around with them when they have a dispute with the government: scraps of forms and records that often they can’t even read. I’ve seen these bags so often. They don’t just matter because they might contain overlooked evidence of malfeasance. They matter because they matter to the people. To immerse yourself in their experience of their wrongs is to show them the respect they demand.)

The idea of having his role publicized would have appalled Seif. True, he lived a public life; he was always on a stage, in some sense, but he was never any kind of star. The picture at top is almost the only posed photograph of him I’ve ever seen. It’s from a photo shoot that Human Rights Watch hired Platon to do in Cairo in 2011, a rather silly series of images of key figures from Egypt’s revolution. You can see the handlers couldn’t talk Seif into changing the moth-eaten sweater he usually wore, which is why the picture is in such close-up. You can also see he looks — well, not uncomfortable, just resigned, as if he’s finally realized this is the firing squad, and you’ve got to face it. When the ordeal was over, he must have felt like Dostoevsky getting his unexpected reprieve from execution: Now, I have time to write. 

Seif -- I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

Seif — I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

The danger in dictatorship is not only its technology of repression. It’s the dictatorial personality it imbues — not just in its servants, but in those who fight it. Human rights activists, because so hard to criticize, are if anything especially vulnerable to this warping of ego and moral sense. Seif had none of it. Our strange postmodern confusion of celebrity and power, so insidiously tempting to so many activists, was alien to him. It is impossible to imagine him talking about himself to strangers; he repelled flashbulbs as if he’d sprayed himself against them. It’s impossible to imagine him on the cover of a magazine, or on a red carpet with Brad and Angelina, or Menna Shalabi or Khaled Abol Naga or anybody. It’s just as impossible to imagine him participating in the games of power, holding a press conference with a UN ambassador or a foreign minister, or basking in the shared, pale light of some ambitious politician. Even the pictures wouldn’t have come out. The power of his presence would have exposed those beings as incorporeal fictions — vampires, creatures who don’t show up on photographic film.

Alaa, Seif’s son, is serving a five-year sentence, for joining a protest in November 2013. Recently his mother interviewed him during a visit to Tora prison; she memorized his answers and passed them to a reporter when she emerged. You can read the exchange in Arabic and English. Because Alaa seems almost forgotten in the West now, I will quote at length. He said:

Prisons in our country are the embodiment of “violation.” For me personally I’ll quote my father when, shortly before he died, he said that my conditions were “a lot better than others’ and, on the whole, bearable in comparison with what the political prisoners from the Islamist movement suffer.”

The authorities are being totally intransigent, though, in forbidding me books. Not just political books — any books from outside prison, including books published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. … They’re trying to isolate me, intellectually as well as physically, from the community. …

I was in court recently [for an “insulting the judiciary” case, another charge he still faces] and they brought in Magdi Qurqur [from the Brotherhood-sympathizing National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy] by mistake. He was in really bad shape. He told me that the day the prosecutor general was assassinated, prison officers went into the cells in Tora’s maximum security prison and stripped them of everything — prisoners’ clothes and bathroom stuff, but also medicines, even medicines which are really dangerous to stop suddenly, like for chronic heart problems, for example.

He added:

There’s no hope at all in reforming the Egyptian state or any of its institutions, including the presidency. These institutions and their heads deserve a revolution….[But] there is no longer one revolution that would let us to talk about “its forces.” Now we have multiple revolutions, and we need to think carefully about what this means.

Seif was Alaa’s defense attorney, until he became too sick to go on. At a press conference about his son’s trial eight months before he died, he said: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son. But instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”

Ahmed Seif al-Islam speaking about his son’s trial at a January 2014 press conference

But that, of course, isn’t all. His legacy rests in a myriad small lessons — about politics, consistency, personal integrity, and more. These bear the seeds of multiple revolutions: some infinitesimally small at first, happening only in the circle of a few friends who decide on freedom, but with the capacity to grow. Egypt now is divided starkly into light and darkness. And these are dark times. “If it is the function of the public realm is to throw light on the affairs of men,” Hannah Arendt declared,

by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by “credibility gaps” and “invisible govenrment,” by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Against this stands the illumination that “may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.”

These days I sit at home; I struggle against the heat; I think of past and future; and I read Brecht. Brecht wrote:

Truly I live in dark times!
Frank speech is naïve. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.

What kind of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Born Later), 194o

And he also wrote:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Motto to the Svendborger Gedichte (Svendborg Poems), 1940

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam's burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam’s burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Gay hanging in Iran: Atrocities and impersonations

Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, Iran, with the Shah Mosque at its nearer end

Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, Iran, with the Shah Mosque at its nearer end. Photo from Iranian.com

I.

Everybody on earth knows that last week a deal on Iran’s nuclear program was announced.  Everybody also knows that this apparent step toward peace launched a new stage in an old war: of propaganda. Proponents praise the possibility of a historic opening. Opponents — who include Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Republican Party — warn of disaster.  Both sides want to expand their constituencies. In Western countries, gay communities — small but politically influential — are more and more the target for just this courtship and recruitment.

The right-wing pundit Amir Taheri greeted the nuclear deal with a storm of tweets and screeds condemning it. One 140-character charge drew special attention.Taheri tweetAnyone’s first reaction would be some version of “My God.” It sounded horrible.  I wrote to Taheri asking for more information — and so, judging from Twitter, did at least three other people.

But the story quickly began to show cracks. Taheri didn’t reply to me, or anybody. I sat down that night with a Farsi-speaking friend and began searching for the story in the Iranian press: under the youth’s name, under various other key words. It didn’t turn up anywhere. I wrote to the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), a diaspora-based group of LGBT Iranian activists with which I’ve worked closely over the years. They searched the media as well and found no sign of it. They also reached out to contacts in Isfahan. On Friday morning, they told me no one there had heard of the story, either.

maxresdefault

Taheri on Fox News

Amir Taheri lies a lot. Eight years ago, Jonathan Schwartz called him “one of the strangest ingredients in America’s media soup,” adding, “There may not be anyone else who simply makes things up as regularly as he does, with so few consequences.” An arch-conservative protege of the Pahlavis, an editor of the Tehran daily Kayhan under the Shah, he repeatedly fabricates stories about Iran to please right-wingers in his adoptive West. Most famously, in 2006 he claimed in Canada’s National Post that a new dress-code law in Iran would impose special clothes on religious minorities, including yellow badges for Jews. Many conservatives swallowed the story; even the Canadian Prime Minister repeated it. But it was a complete falsehood, and after a huge furor the National Post retracted it and apologized: “It is now clear the story is not true. … We apologize for the mistake and for the consternation it has caused.” (The Post also noted that Taheri went “unreachable” after his fiction was exposed, rather as he did on Twitter.) Undeterred, in 2008 Taheri concocted a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini, complete with a fake citation of an invented source; American neoconservative luminaries duly repeated it. In 2002, Taheri claimed that “Osama bin Laden is dead …. the fugitive died in December and was buried in the mountains of southeast Afghanistan.” The list of his duplicities goes on and on. In 1989, an academic reviewing one of Taheri’s books

detailed case after case in which Taheri cited nonexistent sources, concocted nonexistent substance in cases where the sources existed and distorted the substance beyond recognition when it was present. … [The reviewer] concluded that Nest of Spies was “the sort of book that gives contemporary history a bad name.”

Larry Cohler-Esses condemns Taheri as a “journalistic felon,” part of a “media machine intent on priming the public for war with Iran.”

There are ample grounds for skepticism about stories Taheri spreads.

But skepticism doesn’t make headlines. Propaganda’s best friend is the ambition of the press. On Thursday, a reporter for the UK-based Gay Star News also tweeted to Taheri.

Morgan to Taheri tweetTaheri didn’t answer him, either. I know this because the reporter didn’t wait for a source. About 25 minutes later, his story — “GAY TEEN, 14, ‘HANGED FROM TREE'” — topped the website of  Gay Star News, and it said Taheri hadn’t told them anything. In other words, their entire account was based on one single tweet with no evidence behind it. This tweet was special, though. The topic of gay killings in Iran has shown its passionate drawing power over a decade, its ability to keep queers clicking. GSN wanted the clicks for itself.

The reporter clearly never asked Iranian LGBT activists or groups for their take. It was more important to get the headline out there. I wrote to Tris Reid-Smith, GSN’s editor, and asked “Is this standard practice — to run a story based on a single, unsourced, unconfirmed tweet from someone who declines to answer follow-up questions?” Tris rather cannily refused to reply in writing; he wanted to talk by phone. My phone in Cairo is tapped; I declined. I wanted this on the record, but not State Security’s record. If Tris still wants to answer my question, he is welcome to do so here. GSN has since added a few sentences to its story, saying:

we should note Iranian LGBTI networks have not confirmed the story. Some critics have questioned Taheri’s reliability. … UPDATE: For clarity, GSN has noted from the outset this report has not been independently verified. Taheri is yet to reply to our questions seeking to substantiate his claims. We urge caution but feel it is in the public interest to report the claims, given they are gaining traction on social media.

Let that final sentence revolve in your mind. What defines news these days isn’t truth. It’s traffic. (I’ve saved a screenshot of GSN’s original article, prior to the caution-urging, here.)

And of course the story spread. Neoconservative propagandist Ben Weinthal tweeted it manifold times:

Screen shot 2015-07-20 at 11.35.30 AMWeinthal is a lobbyist for the right-wing, pro-Israel Foundation for Defense of Democracies. One of his jobs is to drum up support in gay communities for hardline policies against Iran. I’ve detailed some of his many misrepresentations here. His desperate drive to ensure Taheri’s tweet gets coverage suggests what the motives at work are.

I love Big Brother: Ben Weinthal appears on paranoiac Glenn Beck's TV show, February 16, 2015. Photo from Beck's website, The Blaze

I love Big Brother: Ben Weinthal appears on paranoiac Glenn Beck’s TV show, February 16, 2015. Photo from Beck’s website, The Blaze

No one should ever minimize the real, documented, and terrible human rights abuses in Iran. But credulity for suspicious stories devalues the true ones. Given Taheri’s record, and the tangled political context, there is no reason to credit this tale without corroboration.

