Egypt: Interrogating the terrorist Scott Long

"Source of inspiration," cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, November 2016. Sisi: "A true pasha, by God."

“Source of Inspiration”: cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, November 2016. Sisi says: “A true pasha, by God.”

I hadn’t meant to write about this. It’s small compared to what many Egyptians face, or fear. But a few Egyptian friends have urged me to record it, partly because accounts of recent State Security interrogations are somewhat rare (people used to say that to meet the secret police was to go “behind the sun,” to disappear); partly because it illuminates what is on whatever passes for the dictatorial regime’s mind. Recent events, too, make me believe there’s a need, in the United States and elsewhere, to remember some things. I’ll get to that. Let me begin at the beginning.

The beginning is an ending. I left Egypt in March. Most likely, I will never be permitted to return. I had lived there for three and a half years, and for the last three of those I did not cross the borders at all. After the military coup in July 2013, it became increasingly clear to me that when I left, I would be denied re-entry; and that meant I delayed my departure until – when? I told myself: until I had finished everything I came for, or until there was nothing more to do.

For a long time – since 2005 – I’d been stopped at Cairo passport control every time I came into the country; taken aside, held for an hour or two, detained once in a locked room in the airport that had the forlorn graffiti of Palestinian refugees scrawled across the walls: then finally admitted. No questions asked, no explanation given. It was obvious I had been on some sort of list for years, that the state did not quite know what to do with me when I applied for entry. (US citizens do not need to buy visas in advance to enter Egypt; as a result, each of my arrivals took officialdom by surprise.) That was all back in the comparatively louche eras of Mubarak and Morsi. After the coup and Sisi’s seizure of power, the fact of being on a list seemed much more serious. In Cairo, I went underground — though it hardly felt so dramatic. I avoided contact with officialdom; I did not renew my entry visa. When necessary I blustered my way through ubiquitous checkpoints, never showing my passport. I bribed my building’s doorman not to register my presence with the police. And, toward the end, I moved to parts of Cairo where foreigners rarely went; I was far from inconspicuous there – some days, probably the only blond person within a kilometer or two — but in terms of what the police might expect I was off the edge of the world, off the books. For the last eight months I lived in Faisal, a vast warrenlike semi-slum stretching westward, and ultimately I settled in an “informal area” there: Cairo’s equivalent of a favela, streets not paved or named or usually shown on maps. The buildings, six or seven stories tall, were erected by the residents who migrated there, brick by brick and floor by floor; the first and generally last sign that you were in an informal area was that you never had to pay an electric bill, since all the power was siphoned from the official grid. I felt oddly safe there, as if I were curled in one of Kafka’s burrows, a dead end.

The Embaba quarter of Cairo, looking very much like the Faisal neighborhood where I lived

The Embaba quarter of Cairo, looking very much like the Faisal neighborhood where I lived

It’s difficult to describe my last six months in Egypt. Depression settled over everything in the country; no change seemed possible any longer, and you felt your imagination being buried in cement. Many people I cared about simply stopped leaving their homes. At last, I was invited to a conference in the US in March – organized by friends who, I think, had constructed a giant hook to haul me out of there. I knew if I went, it would be my final departure.

Leaving Egypt, the hard way

Leaving Egypt, the hard way

I talked to human rights lawyers after my ticket was booked. Overstaying a visa is a crime usually incurring only a minor fine at the airport, the equivalent of $30-40 US (at the time). The work and the writing I’d been doing put me in a different position, though. The lawyers told me I would be interrogated; the passenger manifest would ensure State Security was alert to my departure. I should get there early, keep their numbers on my phone, be prepared for possible arrest.

I spent my last night ever in Egypt crying, encrypting my hard drive, and uploading sensitive files to the cloud. A dear Egyptian friend drove me to the airport in the clean air of dawn, almost six hours before my flight. At passport control, they sent me down a hallway to pay the visa fine. I shelled out money to a civilian in a little office (one lesson: in Egypt, the government makes sure you settle your outstanding debts before they arrest you). “Wait a moment.” A man in a leather overcoat came in and told me to follow.

There is vertical power and horizontal power. I suppose in the US we are used to power revealed in perpendicular terms: skyscrapers, helicopters, bombers, drones. In Egypt, as in many other countries where I’ve worked, power is horizontal, shown not through height but through ambit, remoteness, segregation. I was led down an even longer corridor, so long that it seemed I was going to another terminal, or to some other place outside Cairo altogether, a hell not subterranean but suburban. Generalissimo Sisi plans to build Egypt a new capital city, far from protesters and ordinary people, distant in the desert; I imagine it linked to Cairo by a single interminable hallway.

Then: a small office, two wooden desks, two men: one in mustache and leather jacket, seated; one standing – an assistant, in short-sleeved shirt and tie. On Mustache’s desk was a stack of paper: perhaps 300 printed-out pages from this blog. A smaller stack was a printout of my Facebook page; another seemed to be news articles that had quoted me. A computer on the second desk was unplugged; hence, I guess, the hard copy. I sat down, asked their names, was told those were not “relevant.” No further explanation. The questions started.

Mustache did the asking, in English, while Necktie, now sitting at the other desk, took Arabic notes. There was no Good Cop/Bad Cop, only Talking Cop/Writing Cop, the two tasks apparently too complex for a single cop to master. We started oddly. Atop the pile of blog posts was one I wrote in 2013, comparing Sisi the dictator to the late Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary – known as “Sissi,” and commemorated in many blearily romantic Romy Schneider movies. It was labored and unfunny, but it had annoyed somebody. Mustache: “What are you saying here about our President? Are you saying that our President is a woman?”

This is not the President of Egypt.

This is not the President of Egypt

I really don’t remember what I answered, except that President Sisi’s rampant masculinity would surely only be underscored by a judicious comparison with Romy Schneider. It was fitting that the interrogation began with gender, since I’d stressed the he-male obsessions of the Egyptian state in much of what I wrote. Beneath that post in the pile, though, was one on life in death-racked Cairo in the days after the August 2013 Rabaa massacre; and then the politics peered through. Mustache: You write that you were walking around the city in that period. Were you not aware there was a curfew? Who allowed you to violate the curfew? Did you violate the curfew in order to meet with criminals?

First notable fact: They knew my online life thoroughly, at least its non-password-protected part: any writer would want such a devoted audience. One or two questions suggested they might possibly have intercepted e-mail (though I’d tried to use Tor) or phone calls. But they seemed to have no idea where I’d been living physically for the last year. They asked me repeatedly, and I gave fictional addresses (I truly hope they were fictional, that no actual 233 Mohamed Moussa Street in Faisal gave its inhabitants a disagreeable surprise). Necktie noted down the invented domiciles with stoic docility. The attraction of online surveillance for indolent secret police is that it’s a desk job.

Second: They never asked me explicitly about homosexuality, mine or anybody else’s. Mustache leafed through my posts on the subject (You feel a great freedom to criticize the culture and the values of the Egyptian people. Who gives you that freedom?) but avoided touching the topic directly as if it were contagious. (What Egyptian laws have you violated? he did demand repeatedly. Please name the Egyptian laws you have violated while in Egypt.) The closest he came was asking me, while gingerly fingering blog pages, whether I had a “website” on Grindr — pronounced to rhyme with “slender.” (Truly, I did not.) Mustache also inquired, upon Necktie’s prompting, Have you downloaded pornographic information over the Internet? One thing chilled me when I recollected it in tranquillity: Mustache asked, Have you ever assisted a person with mental health problems? Have you provided psychological advice to troubled persons? I said no, and only afterward did I remember that, the previous summer, I got repeated emails from an anonymous gay Egyptian who said he was depressed and wanted help finding a psychologist. I offered him contacts; but he kept insisting on seeing me face-to-face, proposing meeting places too close to my local police station for my comfort. (Police at that station, in Doqqi, were entrapping victims almost weekly over the Internet. Lazy as always, the cops steer their prey to meet at points in walking distance of the jail.) He made me very uneasy, and I finally stopped answering him. I felt ashamed of succumbing to suspicion. And who knows?

Third: What they did care about was politics, and a particular kind of politics. The real question – never exactly framed, but implicit in most everything – was whether I would say something to tag myself as a terrorist.

Sex interested them mainly as a division of, or gateway to, larger fields of violent subversion. Particularly telling was when they got round to a legal advice manual for Egyptian LGBT people, in Arabic, which I had agreed to host on my blog. For whom was this written? Mustache demanded, holding up the pages. I stared back blankly. The post said, in clear Arabic, that it was meant for LGBT people. “It was written by Egyptians for other Egyptians,” I said. Mustache replied, as Necktie’s pen scrawled softly: So it was written to benefit people who are planning violent acts against the state?

Our back-and-forth lasted four hours. Almost every question came up again and again – to trip me up, obviously. It was like being shipwrecked in a whirlpool, and watching flotsam from other wrecks whirl by, and circle, and then swirl by again, and realizing this can only end when you drown. A week later, I jotted down some of the questions I remembered. I didn’t record my answers, so if you’re looking for hints on how to fence verbally with secret police officers, you won’t get them here. But the basic rule, as always with repressive power, is to say “no” to everything. Perhaps, in the age of iron to come, that monotonous “no” is the only mark of selfhood that will survive us.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for Edgar Allan Poe's "A Descent Into the Maelstrom"

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent Into the Maelstrom”

  • Why did you overstay your visa? (I pulled out all the medical documents from my two stints in hospital in Egypt; I had been too sick, I said, to violate any Egyptian laws or download porn, much less board an airplane or get my visa renewed.)
  • How have you spent your time while living illegally in Egypt? (Writing.) Writing what? (What you have in your hand.) Who pays for your writing? Do you write libellous statements about the leaders of other countries, or just about Egypt? (I do recall my answer: “I’ve written about many countries. The only person who ever accused me of libel was a very vain Englishman.” They didn’t ask who.)
  • Mustache paused at two other blog posts near the top of the stack. Have you ever been imprisoned in Jamaica? Have you ever been imprisoned in Tunisia? For what crime were you arrested in Tunisia? (I have never been in Tunisia.) Who do you cooperate with in Tunisia? Why do you insult the Tunisian state? Who were you arrested with in Tunisia? 
  • Inevitably: Have you visited Israel? Then: Have you visited Iran? Why do you write about Iran? Who do you cooperate with in Iran? Have you visited Syria? Have you visited Libya? Have you visited Qatar? Who do you know in Qatar? Who do you cooperate with in Qatar? When did you visit Qatar? Who visits you from Qatar? What money have you received from Qatar? (I’ve never been near Qatar, though I’ve been quoted often by Al Jazeera — I believe Mustache had printed out samples. But the Doha regime, which supported the Muslim Brotherhood, is Sisi’s special bête noire.)
  • Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are effectively banned in Egypt.  My onetime tenure at HRW weighed on their minds. What is your current function with Human Rights Watch? What information do you transmit to Human Rights Watch? And: How do you receive your salary from Human Rights Watch? (Courier pigeon.)
  • Where did you receive information on how to hide things on the Internet? (Mustache was fascinated by posts I’d done on Internet security, several of them in Arabic.) Do private companies make these things, or foreign governments? Are you paid by these private companies? You are in contact with which criminal groups who use these en-cryp-ti-on (carefully pronounced) methods? Also on technology: Which firearms do you own? (Gun ownership is legally restricted in Egypt. I have never even held a gun.) We know Americans love firearms, where have you purchased firearms in Egypt? Who in Egypt gave you firearms? Where do you keep your firearms? 
  • They asked me about my “connections” with three individuals. First was Hossam Bahgat, the activist and journalist who is now banned from travel in an investigation into “illegal” NGOs. (I said, accurately, that we were were busy people who hadn’t spoken much in years.) Next was Alaa Abd El Fattah, the revolutionary activist. (I said, accurately, he’d been imprisoned on false charges for most of the time I was in Egypt.) The third was an Italian who’d been entrapped over the Internet and deported in 2015. (I said, accurately, we barely knew each other.) Mustache seemed about to produce more names when a phone call interrupted him, and after that the interrogation moved to other things.
  • But they did care about organizations. Which unregistered organizations do you belong to? Have you used your home for meetings of illegal organizations? Which illegal organizations have you given money? Do you have an Egyptian bank account? Which Egyptians use your foreign bank account?  When did you last receive money from abroad? Have you received money for Egyptians? For what Egyptians have you received foreign money? What Egyptians have you given money? No, no, none, no, none, never, no, none, none; then half an hour later, Are you a member of ….
  • But the most sinister questions were about places. Have you ever lived in Heliopolis? Have you ever worked in Heliopolis? — a district in eastern Cairo. Then: Have you ever visited Sinai? I said truthfully I never had, but Sinai kept coming up over and over at intervals, like a brightly painted barrel in the maelstrom. When was the last time you visited Sinai? Where did you go in Sinai? Have you ever been to Sharm el-Sheikh? To Dahab? When were you in El Arish? Who has travelled to Sinai with you? Who did you meet in Sinai? Later Heliopolis bobbed up again. Who are your connections in Heliopolis? Do you belong to organizations in Heliopolis? How often did you visit Heliopolis during the summer of 2015? And: Which days were you in Heliopolis in June 2015?

North Sinai harbors the largest, ISIS-affiliated insurgency against Sisi’s rule. Heliopolis, though, is mainly for shoppers. I rarely went there, and not till later did I speculate on why they cared. Possibly they wanted to connect me to some illicit gay ring in the suburb. Memorably, though, a bomb blew apart Hisham Barakat — Egypt’s prosecutor general — in Heliopolis on June 29, 2015. The insistent dates made me wonder if they were looking to build some insane link to his murder. (I had said extremely harsh things about Barakat in e-mails to non-Egyptians after his killing — if death can be deserved, he deserved it.) The final fact, though, was: for them, perverted sex cases and security fears were becoming the same.

aya_hegazi_0

Aya Hegazy

Possibly all this was meant just to scare the hell out of me; if so the ludicrousness interfered with the lesson. But the narrative weaving through the interrogation was no more ludicrous than most of the terror trials Sisi’s security state has put together. It’s a state that holds more than 40,000 political prisoners. Famously, in 2013 three Al Jazeera journalists were arrested, then sentenced to years in prison on “terrorism” charges. for reporting on Muslim Brotherhood protests in Cairo. Their camera tripods and studio lights were held up on TV as terrorist equipment. From Mustache’s manner and intensity, I’m fairly sure State Security was ready to concoct some such case against me, if I’d answered enough questions wrong. Being a foreigner is no longer a mark of safety in Egypt: the Al Jazeera case sucked an Egyptian, a Canadian, and an Australian citizen into the desert gulag, clearly meant as a message that passports are no protection. A US citizen, Aya Hegazy, has been held in pre-trial detention, along with seven Egyptian colleagues, for two and a half years. She had founded a Cairo NGO housing and rehabilitating street children; she’s facing highly dubious charges of sexual abuse — and of luring susceptible kids to enlist in the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorists.” It’s widely seen as another brutal warning to civil society (and a way of punishing homeless youth, who I can testify were among the bravest and fiercest demonstrators against police repression, under Morsi as well as Sisi, from 2011 on). I don’t mean for a second that imprisoning foreigners is somehow worse than imprisoning Egyptians. But it marks a regime that no longer feels any restraint, whose fears and fantasies drive it to ever more sweeping and unstoppable measures of control. The US has done almost nothing to protest Aya Hegazy’s persecution. (Hillary Clinton asked for her release during a September meeting with Sisi, according to Clinton’s campaign.) On January 25, about six weeks before I left the country, security forces in Cairo kidnapped a young Italian student named Giulio Regeni. He disappeared from a street near where I often stayed at night. His savagely mutilated corpse turned up in a ditch a week later. That did arouse international anger — because of the horrible mercilessness of his torture, because his family demanded justice. Possibly the blowback from Regeni’s slaughter contributed to a decision not to arrest me. State Security may have felt it wasn’t worthwhile to risk extra chiding from abroad. I bear the spectral guilt of having profited from another person’s death.

Street children in Midan Tahrir, Cairo, early 2013. Photo by Reuters

Street children in Midan Tahrir, Cairo, early 2013. Photo by Reuters

The interrogation in the airport office droned on and on. About 45 minutes before my plane was due to leave, I said, more or less: “If you make me miss my flight, I assume you are arresting me. In that case, I want to call a lawyer now.” (The idea of “calling a lawyer” is lunacy in that context; at best you send a text from a cellphone hidden in your sock.) Mustache and Necktie whispered for five minutes. Mustache left the room. I was sweating.

Ten minutes later he came back. “Go,” he said. They physically shoved me out the door.

Since I left — escaped? — Egypt, I’ve often been asked why I stayed so long. It is difficult to explain. One way to say it is: something not just disorienting but morally vitating inhabits the way “international” human rights work is done; the rhythm of parachuting in, polevaulting out of “troubled places,” absconding with information from one country, processing it into useable fact in another, perpetually at multiple removes from the people whose stories you record or the actual workers who help you record them. In this realm, too, power is remoteness, distance. I stayed in Egypt after the arrests began because I wanted not to distance myself. I wanted to stay and work with my friends. At least we would share some of the burdens together.

If I had a clear function in our informal division of labor, it was to get the word out to the foreign world about what was happening in Egypt’s crackdown, to mobilize movements to answer. I failed. Undoubtedly there were many reasons I failed, personal inadequacies to start. One reason, though, was the way Sisi’s regime has taken up “security” as its identity and purpose. Despite the self-destructiveness and ineptitude of nearly all his anti-terror measures, Sisi has sold himself to the West — as well as to Saudi Arabia and Russia — as a bulwark against the numinous, universal threat. As a result, no ally will criticize him seriously and no leader will spurn his embrace. Newspapers and even human rights groups prefer to focus on abuses elsewhere, more congruent with the unwritten battle-plans of the endless war on terror. This isn’t just for foreign consumption. In Egypt, the language of security is all-pervading. It infects everything, and as a result everything becomes a security threat, even a blog or a Facebook page, even a few people having sex in a decrepit flat. The anti-terror machinery terrorizes itself.  Fear is everywhere. It just induced the United States to elect a maniacal thug as President, and Sisi’s government proudly announced that Sisi was the first foreign leader whose call Trump took. I wanted to tell this story partly as a reminder that the fear is absurd but the fear has consequences. But of course this will fail too, because we already know.

Donald Trump meets with President Sisi at the Plaze Hotel during the UN General Assembly session in New York, September 19, 2016. Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP

Donald Trump meets with President Sisi at the Plaza Hotel during the UN General Assembly session in New York, September 19, 2016. Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP

As I say, there was nothing exceptional in my experience, except that I walked away. Thousands around the world face the machinery of security every day, the manifold terrors of counter-terror, and I have nothing to offer but one small piece of advice. Remember: The police are stupid. In the end, that’s the main hope for our own iron age. The cops are studded with guns and sealed in Kevlar, but they have no minds.

The he-men in the airport office knew barely more about language, technology, life in its intricacy than a dog knows about a train. And their stupidity is only a distilled version of the larger stupidity of the state. (A victim entrapped over the Web whom I interviewed in 2003 told me: “All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor] — knew nothing about the Internet. The deputy prosecutor even said, ‘I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it? Do people just talk around with men?’ They knew nothing about how the things I was charged with actually worked.”) The state is an empty skull. The parasites in it spy and pry, but they cannot turn mere facts into knowledge. Their stupidity intimidates and oppresses, but it is also our strength. I learned a joke 25 years ago in Romania, and I still tell it, because it gives me comfort:

Q: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, the intelligent policeman, and the stupid policeman are eating Chinese food together. Who eats the most?
A: The stupid policeman eats it all. The other three are imaginary.

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Cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr: Get in / إركب

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Trump

“Weeping,” a South African anti-apartheid song, sung by Vusi Mahlasela

Donald Trump was was not elected despite universal disbelief that it was possible. He was elected because of universal disbelief that it was possible. The most crucial factor in his resistible rise was the profound faith that it couldn’t happen here. I shared this; I was as punch-drunk as anybody by midnight Tuesday. But the blitheness had been almost everywhere; and what kind of unreal vision of the United States, and of our strange moment in history, did it show?

