If you are a lesbian, gay, or trans Egyptian, your life is not your own. It’s not just that police could smash the door and seize your body at any moment; it’s that your desires and emotions, the most intimate elements of existence, now nourish somebody else’s political agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood’s mouthpieces trumpet that their archenemies in the military regime encourage “gay marriage.” The government responds by blaming the Brotherhood for spreading immoral sex. (In a slew of arrests last week, cops hauled in a teacher in the Cairo suburb of Helwan, accused of homosexual conduct along with several students. The press called the lead defendant a terrorist who recruited men to Islamism by sleeping with them. Prosecutors added that he liked to flash the Brotherhood’s four-finger salute during sex.) To be gay or trans in Egypt is to be naked in no man’s land, not just caught in crossfire but used for target practice by warring sides.
Yet it’s not just Egyptian politicians who practice callous exploitation. Egyptian LGBT people’s stories have been sucked into an entirely different conflict, and become fodder for Benjamin Netanyahu’s propagandists. Those PR experts aren’t particularly worried about LGBT people’s rights; they don’t care about an Egyptian or even Israeli audience. They want to impress Americans, and they want points of comparison. Like location scouts for an aging star’s comeback movie, they’re in search of settings: exotic backgrounds against which Israel’s reputation, otherwise decrepit these days, can seem to shine.
Take a guest blog post that appeared on a US foreign policy site: “The Plight of Homosexuals in Egypt.” It’s by Rachel Avraham, an experienced propagandist who used to work for United With Israel, a US hasbara organization; she is now “a news editor and political analyst for Jerusalem Online News,” which furnishes free English-language video on Israel to the foreign press. She writes about how “Eight Egyptian men were sentenced to three years in prison plus three years on probation for allegedly attending Egypt’s first samesex wedding.” She isn’t really interested in what happens in Cairo, though. Her point is “the contrast between Israel and Egypt on this issue.” While “the plight of homosexuals in Egypt and the Arab world has deteriorated,” remember: “Israel is the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is protected by law.”
Avraham knows what she’s doing. Back in April, she editorialized that “pro-Israel activists” in the US “must go on the offensive and reach out””:
The anti-Israel activists have developed useful alliances with the LGBT, the African American and the Native American communities. Pro-Israel groups should learn from this model.
Avraham also knows the best defense is a good offense. While writing for United With Israel, she went on a rampage against Women of the Wall (Neshot HaKotel), pioneering Israeli feminists who pressed for women’s equal right to prayer at Judaism’s most sacred site, in the process exposing Orthodox hegemony over civil identities and law. Their crime? They made progressive Israel look bad.
Borrowing from the Likud’s defamation handbook, Avraham accused the women of being “linked to anti-Israel groups,” that is, to human rights groups in Israel. But mainly she reviled them for neglecting “many more pressing issues facing feminists today” — most of which involve how horrible those Arabs are.
Women are getting raped en masse in Syria, either by government forces or by Islamist rebels as part of their sexual jihad [which, by the way, does not exist]. Around 50 percent of Yemen’s brides are under the age of 18. … Closer to home, hundreds of young underage Jewish girls are seduced by Arab men each year. Many of these cases evolve into abduction, rape, and abusive marriages. This problem is especially acute in Southern Israel, where sexual harassment by Bedouin men is a major issue.
You see? Israel has no problems (except for its Arabs), even if Israeli women say so. Look over there, people! Look at the Arabs! The grass is always less green on the other side of the, um, Separation Wall.
Ben Weinthal riffs on the same themes. Weinthal works for the Foundation for
Defective Defense of Democracies, a US neoconservative lobby striving to support Israel and promote a war on Iran. One of Weinthal’s tasks is to market this to the US LGBT community. (Weinthal doubles as a journalist of sorts, writing for the Jerusalem Post; it’s not a bad berth for propaganda purposes, because the Post is mostly read in America. Its website is among the top 3000 in the US.) His latest piece bears the headline “Analysis: Arab revolts, new Iranian leader fail to bring Israel-style rights for LGBTs.” It comes under a photo of rainbow flags at Tel Aviv Pride. Mostly the op-ed obsesses over Iran, since Weinthal’s job is to popularize war against the mullahs. But he spares some space for Egypt, too: “On the watch of the military regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, eight men were convicted for ‘inciting debauchery’ for their participation in a gay wedding.”