And here’s the thing: we’ve been through this before, and learned nothing. Look at the photo GSN attached to its article.

Screen shot 2015-07-20 at 2.57.35 PMThat famous image, exactly ten years old, reverberates with misery and horror. And cynics and opportunists know it as proven clickbait. In fact, the two youths were not executed simply for “being gay.” They were convicted of the rape, at knifepoint, of a 13-year-old boy. Claims that they were gay lovers circulated widely among Western activists; but no clear evidence materialized to confirm them.

International tension shaped the context, then as now. In June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President of Iran. The religious hardliner’s victory intensified foreign fears of Iran’s nuclear plans; Ahmadinejad moved quickly to quash negotiations with European powers and smear reformists as appeasers. Western conservatives stoked those fears, and rumors roiled. Immediately after the vote, a website affiliated with the Mujahedin e Khalq claimed Ahmadinejad had participated in the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. The Mujahedin is a wealthy, cultlike Iranian exile group widely despised in the diaspora, but closely tied to many Western politicians. Amir Taheri leapt in; he alleged in print that that Javad Zarif — then Iran’s UN ambassador, now its foreign minister — had joined the hostage-taking. (Another fabrication: Zarif was studying in the US at the time.) That summer, a charged, familiar storm-cloud of fact, anxiety, and speculation swirled round the subject of Iran.

On July 19, 2005, the two teenagers were hanged in Mashhad. Reports in the local and national Iranian media said clearly they had been tried for tajavoz (rape) or lavat beh onf (“sodomy by force,” or male rape); the Quds newspaper in Mashhad quoted both the 13-year-old victim and his father. Another website of the Mujahedin e Khalq, however, published a piece on the execution aimed at Western audiences, and omitted the rape charge. Almost certainly the Mujahedin pointed out the story to lone-ranger UK activist Peter Tatchell — who had a record of publicity-seeking animosity to Iran and political Islam — and proposed the “gay” angle. On July 21, Tatchell’s OutRage website blared, “IRAN EXECUTES GAY TEENAGERS,” above the pictures taken from the Iranian press. Tatchell claimed, falsely, that Iranian media had not mentioned the rape, and that the pair were originally charged with consensual sex: setting in motion a stream of fictions that didn’t stop for months.

Mr. DeMille? Mr. DeMille? Q Television films Peter Tatchell at a demo over the Mashhad case, 2005. Photo by UK Gay News

Mr. DeMille? Mr. DeMille? TV crew films Peter Tatchell at a demo over the Mashhad case, 2005. Photo by UK Gay News

WIth panic over Iran already in the air, the photos went vastly viral. If politics motivated some to promote the story, for others it was publicity.  (Doug Ireland, a gay US writer with no prior knowledge of Iran who nonetheless rode the story to a new journalistic job, told me his blog got 60,000 hits the first day he carried the pictures.) As more facts came out and the tale seemed less plausible, its proponents got aggressive: not only with doubters, but with the protagonists. Tatchell, for instance, belittled the alleged rape and suggested the victim wanted it: “It could be the 13-year-old was a willing participant.” Meanwhile, the story’s popularity led to a desperate search for sequels, for new “gay victims,” that stretched for years. Virtually any execution for rape reported in the Iranian media — even of male rapists of women — could be arrogated or mistranslated as a punishment for consensual gay sex. In a grim and grotesque irony, the quest helped produce the dead. In 2007, Tatchell intervened in the last-ditch appeal of an Iranian prisoner on death row, also for the rape of a 13-year-old. Makwan Mouloudzadeh had been framed in a village vendetta; there was no real evidence he’d had sexual relations with the child, much less any other male. Instead of maintaining Makwan’s innocence, though, Tatchell falsely alleged the child was Makwan’s “partner.” Allies of Tatchell started a letter-writing campaign to Ahmadeinjad pleading for the “young homosexual Makvan,” arguing explicitly that he was “‘guilty’ of having loved a peer when he was 13 and having sexual intercourse with him.” They incriminated the man they were trying to save. Makwan, neither homosexual nor a rapist, was hanged.

The Mashhad story survives, immune to its malign consequences. Taheri certainly knows it — he surely suspected a 14-year-old victim would make his tweet go viral. The youths’ images are memed and manipulated everywhere. Sometimes the uses are political:

CJ4bAijUYAElnNFSometimes they’re mythological figures, as if the kitsch of Shi’ite religious iconography melded with the preoccupations of San Francisco.

The Ultimate Penalty: painting by Miguel Tió

The Ultimate Penalty: painting by Miguel Tió

But they remain, always, “the sacred gay martyrs of Iran.”

An hour or two after the Gay Star News story appeared, Tatchell seized the opportunity, announcing a “vigil” to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the youth’s deaths.

Screen shot 2015-07-20 at 1.59.43 PM“On 19 July, we stand for life, liberty and love,” Tatchell said at the demo. But think what that rhetoric obliterates. If their 13-year-old victim’s story was true, what would he say about those words? Most human rights activists know that you can oppose grave abuses, like the appalling execution of children, without spinning narratives of absolute innocence or “love.” But to do that requires abjuring sentimentality, and acquiring maturity.

A deep narcissism lies pooled here. What does “never forget” them mean, when you never knew anything about them in the first place? No one has ever seriously sought to learn facts (rather than weave romances) about the youths’ lives; no one ever showed the least interest in the 13-year-old they allegedly brutalized; no one has ever tried to find their families, and hear what they think of their sons’ pictures being broadcast in this way, or inserted into a foreign story about “gayness.” The boys are silent. Their muteness is their appeal. They offer a clean field for Western political and erotic fantasies; they’ve withered to ventriloquist’s dolls for Western voices. The indignities they suffered before death have been succeeded by a further descent, the indignity of being erased in the imperial name of memory. What Tatchell wants remembered is not the murdered youths. It’s himself.

II.

Strangely, I took two different tacks with Amir Taheri. The day after I politely asked him for information, you could have found me on Twitter writing in quite a different tone:

Screen shot 2015-07-18 at 10.19.03 PMExcept that wasn’t me. It was an account someone set up under my name about a week ago, which has been firing off tweets to Egyptians and various right-wing Westerners ever since. It says I’m a pro-Iran Islamist. It uses an old picture of me, and the inevitable photo of the hanged Iranian youth. 
Screen shot 2015-07-18 at 10.03.03 PM

The account isn’t a “parody.” Not just that it isn’t funny: it’s trying to get me arrested. It makes out that I support banned insurgent movements and want the Egyptian government overthrown. These messages it forwards to Egyptian tweeters, including government accounts.

ScottLon July 18

That one tweet could easily lead to a few decades in prison here. And the person who put my name to it appears quite conscious of the fact.

Who’s behind this thing? I have no idea. But I know who likes it. Here are the account’s followers when I checked it on July 16: 

Screen shot 2015-07-16 at 4.58.30 AM followersThe third person who’d followed the account — out of seven at the time — was “All Equal.” That’s the Twitter of Pliny Soocoormanee, who happens to be the personal assistant of Peter Tatchell, director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation. How he found out about this obscure account when no one else knew of it, and why it interested him so much, is a fascinating question. I can’t imagine the answer.

The morning after I criticized the Taheri story on Twitter, the account exploded with vengeful drivel, directed at people inside and outside Egypt (the one at top went to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs):

ScottLon July 17-18But this BS is merely typical. Apparently I work for the Brotherhood, an illegal organization here:

ScottLon MB paidMy motives appear to be erotic as well as pecuniary.

ScottLon MBI’m also an informer.

ScottLon Morsi gays

But mostly the account just strives to identify me with vicious anti-Semitic ravings, marking the intrinsic fascism of its maker’s mind. (Fascism is the politics of a cynical, corrosive narcissism. The mark of fascism is that it imagines all other opinions are as fascist as itself.)

ScottLon antisemitism 2

The account is pretty much coeval with the nuclear deal with Iran. Its first three tweets:

His first 3 tweets

I wouldn’t pay attention to this crude fakery if it weren’t trying explicitly to incriminate me to Egypt’s government — which is arresting gay foreigners, and may not know the difference, or want to. I never cease to be surprised by the retributory malice of the Iran- and Islam-obsessed crowd, whether driven by ideology or the sheer love of headlines. They never stop.

Back in 2006, when Amir Taheri’s lies about Iran’s dress-code law were exposed, The Nation spoke to his PR agent. Accuracy on Iran is “a luxury,” she said. “As much as being accurate is important, in the end it’s important to side with what’s right. What’s wrong is siding with the terrorists.” You see? It’s us or them. Loyalty trumps truth. To expose useful lies is to take the terrorists’ side. And by that standard I am, of course, a terrorist.

Why does it matter? Because LGBT Iranians shouldn’t be exploited for propaganda. They lead lives seamed by danger, distinguished by courage; they deserve better than to be backgammon pieces, passive tokens stacked and shifted in a great-power political game. LGBT people should speak in their own voices, be masters and heroes of their own lives. That is what the liberation struggle is about.

The fact that nobody — not Tatchell, not Ben Weinthal, not Gay Star News — bothered to ask LGBT Iranian activists or groups what the truth was, or whether they wanted a demonstration, is appalling. But it’s typical. The story of Western engagement with LGBT rights in Iran has been one of occupation and ventriloquism, not freedom. It’s long past time for the sick game to stop.

Cartoon by Mana Neyestani, from Payvand.com

Cartoon by Mana Neyestani, from Payvand.com

NOTE: The fake account seems to have been taken down not long after I posted this: I don’t know whether by its maker or by Twitter (of course I complained). But, in some form or another, they’ll be back.