There are thousands of examples but I’ll restrict myself to the field of punditry. Back in February, Jonathan Chait — who now, accurately, says “Collaborating With Donald Trump Is Doomed to Fail” — wrote that liberals should “earnestly and patriotically support a Trump Republican nomination”

The first [reason], of course, is that he would almost certainly lose. Trump’s ability to stay atop the polls for months, even as critics predicted his demise, has given him an aura of voodoo magic that frightens some Democrats. But whatever wizardry Trump has used to defy the laws of political gravity has worked only within his party. Among the electorate as a whole, he is massively — indeed, historically — unpopular …

At that point, Trump was running 3.4 points behind Clinton in the Real Clear Politics polling average, not a number suggesting the ironclad historical inevitability of defeat. Come May, George Packer in the New Yorker wrote that “Democrats probably won’t need the votes of the white working class to win this year. Demographic trends favor the party, as does the bloated and hateful persona of the Republican choice.” When that appeared, Trump was 3.1 points behind, and gaining. And the day before the election, the New York Times devoted a long, detectably gleeful article to describing “Trump’s Last Stand,” painting the desperate “neediness and vulnerability of a once-boastful candidate now uncertain of victory.” Thirty-six hours later, the vulnerable loser was President-elect of the United States.

oct31-nov13_2016_trump-nocrop-w710-h2147483647

Too soon: Cover for New York Magazine‘s election issue (published October 31, 2016), by Barbara Kruger

The willful blindness, the willingness to treat a tiny and tenuous lead in unreliable polls as a promissory note for a future landslide, infected almost everybody — from journalists to diehard Democrats to disaffected non-voters to, possibly, Donald Trump himself. There was, clearly, a faith in the historical process, a belief that a country that elected Barack Obama twice had put itself on a certain course irreversibly. In fact, Dr. King’s overquoted assurance about how the arc of history bends might be valid for the longue durée, but it wasn’t a guide to betting on the elections of 1980, or 1994, or 2010. Even many right-wingers, though, saw Trump as far too radical a break from the going neoliberal consensus to have a chance. Then there was a very standard ignorance that people you don’t know might have a different take on things — thus the Times‘ Nick Kristof, completely unable to locate an actual Trump voter in the 10018 zip code, had to interview an imaginary one. Finally, there was a touching faith in the United States itself, in the goodness of its people and its institutions (“If you step outside the pall of the angry campaign rhetoric, you see that America’s institutions are generally quite strong,” David Brooks wrote, with Trump just six points down and rising). This was particularly poignant among the Left, often accused of hating America but in truth especially insistent that it could never go that wrong.

Which America, though? To call Trump a breach with the United States’ traditions is to lop half those traditions from the field of view.

"Through a Looking Glass Darkly" by Mr. Fish (www.clowncrack.com), 2013

“Through a Looking Glass Darkly” by Mr. Fish, 2013. (Please see comment below for some more information about the portrait’s source.)

Racism and rage are older than the Republic, and they’ve never been in hiding. They are only-sometimes-latent possibilities in American life, part of the permanent repertory of rhetorics that politicians and entertainers call upon, part of the cache of emotions for citizens to feel (and fear), constant forces waiting for circumstances to unleash them. The assumption that all this hatred shrank to inanition through some combination of Obama, Lena Dunham, and Will and Grace was self-defeating. Trump is not “unprecedented“; nor does he represent a past that, as Clinton kept saying, we “can’t go back” to. He’s part of us, then and now. In living memory, George Wallace struck nearly all the notes in the Trump octave, down to the strutting, preening, boorish machismo (his famous threat to give a recalcitrant judge “a barbed-wire enema” could have come out of Trump’s mouth). Wallace never made it near the Presidency. but he got 45 electoral votes. The man he helped make President, Richard Nixon, added to a subdued version of Wallace’s racism a deep paranoia, a passionate adoration of foreign dictators, and a profound reliance on the indigenous surveillance state. It’s hard to remember this now, but a lot of sensible Americans believed that the United States was careening toward fascist politics and authoritarian rule under the Divine Milhous in 1972 — and that only the Watergate scandal forestalled it. A good many on the Left have been comparing Trump to a “Third World dictator.” It’s an insult to a Third World that give rise to Thomas Sankara, to Nelson Mandela, to Salvador Allende, to Jawaharlal Nehru. (It also echoes Trump himself, who repeatedly said the United States was becoming a “Third World country.”) But it has a scrap of truth if you mean the kind of kleptomaniacal, deadly autocrats the democratic, idealistic US has inflicted on its hapless allies in the global South for decades. Trump’s corruption, his shadowy relations with an overweening foreign power, and his alliance with domestic security cadres like the FBI suggest a regime worthy of Cold-War Guatemala. And that’s not “un-American”; it’s of the Americas, of us. It’s our history, too.

I don’t underestimate Trump’s threat. Wallace was defeated by the limitations of his regional appeal, by a still-resilient Democratic Party, and by the need of a suburban bourgeoisie to take its racism in slightly more civil form. Nixon’s undoing was an opposition Congress. Trump faces none of these things. His lust for power is enormous. There’s very little to stop him — so much for those “American institutions.” The menace of fascist authoritarianism is very real. Trump is a perfect storm, where all the foulest impulses in the national life come together with no visible check or balance. There is a lot of talk now about the dangers of “normalizing” Trump, treating his Presidency as if it were business as usual. The real “normalization,” though, happened during the campaign: treating the daily life of the United States as though placidity, “conflict resolution,” and consensus were the way things always had been and should be. This is an insane thing to think about the country at any time, but particularly in a year when police violence was on full display, when Guantánamo was still a going concern, when just over the rainbow the state was killing people in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. We only start to understand Trump when we see these horrors as the unwritten constitution of the “normal.”

The US left is now in crisis yet again, this time arguing whether Trump’s victory should be ascribed to racism tout simple or to rage at the impoverishment of the white working class. It’s an important argument so far as it informs the question What do we do next? But it’s useless when conducted on Facebook where everything turns into either-or. Racism is not an abstract entity separable from historical circumstances. It is extremely concrete; the pressure it exerts on individual bodies, individual lives, is drawn from specific and immediate conditions that rouse it, shape it, use it, and give it strength. There is a long history in the United States of politicians channeling economic powerlessness into racist fantasies of power; local caudillos such as Tom Watson, or Theodore Bilbo, or Frank Rizzo knew exactly how to work this in their neighborhoods, on their streets. It’s better, though not entirely exact, to think of racism through the metaphor of latency again: as a set of possibilities immanent in the United States, waiting for the particular junctures where they can become not just potential but actual, can feed on blood. These are possibilities immanent in people, also, in the repertory of dreams and delusions available to every white person (and probably to many people of color). If Donald Trump sets up his Muslim registry, I can indulge the fantasy of marching to City Hall and putting my name on it, preferably while flashbulbs explode like excited Valkyries. Or I can fantasize about informing on the undocumented Pakistani store clerk who shortchanged me. Both fantasies are dangerous, in very different ways. Neither has much to do with reality — Trump’s registry is likely to be a subtler thing, specific to immigrants in ways that will obviate white-savior illusions, and less reliant on pliant informers than on invisible electronic surveillance. My point is, though, that the reality of unrestrained state power in which more and more of us will live, will oblige us to examine ourselves unsparingly, with a cold eye toward our motives and our dreams. An inner moral rigor resists power even as it runs the risk of reproducing it; it is the only recourse when everything else calls out for compromise. Trumpism will work by universalizing mistrust. Part of the necessary response is to mistrust oneself.

"Go Back to Sleep, America, Nothing to See Here," by Mr. Fish (http://www.clowncrack.com), 2016

“Go Back to Sleep, America, Nothing to See Here,” by Mr. Fish, 2016

But it’s not just personal. Economics counts, and a left that can’t address this isn’t a left. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 was probably the largest transfer of wealth from poor to rich in human history, a massive expropriation of the already-expropriated. We are still living with the consequences. (Despite all the pity accorded poor white people in the last week, the most acute suffering the collapse caused fell upon people of color. This doesn’t delegitimate the anger of the white working class, many of whose hopes and present realties were also destroyed. It does remind us again that racism divides capitalism’s victims not just from one another, but from reality.) What if, as Paul Rosenberg asks, Obama had taken even small steps toward tangible justice in his first year in office: prosecuting the culpable crooks in the financial industry, bailing out homeowners the way the Treasury did Wall Street, securing union rights instead of colluding in their destruction? Would the African-American as well as the white working class have felt a confidence that transcended the vicissitudes of identity politics, and turned out in sufficient numbers to defeat Trump? It’s not enough to say “We’ll never know.” People on the left know what is right. They shouldn’t allow the persistent sense that Obama is a decent man to derogate the certainty of what should have been done then, or to deflect from what has to happen now. Justice is not “normal” in the United States, but it needs to be.

"Dead End," by Mr. Fish, 2016

“Dead End,” by Mr. Fish, 2016

We also need to scrap the palliative fiction that Trump’s populism, which turns economic fears into racist terror, is some sort of blow to neoliberalism or the “elites.” Divide and conquer is the classic strategy of capitalism in power, and that’s true whether the power rests with Ruhr industrialists or New York investment bankers. Trumpism is perfectly consistent with this. Fredric Jameson points out that “today, all politics is about real estate“:

Postmodern politics is essentially a matter of land grabs, on a local as well as a global scale. Whether you think of the question of Palestine, the settlements and the camps, or of the politics of raw materials and extraction; whether you think of ecology (and the rain forests) or the problems of federalism, citizenship, and immigration; or whether it is a question of gentrification in the great cities as well in the bidonvilles, the favelas and the townships and of course the movement of the landless — today everything is about land.

You can add Standing Rock, or Julius Malema; it’s absolutely true. The world is full. Capitalism has seized and commodified nearly all the land on earth, with the exception of Amazonia, some scattered areas of tribal or indigenous commons (now being stolen by police and the World Bank), and a few national parks. The space for expansion is gone; what’s left is to battle over what’s already branded, owned. No coincidence, then, that the most powerful engine of the world economy will now be ruled by a real-estate magnate, whose only skill is stamping his personal brand on things, a grotesque version of private property as pure performance. No one is better qualified than this idiot to wage capitalism’s war over control of space, to defend its hard-thieved acres and squirrelled-away square feet, to keep the rents too damn high.

Democracy in the United States was predicated, for its first two centuries or so, on land (once taken from its original users) being plentiful and cheap, and labor (at least in its free forms) scarce and expensive. These conditions slowly built a stable, somewhat contented working class who could bargain collectively, join the bourgeoisie, afford to own things. Since the 1960s, in the neoliberal ascendancy, there’s been an immense reversal. Land — or, more properly, space, whether farmland or a downtown loft — is in short supply and increasingly expensive. Meanwhile, there’s more than enough labor for the skewed new economy, and real wages have kept falling. This is how Trump made his indeterminate millions. It means an economy of massive inequality, misery, and hyperexploitation. It means the end of the apparent stability of the United States. The politics of such a lifeworld are inherently unstable. As Mike Davis has repeatedly shown, the burgeoning dispossessed will be a constant threat to the possessions of their dispossessors. The state will use more and more violence to protect the property of those who sustain it. Repression will become more and more continuous and constant; resistance will find fewer and fewer spaces to survive. Donald Trump is the ideal leader for this new world of walls and cowards. He is the ideal weapon.

We are in a violent new era, and we are not sure how to live. We will have to educate ourselves in many things we thought we knew. We will have to learn a different kind of speech: one that shocks but not mindlessly, one that has a purpose, one for those who are not our friends or our fellow believers. We will have to reach outside our arrogance and our need for comfort. We will have to relearn old lessons of patience, cunning, and endurance. We will have to humble ourselves before those who have fought this kind of fight before; suddenly, the lessons of Andijan or Mohamed Mahmoud Street may mean more to people in Seattle or Atlanta than they ever thought possible. For myself, I sit round thinking of Auden:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.
              (“Spain,” 1937)

Or Brecht:

It takes a lot of things to change the world:
Anger and tenacity. Science and indignation,
The quick initiative, the long reflection,
The cold patience and the infinite perseverance,
The understanding of the particular case and the
understanding of the ensemble:
Only the lessons of reality can teach us to transform reality.
                (“Einverständnis,” 1929)

 Or:

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Selling out: The gays and governmentality

gayflagviwojimaOn October 13, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej died. 88 years old and the longest-seated of the world’s shrinking stock of monarchs, he was almost uniformly revered by a grieving public. Certainly he embodied unity in a country riven by fractious politics and class struggle. It can’t have hurt his popularity, though, that Thai law punishes lèse-majesté with three to fifteen years in prison. Any criticism of the King, previous kings, the royal dynasty, members of the royal family, the monarchy in general, or the monarch’s fantastic wealth — he had more than US $30 billion in the bank — can land you in jail. Easy to get people to love you if the alternative’s a prison term.

Odd, then, when Outright International, the LGBT rights organization, whose Twitter feed is generally confined to issues of sexuality, suddenly retweeted a series of encomia to the late King. After all, no one’s threatening them with prison.

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These tweets were spawned in UN missions, and the stultifying UN-speak shows; a tribute that lauds someone as “a strong supporter of multilateral systems in sustaining peace” was written by bureaucrats, or is covering up for something, or both.

Mainly, King Bhumibol was a strong supporter of military dictatorships. Back in 1957, he helped engineer his first coup, encouraging a friendly general to rebel against an army-led government that had tried to restrict royal prerogatives. More recently, he endorsed the 2006 putsch that deposed populist prime minster Thaksin Shinawatra; in 2014 he similarly oversaw the overthrow of a cabinet led by Thaksin’s sister, installing the most draconian and brutal military regime the country has seen in decades. (In 2014, the dictatorship cemented its control by arresting dissidents under the lèse-majesté law; in 2006 the army justified the coup by claiming that insults to the King were surging, and only soldiers could safeguard the royal reputation.)  Even the King’s elected governments had his mandate to use a harsh hand: in 2003, Bhumibol supported Thaksin’s “war on drugs,” which smeared the country with the blood of almost 3000 extrajudicial killings. As the monarch’s American biographer wrote after his death, “King Bhumibol did not set out to build a representative democracy or promote the rule of law. For him, parliaments were impermanent, disposable … Democracy was never his goal for Thailand.”

Thai soldiers gather under a portrait of the king following the 2014 coup: EPA/Diego Azubel

Thai soldiers gather under a portrait of the King following the 2014 coup: Photo: EPA/Diego Azubel

So it’s interesting for a human rights group not known for engaging with Thailand to go out of its way in the late King’s praise. By contrast, Human Rights Watch, longtime critic of Thai governments (and the lèse-majesté law), posted just one neutral sentence on its Thailand page.

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And Amnesty International stayed decently silent. Two weeks before the King’s death, Thai police had shut down an Amnesty meeting in Bangkok, in order to ban the group’s report accusing the military junta of “a culture of torture.”

Those gratuitous retweets, though, had little to do with Thailand’s rights record — or “multilateral systems,” or “sustaining peace,” etcetera. They had to do with power: power at the UN. Outright International works extensively on LGBT rights at the United Nations (sometimes with good results, sometimes, in my view, not so much). For five years, Thailand has supported UN measures favoring LGBT rights. LGBT praise for a defunct and anti-democratic King is a low-cost way of lubricating that support. (Moreover, the Kingdom of Jordan’s UN mission, where one of the tweets bemoaning a fellow-monarch originated, has been making ambiguously positive noises about LGBT issues in official settings; they need encouragement. Retweeting them cozies up to two Kings at once.) An organization’s tweets don’t have much impact on the world. I fear, though, that parroting praise of the late King tends to set aside the language of human rights in favor of strategically satisfying a few diplomats. I worked for Outright for many years. I was its program director until 2002. There was no Twitter then. But if there had been, we wouldn’t have sent those tweets.

The tweets aren’t important, but the issue is. How do human rights relate to power? Surely the answer’s simple: Rights rely on governments’ power to realize and enforce them. Maybe the question is, instead: How do we, who defend human rights, relate to power?  Are we inside it or outside it? What will we do to get power’s attention, sustain its regard, enjoy its favors? And what does that do to us?

Gay Power, I: Protester in New York City, 1967. Photo: New York Public Library

Gay Power, I: Protester in New York City, 1967. Photo: New York Public Library

The questions are particularly acute for people defending LGBT rights. For a long time, in almost every country in the world, LGBT activists had no access to power at all. In the US, 20 years ago, we had trouble just getting a meeting with the State Department. When I lobbied the UN’s human rights meetings in Geneva back then, even diplomats from the most supportive states had to be persuaded that queers weren’t either a distraction or a joke. Now plenty of governments say they’re all in for LGBT rights. No doubt some are propelled by politicians’ sincere concern (if that’s not an oxymoron). Others want to appease voters back home; still others see a convenient way to pinkwash their national reputations. They approach the subject, that is, with the usual confused and chiaroscuro motives states show. Their ministrations, though, give LGBT activists the unfamiliar sense of power, even if the reality is still remote. They’re listened to, suddenly; the elixir of authority is sitting on the table, with three icecubes and a swizzle stick, and even the smell intoxicates. How do they accommodate themselves to this new condition? Many queer groups lack any history of negotiating their relationships to power — the history that feminist movements, for example, have accumulated through decades of harsh experience. Moreover, they are less and less inclined to listen to those other movements, or learn from their stories. Wounded by hate and vitriol, LGBT activists’ egos are often desperate and valetudiniarian. Who can say how well we’ll withstand the swift explosion of self-regard that comes when ambassadors and presidents, principalities and powers, bestow on us the swerving lighthouse beam of their attention?

Not well, I think.

But this goes beyond LGBT movements; the question afflicts the whole of human rights activism. Human rights have long had two sides, two Janus faces. In their international iteration they originated as, quite literally, powerless, a corpus of principles devoid of virtually any enforcement. Human rights, even as late as the post-World-War-II Universal Declaration, were pure critique untrammeled by practical authority: a criticism of the actual terms of national legal systems, a semi-Utopian vantage from which to look down on the existing norms of positive law and judge them. They were a language more for activists than lawyers, more competent to imagine a living future than to mandate it. Over time, human rights grew into a system of positive law in their own — er — right. They were embodied not just in demands and needs but in codes and treaties; increasingly the lawyers took over; and as rights became norms, they acquired, and their exponents desired them to acquire, power. This is necessary and, mostly, good. It’s good that rights are codified, good that they have clout, very good that some governments take them seriously. But to work in human rights is still to be caught between these poles, between the idea that rights criticize power and the idea that they should possess it. Should we confront the bearers of state power as opponents, or as partners? Did the late king of Thailand deserve our analysis and anger, with a history of abuses to be considered and condemned? Or was he, along with the government that commemorates him, a potential ally in cooperative work, in making rights principles matter to a thoroughly compromised world? Should we tweet our own understanding of his record, or retweet the Thai Mission to the UN?

Those tweets were trivial, but there are more serious cases. The Thai Mission is one thing, but what if you’re dealing with the hugely powerful government of the United States? What’s the right relation to that hideous strength?

The world is waiting: HRC's Chad Griffin and Susan Rice

The world is waiting: HRC’s Chad Griffin and Susan Rice

Here’s a story. On October 26, Human Rights First and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — the latter, for any non-denizens of GayWorld, is the richest gay group in North America — hosted a speech by Susan Rice in Washington, DC, on “Global LGBTQ Rights.” Rice was Obama’s first ambassador to the UN, and now chairs the National Security Council. Introducing her, HRC’s head Chad Griffin said that “LGBTQ people around the world are looking to us” to be a “beacon of hope.”

And at a time when extremists are throwing gay men off buildings, when transgender women are being relentlessly attacked in Central America, when laws are being passed to silence and marginalize LGBTQ people, they need American leadership now more than ever before.

This is telling the US government what it wants to hear: America is moral, America is exceptional, and America leads everything (even Honduran travestis march in line). Chad Griffin really believes this. Otherwise, why would HRC tweet these words to the world, oblivious that activists elsewhere might resent the picture of them pining for a US cavalryman on a white horse?

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Chad’s comments in fact were mocked in the dark recesses of the planet:

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But it’s not like the US, or the US LGBT movement, to care what the brown masses think.

Then there’s what Susan Rice had to say. Her speech recited what the Obama administration has done for LGBT folk, at home and out in the dark lands. She talked about Uganda; she talked about ISIS; but basically she made a pitch for Obama’s third term. It illumined the instrumental character of Obama’s international LGBT commitments, in large part keyed to solidifying LGBT votes in the homeland. One paragraph hit me in the face. Back in 2003, Rice says,  “One of my closest staffers, as a young Foreign Service officer, once asked if he and other employees could screen a documentary at the State Department about a gay nightclub in Cairo that was brutally raided by the Egyptian police. He was told no—it would be too controversial and too damaging to our relationship with Egypt. ” Look how far we’ve come! “Under President Obama …  LGBT people can serve openly and proudly throughout government—from desk officers to the NSC staff to eight openly gay ambassadors,” and so on.