Weinthal did no reporting for this piece; the absence of evidence is why it’s called “Analysis.” He explains, “The enormously dangerous anti-LGBT environment in Arab countries and Iran largely excludes chances for interviews.” Interesting. Then what am I doing here? Actually, Weinthal need only come to any Middle Eastern country – even Saudi Arabia — and he’d find LGBT people and activists to learn from. But it’s easier to make things up. He needs very few facts, though: just enough to draw his contrast. He’s content to rely lazily on an equally indolent BBC reporter, who interviewed exactly two LGBT rights activists, from exactly one country, to write an alleged survey of gay life throughout the region. “In stark contrast to the plight of gays in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and other regional countries,” Weinthal proudly writes,
a BBC overview [sic] of LGBT communities in the Middle East noted, “One refuge in the region for some is Israel, one of the most progressive countries in the world for LGBT rights. Samesex relationships are protected by law, and the only annual gay pride march in the Middle East takes place in Tel Aviv – regarded as an international gay capital.” The author of the BBC article, James Longman, added: “Since 1993 – well before the US and other Western countries – openly gay people have been allowed to serve in the [Israeli] military.”
That pride march again. And soldiers. Hurray!
There are some problems with Weinthal’s “analysis.”
Many Middle East experts view emancipatory progress for the Arab world and Iran as meaning full equality for women and religious and ethnic minorities, recognition of Israel, and press freedoms, to name some of the key elements.
What “experts”? And who put “recognition of Israel” on the list? As it happens, the first Arab country to recognize Israel – Egypt – could do so only because it was a dictatorship, able to punish dissent against the treaty with prison terms and torture. Since then, movements for “emancipatory progress” in Egypt have opposed the existing accommodation with Israel, not just on its own terms but because it symbolizes the lack of democracy, because the state foisted it on a stifled public without consultation or consent. The resistance to Mubarak’s rule that culminated in the democratic 2011 Revolution largely grew out of the Popular Committee to Support the Uprising of the Palestinian People, founded 13 years ago during the Second Intifada. The Popular Committee was a training ground for a whole generation of Egypt’s liberals and leftists. Protesting on Cairo streets in solidarity with Ramallah, they faced down police repression and endured beatings and jail. The Committee also coordinated opposition to the government’s complicity in the 2003 Iraq invasion, including a massive anti-Mubarak demonstration in Midan Tahrir on the day the war began that shook the regime to its underground torture chambers. (40,000 strong, it was the single largest protest between the Sadat era and the Revolution.) Meanwhile, Tunisia, now the most successful democracy in the Arab world, still refuses to recognize Israel. Maybe Weinthal should revise his list.
What can possibly convert the Arab world into greater Israel, with its plethora of freedoms? How about a bit of war? “Turning Arab countries as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran into open societies for LGBTs will require a wholesale change in attitudes toward LGBTs. Robust Western interventionism certainly can spark changes.“ Western interventionism has done so well in its main Middle Eastern testing grounds, Iraq and Libya: two failed states, endless civil wars, tens of thousands slaughtered. Now those are changes. “Struggling LGBT movements” in the Middle East, as Weinthal calls them, have so much to look forward to.
Weinthal and the Jerusalem Post and other Likudniks regularly accuse Israel’s critics of “moral relativism,” “endemic in the West today.” But the relativism here is Weinthal’s. He assumes human rights are neither universal nor absolute, but relative; Israel’s abuses against Palestinians are relatively insignificant because it treats LGBT people relatively better than its neighbor does. These are bizarre equivalences, belonging in neither math nor morals. Rights don’t work on a points system. You don’t get a pass for brutalizing some people because you’re kind to others.
Human rights has become a hegemonic way of understanding life in our century — and this means, as I’ve said for years, that it’s a tempting tool for cynics, who mimic its language for ends that have nothing to do with rights. This is acutely true in areas like sexuality and gender, where repression can make indigenous voices hard to hear. It’s easy for opportunists like Weinthal to pretend they don’t exist at all, and then speak for them, justifying injustice and occupation and war. This exploitation harms the struggles and lives of Egyptian LGBT people, recasting them as foreign agents, walking pretexts for occupation or for Western invasions. It endangers Egyptian advocates, and further victimizes victims. An Egyptian friend told me: “These people need to realize our lives are not their propaganda.”