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

الشرطة المصرية تلاحق المجتمع المثلي / Internet entrapment in Egypt: Protect yourself!

euro_internet_privacy_custom-480x344

الخصوصية ترقد في سلام / R.I.P. privacy

(English version below)

نحن نعلم الآن أن الشرطة في مصر تستخدم تطبيقات الهواتف في القبض على من يشتبه في كونهم مثليين أو متحولي/ات النوع الإجتماعي. مؤخراً تم القبض على رجل في طريقه لمقابلة شخص تواصل معه على تطبيق “جراولر” – و إتضح إن صديقه شرطي متخفي.

إحم نفسك! الطريق الأكثر أماناً هو أن تقوم بحذف حسابك تماماً من كل التطبيقات و المواقع الشخصية. إن لم ترغب في :فعل ذلك، الرجاء إتباع التعليمات التالي

١-لا تنسق مقابلات مع غرباء تعرفت عليهم من خلال شبكة الإنترنت فقط. التطبيقات مثل جريندر و الإعلانات الشخصية على الإنترنت غير آمنة. حتى و إن قضيت محادثات طويلة مع أشخاص تعرفت عليهم من خلال “جرايندر” أو تطبيقات أخرى، و إن بَدوا حقيقيين، ربما يستخدمون حيل لخداعك. قد يتم القبض عليك في اللحظة التي تصل فيها لمكان المقابلة.

 ٢-الشرطة تستخدم الأشياء التي ينشرها الأشخاص على شبكة الإنترنت — بما فيها الإعلانات الشخصية — كأدلة ضد الأشخاص في حال القبض عليهم. لا تنشر أي صور لوجهك أو لنفسك، لا تنشر إسمك الحقيقي أو أيّة معلومات قد يتم إستخدامها للتعرف عليك. إن كنت تستخدم إسماً مستعار، حاول أن تتأكد إن لا أحد يستطيع تتبعه للوصول إلى هويتك الحقيقية.

 ٣-لا تنشر رقم هاتفك على الإنترنت بما فيها الإعلانات الشخصية لإمكانية تتبعه للوصول إليك. إن كنت تحتاج لرقم لمقابلة الأشخاص من خلال هذه الإعلانات، استخدم رقم غير مسجل بدون عقد.

 ٤-قم بإزالة أي شئ يدينك — بما فيها صور عارية لنفسك أو مقاطع فيديو محرجة — من حاسوبك أو هاتفك في حال تحفظ الشرطة عليهم.

 ٥-حاول تحميل برامج الحماية لوضع كل محتويات هاتفك تحت كلمة سر حتى لا يستطيع الغرباء قراءتها. هذه البرامج قد تضع كود سري للمحادثات، و الرسائل، و المكالمات، حتى لا يستطيع الغرباء الوصول إليها. يمكنك تحميل برامج الحماية مجاناً:

 :إن كان هاتفك آي فون، قم بتحميل “سيجنال” من هنا-

 :إن كان هاتفك “آندرويد”، قم بتحميل “بوكس كريبتور” من هنا-

 :هذا التطبيق متوفر أيضاً لنظام ويندوز على الحاسوب-

 :إن كان هاتفك “آندرويد” يمكنك أيضاً تحميل “تيكست سيكيور” لحماية رسائلك-

 :يمكن أيضاً تحميل “ريد فون” لحماية إتصالاتك-

إضغط على هذا الرابط لقراءة معلومات شديدة الأهمية عن حقوقك القانونية.

:تذكر، إن تم القبض عليك

. لا تعترف بأي شئ أو توقع إعتراف، لا توقع أي شئ الشرطة تطلب منك توقيعه-

. كن دائماً مصّر على التحدث مع محامي-

– لا تتحدث أبداً عن أي شخص مثلي أو متحول الجنس/النوع الإجتماعي بغض النظر عن مدى ضغط الشرطة عليك – حتى و إن عرضوا عليك صور أشخاص.

:(تستطيع أن تجد معلومات على الأمان الرقمي في الرابط بأسفل (بالإنجليزية
بالعربية في الرابط بأسفل:

 

رجاءاً قوموا بنشر هذه الرسالة لجميع أصدقائك. تذكر أيضاً: في ظل الهجمة المستمرة على مدار سنتين، الجيران قاموا بتبليغ الشرطة عن أشخاص مثليين أو متحولي الجنس/النوع الإجتماعي أو “ليدي بوي”. أينما كنت تعيش كن هادئاً في منزلك و متحفظاً على قدر الإمكان في الأماكن العامة.

كونوا/كن آمنين/ات.

"If at any moment you feel your human rights are being violated, just say the word." Andeel for Mada Masr, September 25, 2014

“If at any point you feel your human rights are being violated, just say the word.” Andeel for Mada Masr, September 25, 2014

We now know that police in Egypt are definitely using phone apps to entrap people they suspect of being gay or transgender. Recently a man was arrested when he went to meet someone who had contacted him on the Growlr app; his “friend” turned out to be an undercover policeman.

Protect yourself! The safest thing you can do is to delete your profile completely from personals sites and apps. If you don’t want to do this, follow these precautions:

1)    Do NOT arrange meetings with strangers you only know through the Internet. Apps like Grindr, or Internet personals ads, are not safe. Even if you have long chats with people you know through Grindr or other apps, and they seem real, they may be using tricks to fool you. You could be arrested as soon as you arrive at the meeting place.

2)   Police are using the things people post on the Internet — including their personals ads — as evidence against them if they are arrested. NEVER post any face pictures of yourself. Do NOT post your real name, or any information that could be used to identify who you are. If you use a nickname, make sure nobody could trace it back to your real identity.

internet_censorship_in_india3)   Don’t post your phone number online, including in personals ads, because it can be used to track you. If you need a phone number to meet people through these ads, get a separate, unregistered number without a contract.

4)   Remove anything that could be incriminating – including revealing pictures of yourself, or embarrassing videos – from your computer or your phone, in case the police seize them.

5)    Please download an encryption program, to put everything on your phone in in a secret code so that no stranger can read it.  These programs can also encode your chat, texts, and voice calls, so that outsiders can’t intercept them. You can get these encryption programs for free:

Click here to read extremely important information on your legal rights. Remember, if you are ever arrested:

  • Don’t admit to anything, or sign a confession or anything else.
  • Always insist on talking to a lawyer.
  • Don’t talk about anybody else who is gay or trans, no matter how much pressure the police put on you – even if the police show you pictures of people!

You can find lots more information on digital security here (in English) and here (in Arabic).

Please spread this message to your friends. Also remember: in the crackdown that has been going on for almost two years, neighbors have been reporting people who are “ladyboys,” or gay, or trans, to the police. Wherever you live, be quiet in your home and be as discreet as you can in public places.

Be safe!

eye_in_computer_2
If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:

Donate Button with Credit Cards

 

Paper Bird: Three years old and growing

Origami Wren by Roman Diaz, folded by Gilad Aharoni: from giladorigami.com

Origami Wren by Roman Diaz, folded by Gilad Aharoni: from giladorigami.com

Donate Button with Credit Cards

It’s midway through this month of fundraising for A Paper Bird. Please consider giving $5, $10, $100 — whatever you can – to keep us going strong.

If you visit this site regularly, you’ll agree: it gives a bit more than most blogs do. That’s why it’s been cited, and praised, from the New York Times to the Nation

It shines light on injustice. News about the crackdown on trans and gay people in Egypt has largely spread from here: we’ve been an indispensable source for journalists and human rights activists alike, inside and outside Egypt. We helped stoke the storm of indignation that freed 26 men in the most publicized Egyptian “debauchery” trial – an unprecedented victory.

It gives you facts behind the slogans. For analysis of why ISIS murders “gay” Iraqis, or what made Putin put Russia’s activists in his sights, or what’s the truth underlying rumors from Iran — you can turn here.

It asks the hard questions. What’s the real impact when the World Bank links preventing maternal mortality to LGBT rights? How do Western leaders’ bold promises to defend queer Africans play out on the ground? What does it mean when “vulture fund” bankers support gay marriage internationally? What are the hard choices we make in fighting for free speech?

This blog is still mainly solo work. I want it to become something bigger, more wide-ranging. Your generosity can help fund some of my own research and travel. If worse comes to worst, it can pay my legal fees in Egypt. But it can also:

  • Support some of the people who have been helping with research and translation (from Russian, Arabic, Farsi,and Hindi, and more) out of sheer dedication – but who deserve something more.
  • Help bring guest writers and new voices into the blog. The writers I’d like to see are activists from the South who don’t enjoy the cushion of time and leisure that lets Westerners opine for free. They deserve to be recognized – and reimbursed.

From now till June 5 – that’s my birthday – I’ll keep cajoling you to give a little to a site that gives you facts, scandals, sex, shocking pictures, snarky captions, stories of rights and wrongs, and ways to fight back. Press the Paypal button. Do what you can. And, as always, thanks!

Feed the bird. If you like this blog, please think about pitching in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

283934_2186133608159_1091606440_2636459_4390608_n

Tweet for Egypt on IDAHOT: Why it’s important

11010600_10152842269287876_5153790421287072544_n

Image by Amr Okasha for http://www.correspondents.org/ar/

It’s the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOT, for short). Here’s one important thing you can do. Tweet, or post on Facebook, or write on your blog with a message of support for trans and gay and lesbian Egyptians. Use the hashtags #Antihomophobia, or in Arabic #ضد_رهاب_المثلية . Or the hashtag #انا_مش_مجرم_انا_مختلف‬ — in English, it’s #‎Am_not_aCriminal_Am_just_Different‬ . Read more about the campaign here.