On the rare occasions US officials acknowledge there are problems with Egypt, I take note. I do not give a flying fuck whether the US government screens gay films about Egypt for its employees. What I do give a flying fuck about is that the US government hands $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt annually, promotes the Sisi dictatorship as its partner, and sells LGBT Egyptians and all other victims of human rights violations down the river. Those eight openly gay ambassadors have done nothing to help keep queers in Egypt out of jail.

US Secretary of State Kerry meets with junta leader Sisi, Cairo, November 2013. Photo: US Department of State

US Secretary of State Kerry meets with junta leader Sisi, Cairo, November 2013. Photo: US Department of State

Arrests of queers in Egypt aren’t a quaint facet of the previous decade’s history. They’re happening now. Egypt has probably sentenced more LGBT people to prison since 2013 than any other country in the world. Neither Rice nor anybody else in the US government will discuss these arrests, much less condemn them. There are more than 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt; torture and death squads are rampant. The US refuses to raise these facts with its its Cairene client-tyrant in any consequential way — because “it would be too damaging to our relationship with Egypt.” For Rice to claim something’s changed because State Department staffers can now watch movies about handsome brown men being abused, and do so on government time — that is obscene. Screw the movie, Susan. Stop endorsing torture.

Yet the Human Rights Campaign condones torture; and so does the audience of professional gays who turn out to applaud Rice’s platitudes. Not that they’re bad people or malevolent organizations; far from it. They’d be horrified if they ever met a torture victim face to face. But they know the Obama administration is power, and they believe it’s on their side. They can’t contravene power. They see it has done good in places; so they can’t see or speak about places like Egypt where it’s done wrong. The convolutions of a state whose actions aren’t all categorizable under the same moral absolute are too much for them. And to raise their voices risks alienating that power. Then their own capacity for good, so invested in the authority of others, might slip away. So they let Rice drone on; they don’t confront her; they convince themselves that the government’s symbolic gestures — screening a film! making a donor an ambassador! – have a magical impact on the reality that rests in people’s lives. Nor does this blindness stop with Egypt.  Chad unctuously imagines poor Honduran travestis long for US “leadership” to free them. They don’t. They long for an end to the violent waves of social-cleansing killings that the 2009 coup d’etat, enabling right-wing death squads, unleashed. And they know the US (and Secretary of State Clinton) propped up the bloody post-coup regime. Guns we send to Honduras murder travestis in the street. Not to see the complexity of these relations, not to understand how the people you flatter are implicated in the abuses you abhor, goes deeper than sycophancy. It’s complicity.

Corpses of an unknown man and a trans woman dumped on a street, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, January 2010. Photo: Tiempo, via Blabbeando.com

Corpses of an unknown man and a trans woman dumped on a street, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, January 2010. Photo: Tiempo, via Blabbeando.com

There’s a point where human rights, entangled with the hunt for power, stop being human. I will lay my opinions on the table, as someone who has worked within the force-field of human rights for 25 years. Human rights are not just a body of law, but a pattern of thought: a way of criticizing things that are and their existing arrangement. Either they retain some quantum of their dissenting energy, their capacity for radical critique, for questioning equally the premises and practices of friend and foe – or they cease to be of use. Rights exist in opposition. I do not believe human rights activists should readily celebrate governments, or fawn over their representatives, or adopt their language and agendas. I believe human rights activists who do that stop being human rights activists, and become something else. As a mode of thinking, human rights must negate in order to affirm; only through undermining the reified authority of what is can they clear a space for the liberating fortuity of difference, of what isn’t yet, of an alternative. Adorno wrote: “The uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither superscribes his conscience nor permits himself to be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give up. Thinking is not the spiritual reproduction of that which exists. As long as thinking is not interrupted, it has a firm grasp upon possibility. Its insatiable quality, the resistance against petty satiety, rejects the foolish wisdom of resignation.” Only by abandoning the false positivities that power always posits, and pursuing the relentlessly negative logic of that thought, can the discourse of rights change anything that needs to be changed about the world.

I called this essay “selling out.” Sometimes we activists indeed can sell out friends, allies, even those we call our own kind — sometimes without seeing it; queer Egyptians, say, sold by the US to sustain the deadly dictatorship. There’s another meaning, though. Sometimes we sell our very outness to the holders of power. To keep proximity and access, we hand them our presence and our visibility to exploit. We’re here, we’re queer. We’re useful.

Gay Power II: UN Ambassador Samantha Power discusses LGBT rights with a man and his demonically possessed left arm outside the Stonewall Inn, New York, 2016. Photo: US Department of State

Gay Power II: UN Ambassador Samantha Power discusses LGBT rights with a man and his demonically possessed left arm outside the Stonewall Inn, New York, 2016. Photo: US Department of State

Think (on the first point) of the arguments this year among LGBT movements about creating a new special mechanism at the UN, to research and respond to violations. These discussions were divisive. Many wanted a mechanism to deal broadly with diverse issues of sexual rights: for instance, connecting “sodomy laws” to other laws that control sexual freedoms. Others, including leaders of many LGBT organizations, wanted their own mechanism, in effect — one focused on a particular identity. I was in Geneva while the UN debated the mechanism; I was struck by how advocates of the narrower mandate reacted when I asked why the rights of sex workers were excluded from it. The general response was: sex workers had nothing to do with LGBT communities. They weren’t relevant, useful allies; and sex workers within queer populations seemed no longer to exist, like Neanderthals or moderate Republicans. I heard this even from people who I know perfectly well have paid for sex with queer sex workers, apparently in episodes of absent-mindedness. The end result? The narrow mandate won. Laws targeting sex work – laws that imprison thousands of LGBT people — were excised from the public ambit of LGBT concern. Invisible sex workers were sold out; visible and respectable LGBT activists acquired a UN post. So it goes.

And think how the World Bank loudly declared, in 2013, that it was going to adopt LGBT rights as a priority – pretty much its first-ever human rights priority; a project it launched by invoking Uganda’s anti-LGBT legislation to cancel a loan targeting maternal mortality. Health and reproductive rights in East Africa are easy to sell out; they lack a DC lobby. American NGOs, the Obama administration, and Democrats in Congress could see Ugandan LGBT people, but not Ugandan women. (The two, again, don’t overlap.) But there was another aspect to the bargain; the Bank’s pronouncements on LGBT rights had the effect – perhaps not planned at first, but obvious afterward – of enlisting vocal, visible queer activists in powerful countries to support the institution and its leaders. (Jim Yong Kim, the Bank’s embattled president, even dropped in on BuzzFeed’s offices while pushing for a second term, to remind its gay readership how gay-friendly the Bank is: not the sort of campaign stop previously common on the commanding heights of the world economy. Imagine Alan Greenspan advertising the Federal Reserve by parading in Pride.) Even LGBT activists in powerless countries — the countries the Bank lends to, and often destroys — have their usefulness. Although no policy changes and no new programs have come out of the Bank’s well-publicized concern, it does annually fly LGBT campaigners from the global South to its Washington HQ to sit round a table, be consulted, and be photographed. You can see the Bank’s calculus; these are economists, after all. Surely every activist tempted with the fleshpots of DC means one less activist who’ll join a rally against structural adjustment or debt or the Washington Consensus. Why protest outside when you can sit inside with a per diem? With enough time, LGBT politics around the globe will don the values of Davos and shuck off those of Porto Alegre. That may or may not happen: the Bank has never figured out how activists really tick. But In a decade when many LGBT movements actually do have increasing influence in their domestic politics — and are increasingly resourced by the US government, which runs the Bank — it’s a reasonable bet to make, if not a sure one.

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Imagine

Michel Foucault employed the idea of “governmentality” to describe the multiple means, from the sweeping to the microscopic, by which institutions create, mold, control, and discipline subject populations. Foucault also showed that to participate in governmentality, to share in the play of power, is equally to be shaped, to be controlled, to be disciplined. Power is exercised not only through, but within, the powerful. The conscious agent is also the inadvertent victim.

The more LGBT movements appropriate their portion of power, they more they risk becoming its subjects and servants. The more HRC stakes its claim to participate in US foreign policy, for instance, the more it constricts its vision. The seductive project of building an “LGBT foreign policy” disciplines LGBT Americans — and HRC itself — not to think of foreign policy in a critical or complex or comprehensive way.

Governmentality is an academic concept, of course, arcanely argued over by scholars. In fact, I can describe that entanglement and complicity simply: in a monosyllable, even. Sometimes giving a thing its proper name is analysis enough. But I’ll repeat it a few times; in speaking of power and the powerful, one should make the word sound polysyllabic, important.

Shame. Shame. Shame.

Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman's Skammen, 1968

Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman’s Skammen, 1968

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The UN, seen from Khayelitsha: Guest post

Khayelitsha, Western Cape, South Africa

Khayelitsha, Western Cape, South Africa

On June 30, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva passed a resolution establishing an independent expert (a special investigative mechanism, a slightly weaker title than the more usual “special rapporteur”) on sexual orientation and gender identity. Although you wouldn’t know it from most of the news reports, this move was controversial within LGBT movements. Some pressed for UN action against a wider range of abuses, for a recognition that issues of sexual and bodily autonomy are difficult to disentangle or to fit into convenient identity boxes. The final outcome occasioned celebration even as it raised questions. What are our movements’ relations to power? When are we agents, when are we patients, when are we acted upon and when are we actors in our right? What happens to us and our own autonomy when we derive our power from the agendas of “friendly” governments vastly and more malignly powerful than ourselves? How will the power we experience in the rarefied air of Geneva actually help those outside?

A post by Gabriel Hoosain Khan, a South African human rights activist and artist, dealt with some of these questions. I am publishing it here with his permission.

I am bewildered by the myth of Cape Town. As I drive on the N2 towards Khayelitsha – I know that the pretty green boulevards and the old Victorian houses will soon erode into an endless plain of informal settlements. I forgot that truth (again) during the previous night as I ate Bobotie and sipped wine in Observatory – the truth that Cape Town is not that pretty city on the southern tip. It is easy and gross privilege that allowed me to forget. Cape Town instead runs far up along a spine towards Somerset West, with dirty lungs on either side of the highway – letting the city inhale a poor black workforce every day, and roughly exhaling these workers every eve.

It is this binary which tints my perception of the recent vote at the UN on SOGI. This binary between the facades we sell about cities and processes and resolutions; and the realities of the communities on the ground that don’t taste the pleasures of the façade. In Cape Town, Camps Bay, Claremont and Seapoint are pretty and some of the safest areas in South Africa; while tens of kilometres away Gugulethu, Khayelitsha and Nyanga have limited access to sanitation and remain some of the most dangerous areas in South Africa (and the world). In Geneva it might be possible to celebrate a human rights gain – but that gain seems far removed from the room in Khayelitsha where I met three LGBTI youth groups last week. The beautiful paneled ceiling in Geneva (which I have seen in pictures) is unimaginable from the crèche where we meet – a zinc structure with no electricity, little furniture or flushing toilets.

Main meeting chamber of the Human Rights Council, Geneva

Main meeting chamber of the Human Rights Council, Palais de Nations, Geneva. No one has ever explained to me what the ceiling, an apparent emanation of the Borg, is supposed to mean (SL)

In writing a reflection on the latest resolution on SOGI at the UN – I in no way seek to denigrate the good work of colleagues and comrades engaging that space. I acknowledge that work at the UNHRC and with other international bodies is needed. The hard work of colleagues, the self-reflexive strategies, the guidance given to me and others by those working at the UNHRC, and their patient willingness to engage that space is acknowledged. That being said, I have been uneasy: uneasy with quick celebration, unconvinced with activist praxis at the UNHRC and other international spaces, uneasy with an LGBTI-politic which is not truly intersectional.

While I acknowledge the importance of being visibly queer at the UNHRC – foregrounding particular and unique experience as LGBTI people – I wonder what it means to separate that from the rights of women, sex-workers, the unique challenges associated with race, and class – or the realities of culture, geography and poverty? For example, what does an independent expert mean to a black gender non-conforming woman tortured by police in Zimbabwe? How do we separate out a colonial era law from contemporary arbitrary detention; how do we separate out practices of torture from the unique gendered violations?

While I acknowledge the standard-setting power of international bodies, I wonder whether these standards ever trickle down to states, and more so whether domestic standards ever trickle down to those communities who are most vulnerable. For example, how has UNHRC resolution 17/19 [the first UN Human Rights Council resolution devoted to sexual orientation and gender identity, passed in 2011] affected change at a domestic level on the African continent – do we have evidence that it made things better? If these resolutions and even treaties are not binding – what is their utility? What is the relationship between a document approved by states at the UNHRC and an individual who may not have knowledge or understanding of that council?

While I acknowledge the need for an international standard which protects the basic rights of humans (as manifest in the UN declaration of human rights), I notice how this standard is used in a manner which is unbalanced. For example, while much focus of the UNHRC often lingers on states in the global South, the actions of states like the USA, UK and others remain unscrutinised and their leaders not held accountable for their gross human rights violations. How do we hold to account states in the north with equal vigour for their contemporary and historic crimes (cough: reparations for slavery and colonialism).

In a strange way, the human rights context is similar to the myth of Cape Town. Whilst we may celebrate a human rights gain which mandates an independent expert to maintain focus on SOGI at the UNHRC in Geneva — in the same breath, in Baghdad, two hundred people die in a car bomb attack. I wonder what our wins at the UNHRC mean in the context of Syrian refugees, or landless Palestinians, or the 10 years of violence in Iraq. What do our SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans strategies (as linguistic, interventionist and economic practices) achieve at the Palace of Nations, when the constituencies we work with (in Khayelitsha, in Gugulethu, in Nyanga to name just 3 localities) remain in circumstances largely unchanged? I remembered this poem:

amidst the new-fangled fallacies
of sexual and racial freedom for all
these under-informed
self-congratulating
pseudo-intellectual utterances
reflect how apolitical the left has become
– Staceyann Chin

Asiyi eKhayelitsha (We will not go to Khayelitsha), 1985 poster protesting forced removals. CAP Collection, UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

Asiyi eKhayelitsha (We will not go to Khayelitsha), 1985 poster protesting forced removals by the apartheid regime. CAP Collection, UWC – Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

I might be a little cynical here – we have seen positive changes on the continent – but these have been slow. I guess I am keen to reflect on the political implications of human rights strategies which centre efforts in a language palatable to the global North. I muse on Fanon’s words — “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World” —  as a guide: to the way human rights as employed reinforces the metaphorical normativity of “Europe” or “the west” or “the global North” as a white, liberal and civilized measure of humanity. I guess I am trying to examine SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans strategies as practices (linguistic, interventionist and economic) which do not trouble the normativity of a human rights discourse that leaves colonialism, racism and global north exceptionalism largely unchallenged.

In using human rights without examining the racist/colonial/exceptional manner in which it is employed:

  1. we too divide our struggle through employing SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans as a singular palatable thing – rather than a queer, feminist and anti-colonial resistance; and
  2. we continue to reinforce an expensive international system which does not help those who most need these mythological human rights.

In a way this myth of human rights has little to do with the messy colonial, racial, gendered, sexualized, classed realities of humans.

It says we deserve a piece of this myth whilst only affording this myth to a few bodies, and leaves largely unchallenged the global colonial/racist systems which perpetuate gross human rights violations (on and beyond LGBTI bodies). I wonder if we can challenge this normative trap of human rights . A normative trap which allows states like the US to talk loudly about human rights, whilst the indigenous peoples of that state and their leaders still do not have representation in that same UNHRC space? A trap which allows the Syrian government to have space and power at the UN whilst that same government has killed 12044 civilians in 2015? A trap which led me to think about SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans issues in Khayelitsha as somehow separate from access to sanitation, electricity, quality education, public safety and street lights? I find this all very troubling.

Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO), June 16: Viva the Youth. Ca.1986commemorating the anniversary of the Soweto uprising. CAP Collection, UWC - Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO), June 16: Viva the Youth. 1986 (?) poster commemorating the anniversary of the Soweto uprising. CAP Collection, UWC – Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

I take a sip of my caffeine-filled cappuccino and feel a little guilty (I am meant to give up caffeine for Ramadan). Last week in Khayelitsha I met with youth groups using creative methods to empower LGBTIQ youth. One group used drama to document the history of local words and stories about LGBTI identities. Another, called Cape Inspirations, was a choir – they used song to build confidence in LGBTI youth and build community among vulnerable youth. Ikhewezi youth group used theatre – they performed a play inspired by the violence in Orlando; their play explored local experiences of homophobia and violence against women. In Mannenberg, I met two groups providing safe space for LGBTI people in a neighbourhood with high unemployment rates, plagued by gang-related violence. The Reach for Life Foundation provided much-needed shelter and psychosocial support to LGBTI youth; Behind the Red Door highlighted the prevalent and interconnected struggles of drug and alcohol abuse, HIV and homelessness among LGBTI youth. I visited both on the day the vote at the UN was being negotiated. Neither knew about the resolution, neither engaged the UN in any manner and neither had strong opinions about the vote. More importantly, neither were consulted by LGBTI organisations about what they wanted.

This highlights a limitation when it comes to our praxis as SOGI/LGBTI/queer/trans organisations. In attempting to engage with these international bodies – what do we lose? Lose in our purpose and mode as civil society actors; actors who unlike states should be giving voice, opportunity and space to those who are most vulnerable? If these positions do not represent the groups or ideas of those who are most vulnerable – or even engage those who are most vulnerable – whom do these positions represent? I wonder about this practice of negotiating at the top (for things we supposedly need or don’t need; for language we supposedly use or language with limitations) in a manner which does not engage the modes and ideas of those we still position at the “bottom”?

In South Africa – we too were easy to celebrate: our new constitution in 1996; which enshrined non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the laws which followed (in quick succession) moving LGBTI from identities criminalized before the law – to legal equality. Even with these changes – I wonder who enjoys that freedom – the suburbs which have always been safe and affluent cupped in the bosom of Table Mountain – do enjoy some semblance of freedom that is coloured white and affluent and gay. But those in Khayelitsha and Mannenberg live a reality in many ways similar to before those laws passed. LGBTI people in Khayelitsha and Mannenberg complain of the same issues thet faced before the first SOGI resolution passed at the UNHRC in 2011. I am trying to make sense of this binary.

The Bagdad bombing — when over two hundred people died in a commercial district in Baghdad — marked a somber closing to the month of the 32nd UNHRC sitting, but also to the month of Ramadan; a month marked by violence, from the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, to the bombing of Istanbul’s Ataturk international airport. It is in this context of gross violence that I locate the actions of the latest UN Human Rights Council. It is in this context that I would locate the broader struggle for the rights of LGBTI people. It is here that I ponder about the resolution on SOGI.

for all the landmarks we celebrate
we are still niggers
and faggots
and minstrel references
for jokes created on the funny pages of a heterosexual world

the horizons are changing
to keep pace with technology and policy alike
the LGBT manifesto has evolved into a corporate agenda
and outside that agenda
a woman is beaten every 12 seconds
every two minutes
a girl is raped somewhere in America

and while we stand here well-dressed and rejoicing
in India
in China
in South America a small child cuts the cloth
to construct you a new shirt
a new shoe
an old lifestyle held upright
by the engineered hunger and misuse of impoverished lives
– Staceyann Chin

Medu Art Ensemble (designer: Judy Seidman), The People Shall Govern, screen print poster, Botswana/South Africa, 1982.

Medu Art Ensemble (designer: Judy Seidman), The People Shall Govern, Botswana/South Africa, 1982.

Cairo, and our comprador gay movements: A talk

Photo taken and publicized by Egyptian journalist Mona Iraq, showing arrested victims of the 2014 Cairo bathhouse raid over which she presided

Photo taken and publicized by Egyptian journalist Mona Iraqi, showing arrested victims of the 2014 Cairo bathhouse raid over which she presided

On June 16, I gave a Human Rights Lecture as part of the program of Toronto Pride, on the 2014 bathhouse raid in Cairo and the ongoing crackdown on suspected trans and gay people in Egypt. Several people asked for the text, and I’m publishing it here. I owe much gratitude to Nayrouz Abu Hatoum, who introduced the lecture and placed it in a regional context. Many thanks are also due to Mathieu Chantelois of Pride Toronto; the hardworking staff of both Pride Toronto and The 519; and Brenda Cossman, Director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, who together sponsored and organized the talk. I am also very much indebted to John Greyson and Stephen Andrews, artists and activists, who helped make the whole thing possible. 

For any who perversely want not to read but to watch me dissect this sort of thing, here’s a talk — on similar but not identical themes — I gave at Princeton University this spring:

And here is the Toronto lecture:

I feel overwhelmed.

I am overwhelmed to see so many of you here. But I am also overwhelmed as so many of us feel overwhelmed right now: there is too much to talk about, and too little one can actually say.