There’s an irony that neither Avraham nor Weinthal cares to mention: Israel helps prop up the Egyptian regime they claim to disdain. It does this with casual disregard for the rights they claim concern them. As Foreign Policy reports, in Washington “Cairo has found an awkward ally in the form of AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobby firm.” AIPAC is “actively pushing for continued U.S. aid to Egypt,” endangered by the regime’s appalling human rights record.
AIPAC, which was credited with helping kill an amendment to cut Egyptian aid in July, is now operating behind the scenes in private meetings with lawmakers to keep alive Cairo’s funding … Publicly, few governments or lobbying firms want to be viewed as supportive of a crackdown that has led to more than 800 deaths and thousands of injuries across Egypt. … But [an AIPAC] source noted that AIPAC’s support for the aid was not contingent on the way Egypt treats anti-government protesters. “The primary criteria on how we evaluate this issue is if Egypt is adhering to the peace treaty.”
A recent study found that, no matter how many Egyptians the Egyptian government kills, US aid to the ruling military will not substantially decrease. It attributed this partly to “continuing support” from “Egypt’s influential allies.”
President Sisi knows how to show gratitude. He told Corriere della Sera this week that he was “prepared to send military forces inside a Palestinian state,” to “reassure Israelis in their role as guarantors.” Thus Egypt and Israel would partner in a joint occupation. The idea of getting Egypt to annex Gaza has floated around Israeli policy circles for some time; back in August, while bombs fell in Operation Protective Edge, it was urged by none other than Rachel Avraham. She had an interesting justification: she claimed Sisi could “help” Gaza build a society “that respects human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights,” a bit odd given what she writes about Egypt elsewhere. But then, she’s asserted the same thing about Israeli rule. Direct annexation of most of the West Bank, Avraham argues, would bring Palestinians “women’s rights, gay rights, and other benefits.” The appeal to LGBT rights here is hardly more than a verbal tic, purely mechanistic. The point is military domination; just as when Weinthal advocates “Western intervention,” the gays’ lives merely figure on a rote list meant to promote conquest and occupation.
Israeli propaganda where Egypt is concerned is all opportunism, with no obligation to be consistent. One day Egypt is the gays’ enemy, the next it’s their friend. It doesn’t matter, because the gays don’t matter. Occasional spurts of criticism count for little against Israel’s (and America’s) investment in a stable, supportive, repressive partner in Cairo.
Egyptian sexual-rights activists have already called for days of action to protest how state and media politically exploit LGBT lives. It’s only fair they should have the chance to answer other kinds of propaganda. I asked three Egyptian community activists with long histories of defending sexual rights if they would care to comment on Weinthal’s and Avraham’s articles. Their responses are below. (The first colleague answered in English; the other two wrote in Arabic but added an English translation. The original Arabic is at the end of this post.) I don’t necessarily agree with all they say (nor would they necessarily endorse everything I wrote). But they should be heard.
Dalia Abd El-Hameed heads the Gender Program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). The EIPR has provided legal assistance to people persecuted for alleged homosexual conduct in Egypt ever since it was founded in 2002. She writes:
For months, we have been busy trying to sort out news on the crackdown on gays and LGBT people in Egypt. Activists and people from the community were trying to do their best whether in terms of legal intervention, documentation of the violations and keeping record of the crackdown, and responding to the fierce media campaign demonizing and pathologizing homosexuality. Personally, I do not separate this crackdown on LGBT from the general oppressive climate and the regressive rights and liberties status. Journalists, students, human rights activists and gender and religious non- conformists are all under attack by the regime.
Yet, amidst this ongoing tragedy, one most unfortunate event was pro-Israel Zionists picking up the issue to exploit it for purposes of pinkwashing. It is crucial, for us as activists from the region, to heavily condemn these attempts and refute the fallacies in the two recently published articles by both the Jerusalem Post and Foreign Policy Blogs.