I’m usually sceptical of online activism: the conflation of clicks with change, the absence of any light at the end of the carpal tunnel syndrome. Twitter and Facebook, though, mean something different in Egypt. They didn’t create the Revolution — that was corporate propaganda — but they were spaces where possibilities opened. In the years of mounting discontent before 2011, when expressly political movements opposing Mubarak had mostly fragmented, dissident Facebook groups let people complain, communicate, and know the growing cyber-weight of their own numbers, During the Revolution itself, social media made news travel instantly: vital news, like which bridges were blocked, where snipers were lurking. (That’s why, on January 28, 2011, the government tried to shut the whole Internet down.) And after the Revolution, they were ways for an amorphous, acephalous movement to discuss itself, not exactly democratically but with anarchic exhilaration. (In the summer of 2011, the military rulers indicated a willingness to meet with a few activists; some ad-hoc leaders of the ongoing sit-ins in Midan Tahrir nominated a bevy of men. Women revolutionaries seized the highly public megaphone of Twitter to object, and debate the whole issue of representation.) None of this was problem-free. Dependence on virtual spaces distracted people from political organizing after Mubarak was overthrown. Tahrir activists’ inability to ally over the long term with rebellious labor movements, wildcat strikers, peasants, and others neither versed nor interested in Facebook debate was a devastating failure. This wasn’t any secret at the time: already in the summer of 2011, the famous dissident Alaa Abd el Fattah and others started organizing “#TweetNadwa,” face-to-face meetings among major revolutionary Tweeters (a phrase only imaginable in Egypt), to prise strategic discussions away from the smartphone screens. But I remember a story I heard from a leftist doctor, who helped bring some wounded young people to a hospital during the Ittihadiyya clashes in December 2012 — angry protests outside Mohammed Morsi’s presidential palace. The victims were bleeding, the emergency room nurses ignored them, and she started shouting for help. Two well-known revolutionaries stood in a corner, fixated on their smartphones. “Would you mind keeping it down?” one said. “We’re Tweeting.”

Revolutionary graffiti from Cairo: A freedom fighter wields a smartphone and Twitter

Revolutionary graffiti from Cairo: A freedom fighter wields a phone and Facebook

No: Twitter isn’t enough to change things. But it remains a start, a step. In Egypt, social media helped create alternative public spheres, which at certain points — when the regime was jailing opposition politicians in the late 2000s; when young people wanted to share their indignation at torture and corruption, as in 2008-2010 — were vital. During the Eighteen Days, when State Security went about slaughtering people on the streets, those alternative public spheres merged with the real, habitable public sphere in towns and cities across Egypt, the imaginary and the actual melding, and their accumulated strength — like a string’s vibration magnified in an enormous echo chamber — brought a dictatorship down. And now?

Public space in Egypt is shrivelling. You can go to jail for half a decade for joining a peaceful protest, and that’s if you’re lucky. If the stars align against you, police will murder you where you stand. Civil society is cowed, the press fawns fecklessly, political movements cringe and comply. You feel the contraction in smaller ways too, in the police harassment of downtown cafes and street salesmen, the message — punctuated by truncheons — that sidewalks and sociality are targets of surveillance and control. Social media are more and more important to people who still dissent; they’re places where you can still find others who either think likewise or are bold enough to argue back. After Mona Iraqi’s raid on the Bab el-Bahr bathhouse last December — a time when everybody I knew was convinced we were all going to be arrested soon — it genuinely was critical for embattled LGBT people that veteran revolutionaries, intellectuals, leftists and liberals expressed their outrage at the abuse, over and over, on Facebook and Twitter, in the only spaces left them. It meant solidarity; it told the government that its pursuit of victims and publicity had breached a barrier of fundamental decency; it gave the indispensable gift of courage. It almost certainly led to the men’s acquittal — an unprecedented retreat by a regime that tosses out guilty verdicts like confetti. It’s important this support not abate. It’s important to keep affirming, at the last extremity, the indivisibility of human rights.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

IDAHOT is essentially about the kind of public world we’re building. It was started in 2004 by Louis-Georges Tin, a French academic and activist, a sometimes difficult man but one who conceived a hugely persuasive idea. The day caught on with LGBT groups (and people) around the globe because it captured a grating dissatisfaction with the compulsory celebrations that Prides entail, the drumbeat message that everything is getting better and better and better. No, it isn’t. Hatred and violence persist. Creating specialized, carnival spaces to congratulate ourselves offers an escape but not necessarily a solution, and the more commercial demands shape those spaces — the more they’re about money and exclusion, the more you pay to party — the less they adumbrate the equal, diverse, and democratic public sphere that so many movements once had the temerity to dream. IDAHOT asked why homophobia and inequality flourish in the larger world, why public space still isn’t safe for us, and what we can do.  (Of course prejudice and violence are powerful and cruel in what we curtain off as the “private” sphere — families, homes. But we can only learn about that and respond to it adequately in a public world that’s open for argument.) Its festivities tend to feature discussion panels rather than discos. Sometimes, of course, this stifles politics as much as any Pride can. Listening to a self-appointed talking head lecture is no more intrinsically empowering than staring at a shirtless twink dancing in a cage. And if the head belongs to some droning government hack or politician, it’s not hard to figure out which to prefer. But the aspiration remains. And the question of what the public sphere should be like, and who belongs there, is crucial in a place like Egypt.

A lot is happening around the world this May 17. Take this IDAHOT video from Iranti, a South African queer activist group with a focus on visual media. It’s part of a campaign against imposed gender roles in schools — the way school policies, and school uniforms, reify kids into “masculine” and “feminine” roles. And the kids themselves speak:


Or watch this video, an interview with Kenyan activist Solomon Wambua, about families and coming out. It’s one of an extensive series produced by None On Record, an LGBTI digital media group documenting queer activism in Africa.


In Russia there’s a range of events, mostly hoping to evade the police, including rainbow flashmobs from Archangelsk to Tyumen. You can find a rundown here. (Check, too, the moving photo campaign that Russian trans activists organized for IDAHOT last year, to support depathologizing transgender identity.) And read this publication of the international Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, with reflections on freedom of expression by young queers from Romania to Nepal.

Photo circulating on Twitter, reportedly of a judge killed by gunmen in North Sinai, May 16

Photo circulating on Twitter, reportedly of a judge killed by gunmen in North Sinai, May 16

But remember Egypt, too. Tweet or post. You don’t have to be only a passive consumer of others’ activism. You can participate, in however seemingly-small a way, and help defend what public sphere remains. Yesterday the Egyptian regime, which is in love with death, sentenced the democratically elected president it overthrew to die, along with more than 100 of his supporters. A court declared that the Ultras — groups of football fans, children in their teens or youth in their twenties, whose only politics is a deep hatred of the thuggish police — are “terrorists.”  In North Sinai, already bleeding from a years-long civil war, gunmen attacked a bus carrying a group of judges to a court session, and massacred four of them. The regime loves just such deaths. This morning, the country woke to find itself in an intensified state of emergency, “maximum alert,” with ramped-up security patrolling the streets. A Tweet can’t do much against such violence, such repression: true. But it’s a small blow for space and speech, against silence. Where silence is in power, every word is precious.

Cairo graffiti, November 2011. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

No; but a Tweet may help. Cairo graffiti, November 2011. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

 
If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

Remembering the Queen Boat, fourteen years after

Defendants in the Queen Boat trial wait in court for the verdict to be read, November 14, 2011: photo by Norbert Schiller

Defendants in the Queen Boat trial wait in court for the verdict to be read, Cairo, November 14, 2011: photo by Norbert Schiller

The night of May 12, 2001 – fourteen years ago today – I worked in my office late. Back then I was program director for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a US-based NGO. Sometime after midnight an email snapped me out of drowsiness, from someone in Egypt who called himself “Horus.” The evening before, police had raided a dance club on a boat moored in the Nile. They’d arrested dozens of men whom they accused of being gay. The stranger’s roommate was among them. He was afraid they were being tortured. He sent messages to all the human rights organizations whose addresses he could find. In the end, I was the only one who answered him.

His real name was Maher Sabry, and he effectively broke that story to the world. Police arrested thirty people on the Queen Boat on May 11, 2001, and threw them into cells with a dozen others whom they’d seized on the streets in the preceding days. They concocted a scandalous case of conspiracy, perversion, blasphemy, with obscure political motives behind it. The trial dominated Egyptian headlines for months. All the men’s lives were ruined. In the next three years, police raided parties and private homes in search of “debauchery”; undercover cops entrapped victims over the Internet; judges sentenced hundreds or thousands more to jail.

Bridgebuilder: Major General Hatem Amin

Bridgebuilder: Major General Hatem Amin

Fourteen years have passed. Last week in Egypt, police in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh arrested a 26-year Jordanian citizen “wearing women’s clothes,” and charged the victim with “sexual perversion.” Al-Youm al-Sabbah, mouthpiece for the government’s ongoing moral panic, carried pictures, probably taken from her phone or laptop. The case went to prosecutors; it’s not clear whether she’ll be deported or sent to prison. Sharm el-Sheikh was where Generalissimo Sisi held his celebratory investment fair in March, to underwrite his brutalities with foreign money; perhaps, back then, the victim saw US Secretary of State John Kerry cruise by in a limousine. Major General Hatem Amin, head of the provincial security directorate, presided over the investigation. When Amin got his job in July 2014, he declared that one of his responsibilities (in addition to torturing alleged terrorists, which in Sinai goes without saying) would be to “finish the bridge of trust between citizens and police.” Trust is built over the bodies of the despised; this is a lesson from Sisi.

Egypt’s new rulers know how to commemorate an anniversary.

Photo of the arrested Jordanian citizen, from Youm7

Photo of the arrested Jordanian citizen, from Youm7

These banal numbers and blurred photos are about people’s lives. A 22-year-old who was arrested on the Queen Boat in 2001 told me what happened at the police station that night:

This officer who I think was a psycho came over to us. He started shouting abuse at all of us. He said to us, “I want the khawalat [faggots] to one side and the ordinary people to the other side. “ He was silent for a minute. “Of course, you don’t have any normal people, you’re all khawalat.”