I was asked here to describe the campaign against LGBT people, especially trans women and gay men, ongoing for three years in Egypt: particularly the now-infamous police raid on a bathhouse in Cairo in December 2014. I was asked partly in the context of the 35th anniversary of the bathhouse raids in Toronto in 1981 — “Operation Soap.”

The question was: how much consistency across time and space shapes the persecution and oppression that queer people face?

And here we are, in this moment, on this day, in this juncture: and I know that everyone in this room is thinking about Orlando.

In the US, now, you can witness a political contest over what that event means over what frame we’re going to use to understand it. This battle is also over whether it’s a local event or a global one, how much it crosses those boundaries of time and space:

  • the right wing – and Donald Trump – insisting this is “about” terrorism, about porous borders, about alien violence invading our spaces;
  • the left insisting this is about our, American, indigenous violence, our own fundamentalism, our guns, our propensity to see difference as a question of firepower.

These either-ors imply that Orlando was easily understandable, and can be not just comprehended but owned. Yet this kind of debate also indicates how deeply an instability of space — this troubled relationship between here and there, the local and the remote — has become integral to our thinking, and to our selves, in this increasingly elastic world.

It’s a world in which images circulate rapidly and globally; in which certain events become global, resonate far beyond their origins, are part of how people understand themselves , so that in South Africa or the Philippines, Orlando morphs into a reference point. It’s right that it be a reference point. The enormity and the suddenness of the violence mean it instantly touches innumerable queer people’s deepest fears. Yet some other events don’t circulate at all.

Mona Iraqi, Egyptian informer journalist extraordinaire, celebrate's love's victory in the Obergefell case, summer 2015

Mona Iraqi, Egyptian informer journalist extraordinaire, celebrate’s love’s victory in the Obergefell case, summer 2015

I’ll cite a friend of mine, a feminist in Egypt, writing about Orlando. She also speaks of how images spread globally – in this case, the celebratory images of gay triumphs. The killing, my friend writes, is “an ugly reality check to the fakeness of celebrating love wins” — by which she means that ubiquitous social media jubilation after same-sex marriage was legalized in a single, powerful country, the US.

When love wins happened, the Egyptian authorities were having raids arresting gay men and trans here. We couldn’t unsee the relation between the escalation of risk for being queer here and the media discourse which was commenting on love wins and which was [making Egyptians] realize that there are people who are actually homosexuals.

And she adds: “I am afraid that contrast can escalate badly. Anywhere.”

So: connections, and contrast. I’ll start with a short video.  It shows someone who was swept up in the crackdown that’s going on in Egypt: a trans woman, a leader in her community, named Malouka. Police arrested her in December 2014. The press vilified her as “the most dangerous homosexual in Egypt.” (Egyptian media recognize no meaningful distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity as comprehended in the West, just a collective and only vaguely differentiated category of “perversion”.) The video was obviously filmed in a police station. A website based in the UAE, one with close ties with Egyptian police, published it. It’s disturbing; I wouldn’t show it except that I want to disturb you. It shows Malouka traumatized, probably beaten, though it’s not clear what they have done to her. She keeps repeating, over and over: “My father never loved me.”

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t replay such images without permission of the person they show. Malouka, though, simply disappeared into the vast Egyptian gulag. A court sentenced her to six years. With her blood family rejecting her – legally recognized relations are almost the only people with even intermittent access to prisoners in Egypt – only the barest information emerged about what happened to her. A rumor six months ago said she had committed suicide in detention. I believe it was untrue; but we were not even able to confirm that.

Let me describe what has been happening in Egypt for the last five years.

In 2011 — you know this — there was a revolution and Mubarak was overthrown. The military took power, in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In 2011-2012, it held first parliamentary and then presidential elections, which were multiparty, competitive, and generally free.  And both were won by the Muslim Brotherhood.

For a year, then, from mid-2012 till July 2013, Egypt had a conservative government, but a democratically elected one: the only democratically elected government in Egypt’s history. In fact, the one year of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency was probably, in certain senses, the freest in Egypt’s modern history. The relative freedoms to speak, to criticize, to demonstrate and to agitate came not because the government was liberal – it wasn’t – but because it was weak. Still, those freedoms were tangible.

Egyptian queers were also enjoying a degree of freedom, an ability to occupy social spaces from which they were previously debarred. Back in the three years from  2001 to 2004, there had been a massive crackdown on men having sex with men, by the Mubarak government. Probably thousands were arrested and given sentences of up to 5 years. The circus of raids and show trials served up a convenient distraction from political and economic problems. But in 2004 it stopped, and for the next nine years there were very few arrests under Egypt’s laws against homosexual conduct. Indeed, from 2008, police in Egypt focused more on repressing political dissent in the increasingly volatile public sphere, and less on day-to-day policing, including patrolling the frontiers of acceptable morality. And after the revolution, the police virtually disappeared from urban streets. They had been the most hated symbol of the old regime, and in the new conditions they were virtually were afraid to show their faces.

With their retreat, LGBT people became increasingly visible in the downtown scene in Cairo. They occupied the decrepit city center’s cheap cafes and bars; they used the Internet to make new kinds of virtual community.

In July 2013, a carefully plotted military coup overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government. The new junta, under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, quickly showed itself repressive in an unprecedented degree. The military’s ruling principle was that the old Mubarak regime had failed, was overthrown, because it was too weak. It had allowed bloggers, journalists, human rights activists, and other perverts too long a leash. The new state wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

In August 2013, Sisi massacred over a thousand demonstrators supporting the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. It was a message written in blood that the old rules didn’t apply, that the leash was now a chokehold. The military took over all the interstices of daily life: the country was kept under rigid curfew for months. And the police returned. Egypt saw a concerted attempt to resuscitate intensive social control.

Military checkpoint in Cairo during the 2013 post-coup curfew

Military checkpoint in Cairo during the 2013 post-coup curfew

In October 2013, a few months after the military coup, came the first arrests of LGBT people. First police in a very working-class district of eastern Cairo shut down a local gym allegedly patronized by men seeking sex with other men. They arrested and tortured 14 people. Next came a raid on a private party in a Cairo suburb. Police loaded ten victims into their wagons. The cops leaked both these cases to the press; favorable headlines acclaimed the constabulary for cleansing the capital of its immoral unwanted.  Someone in the Ministry of Interior decided that arresting “perverts” made good publicity for the police.

The arrests continued, applauded by an increasingly docile media. There were raids on homes, on private parties; people who looked differently or dressed differently could be seized on the street. Hundreds were arrested. Two incidents were particularly central in the storm of publicity.

We do; they don't. Still from 2013'a viral "same-sex wedding" video

We do; they don’t. Still from 2014’s viral “same-sex wedding” video

First: at the very end of August 2014, a video leaked on YouTube and immediately went viral. Filmed by a cameraphone, it seemed to show two men staging a mock wedding on a boat on the Nile. The footage — I learned from men who were there — came from a floating party months before; no one knew how it had reached YouTube. There was speculation the police had somehow got their hands on it and leaked it themselves. Hundreds of thousands saw it on the web, even more when it reached TV. Police rounded up everyone they could find from the boat, and they got two years in prison. Meanwhile, though, the banned and exiled Muslim Brotherhood joined the universal indignation, tweeting from some of its accounts that Sisi’s regime was now bringing gay marriage to Egypt.

Those attacks made queers a political, not just a police, issue. The dictator, after violently overthrowing a religious government, fears criticism from his right and from the Brotherhood more than any other kind.  The matter of homosexuality became both opportunity and an obligation for Sisi; he needed to prove his aptitude as moral defender of the nation.

Mona Iraq, upper right, films her stripped victims being led to police wagons, December 7, 2014. Later that night she posted this photo on her Facebook page.

Mona Iraqi, upper right, films her stripped victims being led to police wagons, December 7, 2014. Later that night she posted this photo on her Facebook page.

On December 7, 2014, police raided an historic bathhouse in central Cairo, allegedly a meeting place for men having sex with men. They arrested 26 men, stripped them, marched them naked in the cold night; at least one was raped by other prisoners in the Azbekeya jail that night, with the guards’ collusion.  A TV journalist, Mona Iraqi, presided over the raid; she filmed it and publicized it. This was Sisi’s answer – meant to be a huge public show trial, proving the state’s will to suppress “perversion.”

It backfired. The government probably blackmailed Mona Iraqi into her repellent role in the raid: but for many Egyptians, including fellow reporters, she became a symbol of the “informer journalist,” selling her independence and soul to support the state’s agenda. (Since the trial ended, she has tried bizarrely to recuperate her reputation as a friend of queers, who emphatically don’t want her friendship. The “Love Wins” tweet I showed earlier was hers.) I was privileged to work with a few activists who fought to mobilize intellectual opinion, and the Egyptian media, against the raid. The outrage actually induced the government to back down. In an almost unheard-of event in Generalissimo Sisi’s Egypt, the men were acquitted. But their lives were ruined. One later tried to commit suicide by burning himself to death. And the arrests still go on.

Police use the Internet to entrap people: undercover agents infest apps like Grindr, pretending to be gay; or the cops enlist gay people as informers, blackmailed to help. Increasingly they target foreigners as well as Egyptians — sometimes Europeans, sometimes already-persecuted refugees: jailing them or deporting them.

At least 250-people in Egypt are now serving prison sentences of between 2 and 10 years for homosexual conduct; probably many more. Egypt now imprisons more people for their gender identity and sexual orientation than any other country in the world. 

What happens to queers in Egypt can’t be separated from the general draconian repression. Journalists are carted to prison; so are activists, students, or people who simply happen to be living in the wrong neighborhood.  People just disappear: into concentration camps, or — if they are abducted by the death squads that haunt the cities — their bodies turn up in ditches. Protests are punishable by three years in prison: or you can just be shot. NGOs face harassment and closure, including the very few that provide legal help to arrested LGBT people. And those downtown cafes I talked about? In late 2014 the government started harassing gathering spots in central Cairo, forcing them to shutter, because “undesirable people” – revolutionaries, atheists, perverts – gathered there. The spaces where ordinary solidarity can flourish are being strangled to death.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, poet, dissident, and mother, dying from police gunfire in central Cairo, January 24, 2015. She was shot for attempting to lay flowers to commemorate the martyrs of the Revolution, and its fourth anniversary.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, poet, dissident, and mother, dying from police gunfire in central Cairo, January 24, 2015. She was shot for attempting to lay flowers in commemoration of the Revolution’s martyrs, on the Revolution’s fourth anniversary.

So let me ask: Why don’t you know more about this?

The general situation in Egypt, and the horrifying situation of LGBT people, are consigned to the back pages of the papers, the fag end of the news, unclicked and untold.  Every queer schoolboy knows what’s gone on in Uganda or Russia in recent years. But Cairo or Alexandria? No.

One reason the LGBT arrests have gotten less attention? In a word: gender. 

Screen shot of seven people arrested in February 2015 -- mostly trans-identified, according to other trans activists -- from a video published on the website of Youm7

Screen shot of seven people arrested in February 2015 — mostly trans-identified, according to other trans activists — from a video published on the website of Youm7

The primary targets of these arrests haven’t been securely cis men who have sex with cis men. They’ve been trans women – or men who build their identities around not conforming to norms of masculinity. Egyptian society has no strong public recognition of gender identity as a category. There are, though, growing communities of people who identify as trans, and they’ve been more and visible — particularly in downtown Cairo. Indeed, “downtown,” wust el-balad, has turned into a term encompassing all kinds of deviance, from hash-smokers to atheists to revolutionary youth with long hair (government stooges regularly accuse former revolutionaries of gender and sexual perversion). Most of these fears focus on masculinity: “downtown” means men who aren’t men, and trans people symbolize the extremity of decadence. One word bandied about to summarize what the regime opposes is mokhanatheen: sissies. The need to enforce gendered norms, and in particular to make sure that men behave as men should, obey the behavioral rules for their assigned gender, is hard-wired into the military regime.

Yet this doesn’t interest international LGB activists the way arrests of gay men do. Which two cases in Egypt have had the most international attention? The wedding video arrests: where photos showed two bearded men, solid in their evident cisness. And the bathhouse raid: where images focused on photos of naked bodies in the cold December air – bodies that looked unequivocally male.

Most of the hundreds imprisoned in Egypt haven’t been like that. We claim to be having a “trans moment” in Europe and North America. Maybe. Has it gone from pop culture to politics — our politics, the politics of LGB-and-only-occasionally-T movements? No. It’s still painfully clear which bodies we prefer, even as passive victims. Masculinity infects our activism, as it pervades our media, our cultures, and our dreams.

There’s another reason for the silence: respectability. 

The law that criminalizes homosexual conduct in Egypt is, in origin, a law against prostitution. It was passed in a moment of nationalist fervor in1951. The British occupying army had for decades maintained brothels for its soldiers, staffed by Egyptian women, and this was seen across the political spectrum as an enormous national shame. Parliament passed a law that criminalized sex work by women, and then in a sort of throw-the-kitchen-sink fit of moralistic enthusiasm they tossed in parallel punishments for something called fugur or “debauchery” — which wasn’t defined. The term, though, was gradually interpreted by courts to mean non-commercial sex between consenting adult men

In Egypt, then, you don’t need to prove that two men are exchanging money to arrest them for having sex. But a link between homosexual conduct and prostitution is — again — hard-wired into Egyptian law and attitudes. In this crackdown, the military has been at some pains to stress the connection. When Mona Iraqi was criticized for raiding the bathhouse, she defended herself by claiming it was a den of “human trafficking,” because she knew this was an appealing line: a useful excuse locally — and internationally.

Pro-Clinton meme: Offer does not apply to sex workers

Pro-Clinton meme: Offer does not apply to sex workers

The US government, which now positions itself as the world’s foremost defender of LGBT people’s rights, is also the world’s most powerful opponent of sex workers’ rights. It promotes ridiculous and regressive myths that all prostitution is “trafficking”; it demands that foreign groups receiving its (ever so queer-friendly) funding pledge never to discuss decriminalizing sex work, or sex workers’ persecution by laws and police.  Hillary Clinton and the whole Obama administration have clung to the Bush administration’s failed moralism where suppressing commercial sex — and sex workers — is concerned.

Cover of a 1910 book on "white slavery" by Ernest Bell

Cover of a 1910 book on “white slavery” by Ernest Bell

And with US funding underpinning LGBT politics, many LGBT organizations have been happy to ditch sex workers’ rights and issues in pursuit of a respectable picture of LGBT communities. That’s less true of grassroots groups than of those operating in the international sphere: those that command media spaces like the New York Times, and set the agenda, and create images of what LGBT rights are.

Around the world, more LGBT people are arrested every day under laws targeting sex work than are arrested under so-called “sodomy laws” in a year. They aren’t just arrested because they may be doing sex work — but because those are the laws police use against cruising, soliciting, public displays of affection, walking while trans or butch.

Yet our international movement writes those people off. And that’s a disgrace. We congratulate ourselves when sodomy laws are repealed, as though that means full decriminalization of queer lives and bodies. We don’t notice laws that have even harsher impact on those lives.

Remember: The Toronto bathhouse raids in 1981 took place under a 19th-century law on “bawdy houses.” Respectable gay sex in bedrooms had been formally decriminalized in Canada. But if they hate you, they can still find laws to use against you. And anti-prostitution laws are always a ready tool.

In Egypt, too, the idea that the arrested people are not respectable, are not like us, has inhibited sympathy, stifled response. And not just within the country’s borders. What images roused the first international outcry against the Cairo crackdown? Those two cis men pursuing the most respectable of American-style gay activities: getting married.

But trans sex workers? Who cares?

Egyptian protesters point to the "Made in USA" tag on a tear gas canister used against them near Tahrir Square, November 20, 2011. Photo: Khaled Dessouki for AFP

Egyptian protesters point to the “Made in USA” tag on a tear gas canister used against them near Tahrir Square, November 20, 2011. Photo: Khaled Dessouki for AFP

A final reason for the silence: security.

The Egyptian military and its conceptions of manhood are paid for by the United States. The US gives $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt every year (along with a small, steadily diminishing amount of development aid, currently less than $250 million). Each year, Egypt receives the world’s second or third largest sum of US military aid, after Israel.

The aid has stayed at the same level since Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel in the early 1980s. In effect, we pay Egypt not to use its military on its neighbors: with the implicit proviso that it will use its military on its own people, when needed.

We — and I mean Americans like me, and our allies — pay for the abuses the military engages in. 40,000 political prisoners held, mostly without trial? We pay for the concentration camps that hold them. Tear gas used on demonstrators?  We pay for it, it comes from US firms, it’s bought with money the US gives the government. We pay the generals’ salaries. We pay for the soldiers’ guns. We pay for the civilians the army slaughters in Sinai, or at least for their mass graves.  The surveillance equipment Egypt’s government is buying up, to monitor the whole Internet – and they’ve specifically said LGBT people are a priority target— is bought from US firms, with no objection from the US government.

(Canada, so far as I know, has a limited direct relationship with the Egyptian military –except for its peacekeepers in Sinai, who protect an ever-more-imaginary peace, one devastated both by an armed insurgency and by Egypt’s brutal, Israeli-supported campaign to exterminate it. But Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia indirectly aid Egypt, by channeling resources to one of Sisi’s main backers. Saudi Arabia is the root of evil in the region; you’re handing wands to Voldemort, you’re hawking rings to Sauron. And the Saudis  know they can use Canada’s equipment to prop up repressive regimes wherever they like.)

Egyptian activists — human rights activists, and LGBT activists among them — want the US and its allies to cut or stop military aid to Sisi. They want us to stop propping up the murder regime. This, the US and NATO refuse to do.

June 22, 2014: John Kerry meets Sisi in Cairo and gives him $572 million in military aid, days after pro-democracy activists including feminist Yara Sallam were arrested and abused

June 22, 2014: John Kerry meets Sisi in Cairo and hands him $572 million in military aid, days after police arrested and abused pro-democracy activists, including feminist Yara Sallam, for the heinous crime of marching down a street

John Kerry comes to Cairo once or twice a year, in his capacity as head imperialist tourist. I happen to know that dutiful State Department officers give him solid talking points for his meetings with Sisi; they say, “mention human rights violations” — sometimes even “mention the gays” (never the trans or the sex workers, of course.) But Kerry has a powerful mancrush on Sisi. He looks deep into those dark brown bloody eyes and throws his talking points out the window. He won’t mention the killings; he won’t mention the trans and gay arrests — I doubt he’s raised the issue once, even in a subordinate clause. Sisi is our ally. He safeguards security. The rest is silence.

In fact, none of Sisi’s measures increase security — not even the savage war against an Islamist insurgency in Sinai, and certainly not the torture of queers. They destroy security. Last summer, while I lived in Cairo, rebel bombings happened almost every week: they blew up consulates, subway stations, even the Prosecutor General.  ISIS kidnapped foreign workers on the streets of Cairo suburbs where I did my shopping.

But the life or death of locals matters less to the Obama administration than the big picture, the preservation of American power. The US mancrush on military dictators in Egypt long precedes the war on terror. It is a product of the way that US imperialism has approached the region for decades, a technique of power quite consciously set in opposition to the strategies of the British and French colonialisms it superseded. Aspiring to regional dominance, the US since the 1950s has attempted indirect rule. We don’t want to control territory or govern populations; we want access to resources, and the ability to keep others away from them. American ambitions have been exercised through anchor states, core allies whose job is to police the region and ensure stability for us.

The US pays for militaries strong enough to keep societies in subjection. We also pay to see the values of those militaries – the reliance on violence, the suppression of difference, the repressive cult of masculinity, the patriarchal faith in state power – spread throughout those societies and distort their workings, destroy their solidarities, suppress their dissenters. We’ve created militarized states throughout the Middle East, and we’ve also created militarized masculinities. So the lives of queers in Egypt are necessarily tangled up with the war on terror.

Under the same flag: USAID joins Mona Iraqi in "advancing LGBTI-inclusive development"

Under the same flag: USAID joins Mona Iraqi in “advancing LGBTI-inclusive development”

Today, the US exercises enormous hegemony over the international LGBT movement. Most of the largest organizations doing international LGBT work in the US get funding for acting as instruments of US foreign policy.  The Human Rights Campaign gets money from the US State Department; Outright Action International, which I used to work for, gets money from the US State Department. Many influential groups elsewhere in the global North are beneficiaries of American money. And even groups that don’t get funding rely on the US government for information, for access, for all the privileges that flow from proximity to power.

