Tweet for Egypt on IDAHOT: Why it’s important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Cairo graffiti, November 2011. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

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

 
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Remembering the Queen Boat, fourteen years after

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

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

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

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

Bridgebuilder: Major General Hatem Amin

Bridgebuilder: Major General Hatem Amin

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

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

Photo of the arrested Jordanian citizen, from Youm7

Photo of the arrested Jordanian citizen, from Youm7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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