Other officers came over and this officer called us out one by one. They looked us over. I was one of the first to be called out. I was well-dressed but he thought my clothes looked “girlish” though I was just wearing a tight T-shirt top, and a jacket, and pants with a little flower stitched on them, around the cuff. They all thought I was effeminate, all through this ordeal, so I was singled out for special attention. After that, he made me take my pants off to see what I was wearing underneath. … He told me, “Of course you are a khawal.” I said, of course not. And then he started beating me terribly. … He used fists and a hose. He beat me on my back with it. Over and over. I’ll never forget that.

This man, now my friend, eventually escaped to France. Another friend of mine, who lived in the provincial town of Tanta, told me how the police arrested more than eighty suspected khawalat in the city in 2002, after a gay man named Adel was murdered. They were all tortured to get information:

[One man] was hung up for four days without food or drink, by cuffs in the window … They tied [another man’s] hands and feet, and put him on a metal thing with two legs — a kind of metal sawhorse — and tied him so that he was hanging under it. He was blindfolded and naked. They attached wires to him and electroshocked him all night. They electroshocked his tongue. The next day they brought us in to him. He was lying on the floor in the office of the chief of detectives, where the torture happened. His tongue was swollen and hanging out of his mouth. I recognized his fingers and toes as they brought me in to him—there wasn’t much else I could recognize. I could barely understand him when he tried to talk. … An officer came in. He said, “Write down the names of all the khawalat you saw in Adel’s apartment in the last ten years.” He had shown him to us as a warning.

And here is the testimony of a young trans woman who talked to me last year. She and three friends were arrested in April 2014 in an apartment in Cairo, thirteen years minus a month after the Queen Boat:

The head policeman asked: “Do you have girls, weed, weapons in the apartment?” We said no. He said, “I am going to search this place.” … An informer [plainclothesman] said to the officer: “See how they look, they are all khawalat.” The officer said: “You don’t need a warrant for this type of people.”

They took us to the police station … They started hitting us in the face and kicking our legs, and touching us all over. The informers kept trying to pull my hair out. “Are these prostitutes?” the officer in charge said, and the other police said, “No, they are khawalat.”  He said, “In more than 24 years I have never seen khawalat so effeminate. Take off your clothes.” …

Another officer, when he was told we were khawalat, starting beating us violently … The officers began sexually abusing us, grabbing our breasts. One of the informers said, “If you don’t sleep with me, I’ll put you in detention with the other prisoners.” … A “nice” clerk came and said, “They are sick people and you shouldn’t hit them.” Then he started taking a video of us.

.التكرار يعلّم الحمار  Or, as they say elsewhere: plus ça change

Egypt's finest torturers: police on duty in Cairo. Photo from Al Ahram.

Egypt’s finest torturers: police on duty in Cairo. Photo from Al Ahram.

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

Note: The testimonies from 2001-2002, along with many other stories, can be found in Human Rights Watch’s 2004 report, In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct.

Deport me!

gallery_1238284997So they’re going to deport gay foreigners from Egypt. My phone started ringing a few mornings ago, reporters wanting comments: solicitous but always with a subtext of What’s going to happen to you?

I don’t know. The case involves a Libyan student whom police expelled from Egypt in 2008, after a complaint that he was gay. From back in Libya, he sued. This Tuesday, after seven years – the alacrity typifies Egyptian justice — an Adminstrative Court ruled that the Ministry of Interior did the right thing, under its power to”prevent the spread of immorality in society.” In fact, then, this isn’t a new policy. The court reaffirmed authority the state always had. Two years ago, for instance, a Polish citizen was vacationing on the North coast here with his Egyptian partner. The Pole grew seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. The nurses found their relationship suspicious and called the police. After several days under arrest, the Egyptian was freed; police deported the Pole, who was still in agonizing pain. I heard all about it at the time, but there was nothing we could do.

Things are much worse these days under Sisi. I sometimes seem insouciant about threats in Egypt, but I’m not. iI’s just that the atmosphere of threat is general here. It affects every corner of your personality, yet it’s hard to take it personally, so wide is the danger spread. Here’s a story. Yesterday, talking with a reporter in the usual seedy Cairo café — a place I’ve always considered safe — I saw a well-dressed man at the next table listening intently. Finally he interrupted. He gathered I was interested in human rights, he said. What did I do? Did I work for Freedom House? Freedom House is, of course, a banned organization, its local office raided and shuttered by the military regime back in 2011. I said no. He added, almost enticingly, that he himself had been tortured, and offered to show me his scars. I gave him my contact information and told him to call me. That was simple responsibility – you do not refuse a torture victim anything you can give; but afterwards I cringed inside. It’s how things are in Egypt. Other people, foreign passport-holders among them, have been arrested for “political” conversations in public places. You don’t know if the person who approaches you is victim or violator, survivor of torture or State Security agent; or both.

That suggests more clearly than any headline how Sisi’s regime is achieving totalitarianism – something Mubarak’s clumsy and inept authoritarian rule, his iron fist of five thumbs, never managed, perhaps never imagined or tried. I see now that totalitarianism is less comprised in how the state controls your private life than in how you do. Ordinary emotions such as sympathy or compassion cease to be modes of solidarity and become dangerous betrayals, self-revelations to be regulated with sleepless scrupulosity, as though they, and not the people you suspect, are the real informers. Mistrusting yourself comes first. Mistrusting others is merely the consequence. But the self-hatred self-suppression brings – and I hated myself for my fear – demands other objects, a wider field of play. To be foreign to yourself is to apprehend foreignness all around you, to fear the stranger in the land of Egypt.

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Still: this story, the deportation story, went viral abroad. It’s strange because LGBT Egypt has not been in the international news much for months. When you deal with the media, you get used to its collective movements, puzzling as tidal motions when it’s too cloudy to see the moon, or the startled shuddering of gazelles racing in unison through tall grass. But other terrible things happened here recently. A man acquitted on charges of homosexuality tried to burn himself to death in despair. Police arrested an accused “shemale,” splaying her photos on the Internet. Egypt’s government threatened to close a small HIV/AIDS NGO because it gave safer-sex info to gay men. None of these got such press. The contrast is striking.

I learn three things from all this. First: our attention span isn’t what it used to be.

The world is everything that is the case, said Wittgenstein. These days we can click instantly on every fact about the world. When everything is the case, nothing might as well be; the excess of fact turns fantastic, the surfeit of reality becomes unreal. The LGBT arrests in Egypt had their moment of fame late last year, but the spotlight moves on; nothing is ever serious enough to make it halt. I’m not complaining about the press. In fact, many reporters have written about LGBT Egyptians both repeatedly and well (Lester FederBel Trew, and Patrick Kingsley have helped keep pressure up, among many others). But the attention span of news consumers, and activists among them, shrivels; and that’s a problem.

I often think of the long international campaign throughout the 1990s to repeal Romania’s sodomy law. A few Romanian friends and I started researching the fates of people arrested under the law after I moved to the country in 1992 (it was some of the first human rights documentation ever on the persecution of LGBT people). Bucharest finally repealed the law in 2001. Over those nine years the Council of Europe and the EU exerted pressure; so did international groups like IGLHRC and Amnesty; and so did activist circles from Soho to Rome. The agitation was steady, so persistent that every time a Romanian politician visited Western Europe he was sure of facing a noisy protest somewhere. It would be simply impossible to keep a decade-long campaign like that going today. Nobody has patience. These days, if the law didn’t disappear after a single summer of sign-waving, the anger would evanesce like early frost.

Consider the transient 2013 furor against Putin’s homophobia: with its boycott calls and Stoli dumps, the campaign survived all of seven months. None of its self-proclaimed leaders even remember it anymore. Abstaining from vodka for a few weeks had absolutely zero chance of making the Russian state back down. Seasonal activist infatuations are doomed. Repression doesn’t cower before fads. Change takes work, and work means the long haul.

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Dec 2013

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia (while dabbling in transphobia) in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis, AP

There is of course the well-known malady of “compassion fatigue,” a multisyllabic way of saying boredom. There’s been so much news from Egypt since the 2011 Revolution, so many twists in the plot, that even the most rapt listener gets lost. And isn’t the Middle East mixed up anyway? Six months ago, the enemy was the demon ISIS in Iraq. Now it’s the demon Houthis (who?) in Yamland or somewhere. Even the demons can’t keep themselves straight.

In fact, the confusion of cable news feeds the wiles of statesmen. “Compassion fatigue” serves a political end. Empathy, souring into self-pity about how overstrained it is, ignores inconvenient crimes. Egypt, by publicly killing “terrorists,” has planted itself on the side of the West. It’s best for all concerned to have minimal publicity about Egyptian state terror. After all, ISIS is worse — though they may have slain fewer civilians than Sisi. The Houthis are worse — though don’t they sound like they’re from Dr. Seuss? (And the distinction between being killed in Tikrit and killed in Tahrir Square may well look like the narcissism of small differences if you’re the one dead.) You might possibly remember Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Activist, journalist, poet, mother, she was murdered by security forces in Tahrir in January, while trying to place flowers in honor of the now-expired Revolution’s martyrs. A photograph of her dying in a friend’s arms broke through the wall of indifference; the story briefly travelled worldwide.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Last month the state pressed criminal charges. No, not against her killers. Against the witnesses who testified to prosecutors about her killing — because they’d joined an “illegal demonstration.” They could face five years in prison, for being there when Shaimaa was shot. Did you know that? No. The story’s over; we’ve moved on. It’s better you don’t know, because after all, your compassion might get tired; wiser to tend your valetudinarian emotions than defend exhausted dissidents, or the memory of those already murdered and past help.

Another lesson is: some people don’t count. Sex workers, for instance. I hate to say this, because it seems to give the Egyptian government a pass – but the idea that governments can exert moral controls at the border is not a Middle Eastern peculiarity. The US still denies entry to anyone involved in sex work. The American immigration bar on “moral turpitude” uses almost the same language as the Egyptian exclusion. Most gay Americans have no idea of this: because the American gay movement couldn’t give a shit about sex workers.