Increasingly, those groups are willing to play along with the US government and its priorities. You will hear no public criticism of US inaction on Egypt from these NGOs. You’ll hear very little criticism even of the Egyptian government for its crackdown. International LGBT politics comes to mirror US foreign policy, and exempts US allies from harsh scrutiny.

I fear we are creating a comprador LGBT movement, incapable of criticizing the misdeeds of governments that support it.  This movement enjoys what it believes is power — though often that merely means taking cheerful selfies with the politicians who really possess it. But that movement is content to sacrifice its own, in the name of preserving its own access to power: to rest in silence, complicity and compliance.

Canada has a new government, after nine years of Harper, and is moving in a new direction. Your leadership is increasing its commitment to LGBT rights worldwide. It’s doing what the Obama administration and other Western states have done, putting LGBT rights firmly on its foreign policy agenda. And like those other governments it has two motives.

  • Unquestionably some policymakers are sincerely committed to the ideal of universal human rights.
  • But they also know there’s an active constituency at home who can be pleased – appeased — and persuaded to vote by these commitments. Political self-interest amplifies idealism, and in some cases dominates it.

In the spirit of United States citizens who like to tell other people what to do, I want to offer some unwanted advice.  Because when the Trudeau government talks about LGBT rights abroad they’re not aiming at trans or gay Egyptians; they’re aiming at you, as citizens and voters.  And how you conceive these issues and frame them, the strength and reach of your imagination, will determine how successful the initiatives are.

First: LGBT rights can’t be conceived in separation from other human rights issues and violations, or from the overall human rights situation in a country. They’re not a lonely silo on a prairie, standing on its own. Moreover: what your government does to defend them can’t be evaluated without a grasp, and a critique, of your government’s overall foreign policy priorities in a country or a region.

Think of how the United States has dealt with human rights in Uganda. Defending LGBT rights in Uganda — fighting the “Kill the gays” bill — has been an American priority ever since Hillary Clinton launched her gay-rights initiative in 2011.  It hasn’t been entirely successful — the bill hasn’t passed, but it hasn’t gone away either. There is no question, though, that US efforts have bettered and bolstered Ugandan civil society, immensely strengthening its capacity to oppose the bill.

An American queer public outraged by Ugandan homophobia helped drive these initiatives. Yet it’s also convenient for the US government to confront Museveni’s dictatorship on this issue, rather than on its fraudulent elections or its ruthless repression of opposition — which aren’t, after all, abuses most American voters notice. The freedoms of LGBT people are vital, but don’t threaten the ultimate stability of the dictatorial regime. The Obama administration can keep its supporters happy and say it is addressing human rights in Uganda, while emitting only anodyne criticisms as Museveni quashes democracy. The US needs Museveni; he’s an ally in the little war-on-terror sideshow the US keeps going in East Africa. More importantly, he’s a useful stooge in the cold war the US wages with China for control of African natural resources, including the oil and gas that form a burgeoning part of Uganda’s own economy.

As in the Middle East, the US exerts its power in Africa through regional proxies. The Ugandan regime is one, and an exclusionary absorption with LGBT issues allows the US government to evade real condemnation of other Ugandan rights abuses. An American LGBT politics which lets Obama get away with this is partial, truncated, and blind.  Queers need a critical stance on their countries’ foreign policies in general.

Ugandan policemen beat a supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Changeat a Kampala protest against Museveni's 2011 re-re-re-re-inauguration. Photo: James Akena for Reuters

Ugandan policemen beat a supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change at a Kampala protest against interminable President Museveni’s 2011 re-re-re-re-inauguration. Photo: James Akena for Reuters

Second: Break out of the focus on monolithic identities that confine our understanding of sexuality and gender — as well as the conceptions of who “real” or “respectable” LGBT people are. Linkages and intersections constitute queer lives, not monosyllabic words with easy dictionary definitions.

The example of sex work I’ve cited before is essential.  We can’t talk seriously about LGBT rights unless we talk about the legal and social regimes that regulate how sex and gender appear in the public sphere. We can’t talk seriously about LGBT rights unless we talk about how states police people’s bodies and behaviors; how they govern the sex-money nexus; and how they repress and brutalize sex workers.

Another example, quite different, is the Canadian government’s decision to admit Syrian refugees who identify as gay men — but deny protection to single men who don’t identify as gay.

I agree that LGBT refugee claimants should get accelerated recognition if — as many are —- they’re trapped in second countries where they are unsafe. A Syrian gay refugee in Egypt risks arrest and torture. He needs to get out of there fast. I do not agree that LGBT claimants should get recognition to the exclusion of others. That willfully discounts the complexities of identity in a culturally hybrid context. It wilfully ignores the dangers people face, in refugee camps and refugee communities, in taking on a despised identity publicly. It wilfully neglects the rivalries it will create among refugees, which may put LGBT people in further danger from fellow claimants whose support and help they need. And it wilfully overlooks the commonalities of disadvantage between expressly identified LGBT people, and others who live outside normative family structures.

We need to think broadly about the relationship between the body and its freedoms on the one hand, and society and the state on the other. We need to look critically at the identity constructs that confine our thinking, and blind us to wider realities.

Many LGBT activists across the Middle East have chosen to advocate not in terms of “LGBT rights” — a construct with little local meaning or cultural resonance — but in terms of universal rights to autonomy and personal liberty and to privacy and freedom from state interference.  This is powerful language in the region, because it draws on experiences of state surveillance and control that LGBT people have in common with most of their fellow citizens.

Lisa Hajjar has argued that one powerful thread running through all the Arab Spring rebellions was resistance to torture. As a brute reality, torture threatened everybody. It also became a symbol of the broad power states claimed to watch, invade, and control individual bodies.  Resisting it was a key symbolic way of negating the state’s politics and pretensions. Resisting torture asserted the body’s power — the latent strength in those individuals and in their sheer material presence, saying “no” to the vast machinery of repression.

Perhaps this way of thinking about bodies and power is something we all need to learn.

Bodies of nine men killed in a U.S. drone strike on December 12, 2013 are readied for burial near Radda, Yemen. Photo by Nasser Al-Sane for Reprieve.

Bodies of nine men killed in a U.S. drone strike on December 12, 2013 are readied for burial near Radda, Yemen. Photo by Nasser Al-Sane for Reprieve.

I want to close by quoting something a friend of a friend said recently: a feminist in Yemen. She lives in the murderous midst of a Western-sponsored proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the sky, day and night, seen and unseen, are US drones and Saudi warplanes. Through streets trundle combat vehicles that say “Made in Canada” on their underbellies.

She wrote about Orlando: “I’m not sure why I feel it, but it is surprisingly easy to grieve for the grieveable even though I know most would not grieve for me.”

Nearly all my friends in the Middle East share a belief that’s widespread across the region: that their lives don’t matter here. That their lives don’t matter to you. That the murders, the torture, the massacres carried out with our weapons, practiced by our proxies, and continuing in consequence of our wars, are invisible on our TV screens, unmourned and unnoticed and unknown.

Certain images circulate. Others don’t.

Certain deaths are mentionable. Others aren’t.

Given that strong belief, I continue to be surprised, and moved, by the solidarity my friends and colleagues in Cairo, or Amman, or Basra feel for the catastrophes they see elsewhere; the sympathy they summon for our sorrows over Orlando, their willingness to take on this grieving — even while we, in New York or San Francisco or Toronto, glide swiftly past what we dismiss as just another bombing in Baghdad, another drone attack on an anonymous crowd in Yemen, another mutilated corpse in Cairo.

Grief is by definition an emotion that lies beyond the economy of reciprocation. Its objects are those who cannot return our sorrows, acknowledge them or feel them; we grieve precisely because those we grieve are unable to respond.

But we will move beyond grieving. Our sorrow will necessarily give way to choices. We must decide how we respond to living others, how we acknowledge their sorrows, how we answer their demands, how we act.

We will not be judged by the number of our tears or the intensity of our sorrow, but by what we do, by the reach and the consequences of our sympathies, by whether they encompass those who are unlike us, who do not share our identities or our beliefs, whom we cannot fully know. Will we turn our grief into solidarities? Will we look across boundaries?

The choice is ours.

A woman carries an image of Khaled Said, tortured to death by police, at a 2010 Egyptian protest against his murder

A woman carries an image of Khaled Said, tortured to death by police, at a 2010 Egyptian protest against his murder

Oppose the UK – Jamaica prison deal

Jamaica-Prison

Activists in the UK are mobilizing against the Cameron government’s proposed diversion of foreign aid to build a new prison in Jamaica, and open a transatlantic export trade in inmates.

public meeting to discuss opposition to the plan will be held Thursday, November 5, from 7:00 – 8:30 PM (SOAS Russell Square campus, room 583, London WC1H 0XG: map here). On Friday, November 6, there will be a 10 AM demo in front of the Jamaican High Commission (1 Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BZ: map here), to kick off a London day of action against the prison-industrial complex.

This is all part of a November 2-8 week of actions across the UK, aimed particularly at Cameron’s plan to build a new super-prison in North Wales that would be the second largest in Europe.

Prisoner transfers — forced deportations of convicts — are a point where paranoias over crime and paranoias over migration meet. With Europe and North America more and more dominated by prisons and barbed-wire border fences, this intersection is ominous.  Luke de Noronha writes movingly about some of his experiences with Jamaicans deported so far:

Many of the deported persons I have met lived in the UK for over ten years, built lives for themselves, started families, picked up regional British accents, and began to call the UK home. When they are forcibly returned, many land with a few tenuous family links at best, some with none at all. Some have to be housed in homeless shelters …

As one young man told me, he has only taken two flights in his life. The first, a flight to England to join his mother, aged 15. The second, and perhaps his final: a flight to Jamaica, in which he was restrained in handcuffs on a chartered plane from the UK, in November 2014. With tens of other black men, handcuffed to their seats, escorted by security agents, he was flown, against his will, to a country in which he had no support or resources. If this image does not feel uncomfortable, then we really are in a place where historical amnesia rules. A place where wrenching somebody from their home is a matter of justice for the “British tax-payer,” where bodies and lives are forcibly transported to honour racially inscribed citizenship policies, and where, ultimately, deportations are celebrated while reparations are ridiculed.

You can read more here — or, of course, on this blog. 

Storming of the courthouse during the Morant Bay Rebellion, by Barrington Watson (1931 -). British authorities slaughtered rebels protesting the use of criminal law to preserve the structures of slavery three decades after its ostensible end. Jamaica celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Rebellion last month.

Storming of the Courthouse During the Morant Bay Rebellion, by Barrington Watson (1931 -). In 1865, British authorities in Jamaica slaughtered rebels protesting how criminal law preserved the conditions of slavery three decades after its ostensible end. Jamaica commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Rebellion last month.

Slavery’s ghost: Prison imperialism, Jamaica, and the UK

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from www.garyschapman.com

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from www.garyschapman.com

This essay is dedicated, in humble gratitude, to the memory of Dr. Robert Carr.

David Cameron is in Jamaica as I write. Undoubtedly the British prime minister was expecting difficult questions on his visit: from Jamaicans, about reparations for slavery, which their government demanded he discuss; from gay men back at home, about homophobic violence on the island, which they wanted him to combat. (Jamaican LGBT advocates themselves don’t necessarily want the leader of the former slave power doing a lot of shouting on their behalf; but that’s a preference of which Peter Tatchell and his comrades take no heed.) Plus there are the questions about sex with dead pigs. Yet Cameron, far more deft than his daftly pink-cheeked Bertie Wooster mien suggests, had a distraction ready.

Once in Kingston, Cameron announced that the UK is taking £25 million (about US$ 38 million) from its foreign aid to Jamaica to finance a vital development need: a new prison. This puts Jamaica in a small, select class of nations: the UK can force prisoners to go there. It’s worth considering what this promise means. A commerce in prisoners is spreading round the world, sometimes following the almost-erased tracks of the old slave trade. Cameron’s offer reveals the hidden economics of the traffic in human bondage.

Prisoner transfer agreements — by which two countries stipulate that citizens of one who are convicted of a crime in the other can be sent back home to serve their sentence — have been around for a long time. Usually, though, they’re voluntary agreements; they require the prisoner’s consent. And many Jamaicans, Nigerians, or Albanians serving prison terms in the UK won’t consent to return to carceral systems that are overcrowded, underrresourced, and by reputation brutal. So Cameron’s administration has been trying to bully or cajol countries into agreeing to compulsory repatriation – to take their imprisoned citizens back whether they want to go or not. One difficulty has been the usual devil-in-the-details, human rights. Experts have condemned conditions in Jamaica’s prisons for failing international benchmarks: UK prisoners facing forced repatriation there could challenge it in British courts, pointing to the threat of inhuman treatment and abuse. The UK’s solution is to build Jamaica a prison that will seem up to snuff.

No sudden moves. I'm surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

No sudden moves. I’m surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

The government of Jamaica calls the deal a “non-binding Memorandum of Understanding” (it still needs parliament’s ratification) and makes it sound extremely nice: the goal is “to improve the conditions under which prisoners are held in Jamaica, consistent with best practice and international human rights standards, through the construction of a maximum-security prison in Jamaica.”  It’s true that “international human rights standards” and “maximum-security prison” are phrases not always thought seamlessly compatible, but let that pass for now. The UK government’s statement drops the happy talk and non-binding bit, and stresses that it wants a 1500-bed facility, which will house 300-plus prisoners now serving long-term sentences in Britain, with more to come in future. “The prison is expected to be built by 2020 and from then returns will get underway,” says Downing Street. “The Prisoner Transfer Agreement is expected to save British taxpayers around £10 million a year.” Cameron added that

It is absolutely right that foreign criminals who break our laws are properly punished but this shouldn’t be at the expense of the hardworking British taxpayer. That’s why this agreement is so important. It will mean Jamaican criminals are sent back home to serve their sentences, saving the British taxpayer millions of pounds but still ensuring justice is done.

That the agreement will, in his words, “help Jamaica, by helping to provide a new prison – strengthening their criminal justice system,” seems a bit of an afterthought.

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009. By RasMarley from flickr.com

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009: photo by RasMarley from flickr.com

The announcement did not go down well in Jamaica. The leader of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) wondered in parliament why this was coming out of development funds, saying that “building schools contributes much more to the growth agenda than building prisons.” The youth wing of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) also condemned the agreement, pointing out that the UK is only funding 40% of the cost, the rest to be covered by Kingston; and that once the prison is built, the burden of keeping and rehabilitating the prisoners — which they estimate at J$ 365 million (about US$ 3.1 million) per year –would also fall on Jamaica’s treasury. (In fact, the Jamaican government claims, but the UK doesn’t mention, that Britain would give “a further £5.5 million towards the reintegration and resettlement of prisoners.” Anyway, if true, that would presumably be a one-shot offer.) The real discomfort about the deal in Jamaica, though, seems far deeper: drawing on the anger that rose in the reparations dispute over a past of slavery and oppression, a persistent demand for justice that shadowed Cameron’s tour. Symbolically, what does it mean for the British government to buy from Jamaica the right to export its prisoners? Are servitude and its machinery still commodities for sale? Comments on Jamaican newspaper articles ran like this:

So the communist are suppose to be the evil people. The Chinese build highway, Cuba build colleges and high school, the (former) slave masters return to build prison.

And I saw the same spirit in threads on the Facebook pages of Jamaican friends:

We dont need a prison from England. We can get a prison from elsewhere. England owe us more than a prison.

Its a damn shame and height of disrespect to our people….after dem slave we already, all dem can com offer us is prison … fuck dem bloodcloth off!!!!!!

(“Bloodcloth” is a Jamaican obscenity that I wouldn’t translate even if I thought I could.)

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

There is truth in this; prisoners are commodities. We live — so the rich remind us — on a globe that has been globalized, where everything travels and is trafficked. People travel; they become prisoners; then they travel back, under state supervision. This process is now so common that the UN has proposed a “Model Agreement on the Transfer of Foreign Prisoners“; the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) offers a manual on the subject; there is a European treaty on prisoner transfers, and the EU has promulgated regulations for member states. One theme pervades these documents, that “rehabilitating” prisoners is a key motive behind transfers. The EU framework decision even phrases this as a “should” — a requirement of transfers:

Enforcement of the sentence in the executing State [that is, the country receiving the transfer] should enhance the possibility of social rehabilitation of the sentenced person. In the context of satisfying itself that the enforcement of the sentence by the executing State will serve the purpose of facilitating the social rehabilitation of the sentenced person, the competent authority of the issuing State [the one that passed the sentence] should take into account such elements as, for example, the person’s attachment to the executing State, whether he or she considers it the place of family, linguistic, cultural, social or economic and other links to the executing State.

That provision only applies to transfers among EU member countries, but it indicates a more general justification. Thus the Jamaican government promises that “The new facility will be designed and constructed with a focus on rehabilitation, which should reduce the high rates of recidivism that now occur.” Similarly, the UK prisons minister has said forced transfers “mean that these prisoners will be closer to family and friends.This helps to support prisoners’ social rehabilitation and reintegration into society.” It’s generally true that proximity to family can ease a prisoner’s re-entry after release. But of course, many Jamaican prisoners in Britain have closer family ties in Clapham than in Kingston, and are more culturally at ease in Brixton than Montego Bay. This is also “globalization”; yet the British government shows no disposition to ascertain where anybody’s “family, linguistic, cultural” and-so-on affiliations lie. The truth is, social benefits to the prisoners are the last thing on most governments’ minds in transfer policies. What matters is simple: politics and money.

And in the UK, politics means immigration. Mass mania over migration drives the whole UK political process.  A poll last month showed 56% of Britons named immigration as a major concern. For years, the percent of Britons calling it the most worrying concern has been three to four times the average in other countries.

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

Fears of criminality always seed anti-immigrant feeling. (Think Donald Trump and those Mexican rapists.) Though capitalism mandates mobility more and more sweepingly, mobility as spectacle and spectre rouses deep terrors about stability and safety. British newspapers thunder about “foreign prisoners” constantly. You might think them less of a menace, because they’re in prison; instead, they’re vital to immigration paranoia. They’re countable; they make dread specific.And the ones already imprisoned prove all foreigners are a threat. “The number of foreign prisoners is growing and attempts to remove them are often futile”! “Foreign inmates outnumber British nationals in a UK prison for the first time”! “Every time Britain manages to deport a foreign prisoner another one takes their place in jail”! They’re making “the UK a permanent safe haven for the world’s killers, rapists, drug-dealers and other assorted scum”! In fact, while the number of foreign prisoners doubled in twenty years, so did the number of prisoners in the UK overall. You can debate whether a crime wave, harsh sentencing, or more repressive policing caused this. But the proportion of foreign prisoners has barely risen at all.

Foreign_prisoners_UK_jails_v2

Graph from FullFact.org

Facts don’t matter, of course. Within six months of taking office in 2010, Cameron’s coalition government tried to placate the panic, by vowing to deport the foreign prisoners: to “tear up agreements that mean convicts cannot be returned home without their consent.” It didn’t work. In fact, in Cameron’s first term the number of deportations actually fell.

foreign criminals chart

From the Daily Mirror, 2014

Cameron needed agreements, despite the talk of tearing them up; and few countries were willing to sign them. Moreover, even criminals who had finished their sentences (presumably easier to deport, because you didn’t need a foreign prison system to agree to take them) were fighting removal in the courts, successfully.The government was reduced to creating a team of pop-psych mavens, tasked with visiting prisoners to talk them into self-deporting. “The unit uses psychological techniques known as ‘nudge theory’ to help people make better choices for themselves.”

Expert: Would you like to leave the country?
Prisoner: No.
Expert: What if I give you money?
Prisoner: How much money?
Expert: It’s a hypothetical question.
Prisoner: No.

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

In 2014, Dominic Raab — a young, telegenic, misogynistic, Europe-hating, ultra-right Tory back-bencher (the son of a Czech Jewish refugee, the husband of a Brazilian bride) — led a rebellion against Cameron. He proposed to grease the ejection seats for “foreign criminals,” stripping power from the courts and giving the Home Secretary final say. He boasted that “only one case every five years” would qualify to stay in Britain. The government’s response “was a mess,” one conservative pundit wrote, “first giving him a wink of encouragement only to declare his idea unworkable at the last moment.” Raab invoked the ultimate terror and temptress of the Tory right: UKIP, the extremist UK Independence Party, which every Conservative dreaded could drain their votes if they didn’t stay hard-line enough. To block his measure, Raab warned, “would be a bow-wrapped gift for UKIP.” 85 MPs joined him in revolt; Cameron only beat back the proposal with Labour’s help.