First of all, bragging that gays are allowed to serve in the Israeli army is a disgrace, not a thing to take pride in. The struggle for LGBT rights and gender equality has always been and will always remain a struggle against patriarchy and its ugly manifestations in militarization and war crimes like those which are committed by the Israeli army against Palestinians.
The authors of the articles have also enlisted “recognition of Israel” as a key point to achieve emancipation in the region, and this is yet another deception. Our long journey for freedom in Egypt since January 2011 is not a de-contexualized fight, rather it is part and parcel of the universal struggle of people for their rights and in the heart of it lies the Palestinian cause, that taught us how to remain true and faithful to our beliefs and convictions.
Ramy Youssef, an activist working on sexuality, gender, and human rights as well as in anti-harassment campaigns, wrote:
When a serial killer is caught there’s always somebody to say how nice they seemed, what a good neighbor, how kind to children. Who would have suspected they buried those bodies in the yard? There’s always a story about something beautiful about their personality. Even Stalin was such a family man.
Israel, we’re told, is such a safe house for homosexuals. Gay paradise on earth. It’s where you can find peace, acceptance and tolerance if you are gay. This strong circle of love and happiness sadly doesn’t include Palestinians. For Israel, Palestinians fall into a different category, the one to be bombed. Palestinians are the bodies buried in the yard.
For LGBT Egyptians, Israel is no good neighbor. It is sad, inconsistent and extremely cynical when a country like Israel talks about LGBT rights, or human rights in isolation from the rights it violates itself. The basic human right is living. In Israel, not only do they manage to shatter this right, but they do it with style. Israeli troops bombs, torture, shoot, and kill Palestinian citizens on a regular basis. Aside from the astonishing fact, which is not a secret at all, they also breach the right of movement. They keep Palestinians penned up, prevent them from moving outside certain limited spaces, and justify this by “security.” If you’re gay and Palestinian, your gay identity won’t keep Israel from locking you into this cycle of violence and imprisonment.
I am not interested in hearing Israel talk about protecting sexual identity, because it doesn’t respect the most basic identity of human beings: humanity.
An activist who asked to remain anonymous, with a long record of work on LGBT rights and health, wrote:
It’s amazing how some western writers love to bring up Israel ‘s record on LGBT rights whenever Egypt or any other country’s LGBT record is discussed. This raises suspicion towards the real motives for writing those articles. Are you really concerned about LGBT Arabs or about promoting Israel’s image?
LGBT rights are not measured by pride celebrations, nor by how many LGBT tourists come to your country. Singling out the issue of LGBT when comparing Israel and surrounding countries is a failure to understand context and a camouflage of other pressing problems. Israel is also a militarized colonial state. Egypt and other countries suffered centuries of colonialism which did much to contribute to the current homophobic and transphobic situation.
Using LGBT rights to improve the image of Israel to the world is an insult to LGBT communities throughout the region. It’s an insult to LGBT activists in Israel when their struggle becomes politicized and used as a diplomatic tool. It’s an insult to LGBT Arabs who are being exploited for political gains.
من المدهش مدى حب بعض كتاب الغرب لذكر ملف إسرائيل في حقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا عند مناقشة وضع هذه المجموعات في مصر او دول عربية أخرى، حيث أن ذلك يثير الشكوك في الدوافع الحقيقية لكتابة تلك المقالات. هل هم مهتمون فعلا بحقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا العرب أم يهمهم تحسين صورة إسرائيل؟ حقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا لا تقاس بمسيرات الفخر أو بمدى إقبال السائحين عليها. طرح قضايا المثليين والمتحولين كقضية فردية هو فشل في فهم السياق وتمويه على قضايا أخرى ملحة. فإسرائيل هي دولة عسكرية قائمة على الاستعمار. مصر ومن حولها من الدول عانوا من قرون من الاستعمار والذي ساهم للوضع الحالي من رهاب المثلية والتحول الجنسي. استخدام حقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا لتحسين صورة إسرائيل هو إهانة لتلك المجتمعات في المنطقة كلها، إنها إهانة لنضال النشطاء لحقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا في اسرائيل عندما يتم تسييس نضالهم واستخدامه كأداة دبلوماسية، كما أنه إهانة للمثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا العرب والذين يتم استغلالهم لأهداف سياسية