And then there are trans people. Most of the Egyptians arrested in the crackdown since 2013 were transgender. The government explicitly says it’s going after “she-males,” sissies, mokhanatheen. Nonetheless, most coverage by Western media – or by Western NGOs – talks about an anti-“gay” crackdown, as though sex were everything, gender irrelevant, and trans folk distractions from the main event.

The Egyptian arrests that got the most publicity were ones that did involve cis men: working-class clients of a bathhouse, or respectable bearded types doing the gayest of gay things in Western eyes, getting wed. In Egypt, as a colleague of mine points out, these gained extra-large headlines because they showed “perversion” at its most dangerous, infecting people like us, not just the pre-emptively anomalous. But they became poster boys in the West for similar reasons, because these were people gay readers could identify with, muscular and married, “normal.” Trans people doing sex work are neither nice nor news. Who gives a damn? Getting arrested is simply their destiny, their job.

In 2013 the Western press started reporting that the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – were going to test and expel “gay” people at the border. There was a storm of stories about how dumb this was. Silly Arabs, setting up gay detectors in airports! Then it turned out the targets weren’t gay people (or Western visitors) at all. Kuwait had proposed chromosome tests for migrant workers, to determine if their genes and their IDs conformed. They meant to expel trans people coming from countries like Nepal (a major exporter of exploited labor to the Gulf) that now permitted them treacherously to change their passports. This wasn’t silly; it was scientific, and a much worse invasion of privacy than an imaginary gaydar machine.

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days.  From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days. From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

And with that, the stories stopped. Nobody cared about trans people – or poor Nepalis. The Human Rights Campaign, the US gay behemoth now going international, still claims in a recent report that the tests were meant to keep out only “gay” people. This isn’t a mere mistake; HRC knows better. But their members’ empathy, and donations, won’t get revved up for trans Nepali domestic workers. Purely hypothetical Western gay businessmen facing persecution, blond boys flying first class and unfairly driven from Abu Dhabi like Sarah Jessica Parker, are way more likely to stimulate the cash flow.

Bad migrants vs. good: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); Sex and the City 2 girls in Abu Dhabi (actually filmed in Morocco; bottom, if you didn't guess).

Bad migrants vs. good ones: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); the Sex and the City II girls in Abu Dhabi (bottom, if you didn’t guess).

And that shows a third lesson. Some people do matter. Some stories do break through. There are more important travelers than migrants or refugees. This story has legs because it implies that tourists, innocent people from the West, can be swept up in Egypt’s series of unfortunate events.

Sometimes tourists are victims of rights violations, and that must be condemned. But the most effective condemnations draw connections. What Westerners endure can bring attention to what others suffer.

In mid-2013, after the Egyptian coup, queer Canadian filmmaker John Greyson and his colleague Tarek Loubani were arrested in Cairo. They were “tourists” in a broad sense, passing through on their way to work in Palestine. The paranoiac regime, which treats all real or imaginary opponents as terrorists, accused them of conspiracy. The international campaign to free them, politically astute, brought into focus the violent repression Sisi also inflicted on many others, including massacres of Muslim Brotherhood adherents. (A mark of how successfully Greyson’s and Loubani’s case illuminated Egypt’s whole human rights record was how they pissed off Canada’s equally terrorist-obsessed right wing.) And Greyson has passionately kept on doing so since his release.

On the other extreme, I have miserable memories of the embattled gay pride in Moscow in 2007. A flock of foreigners came, European politicians and minor celebrities, many hoping to garner a little publicity for the cause and themselves: get arrested briefly, spend an afternoon in jail, give a press conference. It was no more intrinsically offensive than taking selfies at Bergen-Belsen. They inadvertently drew the media away, however, from the young Russian marchers arrested at the same time, sent to jail in the Moscow outskirts with no cameras attending. They also monopolized the lawyers; the young Russians had none. I’m afraid the Moscow Pride circus is more typical of what happens when Westerners get involved than was John Greyson.

Nicholas Kristof, white-savior-in-residence at the New York Times, has written how nobody cares when he just describes foreign brown folks and their strivings. It takes a “bridge character,” “some American who they can identify with,” to “get people to care”:

It hugely helps to have appealing and charismatic characters … Often the best way to draw readers in is to use an American or European as a vehicle to introduce the subject and build a connection.

But it never works. Read Kristof and see: all the sympathy goes to the span itself, to the charismatic white connecting hero. Nobody’s attention makes it to the other side. Whatever happens to me, in Egypt or anyplace else, God save me from being a bridge to nowhere.

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

And here’s the heart of the matter. The context for this latest case is twofold. Egypt’s government has been cracking down on gender and sexual dissent for a year and half. But it’s also been whipping up xenophobia, fear of foreign influences, hatred of foreigners themselves. Now it’s figured out how to make those two kinds of incitement meet.

Westerners have been targets of Egypt’s xenophobic campaign, painted as conspirators against the country. Michele Dunne, an American expert on Egypt, was turned away at Cairo airport in December in retaliation for her criticisms of Sisi. Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch was expelled last August. Last month the government announced it would stop granting visas on arrival to most Western visitors, requiring applications in advance instead. It was a move to keep unwanted critics out. But Egypt understands how vital its already-moribund tourist industry is, and how restricting visas might scare the last few pocketbooks away. The measure was “postponed.”

Although this deportation case dates back seven years, the way the government is publicizing it now – while it’s arresting alleged LGBT people on a massive scale – suggests they have new plans to put these powers to use. The truth is, though, that Western tourists won’t be the easiest targets. Those who’ll suffer most will be from poorer African or Arab counties, those who don’t spend dollars, whose embassies won’t lift a digit to defend them: or – still more defenseless — suspected trans or gay people from Egypt’s communities of refugees.

Some Middle Eastern states have been welcoming to refugees. Syria – though one of the poorest countries in the region – took in waves of displaced Palestinians from the nakba till now, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis after the Bush invasion. Egypt has not, on the whole, been on the hospitable side. The national identity inculcated since the 1950s is intolerant of ethnic difference and of influences from outside. The state has accommodated refugees – Sudanese since the 1990s, Iraqis and Syrians now – but reluctantly; it harasses them, denies them political rights or permanent status, and insists it’s only a transit point for loiterers who eventually must move along. And ever since Sisi took power, refugees have been vilified by state-promoted xenophobia. Syrians and Palestinians are especially singled out. But every refugee in Egypt lives in anxiety. There are plenty of LGBT folk among them. (Last fall a cohort of plainclothes security forces raided the apartment of a gay Syrian refugee I know. They searched his papers, computer, phone, and noted all the gay-related documents and photos. They didn’t arrest him. They just wanted him to know they were there.) This publicized decision will only sharpen their fear.

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

The fate of refugees in Egypt is not just abstract for me. It’s bound up with guilt. In 2003, working for Human Rights Watch, I lived in Cairo for several months. Two days after I arrived, police began arresting refugees, mostly African, in sweeping raids in neighborhoods where they clustered. Such harassment is recurrent; most were freed in days; but, covering the raids and talking to the victims, I got to know some of the community leaders. In the next months, they organized many meetings for me with refugees in Cairo, so I could hear their stories. I thought perhaps the documentation could push Human Rights Watch into reporting on the situation in detail.

Most of the people I talked to were South Sudanese, survivors of the civil war raging there for 20 years. We met in their cramped flats; in the dusty courtyard of All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek, an asylum where police rarely intruded; or in rundown Coptic churches in Shobra, where fellow Christians had afforded the South Sudanese some space.

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Cairo was and is one of the slowest in the world.  It could take UNHCR years — it still does — just to schedule an intake interview. Until the UN formally recognized them as refugees – three, five, seven years after their arrival – the displaced had no legal rights in Egypt at all; after that, they had to wait more years for the UN to resettle them in a third, safe country. Some had been in Egypt for well over a decade. Meanwhile, they endured constant harassment, joblessness, humiliation. Nobody outside the community had listened to them before. Women working for a pittance as maids told me about sexual harassment and rape. Some men sold their organs to survive. Police picked them up off the streets, beat them, ignored the UNHCR’s hapless interventions to protect them; there were stories that some refugees, randomly arrested, had been driven south and deported illegally back across the border, to Sudan and death. The waiting and fear drove some people mad. One courtly man of about fifty took me aside at a church meeting. He had been tortured in Sudan; he showed me a scar on his arm. He had many narratives of persecution, but most embarrassing now, he said was an unbearable rumor circulating all across Egypt that he had a tail. He showed me medical documents, testimonies elicited from doctors in English and Arabic, painfully certifying that he was tailless. He also gave me a typed personal statement, in English. “Among the many crosses I am compelled to Bear, in a long Journay and much Torture, the widespread libel that I am a Tail Wizard is completely Unfounded.” Others at the meeting treated him with deference, as if they envied the relief in his delusions.

I began to feel uneasy about these meetings. My presence was an implicit promise that I would do something, and there was nothing I could do. In February and March Egypt’s security state moved on to arresting and torturing hundreds of leftists opposing the Iraq war. I had to document that, and gradually my meetings with the Sudanese lapsed. Human Rights Watch, its refugee program stretched thin, never produced a report on these abuses (though in recent years they’ve documented, in harrowing detail, the monstrosities traffickers inflict on desperate African refugees in Sinai). I still think of my inability to provide some concrete assistance as one of the worst failures in my twenty-five year career, and I can’t remember it without shame.

Now there’s another basis, inscribed in law, for harassing some of them.

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Some refugees tried to speak up about their endless agonies. Two and a half years after I left, in September 2005, Sudanese started a sit-in before the Cairo UNHCR offices, demanding faster processing of their claims. The UN treated the protest with contempt; one staffer accused them of wanting “a ticket to go to dreamland.”

Three months passed; then UNHCR called in the authorities. On December 30, 4000 police surrounded and shot at the unarmed Sudanese. At least 27 died, including eight women and between seven and twelve children. Thousands were arrested; among those, hundreds who had not yet been given refugee cards by UNHCR faced deportation. The first dozen Cairo planned to deport included three women and a child. “Egypt has dealt with the sit-in of the refugees with wisdom and patience,” the country’s foreign minister said.