UKIP, obsessive on the subject of immigrants and crime, press-ganged everyone rightward. They demanded immediate deportation for “foreign criminals,” and damn the law. Prison Watch UK graphed their monomania:

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

UKIP came in third in the 2015 election, winning one seat — but almost 13% of the vote. If the Tories could lure away enough UKIP voters, they could dream of a permanent majority. In his new government, Cameron named the onetime rebel Raab an undersecretary in the Justice Ministry, with the title of “minister for human rights.”

Where does the money part come in? In the story of how Cameron pursued expulsions — and here you need to burrow back a bit. One of the first model prisoner-transfer agreements the UK reached came in 2007 under Tony Blair, who set the pattern for the Conservatives in so many ways. It happened in Libya, and it happened because Muammar Qaddafi wanted one particular prisoner back: Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, serving a life sentence in Scotland for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Blair, meanwhile, wanted an oil contract for BP. In the “deal in the desert,” Tony flew to Tripoli and offered up al-Megrahi, concealing the gift under a comprehensive prisoner transfer accord — without consulting the Pan Am families, or his pet Scottish government. Qaddafi then gave the petroleum giant exclusive rights to drill in three vast blocs the size of Belgium and Kuwait together: trading territory worth billions for the inmate. Al-Megrahi was transported to Libya to live out his term; he had become the most expensive human being ever bought and sold, dearer than Diogenes or ElizabethTaylor. Petropounds lubricated the exchange. They also inaugurated Blair’s post-Downing Street career as dealmaker to dictators, a globe-trotting cross between Armand Hammer and Austin Powers.

BP batty bwoys: Blair and Qaddafi share secrets, 2007

Austin Powers (L) and Goldmember share their secrets, 2007

Subsequent prisoner transfer agreements have been similarly mercenary. But the cash has flowed the other way. Downing Street says that, in addition to Jamaica, “Compulsory transfer agreements are also in place with Albania, Nigeria, Somaliland, Rwanda, and Libya.” Except for Libya (where a once-respectable GDP has plummeted since the Royal Air Force’s little 2011 incursion) these are all poor countries. (Nigeria has oil but the per-capita GDP is barely one-fourth of what Libya’s was in 2007.) Cameron persuaded a paltry four impoverished nations to take their prisoners back, by paying them.

With some countries (particularly those where tiny prisoner contingents are involved) the effect can be achieved by dangling small amounts of apparently unrelated aid or benefits before the recipient government. With Nigeria, according to the Nigerian press, it involved a £3 million “annual fund to rehabilitate prisons.” This money wasn’t mentioned in the UK government’s announcement of the Nigerian deal (though the Daily Mail had indignantly warned of it long before); in fact, at least two years of payoffs, to facilitate Abuja’s acceptance of voluntary transfers, appear to have preceded the compulsory-transfer signing. The funding thus seems devoid of the monitoring mechanisms usual to bilateral aid programs. Given Nigeria’s high place on the global corruption index, it would be anybody’s guess where the cash wound up.

Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and Seychelles

Triangular trade: Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and (lower left) Seychelles

Somaliland stands out on that list, because it isn’t a nation. It’s a breakaway region claiming independence from fragmented Somalia. The formerly British part of a country stitched together from British and Italian colonies, Somaliland runs a competent PR machine in London, apparently with enough cash to rent some would-be politicians. (UKIP is a great supporter of Somaliland’s contested statehood, as is Peter Tatchell.) But clearly it could use more. Its place on the roster has a complex backstory that unveils the colonial essence of the prisoner-transfer enterprise.

The deal traces back to Britain’s concern over piracy off Somalia’s coasts. That piracy, made immortal by a Tom Hanks movie, affected plenty of developed economies moving goods through the Suez Canal — by early this decade annual losses exceeded US$ 6 billion. But it took place in international waters, and none of the surrounding states were eager to prosecute captured pirates. Britain helped prevail on the Seychelles — a tiny island nation that was a UK colony from 1810 till 1976 — to take on the job.

Seychelles mainly contributed its name and territory; in “a scheme funded by the Foreign Office and the United Nations,” to the tune of £9 million from Cameron’s government, Britain then controlled the trials and the jails. The UK sent its own prosecutors. One struck the proper colonial note in a BBC interview, describing Somali captives as a “cheerful and reasonably intelligent lot.” The UK also built a maximum security prison — a “paradise” behind “15-ft high razor wire” that housed 100 Somalis by 2013 — and contributed its own warden. There were too many Somali convicts coming out of the courts for the facility to hold, however. So Britain also brokered a compulsory transfer agreement between Seychelles and Somaliland for the latter to absorb the overflow.

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Somaliland thus opened a “pirate prison,” with £1 million from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (and presumably more from Britain); by 2012 it held 313 Somalis. Prisoners were shunted from shore to shore like backgammon counters. (A Brit working for UNODC in Seychelles joked to the BBC “that most Somalis are happy to be sent [to Somaliland] to escape the prison diet of rice and tuna.” In Somaliland, prisoners told the Guardian that “The food here is not good. We get rice, tomatoes and only a little bit of meat. In Seychelles the food was better.”)

Familiar colonial problems dogged the whole process. The British prosecutors knew no Somali nor Arabic; they couldn’t understand what the people they sent to prison were saying. “We didn’t have lawyers and we didn’t know the language,” a Somali inmate told the Guardian about his Seychelles trial, claiming he was merely fishing when gunboats arrested him. He got 10 years. A British barrister complained of “a marked inequality of resources between the prosecution and defence which was capable of producing injustice.” Moreover, flouting their basic rights, prisoners sent to Somaliland were stripped of any ability to appeal their convictions in Seychelles. But the point was, some pirates wound up behind bars, and piracy declined, and oil flowed through the Gulf of Aden. Seychelles was, of course, an old slave colony, familiar with involuntary transits. And Somaliland was desperate for official acknowledgement, and willing to sell itself as a prison camp to get it. (The head of Somaliland’s Anti-Piracy Taskforce “said the funding, and Somaliland’s increasing usefulness in the fight against piracy, would help the enclave’s bid for international recognition of its independence.”) Exploiting these two weak and dependent territories, Britain built a regional economy of prisoner transfers around its own needs. It was like a miniscule Indian Ocean version of the Atlantic triangular trade.

Inmates at the Hargeisa

Inmates at the Hargeisa “pirate’s prison” in Somaliland, 2012. Photo by Tony Karumba for AFP/Getty Images

WIth all this going on elsewhere in the world, Jamaica knew there was money in the prisoner-transfer business, and drove a hard bargain. The deal Cameron announced had been in the works since at least 2007; but it’s easy to infer that, as Kingston saw other countries profiting, its own price went up. Britain paid to import chained humans to its territories for several centuries. There’s a certain justice that, as the whirligig of capital brings round its revenges, it must now pay to export them. Of course, for the humans in question, “justice” may not be the right word.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

One thing must be clear. Bilateral aid to improve developing countries’ prison systems should be a good, needed thing. People who claim aid must focus on “nice” projects like schools or hospitals ignore the fact that prisoners have needs and rights — rights that governments disdain and deny. Suggestions (by the PNP’s youth league, for instance) that foreign donors should leave prisons alone adumbrate a dangerous nationalist antagonism to human rights altogether.

But whom will Britain’s Jamaica project help? To begin with, you have to note that the UK’s attitudes toward foreign prisons are hopelessly discordant. When it’s a question of a British citizen incarcerated abroad, those places are primitive hells — “terrifyingly alien,” a barrister wrote of Jamaican jails; “the cells are the size of a  typical one-car garage.” When it’s a question of shipping a non-citizen back to his homeland’s prisons, those receptacles are fine, fine. Torture? What torture? As Dominic Raab said, it’s horribly wrong when “We have innocent British citizens being carted off … to face flawed justice systems or gruesome jails abroad. But we can’t send foreign gangsters back home.” In other words, surprise! — Britons worry about prisons abroad when it suits their interests.

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women's prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women’s prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

There are deep human rights problems in Jamaica’s prisons. The country has an incarceration rate about the same as England and Wales (a third of Russia’s, a quarter of the United States’); but the system is teeming and ill-maintained.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared in 2012 that “Detention and prison conditions in Jamaica are generally very poor primarily due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of sufficient medical care.” A 2010 investigation by the UN special rapporteur on torture determined the country’s two main prisons “are not suitable for modern correctional purposes, including rehabilitation and re-socialization.”

But here’s the problem. Every country wants a prison system because every country thinks it’s the answer: to crime, to excess population, to immorality or poverty. But nobody wants to pay for it it. It’s true in the US, in the UK, and in Jamaica. There is no constituency in Jamaica for spending tax money to improve prisons, or aid money for that matter. (The current government has dabbled with bringing in private, for-profit prison corporations, but couldn’t find a taker.) Part of popular mythology around prisons in Jamaica is that they’re too luxurious, not harsh or primitive enough, lenient leisure clubs that drain men of manhood and leave them batty bwoys. Real abuses like rape that make imprisonment unendurable instead become the spoor of pampering. Clovis, the notoriously homophobic cartoonist for the Jamaica Observer, rams home the point:

(L) A child sees his father's killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says

(L) A child sees his father’s killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says “Put convicts to work!” (M) Vybz Kartel, the dancehall artist convicted of murder– famous for his “effeminate” ointment-bleached skin — is dragged to prison. (R) A perpetrator of domestic violence gets his desserts.

(It’s sobering to compare this with the UN expert’s report: “Homosexuals detained at St. Catherine and Tower Street correctional centres were held in the ‘vulnerable persons unit’ as a protective measure. However, their separation led to a loss of privileges of a punitive character, such as work and recreation, including the use of the library and playing field. In the security section in the Tower Street centre, detainees were locked up in dark, solitary cells without a toilet or water, and had nobody to call for help.”)

It’s improbable that the UK money will do anything to change overall prison conditions in Jamaica, much less the beliefs and policies that produce them. It’s not meant to. At best, Cameron’s bargain will create a two-tier prison system: lucky UK exports will enjoy the cutting-edge prison’s comparative comforts, along with privileged dons and barons who can pay for it, while everyone else swelters in the old inferno. And this is fine with Britain. Given the UK’s desperation to slough off unwanted inmates, there’s little chance they’ll seriously inspect even the new facility’s standards. It’s fine with Jamaica too. Already the government is talking about this not as a rights issue, but a real estate one: the possible superannuation of one old penitentiary means that “Downtown Kingston will have the opportunity for a large redevelopment on the 30 acres of waterfront land now occupied by the prison,” the National Security Ministry told the press. “A similar opportunity for redevelopment would be provided in Spanish Town.”

Spanish Town Adult Correctional Facility, Kingston. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

St. Catherine Adult Correctional Facility, in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

This is a story about commodities. It’s a very contemporary one. When people lose their freedom and their rights, they become objects; but under triumphant capitalism, an object can only be a commodity, must bear a price. These days, the unfree are destined to be bought and sold.

The UK is building a market in prisoners; it exports the problem of prison to other states, and pays them to take it. The idea of the price of individual prisoners permeates the discourse. “The average annual cost of a prison place in the UK is £25,900,” Downing Street declares. The Daily Mail envisions a more upscale product, like free-range chickens, and pegs them at “around £40,000 a year.” The aggregate numbers are what counts in interstate relations — the “£25 million a year to keep 850 foreign prisoners behind bars,” the “£35 million every year” spent “locking up Poles” who strayed our way — but the single prisoner remains the nominal unit of exchange, like the lone dollar or pound whose abstract value in its minute oscillations can set unimaginably vast capital flows in motion.

Fear of an actual planet

Fear of an actual planet

Yet this is the nativist language of an economy in recession. The UK’s reasoning is clear: if we have to spend that much on prisoners, which we don’t want to, let’s spend it on our own, not foreigners. “Deporting foreign criminals would free up prison places,” says a UKIP politician, letting us abuse and humiliate more of our own kind. There’s no reason the logic should stop there, though. Already the UK is figuring out ways to scrap the formality of a trial; Cameron’s government has come up with “Operation Nexus,” to simplify deporting foreigners charged with crimes but not convicted. And isn’t there a deeply buried message: Look. We would deport our own citizens if we could. Can a mere ID deter ostracism and eviction? With a West desperate to export crime and get rid of immigrants, why is birthright belonging more than a friable, disposable defense? Donald Trump already wants to scrap it. If the UK could find a penal colony, a Botany Bay, to take its suspect and unwanted nationals, how long would it cling to them over legal sentimentalities? As non-citizens become criminals, an insidious mirroring begins; the possibility — the fissure — of turning criminals into non-citizens opened, after September 11. The United States now can kill its own nationals without trial. It can pry in their doings as if they all were foreign spies. Correspondingly, zones of statelessness are starting to spring up, like weeds in the cracks of a formerly seamless planet. Guantanamo was the first, but not the last. Somaliland “enjoys relative peace and stability,” writes Reuters, parroting its Cameronland informants, “and analysts hope it might be a good site for more incarcerations in the future.” There you go — “peace and stability” now simply mark out promising lands for prisons, the way a geologist looks at a glittering slope of schist and sees oil. But the analysts don’t come to Somaliland for the quiet. Its draw is that it’s not a state; human rights treaties and duties don’t apply. Because such places are, in a global sense, lawless, states can set up laboratories there to make their own law. It’s not so much the fact that such small, silent interstices are appearing, in a world that used to talk of legality and freedom. It’s the fear that in those interspersed crevices and ruptures, our terrifying future is being born.

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

No one likes to talk about the links between slavery and prisons, but they are real. Both Michelle Alexander and Loïc Wacquant show how the modern prison in America grew in response to the formal abolition of involuntary servitude; the reality and constant threat of incarceration forged new psychological as well as legal shackles around an ostensibly liberated population. The prison shared — and shares — many features with the model case of human slavery in the 20th century, the Nazi concentration camp. Here’s something I read recently that chilled me.

In the American South after the Civil War black convict labourers, leased out for dangerous, back-breaking work and subject to summary punishment and execution, sometimes had a mortality rate as high as 50 per cent in certain states. … Mortality among the tiny minority of white prisoners was around 2 per cent.

A 50% mortality rate for the imprisoned is roughly the rate for Hitler’s work camps (as opposed to the pure death camps, like Sobibór or Treblinka). The Gulag’s death toll, for example, was only half that. The enslavement of the human being; his reduction to a rightsless cipher; her extermination once her economic use was exhausted — these are extreme cases, absolutely not typical of all incarceration. But they’re possibilities inextricably latent in the modern prison: because buried under the prison is the slave camp.

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

What we’re seeing now is twofold. Imprisonment is no longer a reserve away from the economy where the unproductive can be shunted; it’s completely economized. And the prison economy is going international. This traffic in chained bodies is growing. It resuscitates the authority structures of colonial slavery with new legal forms, purposes, and names. It’s frightening to see even a few of the old slave-trade routes revived like grass-grown oxen tracks, running from Britain to Jamaica or the Bight of Benin, from the Indian Ocean islands to the East African coast — though sometimes the shackled people are borne in directions opposite to the map’s faded arrows.

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland, in 2011. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Hilary Beckles, the chair of Caricom’s Reparations Committee (and vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies) published an open letter before Cameron’s arrival in Jamaica. It cited how the prime minister’s own clan had profited from Britain’s slave economy; in the 19th century, Cameron’s distant relations owned 202 slaves in Jamaica. Beckles wrote:

You owe it to us as you return here to communicate a commitment to reparatory justice that will enable your nation to play its part in cleaning up this monumental mess of Empire. We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme of rehabilitation and renewal.

Cameron rejected all such calls. Jamaica, he told its parliament, should “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.”

But how? It’s Cameron whose state policies summon the ghosts of the traffic in human lives. The only future that lies that way is inhuman.

Stereoscope slide marked

Stereoscope slide marked “Sugar Cane field hands, Montego bay, Jamaica, 1900,” from http://www.abdn.ac.uk/slavery/resource12c.htm. Although Jamaican slavery was abolished almost seven decades earlier, the conditions of plantation work were largely unchanged.

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Anusbook. Be connected. Be discovered.

“Tests of shame! Till when?” Campaign by the Tunisian group Damj

Join the campaign to end forced anal tests in Tunisia. You can start by posting a message of support, or even re-posting this article, on Twitter or Facebook. Paste in the hashtag #لا_لفحوصات_العار (No test of shame!), or  #لا_للفصل_230 (No to Article 230!); or use the hashtags #TestdelaHonte and #Tunisie.

On September 6, police summoned a young Tunisian man, 22 or 23, in the coastal city of Sousse. One of his friends had been murdered; the man numbered among the contacts on the victim’s phone. Someone in the young man’s circles told me:

A friend of mine was there in the police station to be with him in case he needed any thing. This friend told me that the arrested young man was being beaten as he was interrogated.  Also, he had no legal representation at all. I was told that the police checked Facebook conversation with the murdered man and based on them they charged him with homosexuality. The[y] could not find any links with the murder so they decided to charge him based on the anti-sodomy law in Tunisia.

The young man later told AFP, through the attorney he’d finally been able to reach, that “I do not understand why I have been sentenced … or why I was detained for six days without being allowed to contact my lawyer … I want to get out and resume normal life. I don’t know what I’ll do with my studies and my work. I do not want to be rejected by society,”

Unfortunately, these abuses on arrest are standard practice in Tunisia; the law allows police to hold defendants for up to six days, without access to lawyers, before a judge or prosecutor sees them.  A United Nations expert condemned this in May as “counter to the right to a fair hearing, the right to defence and the right to have access to legal counsel … The excessive length of police custody combined with the fact that a suspect does not have access to a lawyer may create the circumstances for ill-treatment.” On September 11, he was sent to a prosecutor, and four days after that to a judge, who ordered an “anal inspection” — a forensic anal examination, inflicted without his consent. The examination found him “used’; on September 22, the judge sentenced him to one year in prison, under Article 230 of the Penal Code, which punishes “sodomy” with up to a three-year sentence.

en-tunisie-certains-homosexuels-sont-victimes-de-tests-de-la-11464486zrzql_1713

“What are the tests of shame? It is an anal test performed by the forensic doctor on the order of the judicial police. It is practiced on ‘presumed gays’ to verify their sexual orientation.” Poster by Damj.

The story stirred up a storm in Tunisia because it exposes two ongoing scandals. One is the persisting criminalization of private,consensual sexual acts. The other, deeply connected, is the state’s invasion of the body, an incursion of which the anal tests are an extreme but indicative form. As Yamina Thabet, president of the Association Tunisienne de soutien des minorités (Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities, ATSM), declared on Twitter, the case sent a citizen to prison “based on a liberticide law and using abusive evidence.”

Damj, a Tunisian NGO fighting to decriminalize homosexual conduct, swiftly launched a campaign to educate the public about the “tests of shame” — which its president, Baabu Badr, described as “a surrealist practice in today’s Tunisia.” The leftist party Al Massar declared the tests “inhumane and unacceptable” and the trial “a danger to the democratic processes of the Second Republic.” ATSM said the exams “recall the practices of the Inquisition.” Wahid Ferhichi, president of the Association pour la défense des libertés individuelles (Association for the Defense of Individual Liberties) complained that “The consent of the accused should be required for this type of test but in fact, the suspect is put under pressure. His refusal is held against him as a presumption of guilt. But the law stipulates the presumption of innocence, and not the opposite.” And Médecins contre la dictature (Doctors Against Dictatorship) called the exams “a blatant attack on physical integrity which falls under the framework of physical torture.” It said they violate Article 23 of Tunisia’s progressive new constitution, which holds that “The state protects human dignity and physical integrity, and prohibits mental and physical torture.”

Un-homosexuel-condamne-en-Tunisie_article_landscape_pm_v8

“Is it possible to refuse an anal test? From a legal perspective: It is possible to refuse an anal test at the time you are confronted with the forensic doctor. The reality is quite otherwise. The victims often ‘consent’ to the test from fear of torture, because of their young age, or because they don’t know their rights guaranteed by the Constitution.” Poster by Damj.

Unquestionably the exams are torture. They prove nothing and have no medical basis, though their obsessed practitioners try to believe they do. Their only real function is to resemble rape, to hammer home the victim’s helpless abjection before pitiless power. (The fact that, in Muslim countries, prisoners are often told to assume the posture of prayer as the exam is inflicted only lends a blasphemous twist to the humiliation.)

