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

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

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

Günter Grass, “Folding Chairs”

Three stories about Egypt today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sally Mursi

Sally Mursi

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

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

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

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So everything was fine and up to expectations.

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

Günter Grass, “Food for Prophets”

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

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