A Sudanese removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

A Sudanese man removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

Ten years later, this massacre is forgotten in Cairo. It never figures on the list of Mubarak’s crimes. Nobody bothers to remind UNHCR of its complicity in the killings. Refugees don’t matter.

The massacre did merit brief mention in a text that’s become a Bible for right-wingers warning about the Muslim peril. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West is a 2009 book by conservative American journalist Christopher Caldwell. Seemingly ignorant that the demonstrators were Christian, he uses the protest to press his case — distorting it, insulting the dead in the process:

3000 Sudanese camped in front of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo to seek refugee status. What was bizarre was that many of them already had refugee status in Egypt. So these were bogus petitioners in the sense that what they were really seeking was passage to some country more prosperous than Egypt. The sad ending to the story, though, shows that the line between “real” and “bogus” calls for help is not always easy to draw: in the last days of 2005, Egyptian riot police attacked the encampment, killing twenty-three [sic].

Bogus vs. real migrants: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

Bogus person vs. real one: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

That’s not true. Either Caldwell, who claims to be an immigration expert, doesn’t understand refugee law, or he’s just lying. I think he’s lying. Egypt doesn’t grant anybody “refugee status.” It has no national asylum procedures at all. It gives people whom the UN recognizes as refugees (the status most of the the protesters were still waiting for) a limited right to stay, but only temporarily, on the understanding they will eventually be resettled elsewhere. The dead Caldwell defames were not “really seeking” someplace “more prosperous.” They were asking the UN to do its mandated job, to find them a country that would give them the legal right to live.

Caldwell is a fool, but he’s right on one thing: this is all about the bogus and the real. It’s about belonging. Egypt’s government is now deciding who belongs or not, who’s a real or bogus person. The gays are fake people, void of the authenticity and weight that might entitle them to stay.

But isn’t that how we readers, sympathizers, citizens use these stories too, to separate the wheat from chaff? We winnow the fit objects of our concern from the unwanted ones, from those whose sufferings don’t ring true because we don’t recognize ourselves in them. Tourists count, not migrant workers. White travelers count, not brown refugees. Gay, yes; transgender, no. We each mistrust the incomprehensible stranger, you as much as I do. We were all strangers once in the land of Egypt. But we forgot.

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

John Kerry to LGBT Egyptians: Enjoy jail

It's so funny. Sometimes I forget who I've just been torturing: Sisi meets with Kerry in Cairo, September 13, 2014. Photo: Aswat Masriya/Reuters

It’s so embarrassing. Sometimes I forget who I’ve just been torturing. Sisi meets with Kerry in Cairo, September 13, 2014. Photo: Aswat Masriya/Reuters

I have on good authority from sources here in Egypt that US Secretary of State John Kerry will attend the much-hyped “economic development conference” to be held March 13-15 in the Sharm el-Sheikh resort.

The conference is a giant attempt by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military regime to boster its legitimacy with an increasingly skeptical public, by showing it can entice international investors. The hopes he’s raising are all trickle-down ones, without much trickle. Most of the projects he’ll hawk to bankers and businessmen will be of no benefit to ordinary Egyptians — though they promise profits to well-placed construction and real estate magnates who made their fortunes under Mubarak’s dictatorship, and have been key Sisi supporters. Up for grabs, for instance, will be shares in this $20-billion glass-and-steel pyramid: planned as the tallest building in Egypt, and to be named after the founder of the United Arab Emirates, which is expected to make the down payment. This grotesque monument says something about Sisi’s Pharaonic dreams. To the tens of millions of Egypt’s poor, it’s a 600-foot middle finger.

The General says it's looking good. Now all we need are the slaves to build it.

The General says it’s looking good. Now all we need are the slaves to build it

The US already gives almost 1.5 billion in mostly military aid to Egypt. Kerry won’t be bearing many gifts on top of that; there’s practically no more to give. His job will be to help sell Sisi’s government to the fat-walleted but skeptical. He’s there as a PR agent.

Since Sisi’s 2013 coup, Kerry has shown little or no concern over burgeoning, brutal rights abuses in Egypt. (He’s largely ignored efforts by the US embassy in Cairo, and by Anne Patterson, assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, to keep the rollback of democracy on the agenda.) Last summer, for instance — in a callow slap in the face to Egypt’s embattled human rights activists — Kerry handed Sisi almost $600 million in suspended US military aid, along with 10 long-promised Apache helicopters, just one day after the regime mauled and arrested dozens of protesters against its draconian anti-protest law. Among those jailed (and now serving two years in prison for the crime of carrying signs on the street) were the democracy activist Sanaa Seif — daughter of the late Ahmed Seif el-Islam, Egypt’s best-known human rights lawyer — and my friend the brave feminist Yara Sallam. Political prisoners in the country now number, by many estimates, over 40,000.

The UK human rights group Reprieve has condemned the British government’s decision to join the Sharm el-Sheikh gala. “Economic development must go hand-in-hand with respect for human rights,” says Reprieve’s Maya Foa; “but while the Egyptian government presides over a wave of human rights abuses, the UK’s ‘business as usual’ approach is giving it the imprimatur of approval. …. Ministers should use President Sisi’s summit to demand justice,” she adds,”before it’s too late.” But Britain, cautiously, is only sending a junior minister to the summit. What can be said when the leader of American foreign policy himself shows up to raise money for a killer regime? It’s no surprise when the United States ignores the crimes of dictatorial allies. But when it rents out its highest diplomat as their lobbyist and PR man, that goes beyond the call of duty.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender Egyptians will feel this betrayal especially harshly. Not 10 days ago, on February 27, Kerry hosted a State Department reception to anoint the first-ever US “special envoy for the human rights of LGBT persons.” “Many LGBT people continue to be harassed, arrested, killed simply because of who they are or who they love,” the Secretary intoned. “That’s unacceptable. And we believe it has to change.”

We have a moral obligation to speak out against the persecution and the marginalization of LGBT persons. And we have a moral obligation to promote societies that are more just, fair, and tolerant. It is the right thing to do. But make no mistake: It’s also a strategic necessity. Greater protection of human rights leads to greater stability, prosperity, tolerance, inclusivity, and it is not a question of occasionally – always this is what happens.

Now we know: Those were just meaningless words. Most probably, more people are serving prison sentences for consensual homosexual conduct in Egypt than anywhere in the world today. Kerry, heading to Sharm el-Sheikh, shows no inclination to “speak out,” much less refrain from serving as salesman for a government ever less “just, fair, and tolerant.”

Kerry poses with Randy Berry, new special envoy on LGBT people's human rights, February 27. Photo: Department of State

Kerry poses with Randy Berry, new special envoy on LGBT people’s human rights, February 27. Photo: Department of State

New arrests of alleged trans and gay people in Cairo

Seven innocent Snow Whites: From Youm7, February 27

Seven victims: Still from Youm7 video, February 27

Some of us hoped the acquittal of victims in Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid would resonate longer than a few days or weeks; maybe prosecutors and police, humiliated by the implosion of a showpiece case, would back off from their pursuit of illusory “perversion.” But that would be unlike this government. General Sisi, dizzy with his own powers, takes each failure as an opportunity to fail better.

On February 27, Al-Youm al-Sabbah (or Youm7), mouthpiece of the state’s morals campaign, headlined the arrest of seven “transsexuals” (motahawiloon genseyan) the night before. The vice squad, “under the administration of Major General Magdy Moussa,” found them “forming a network for practicing debauchery [fugur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct] in Cairo.” Youm7 included video interviews with the victims, chained together in the police station. It blurred their faces — usually, it flaunts them. But a photo the news organ posted on Facebook showed two of them, up close and clearly. I won’t reprint it here. The two seemed very young (one person with a little knowledge of the case told me some of the victims might be minors, but I’ve also heard that isn’t true). One of them looked utterly terrified.

And a grumpy dwarf: Major General Magdy Moussa, from El Methaz

And a grumpy dwarf: Major General Magdy Moussa. Photo from Vetogate.com

Youm7 says that, according to Moussa, police followed the victims

through their web pages on social media, and have proof that they publish naked photos. He also confirmed that the administration has created fake webpages to follow up the activities of perverts [shawazz], which led them in recent days to organize meetings with them in a nightclub on Al-Haram [Pyramids] Road, where [they were told that] at the end of the evening they would be taken to apartments to participate in debauchery.

The truth seems different.

Haram Road: Photo by Marwan Abdelhamed

Haram Road in the Giza district of Cairo: Photo by Marwan Abdelrahman

Al-Haram Road is one of those points where the Cairo people live in confronts and copulates with the Cairo tourists see. A long strip of street stretched west toward the mauve haze where the old Egyptians believed the dead went, it carries the city’s smog out to lap at the haunches of the Pyramids. It’s a smear of lights and shabbiness like a cut-rate Vegas, full of seedy nightclubs patronized by Westerners taking a break from the ruins, and Gulf Arabs taking a what-happens-in-Egypt-stays-in-Egypt break from home. The American scholar Paul Amar has documented some three decades of political battles over the entertainment sites along the road.  Louche venues where foreigners and Egyptians mingle, they unnerve authorities by implicitly posing an alternative to a “national culture that is embodied most essentially in gender norms.” Between threats to bulldoze them, the government watches and polices the clubs and streets. (No wonder Major General Hassan Abbas, head of the vice squad’s “International Activities” division, also led the arrests — according to Youm7.) The El-Leil Casino is one of the area’s most venerable, and respectable, bars. It offers dinner and dancing, and a cabaret where some of Egypt’s best-known bellydancers perform.

The El-Leil

The El-Leil

The police grabbed the defendants there. One version I heard is that six were sitting at a table together. A transgender woman who was a police informer pointed them out to an undercover cop, who seized them. Although some of the victims may identify as trans, apparently not all do, and all were wearing men’s clothing. In the video, most of them deny that they knew each other before that night. The seventh defendant is a cisgender woman who was near their table. Reportedly she asked police what was going on, and they took her too. (Her interview on the Youm7 video seems to confirm this.)