I’ve studied these tests for more than ten years; the article I wrote on them for the Journal of Health and Human Rights is still pretty much the only historical analysis of them around. They grew from the theories of a 19th-century French forensic doctor, Auguste Ambroise Tardieu. Tardieu studied both prostitutes and “pederasts” through the peculiar lens of a pornographic imagination. He believed that vice left physical evidence on the body — that through these stigmata, doctors and police could detect the adepts of perversion, however cunningly they concealed themselves in urban anonymity and confusion. The “pederast” carried six unmistakable marks: “excessive development of the buttocks; funnel-shaped deformation of the anus; relaxation of the sphincter; the effacement of the folds, the crests, and the wattles at the circumference of the anus; extreme dilation of the anal orifice; and ulcerations, hemorrhoids, fistules.`” Among these the conical anus was “the unique sign and the only unequivocal mark of pederasty.” Tardieu launched generations of forensic pseudoexperts on an idiotic quest to detect suspect anuses shaped like trumpets, pyramids, or calla lilies. I first read Tardieu in my room in Cairo back in 2003, like a dirty novel, in a copy downloaded from the digitized collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I shuddered in disbelief that doctors could credit this kind of fantasy; except by that time I’d already talked to the doctors who performed the exams in Egypt, and I knew.

Criminal entities: A) calla lily; B) trumpet; C) you know.

Criminal entities: A) calla lily; B) trumpet; C) you know.

Tardieu’s ideas were discredited in much of the West by the twentieth century — partly on pure scientific grounds, partly because, as the ideal of universal citizenship became an essential prop of government, the idea that certain bodies were palpably, legibly deviant or illegal stopped being a tenable approach to politics or crime. (Two facts can be said to symbolize the qualified victory of that universal ideal, one well-known and one almost forgotten. On the one hand, the slow triumph of women’s suffrage meant that sexual difference cased to be a comprehensive legal disqualification from the public sphere; on the other, the British feminist campaign against forced medical testing of suspected prostitutes — so-called “specular rape” — asserted that the state couldn’t use medicine to winnow respectable from “fallen” women in that public world.) Of course, the belief that some bodies were scientifically identifiable as dangerous never wholly went away. It was intrinsic to fascism. It’s implicit in contemporary American penology, where to be young and black is to have a prison sentence written on your forehead.

Anthropology in the human zoo: A Tunisian family exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair, 1934

Anthropology in the human zoo: A Tunisian family exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1934

However, Tardieu’s specific delusions about sex and the body are largely dead in the Europe from which they sprang. They survive, instead, in the countries Europe colonized. In addition to the Middle East, where they run rampant, they’ve been documented across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. There’s a reason. The promise of universal citizenship wasn’t valid in all locations. It was fine for the West, but in the subject territories, the colonial powers practiced divide and rule. Their authority was made through measuring and classifying bodies — by race, ethnicity, sex, health, height, malleability, morality, cleanliness. The law against “sodomy” in Tunisia dates back to a 1913 criminal code the French authorities imposed; homosexual acts had been legal in metropolitan France since the Revolution, but in the Maghreb the penalty was resurrected — to segregate immoral elements in the population with a view to purification and control. Public health was another great fixation of colonial authorities, British and French alike. (It was one of the few areas where Victorian British intellectuals were willing to take French tutelage.) Through its emerging discourses, they aspired to disinfect indigenous physical filth with the aseptic, separating order of reason. Exported extensively on French and British warships to the warmer climates of the world, Tardieu’s theories about lily-shaped assholes found room to flower; they gave colonial governments the snug belief they could actually measure native perversions with a ruler — and could subject those bodies to scientific domination. The illusions that powered the colonial state became the post-colonial state’s inheritance. Governments still cling to the strategy of division, the distrust of universality, the corporeal ambitions of authority, and the myths that underpinned them. Under precarious, authoritarian regimes struggling to manage and moralize unruly, prolific populations, Tardieu lives.

“Excessive development of the buttocks”: Saartjie Baartman, a captive Khoikhoi woman exhibited in London and Paris from 1810-1815 as a lesson in physical decadence and comparative anatomy, in a contemporary French print

Tunisia was, of course, where the Arab Spring began. It’s still the one state that’s stayed, however haltingly, a democratic course while the others lapsed into civil war or the Ice Age. Lisa Hajjar argues that a “torture trail” ran through the 2011 revolutions: people came together in revolt partly because they shared a loathing, cutting across classes and identities, for regimes that secured their rule by brutalizing and destroying bodies. Resisting state power over the individual body was a key flashpoint in many countries: in Egypt, for instance, the “We Are All Khaled Said” movement roused people in transformative solidarity with a single middle-class youth tortured and murdered by police. Tunisia was at the heart of this. Its revolution ignited when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, put his body literally on the line against the state by burning himself to death, to protest police violence and bureaucratic indifference. The question of corporeal resistance, freedom in the bone, has remained central in Tunisia since. It underlies the controversy over society and state’s collusion in enforcing women’s virginity before marriage — the splendid film National Hymen makes clear how this isn’t just a question of “individual freedom” in the abstract, but of the nation’s claim to illegitimate rights over the body. It’s not surprising that progressive activists in Tunisia should understand the forced anal exams — an assertion of the state’s power over every carnal crevice of your person — as a crucial battle in this elemental war.

It’s sad and telling that the young man’s ordeal began with the police searching through Facebook messages — that technologically modern method of rooting out private evidence. In his misery, two forms of surveillance met. Like Tardieu’s theories, Facebook claims it can make social networks legible. The fear that haunted Tardieu was people copulating secretly, flouting class and status, outside society’s panoptical scrutiny, promiscuous and unrecorded. As I wrote in 2004:

To Tardieu, “habitual pederasty,” a tendency outwardly often undetectable, had infiltrated all social classes. His aim was to help justice “pursue and extirpate, if possible, this shameful vice.” His obstacles were the slippery masquerades in which a protean pederasty hid. He warned of “habitual pederasty among married men, among fathers of families.” The treacherous skill by which pederasty concealed its public marks lent urgency to the “precise and certain declaration of the signs which can make pederasts recognizable” – pinning down the tendency’s spoor upon the skin itself.

That’s what, in a very different register, Facebook promises: to reveal selves and networks. It will render your desires and connections visible, to your friends but also — the fine print of the bargain — to companies hunting customers, and to governments tracking crime.

The cops start with trailing you in the cyber placidity of Facebook. But there’s an Anusbook they want to study, too, and it’s violent, not virtual. Surveillance begins by intercepting words; it ends by invading bodies. The state monitors messages at first, but only the better to torture their makers. Knowledge is the means, but the goal is pain. Social media make up a dull, expository prologue. The intricate exposed agony of your wounded body is what the police really long to read.

Facebook logo

Also, bend over. That thumb is waiting.

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Meet this policeman. He is going to arrest you.

Major-General Amgad el-Shafei, from El Wafd, May 2015

Major-General Amgad el-Shafei, from Al Wafd, May 2015

… “You” can mean many things, of course. Not all my readers are gay or trans or sex workers, though some are (hi there!). Nor are they all Egyptians. But wherever you live, you might wind up here; anybody can visit Egypt (unless a Google search turns up evidence you actually know something about the place, in which case you’ll be expelled). The government welcomes tourists; this month it sent helicopters to kill eight of them, the way big-game hunters cull the population to make room for more. And it loves gay tourists; they’re so much fun to arrest. Meanwhile, that man’s title is actually head of the Morals Police, Shortat el-Adab. Who among us hasn’t thought or done or dreamed something immoral? The very word, adab, casts a wide dragnet in Arabic, covering everything from “manners” to “discipline.” Generalissimo Sisi himself has called for a land more disciplined in every way: “State institutions, namely those with educational, religious and media roles, have to help us regulate morals that we all think are problematic.” Wayward fantasies and errant words of dissent are as unchaste and culpable as misused genitals. Look in that man’s eyes, and tremble. He’s watching you.

Major-General Amgad el-Shafei, the new leader of Egypt’s vice squad, has been on my mind. Morals police arrested “the largest network of gays” last week, 11 of them reportedly inhabiting two apartments in the Agouza district of Cairo along with “sex toys,” “manmade genitalia,” and women’s clothes. Allegedly the criminals charged 1500 LE (just under US $200) per hour. It’s impossible to make out how police caught them, though the cops claimed to have been “monitoring pages on the Internet.” The arrests got unusual coverage — not only in scandal sites like Youm7 and El Watan, but the respectable state-owned Al-Ahram; and right in the lead was the name of the hero head of the Morals Police, el-Shafei.

Some of the 11 arrestees, from Youm7

Some of the 11 arrestees, from Youm7

One thing not much noted in the current crackdown on trans and gay Egyptians is how inextricable it is from fears, and laws, about prostitution. The morals campaign has meant intensified repression of women sex workers, though this gets little international attention. The law criminalizing homosexual conduct in Egypt is actually a “Law on Combatting Prostitution,” passed in 1951, amid a moral panic over licensed brothels kept by British colonial forces. Lawmakers, determined to extirpate immorality of all kinds, wrote a bill punishing not just di’ara (the sale of sexual services by women) but also fugur, or “debauchery” — a term they didn’t bother to define. They slapped both with a draconian three years in prison. Courts, culminating in a binding ruling in 1975, held that “debauchery” meant men having sex with men, with or without money. The law thus penalizes women selling sex, and all sex between men. It’s a textbook case of how a badly, broadly written law on sex expands like the Blob in the movies. Although legally it’s irrelevant whether those accused of homosexual sex were doing it for cash, police often claim they were, to stiffen the stigma. But everyone also knows that a woman snogging with her boyfriend or flirting with a man in public, or simply dressed the wrong way, can be picked up for “prostitution.” (Of course, the exchange of money is notoriously hard to prove in any case, meaning cops everywhere rely on stereotypes, suppositions, and lies. Cairo Tourist Police threatened a straight female friend of mine with the charge last October, because she hung around with gay men.)

Anti-prostitution laws, hard at work

Anti-prostitution laws, hard at work

The law was meant to punish women for defiling the national honor with the occupier. Now it suppresses any deviations from the moral “discipline” that plinths and legitimates Sisi’s rule.

So the same adulatory stories announced that el-Shafei’s officers also broke up “four prostitution networks,” involving an airline pilot, a Jordanian girl, Gulf Arabs (real or fictional). Last week el-Shafei caught gays consorting with Gulfies; the week before, twin sisters soliciting in Agouza; before that a 25-year-old woman doing “immoral business” with foreigners. The foreign peril is a crucial angle in today’s Egypt: fears of alien corruption, lusts leaking across borders, make persecuting “promiscuity” seem not only moral but mandatory. “‘Imported Prostitution’ Sweeps Egyptian Society,” Youm7 warned two weeks ago, about Ukrainian, Russian, and Chinese sex workers in Cairo. 

The press defines the crackdown’s latest phase as a broad cleanup campaign before the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice that began today. “These pre-Eid morality raids have been going on for some time,” my colleague Dalia Abd el-Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told a reporter. “We have almost got used to expecting them.” This is true. Higher-ranking officers feel the urge to purge the streets before one of the noblest of Islam’s holidays. Admittedly, it’s a celebration of charity and forbearance, but show too much forbearance and the scum of the earth will spoil the fun. Meanwhile, beat cops get bonuses (and extract bribes) for diligence in duty; and they need them, because Eid al-Adha is expensive. (There’s the long weekend at the beach that many uxorious policemen buy their families, or girlfriends; plus, sacrificial animals cost money, and their prices usually soar before the festival.)

“In Peace and Security.” Cartoon by Andeel for Mada Masr, September 14, 2015

Two things, however, make this pre-Eid campaign feel different. First, security language dominates the holiday — and the crackdown. All the headlines are about threats and counter-measures. The state claims it has “eliminated” a terrorist group in the Western desert that was plotting holiday attacks; meanwhile, a massive, murderous military operation continues in Sinai, a war zone barred to journalists, and we only know the government gloats it’s killed hundreds of “terrorists.” In Cairo, authorities plan to safeguard the Eid with SWAT teams around mosques, banks, movie houses, parks — even on Nile party boats. Throughout, the Ministry of Interior assures us, the Morals Police will play a vital role, protecting women against the population (as opposed to their usual job, protecting the population against women). But morality is now part of security in Egypt. Whatever the Morals Police do, they couch in security terms. One newspaper screamed three weeks ago that male homosexuality in Egyptian society

has increased in recent times … and sets off alarm bells about the causes of what can be called the “emergency disease” which threatens the future of the Egyptian nation, and calls for serious and rapid action from the state to prevent its exacerbation, as a national security issue.

And the other difference is the glut of publicity the police are giving this pre-Eid campaign. Nothing “undercover” about it. One thing you can say about Major-General el-Shafei: he knows how to get headlines.

What else can you say about Amgad el-Shafei? He’s an interesting man. It’s hard to trace the arc of an Egyptian policeman’s career; these cops don’t post their CVs on LinkedIn. The Ministry of Interior is by far the least transparent part of an Egyptian state apparatus that mostly churns out squid ink. Still, you can tell the man is important: he holds the highest police rank. Back in 2014, he shows up on TV (talking about the “spread of weapons after the Revolution”), as assistant director of the Bureau of Public Security at the Ministry.

 El-Shafei on the “Name of Egypt” talk show, April 2014

By April 2015, though, el-Shafei has a different Ministry post; he heads its General Directorate for Investigating Public Funds. It’s one of the most sensitive police branches: “the first line of defense for combatting economic crimes such as, for example, but not limited to, forgery and fraud in all its forms, falsification of documents and national and foreign currencies, promotion of all forms of financial fraud … administrative offenses of bribery and influence peddling and graft,” and so on. Mostly el-Shafei pursued not state officials stealing public funds, but members of the public stealing them: or just plain fraud in general. That’s odd, given how rampant official corruption is in Egypt. (This month, Sisi used the arrest of the Agriculture Minister on charges of taking bribes as a pretext to dismiss the whole government.) But here el-Shafei’s gift for getting publicity truly flowered. For four months, he was on TV and in the headlines constantly: for arresting a scam artist, “El Mestray’iah,” who bilked Egyptians of their savings; for grabbing a gang smuggling hard currency out of the country; for nabbing a fake-investment ring. The press releases must have spurted from his office daily, like healthy flatulence.

His last bow in this role comes July 4, when he takes credit for arresting the “fashion doctor,” an academic who ran a weird scam involving fashion shows. The next time el-Shafei appears, he’s had a change of title. On August 17 his name graces an item about the arrest of three Ukrainian sex workers. He’s now director of the Morals Police.

For torture nerds only: Ministry of Interior organizational chart (English, L; Arabic, R), from the Ministry's website. Don't blame me for the blurriness, blame the Ministry of Interior.

For torture nerds only: Ministry of Interior organizational chart (English, L; Arabic, R), from the Ministry’s website. Don’t blame me for the blurriness, blame the Ministry of Interior.

So sometime in the summer, el-Shafei got a new job. Why? The morals squad, in comparison to anti-corruption work, is a swampy backwater. It has its consolations, to be sure, financial ones included; some impecunious cops actively seek the assignment. (San Francisco’s famous Tenderloin sex district supposedly took its name from a police officer who said, more or less, I used to have ground beef for dinner. But now that I’m working vice, I’m going to get me some of that tenderloin.) Still, it resembles a demotion, and I wonder why. Had el-Shafei done his job too well for someone’s comfort (seems unlikely), or not well enough? Or maybe the Ministry just wanted someone of his caliber in the Morals Police, perhaps to root out corruption. Corruption in vice squads usually means cops take bribes in exchange for not pressing charges. The surest way to stop it is to increase prosecutions; here, el-Shafei seems already to be semaphoring success.

In a society stripped of facts, speculation rules — and I can speculate as wildly as the best of them. The most ambitious case the Morals Police brought last year was journalist Mona Iraqi’s klieg-lit raid on an alleged gay bathhouse in December. (I had heard rumors back in September 2014, from well-connected sources, that the Ministry of Interior was debating whether to stage a huge gay show trial on the scale of the Queen Boat. The Bab el-Bahr hammam was it.) The trial failed, and reaped bushels of bad publicity for the police. Rumors of corruption susurrated round it; Wael Abbas, a well-known blogger, claimed the police were in league with a gentrifying real-estate magnate trying to close the bathhouse (which had one of those immemorial, unbreakable Cairo leases) and expropriate the building. Such theories never had a shred of proof. But what if el-Shafie’s new job were the Ministry’s answer to all that: a move to bring back the days of good PR, successful gay persecution, unremitting arrests?

Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Who knows? Not I. I do know, though, that an ambitious and publicity-seeking policeman given absolute power, in an authoritarian state, over frightened and furtive and undefended people’s lives will abuse it — because the power itself is abuse. I know that the newsclips this skilled operator spews out have life and momentum of their own; like maggots in dead meat, they’ll multiply, and what will emerge full-blown are more arrests, more suffering. I know that the surveillance and the stings will grow in both brutality and cunning. I speculated last week that the branches of Egypt’s police are competing to get the money and technology the state now has for Internet surveillance: for the kind of keystroke-by-keystroke decoding of people’s discourses and desires that can splay their ganglions bare for the government’s entertainment. How can the Morals Police cut in on the largesse, and build an empire over intimacy? By convincing the state that it’s successful, and that its success defends national security. On both counts, el-Shafei knows what to say.

NOTE: For advice on avoiding police entrapment and protecting yourself on the Internet, see here (in Arabic) or here (in English and Arabic). For very important information (in Arabic) on your legal rights if you’re arrested in Egypt for being gay or trans, see here. 

Separated at birth: El-Shafei (L), from an official photo; Big Brother (R), from an Ingsoc rally

Separated at birth: El-Shafei (L), from an official photo; Big Brother (R), from an Ingsoc rally

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Entrapped! How to use a phone app to destroy a life

Love in the age of Grindr. From http://media.giphy.com/

Love in the age of Grindr and Tinder. From http://media.giphy.com/

NOTE: For advice on how to avoid police entrapment and protect yourself on the Internet, see here (in Arabic) or here (in English and Arabic). For important information (in Arabic) on your legal rights if you’re arrested in Egypt for being gay or trans, see here. 

Here’s news from Cairo. On September 8, El Watan reported that the morals police, “under the direction of Major General Ahmed el Shafie,” caught a “bodybuilding trainer” who also served as bodyguard to famous actors and singers. He was “practicing sexual perversion [shuzooz] with a rich Arab man in an apartment in Doqqi” (a tony neighborhood where many Arabs from the Gulf live). Investigations showed “that the accused Salah A. , a bodyguard, set up a page for himself on a social media website, to offer himself for sexual perversion with men who want to practice debauchery [fugur] for prices as high as LE 2000″ – about US $250.

Major General Amgad el-Shafie, from a 2014 TV interview

Major General Amgad el-Shafie, from a 2014 TV interview

The same day, Al Youm al-Sabbah (or Youm7), a scandal site that runs stories leaked by cops, announced that the morals division of the Tourism and Antiquities Police – which patrols hotels and tourist sites — “has captured two sexual perverts while they practiced debauchery with two men from the Gulf inside two famous hotels in Zamalek and downtown Cairo.” Major General Ahmed Mustafa Shaheen, Tourist Police head, took credit for the case; one of the arresting officers was Colonel Ahmed Kishk — remember that name. In a posh Zamalek caravanserai they stopped “Fathy A., 24,” leaving “the room of a guest from the Gulf area.” On his IPhone they found a “conversation program which allows him to identify those close to him,” and evidence that he had sex for 1000 LE a shot. He is in jail, and was subjected to a forensic anal examination. The second miscreant, “Mahmoud A., 23,” was “found practicing debauchery with a person from the Gulf in exchange for 800 LE, in another hotel in downtown Cairo.” He too is in the police lockup.  A transgender friend of mine knows one of the hotel arrestees, and says he identifies as a “ladyboy,” a slang term in Cairo for men who play against gender roles.

of the Tourism and Antiquities Police meets with officers at a meeting this month about protecting archeological sites; photo from Youm7

Major General Ahmed Mustafa Shaheen of the Tourism and Antiquities Police meets his minions, at a confab this month about protecting archeological sites; photo from Youm7

It doesn’t make sense. Youm7’s explanation for the arrests beggars belief; “secret sources” pointed police to “two men who look suspicious and are unstable in their behavior and the way they talk,” headed for “two rooms of two different customers from the Gulf area,” in two hotels in two different neighborhoods. Quelle coïncidence! And why were the young Egyptians jailed while the Gulf Arabs went scot-free, in a country that’s declared its intention to crack down on gay foreigners? Under Egyptian law, both parties should be culpable. (See the note at the end for a summary of Egypt’s law on sex work and homosexual conduct.)

I know why the Gulfies weren’t jailed. The Gulfies didn’t exist. The IPhones, the evanescing clients, suggest the real story: the police impersonated rich Gulf Arabs online, to lure victims to a meeting and arrest them.