If this is true, the Internet entrapment story may not be. Yet the police do seem intensely anxious about the Internet and how “perverts” use it. The video is salted with shots of trans women, seemingly from social-media pages. One defendant, dazed, suggests the cops interrogated him heavily about his online presence: “They took me while we were sitting and I don’t have any [Web] pages and I don’t know how to read or write.”

The story shows police increasingly bent on using the Internet — as trap or evidence — against anyone they suspect of being transgender or gay. Fears of prostitution (and its attendant exchanges across bodies, classes, borders) also simmer. The authorities say each of the victims “got paid about 3000 LE to practice debauchery” — about $400 US, the kind of price only a foreigner would pay.

Rogue journalist Mona Iraqi, of course, tried hard to exploit just such fears, latent but potent in an increasingly resentful, xenophobic country. In her last, self-justifying TV program on her bathhouse case, a month after the acquittal, she tried to “prove” the working-class hammam was a homosexual haven by citing English-language Google searches. And she still claimed that “sex trafficking” was going on there, mouthing the ominous syllables without a rag of evidence that any client had been exploited, or transported, or even aroused.

Mona Iraqi’s latest broadcast about the bathhouse raid, February 4

Yet the only bit of good news I can point to is that Mona Iraqi failed. Egypt keeps sinking deeper into authoritarian paralysis, but at least her discrediting continues; and she’s had a terrible month. In mid-February, while she was trying to pursue some sort of story on a private school, the headmaster– apparently made suspicious by her reputation — called the police and had her arrested for filming on the grounds without permission. Tarek el-Awady, a defense lawyer from the bathhouse case who has doggedly pursued her since, gleefully released the police report to the press. And a week after that, el-Awady’s complaint against her for libelling the bathhouse defendants bore fruit. Prosecutors charged Iraqi and the owner of the host TV station, Tarek Nour, with bringing false accusations against their victims. They’ll stand trial beginning April 5.

Tarek Nour, receiving an award for best performance in a role supporting really evil people

Tarek Nour, receiving an award for best performance in a role supporting really evil people

Don’t rejoice yet, though. In addition to the problems with Egypt’s repressive law on libel (it’s a criminal as well as civil offense, incurring up to one year in prison) there’s something funny here. A scent of political scheming always hung round the bathhouse case. The fact that Iraqi’s boss Tarek Nour faces trial as well adds to the intangible suspicion. Nour is not just a broadcaster. He’s the “emperor of ads,” the immensely rich owner and founder of Tarek Nour Communications, one of the first and largest private advertising agencies in the Middle East. (His TV channel is a handy side business; he buys the ads he makes.) A slavish camp follower of the military-industrial establishment, Nour was Mubarak’s favorite media maven, doing the dictator’s ads for the one (farcially) contested election he ever permitted, as well as for the presidential campaign of Mubarak stooge Ahmed Shafik in 2012. Then he ran Sisi’s advertising for both the January 2014 referendum on a new constitution, and the presidential race later that year. So close was he to the Generalissimo that a rumor even spread last year that Sisi’s reclusive wife was Nour’s sister — apparently not true.

So why is he on trial in this comparatively trivial case? Just maybe, the tycoon disappointed the tyrant du jour. Since there was no imaginable way Sisi could lose either vote, Nour’s main job was to gin up enough enthusiasm for a legitimacy-lending turnout: and he failed. In the constitutional referendum, Nour publicly promised a 60% turnout; in fact, it was under 40%. And the presidential ballot so humiliated Sisi with its low attendance that he was obliged to keep the polls open an extra day, so that a seemly quantity of voters could be bought, bullied, or resurrected from the dead. I doubt Nour will ever serve a day in jail, but it’s just conceivable the collapse of the bathhouse case gave Sisi an excuse to remind him that poor performance carries consequences.

Not hidden from me: Mona Iraqi on TV

Not hidden from me: Mona Iraqi on TV

I stress: I have no idea whether that’s true. But the diversion the speculation provides, absent any real knowledge of what’s going on, itself indicates how a certain kind of authoritarianism works. Egypt today is obsessed by secrets. (Mona Iraqi’s program, after all, is called “The Hidden.”) Everybody’s searching out obscure motives, untold tales; even private life, in a surveillance state, is spectacle. Intimacies, unblurred photos, inward lives, the contents of keepsake chests and password-protected pages, are rooted up and splayed for everyone to see. But in the process everything — justice, politics, private experience — turns into entertainment, a soap opera of conspiracy stories. I’m as easily distracted as anyone. And under the show the mechanisms of power tick on undisturbed: even more deeply buried, hidden.

While we were calling people last night trying to find out what happened on Haram Road, an Arab satellite channel droned in my living room, rerunning Running Man. It’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the Reagan era, about a dystopian world that forces convicted criminals to fight to the death in a huge, televised, wildly popular game show. (The Hunger Games stole the idea.) Those days, nobody had dreamed of reality TV. We laughed when the evil game show host barked into the phone, “Get me the Justice Department — the Entertainment Division!” That was then. I’m in Cairo now. The joke’s here.

The open road; Haram Road under development, in a photo probably from the 1930s, from Fatakat.com

The open road: Haram Road under development, in a photo probably from the 1930s, at Fatakat.com

One of Mona Iraqi’s victims tries to burn himself to death

Shameless I: Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad of Cairo's morals police -- responsible for numerous arrests in the crackdown -- appears on Mona Iraqi's program, February 4

Shameless I: Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad of Cairo’s morals police — responsible for numerous arrests in Egypt’s brutal crackdown — appears on Mona Iraqi’s program, February 4

One of the 26 men arrested, tortured, and ultimately acquitted in the December 7 raid on a Cairo bathhouse has reportedly tried to burn himself to death. El-Watan newspaper claims to have spoken to him yesterday in hospital. “I work in a restaurant in the Shobra district,” he told them. “I’m harassed constantly in my workplace by the words of the people and the looks in their eyes.” He said that since his acquittal his fearful family controlled his movements and tried to keep from leaving the house, that one of his brothers insisted on accompanying him everywhere he went, and that he had “no freedom.” Eight days ago, he set himself on fire.

“I am very tired,” he said. He has been confined in one of Cairo’s largest public hospitals since his suicide attempt, and he complained of neglect and mistreatment. Tarek el-Awady, one of the defense lawyers who is now pressing a lawsuit against journalist Mona Iraqi, said the man’s sufferings were due to “the narrowness of the society’s point of view.”

Shameless II: Mona Iraqi’s self-justificatory fourth broadcast about her bathhouse raid, February 4

Mona Iraqi, who led and filmed the bathhouse raid and spent weeks vilifying the “den of perversion” on her popular TV program El Mostakhbai (“The Hidden”) will not be repentant. After the acquittal, there were reports she’d be fired. Instead, on February 4, she returned to the attack on air, blasting her critics, insinuating they were foreign agents. She reiterated nonsensically that her raid was all about “sex trafficking,” or preventing AIDS; at the same time, with serene inconsistency, she pointed to “evidence” — from Google searches — that the bathhouse was a gay hangout, undercutting her repeated claim that homosexuality had not been at issue. Lt. Col. Ahmed Hashad, the vice squad officer who planned the raid with her, also appeared on-air, talking about his “secret, extended investigation” of the bathhouse. The acquittal should have humiliated Hashad — the court clearly accepted the defense contention that he fabricated evidence. But he’s not disgraced, he’s an official talking head on morals. Egypt’s police stand by their woman and their man.

The episode aired only two or three days before Iraqi’s and Hashad’s victim tried to kill himself.

In Egypt today as in the region, self-immolation summons ghosts. Even with the country now clouded in official amnesia (last month the government cancelled any commemoration of the fourth anniversary of Egypt’s democratic revolution) no one can expunge the memory of how the Arab Spring began. On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself, in a desperate protest against bureaucrats who had confiscated his wares and his livelihood. He died three weeks later. By then his solitary act had ignited the Tunisian revolution. Four days after his death, the dictator Ben Ali fled.

In Egypt, in January 2011, in the eleven days between the downfall of Tunisia’s regime and the outbreak of mass protests against Mubarak, at least five men set their bodies on fire in despairing homage to Bouazizi: two did so near the Parliament building. All these were acts of faith. The beacons of agony illumined the anguish of a people. They were also last-ditch expressions of a physical, personal and individual resistance, the lone body defying the state and its repressive engines. The fragile flesh recovered power in annihilation, in its refusal to obey; death was its freedom, and made it incandescent. Skin and bone were the last refuges of integrity against the system. Their consummation was its negation.

"Hommage a Mohamed Bouazizi," installation, 2012. Photo: www.efferlecebe.fr

Effer Lecébé, Hommage à Mohamed Bouazizi, installation, Centre d’art contemporain, Paris, 2011. Photo: http://www.efferlecebe.fr

The old regime in Egypt is back, and it has put a sanbenito of surveillance over everybody’s body. The small act of this man whose full name I don’t even know was not just despair. It affirms the survival and the continuity of resistance. He wasn’t weak, he was courageous, and I’m too weak to comprehend it. This morning I read some lines by the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish. They’re all I can say: trying, and failing, to translate a material bravery that abjures expression into the spectral inadequacy of words.

One day, I will be what I want to be.
One day, I will be a bird, and will snatch my being out of my nothingness.

The more my wings burn, the more I near my truth and arise from the ashes.
I am the dreamer’s speech, having forsaken body and soul
to continue my first journey to what set me on fire and vanished:
The meaning.

— Mahmoud Darwish, “Mural,” trans. Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché’

Photograph of the bathhouse raid, December 7, 2014, posted by Mona Iraqi on her Facebook page that night. She stands at the right, filming.

Photograph of the bathhouse raid, December 7, 2014, posted by Mona Iraqi on her Facebook page that night. She stands at the right, filming.