Between 2001 and 2004, police entrapped hundreds, probably thousands, of gay Egyptian men over the Internet, in a massive crackdown. Since 2013, arrests of suspected LGBT people burgeoned again in Egypt; most victims were seized at home or on the streets, yet rumors circulated that cops had returned to the Web for entrapment. But there was no proof — till this summer. On June 8, police arrested a Syrian refugee in Messaha Square in Doqqi; they’d arranged to meet him over Growlr. An appeals court overturned his one-year sentence, but, flouting legal protections for refugees, the Ministry of Interior deported him anyway. A month later, seemingly under similar circumstances, Doqqi police arrested an Italian national who had lived in Egypt for six years. A court eventually dismissed the charges, but, under pressure, he left the country. The latest cases show not just foreigners but Egyptians are targets of the snares.

Internet entrapment is cruel — and successful — because it feeds on solitude. The police arrest you not because you’re dancing at a party or cruising on the street, but because, on the apparent privacy of a flickering screen, you express a need. Your crime isn’t hurting someone but being vulnerable to hurt. I know a great deal about Internet entrapment; more, I think, than almost anybody except the police who do it. I don’t have the victims’ permission to detail this summer’s cases; but I’ve interviewed dozens of men arrested in the 2001-2004 crackdown, and studied dozens of police files from the same period. I’ve documented entrapment cases in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. You want to learn how to do it? Here’s what I know.

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, from the New Yorker, July 5, 1993; this is reportedly the New Yorker's most-reproduced cartoon ever

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, from the New Yorker, July 5, 1993: reportedly, the New Yorker’s most-reproduced cartoon ever

I. Truth and consequences. In the huge crackdown from 2001-2004, massively publicized arrests in gathering places — like the Queen Boat raid — made gay men avoid the sites where they could meet face-to-face. They turned to the Internet; and there, in their isolation, police could pick them off one by one. The current crackdown follows the same script. Last year, police harassment devastated the downtown café scene, shuttering spots where LGBT people had been welcome. (After padlocking one coffee bar popular among gays, police announced to the press that they had quashed an “atheists’ café,” a “place for Satan worship, rituals and dances.”) Nobody goes out anymore; they stay home and log in. Any time I’m with a group of gays in Cairo, the peculiar cooing sound of Grindr alerts, like pigeons masturbating, semicolons the hushed conversations.

Egyptians want the same range of things from dating apps as people anywhere: talk, touch, raunch, rapport, money, undying love. Where threats pervade the world outside, though, people want safety, as much a sexual as an emotional need. Dating apps give a dangerous simulacrum of security. You believe you’re safe, because you can hide who you are. You’re not safe, because others can do the same.

From Girl Comics #1,

From Girl Comics #1, “A Brief Rendezvous”

Dating apps are games of truth. They’re full of people seeking truth with desperate sincerity while trying to avoid telling it. The first rule is: Everybody lies. You lie as much as you can to make a better self for yourself — but not so much that, if a meeting happens, the other will be let down. (Don’t say you’re 25 and look like Channing Tatum if you’re 55 and look like Chris Christie.) The second rule is: Winning means not being lied to. It means meeting someone who tells you the truth; it means sustaining your invented self which staying the one less deceived. The game’s unstable, off-center, because these rules are irreconcilable.

But there’s one catch, one secret: If the police are playing, the policeman always wins. His avidity to listen, meet, and love trumps the diffidence other, lukewarm suitors show. The cop can lie as much as he likes, without fear of a rendezvous exploding his persona; you’re not going to storm away saying, “But you’re not 25,” because you’ll be in handcuffs. And he doesn’t care how many lies you tell; all that matters is getting the one fact from you, a confession that you’re gay — the evidence that makes you criminal. For ordinary players, you’d need the intricate algorithms of game theory to calculate the winning balance of truth and fiction. But streamlined rules govern the policeman’s game; only one truth counts. Once he has that, he’s won; your loss is final.

In a game of needs, the simplest, most economical need conquers. Most gay men believe the online world is liberating. But the game is rigged for the police. The ersatzness of that world, its imitation freedom, collapses like cardboard when a policeman commences play. After that, only he can win.

2. Trust and betrayal. Before you entrap someone, they have to trust you enough to talk to you and meet you. Most people online in Egypt want to believe there’s someone real out there, someone less prone to fiction than they are; naive desire renders entrapment easy. Still, the policeman needs skills: some English (required to navigate many apps and websites — plus, much chat is partly anglicized); some knowledge of gay slang and the gay world. It’s not a combination many cops have.

The Mugamma looms over Midan Tahrir

The Mugamma looms over Midan Tahrir

There are certainly officers who prowl the LGBT Internet. They’re in the morals division of the Cairo police, headquartered atop the Mugamma, the vast Stalinist bureaucrats’ sarcophagus on Midan Tahrir. (In 2001-2004, cops entrapped gay men from elsewhere in the country — but always by asking them to come to Cairo, for convenient arrest.) I’m convinced, though, they employ civilian gay informers as well.

Morals police in Egypt, like elsewhere, have always cultivated informers. The gay ones were mostly working-class guys, doing it for a little money and immunity from arrest. Sometimes, in seasons when the cops hungered for baksheesh, police would take an informer in a microbus round the cruising areas; he’d point to the known khawalat, or faggots, on the streets and they’d be loaded in the van, beaten, jailed. The gays even gave some famous informers nicknames; “Mohammed Laila Elwi,” dubbed for a movie actress, probably got hundreds arrested. In 2003, with an Egyptian colleague, I went to talk to Taha Embaby, then the dreaded head of the Cairo morals division, in his office in Abdin police station. On a sofa in his anteroom sat two fey young men, obviously there to give reports. As we stood quivering with trepidation, one cocked his wrist flirtatiously at me. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said.

But in 2001-2004, for Internet entrapment, police developed a new cadre of informers, with cyber-skills, not street smarts. Sometimes these exhibited frightening cunning. In one case, police entrapped a man who worked at the Cairo Opera House. His Internet chats with his nemesis,  preserved in the police file I read, chilled me: they showed an agent, calling himself “Raoul,” with deep musical knowledge and dark humor — as if the cops, like a dating site, had matched the informer to the victim. They asked each other their favorite operas. Tosca, said the victim-to-be, but the agent named “Die Fledermaus”: Johann Strauss’ story of deception and entrapment, its last scene set in a jail. He added that he loved Dialogues des Carmélitesan opera by the (gay) composer Francis Poulenc: a work almost unknown in Egypt, one that also ends, grimly, in a prison cell. As they set up the meeting that led to the arrest, their dialogues grew double-edged:

Raoul: and I promise u 2 things
Incubus: which r?
Raoul: first I will make u so happy
Raoul: second u will never forget me

Isabel Leonard (R) and Elizabeth Bishop in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Dialogues des Carmélites. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: Isabel Leonard (R) and Elizabeth Bishop in a Metropolitan Opera production of Dialogues des Carmélites. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

The informers often used the name “Raoul” in 2001-2004. Raoul frequently said he was French or Spanish — police grasped that many Egyptian gays trusted foreigners more than fellow countrymen. In some incarnations, he clearly wasn’t what he claimed. (One court file showed “Raoul” chatting with two young gay men. When he explained he was from Spain, one of the men excitedly announced he studied Spanish. Es usted de Madrid? ¿Qué estás haciendo en Egipto? Raoul retreated: No, no, better English for now. They went to meet him anyway.) But some playing the “Raoul” role were perhaps more truthful. I suspected police were blackmailing a gay foreigner living in Cairo, possibly one they’d gotten on drug charges or some other grave offense. It evinced the trouble they were willing to take to entrap a few hundred gay men.

The cops themselves were like cops everywhere: eager to make arrests, but lazy. They met their victims as close to police stations as possible, to minimize the walk. Often the rendezvous was in front of the Hardee’s in Midan Tahrir, across the street from the Mugamma. These days, police in Doqqi seem to specialize in entrapment; they like to meet victims in Midan Messaha, three easy blocks from the Doqqi police station.

 Friendly Doqqi police doing their patriotic propaganda duty: Cops hand candy to passersby in front of the Doqqi police station, to celebrate Sisi’s Suez Canal opening on August 5

3. Innocence and evidence. The one thing police want is proof of their victims’ guilt: which means getting them to confess to at least one sexual experience they’ve already had. Tender, attentive, and inquisitive, the informers pry this information out like gold fillings from teeth.

In early 2002, “Wael Samy” (another name informers often used) answered a personals ad placed by Zaki, a lonely 23-year-old from a provincial city. They started exchanging emails, often in English, and Wael lured Zaki into describing the one time he’d had sex:

Dearest Wael, It is always so fulfilling to hear from you ‘cause your e-mails are full of sincere emotions and feelings although they are always too short. I am also so happy to know that my emails give you such pleasure. …

Well, this time, as you’ve requested, I’ll try to give you an account of what happened during my first and only sex experience which happened about six years ago, hoping you can e-mail me with yours next time.

Zaki fell in love with Wael at a distance, and went to Cairo to meet him. The e-mail was the key item of evidence at his trial. He spent three years in prison.

Spies in our midst: Graphic from El-Watan, 2014

Spies among us: Graphic from El-Watan, 2014

But police also try to extract confessions after arrest. In the past, they’ve used a sadistic trick. If the informer had claimed to be a foreigner (“Dennis” or “Sevensen,” like “Raoul,” were common aliases), police at the Mugamma`would tell the terrified prisoner he’d been arrested because he’d spoken with a spy. Menaced with an espionage charge, the innocent captive would protest that they’d only talked about sex. Fine, the cops would say. Just tell us all about your gay life in writing and we’ll let you go. One victim told me:

The officer who interrogated me claimed [he was] a State Security officer. He said that all he wanted was for me to confess that I was gay. He said this is “personal freedom” and that if I confessed they would inform State Security and let me go immediately.

“Amgad,” a young doctor from upper Egypt whom I interviewed after his release from prison in 2003, told me the police

asked me how long I had known [the man I chatted with] … They told me this guy was an Israeli spy. They said he would have sex with me, then take photographs of me and then threaten me and make me work for Israel. … I told them all about my gay life, such as it was—the friendships I had made over the Internet and why they were important to me. Then they looked at each other and said something like, “We will make this only a personal relationship case.” Now I realize how funny they thought it was to lead me on this way.

The thing is, they didn’t blink. They didn’t feel that doing this would destroy a whole life. They caught me because I am gay, but they didn’t even think that my future could be destroyed. I am not rich, I cannot leave the country or start my life over. … And they didn’t feel anything. Anything. Can you understand what they were thinking? I cannot.

b86cefbf-3753-4937-95dc-62696d57cd8f4. Motives. It’s the cops’ motives I mean. Today as much as in 2001-2004, the Egyptian criminal justice system’s ignorance about the Internet is stunning. Back in 2003, one defendant told how at his trial, the judge

wasn’t sure what a website was, or what “chat” was, and he was puzzled by the difference between chatting with someone over the phone and over the Internet.

Another told me, “All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor]—knew nothing about the Internet. The deputy prosecutor even said, ‘I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it? Do people just sit around and talk with men?'”

Things haven’t changed much. Most judges know how to send e-mail by now, and some cops even have Facebook pages. But the technical side of cyberspace mostly leaves them baffled. And this makes the Internet a source of fear. It terrifies the state itself. Police pursue “perversion” on the Internet not because they’re scared of perversion, but because they’re scared of the Internet and its capacity to spread it.

The Internet arrived in Egypt in 1993; by the early 2000s, it had nearly half a million users. In 2002, the government introduced “free” dial-up access (costing ordinary phone rates), opening the Web to anyone with a landline. With the advent of wireless, sold through Egypt’s giant telecommunications companies, technology leapt ahead of the state’s capacity for control. Faced with a Facebook- and Twitter-powered revolution in January 2011, the government proved unable to monitor or block individual websites; its only recourse was to shut down the whole Internet for days — and even then, intrepid activists circumvented the wall. Successive regimes absorbed the lesson. Information flow could be an mortal foe; survival could hinge on subduing it.

From InternetSociety.org, based on World Bank data

From InternetSociety.org, based on World Bank data

The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) estimates that internet users in Egypt more than tripled from 15 million in 2009 to 48 million in early 2015. Smartphones — required for using most apps — have spread more slowly. In 2012, smartphone penetration was lower than almost anywhere else in the Middle East. This is changing, though. Sony reportedly expects smartphones to make up 32% of mobile sales in Egypt by next year — still low (worldwide, they account for more than 2/3 of sales) but rising swiftly.

High price and exclusivity make smartphones even more potent status symbols in Egypt than elsewhere. They’re a tool of communication, but also a tool for the upper-class and upwardly mobile to convey their insulation from the world. To be sure, plenty of poor people save for months to buy a Samsung, but that’s because possession conveys membership in a virtual gated community, like the real walled wealth reserves that mushroom in exurban Cairo. This adds to the false feeling of safety enshrouding the promised anonymity of the Internet.

But the government attacks anonymity on every front. Most obviously it fears the Internet’s political uses. ANHRI notes that “the role the internet played in the political changes over the past years … drove more and more users to social media.” Twitter users, for instance, multiplied tenfold between 2012 and 2015. And lots of Egyptians talk politics on the Internet — about twice the percentage that do in the rest of the world. Moreover, with Sisi’s draconian censorship of print media, Facebook and Twitter and a few doggedly independent websites are where Egyptians turn for accurate rather than airbrushed news.

The state responds by suppressing, scaring, spying. A brutal draft “cyber-crime” law provides life imprisonment for “harming public order; endangering safety and security or society; endangering the life and security of citizens; preventing authorities from undertaking their duties,” as well as “harming national unity or societal peace” and “defaming a heavenly religion.” The pretext is “terrorism”; the target is any dissent. Already the government has imposed harsh prison terms for unwanted — in particular, atheist — Facebook posts or pages. (Last month a court rejected a Sisi supporter’s lawsuit demanding a complete ban on Facebook. It urged “self-censorship” instead.) Meanwhile Sisi’s regime has sought, and bought, technology from sinister corporate suppliers to enable surveillance of virtually every keystroke on the Internet. No one knows just how deep the state’s current invasions of cyber-privacy go.

on-the-internet-nobody-knows-youre-a-dog-except-the-NSA

Egypt has aimed very little of this high-tech surveillance machinery at sex or dating apps — so far. In truth, most dating apps are extremely vulnerable to surveillance. Last year, analysts found flaws in Grindr’s geolocation service, the one that lets you know which cruisees are near you; anybody adept at exploiting the errors could pinpoint a user’s exact location down to a meter or two. Some (but seemingly not all) of the problems were patched, and Grindr disabled geolocation for some worst-case countries, including Egypt. But other problems persist. For one thing, most dating apps don’t offer users an SSL (Secure Socket Layer, or https://) connection — one that encrypts communication between your device and their servers. Moreover (I’m quoting the security mavens at Tactical Tech), with most dating apps,

  • Downloading the apps from the Appstore or Google Play will link them directly to your Apple ID or Google account;
  • Your mobile operator will also collect this information, linking it directly to your identity;
  • Other social networking apps installed on your mobile device such as Facebook or Twitter may also collect this information about you.
Geolocation and its discontents: From cartoon.called.life on Instagram

Geolocation and its discontents: From cartoon.called.life on Instagram

Yet Egypt’s police haven’t taken full advantage of this porousness; so far as I know, they’ve relied on crude flesh-and-blood informers to entrap Grindr’s and Growlr’s users. I suspect there’s a knife-fight among Egypt’s police branches to access the technology and training — and money — for Internet surveillance. And the sex cops haven’t been a priority so far; the thugs surrounding Sisi care far more about sites dealiing in expressly political dissent than they do about dates or hookups.

This too may be changing. The more arrests the morals police make, the more they can argue that Internet sex is a security issue. Persecution of gay foreigners can only bolster that contention — and as that expands, State Security officers seem to be upping their involvement in the cases. Think Rentboy. Last month, US Homeland Security dropped its hot pursuit of mad bombers and terror cells to bust an innocuous website for male sex workers, ostensibly because it aided “trafficking.” The anxieties in play were indistinguishable from those in Egypt: fears of money, bodies, identities, and information flowing over the Web and across borders, out of control. Similarly, when Cairo journalist Mona Iraqi led a ludicrous, brutal raid on an alleged gay bathhouse in December, she justified the inhumanity as a war against “human trafficking.” The online world is already a danger zone for LGBT Egyptians, but there may be worse to come.

5. In conclusion. Gay men’s cruising is intimately interwoven with urban history, with the power to spin new narratives out of opportunities for lingering, loitering, delay. Cruising is connected to the figure of the flaneur pausing at shopwindows and interrogating glances, to existence in the city as a story full of forking paths, to the streets as sites of mystery and concealment amid displays and crowds.

Yum. This is a much more attractive label than the old ones.

Yum. This is a much more attractive label than the old ones.

I remember walking once through Bucharest with a gay Romanian friend in 1993. Only a few years after the Revolution, Romanian cities were still drab, vacant. Clothing stores all sold the same clothes, state food shops held aisle on aisle of canned carp in oil — crap în ulei, self-descriptive. Suddenly, on gray Bulevardul Bălcescu, we realized a young man with sculpted hair was staring at us. We followed him, tentatively. Then we lost him — then realized he was following us. We carried on a hunt or dance for an hour or so, as he paused at store windows, stared furtively into the grimed glass, flicked an eyelid our way, flurried on. My friend, expert enough at cruising dark public parks, had never experienced anything like this in downtown Bucharest. I understood that day the advent of something new in the disused city, an ambulatory eroticism that would transfigure seeing and the sidewalks, something reflected in a few scrubbed panes, flowering in the first buds of consumer culture; new desires and new ways for them to occupy the streets. (I thank George Iacobescu, who became my friend that day, for offering the lesson.)

All I can say is, Grindr’s different. Playing on dating apps is interesting and erotic, but it isn’t ambulatory or open. A call-and-response rhythm drives the dating app. It starts the moment you sign up, when you clarify yourself in detail, on a form, not only for your peers but for the corporation’s benefit. Once your identity’s set, interrogations continue. Conversations are quick arousing inquisitions, the question-and-answer form unvarying as a coxswain or a tragic chorus. This isn’t cruising; it’s a catechism. Like religious catechisms, it’s a mechanism by which power forces you to state your faith, define your self as one declines a noun. The apps police us; they force us to confess, even though temptation constrains us, not a clumsy truncheon. No wonder it’s a perfect playing ground for the police — the police are already there. They come built in. Intensifying this is the effect of speed. Ten years ago, on static personals sites, you could write long answers, even switch to the horse-and-buggy hebetude of e-mail. Now everything goes triple-time; urgent antiphonies rush you on, no time to dally, every decision’s instant. The race erodes judgment, and it’s that much easier for the cops to get what they want from you — the name, the sex story, the date for the meeting.

No wonder everybody lies so much on apps; it’s their way of resisting the drumbeat demand that you define yourself. It preserves space for secrecy and invention — only a space too fragile to withstand the police. Every time I fill out a form on one of these things I recall Foucault. “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.” And fuck.

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez, from the New Yorker, February 23, 2015

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez, from the New Yorker, February 23, 2015

At the beginning, I mentioned Colonel Ahmed Kishk, who helped arrest the hapless victims in hotels. As soon as I read that, I recognized the name; it took a few days to remember everything. Twelve years ago, Colonel Kishk presided over the arrests of thirteen gay men who used a flat in Giza for occasional sex. There was no Internet entrapment in the case; Kishk collected evidence by the old-school method of tapping the apartment’s phone.

One of the men tried to slit his wrists when Colonel Kishk seized him. I remember standing outside the Giza police station one February night in 2003, trying to get in to see them; I was turned away. I spoke to several of them much later (they were convicted, then acquitted on appeal, freed after six months in prison). Guards tortured them viciously in the police lockup. Possibly they were being tortured while I stood on the cold street.

This summer, by coincidence, I met a man who had been one of them. He’s almost forty now; he fled the country after he was freed, and has lived in the Gulf ever since, only returning to Egypt to see his family. When he told me his story and I realized who he was, he started crying. “You know,” he said, “in many ways I live well now. I have a good job in another country. And yet they ruined my life, utterly. I know that I am safe now. And yet I know I will never recover.”

One other thing I know about these cases: when the police invest their time and talents in training their own to entrap and deceive, or in blackmailing and manipulating gay informers, they’ll use those valuable human resources again and again and again, till they are shamed or commanded to stop. Why lose the investment? These stories are only the augury of more ordeals. Colonel Kishk is still on the job.

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Guy 1: “Those gay people are funny, bro…” Guy 2: “Yeah man…” Cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, August 20, 2014