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

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.

Military manhood: More arrests for homosexual conduct in Egypt

Houses made of ticky-tacky: 6 October City scene

Houses made of ticky-tacky: 6 October City scene

It would be hard to say why you’d bother to put a checkpoint in 6 October City. Stranded in the rock and sand a dozen or so kilometers west of Cairo like a very dull mirage, with only four or five roads leading out of it to anywhere else, it’s an unlikely source of trouble. As with Las Vegas – which it resembles only in that it was drawn improbably from the desert by sheer will, not however by dreamy scoundrels like Moe Green or Bugsy Siegel but by a drably determined military state – what happens there stays there. Not that anything happens. It’s one of a slew of satellite “new towns” coaxed out of lunar landscapes from the 1980s on, artificial developments to relieve the capital’s choke and congestion. Originally meant as a worker’s city, it stalled when the industries failed to congregate. Private developers bribed their way to ownership of the unoccupied tracts, then sold them cheap to members of Cairo’s middle class desperate to escape: mostly not the rich middle class who live on speculation and connections, but the sad and salaried — government clerks, mid-level NGO minions, doctors and lawyers just starting underpaid careers. The place smells of expectations that started small and still shrank. Thirty years ago its planners envisioned a city of half a million. Maybe a third of that live there, house after house gapes empty, and streets give way abruptly to shimmering desert like a slide being changed.

Nonetheless, in these months of curfew and military rule, the armored personnel carriers stand guard athwart streetcorners in 6 October, like everywhere else. The soldiers sit on the steel humps and sweat and look prickly as porcupines in the sun.

Soldier and armed personnel carrier at Cairo checkpoint

Soldier and armed personnel carrier at Cairo checkpoint

It’s unusual when any news escapes the boredom vortex that is 6 October, but it started seeping out early in the morning of November 5. I heard from a friend at around 2 AM: 46 people had been arrested at a raid on a private party, or 80, or 70, no one was sure. The numbers swung round wildly in the next 24 hours. All anybody knew was, there’d been a gathering in a “villa” — a detached house — celebrating “Love Day,” an unofficial holiday that’s a kind of Egyptian Valentine’s Day. The police came in.

Since then one friend of mine has spoken to several people who were at the party but escaped. Anther friend and colleague went with a lawyer to the niyaba — the prosecutor’s office – in Giza for the victims’ hearing on the night of November 5. He interviewed some of those arrested. Here, so far as we know, is the story.

It was a large party, perhaps more than 200 people. At 1:00 or 1:30 AM a first group of police knocked on the door – wearing civilian clothes, but carrying handguns.  They demanded to know if the party was “for money” or not; the party organizer told them it was for free. Many guests panicked and fled.

Another phalanx of police charged in, demanding to see IDs. They focused on young people and so-called “ladyboys” (my friend who spoke to guests used the term in English; it has filtered into Egyptian slang), men who look “effeminate.” They zeroed in particularly on men wearing belly-dancing dress. Three police vans waited on the street outside – indicating both that the cops planned arrests even before “investigating,” and that they looked forward to a large haul. In the end, however, they only arrested 10 people. They seized the host, a female bartender, and a man who works as a belly-dancing teacher (his wife, also at the party, was taken in as a witness). Along with them went four other men who seemed unmanly in dress or manner, and three kids under 18.  Police slapped and beat all of them, and kicked and fingered some in the ass. At the same time, the officers seemed uncertain what the guests were guilty of; the presence of women at the party especially flustered them. They called the men “khawalat” and accused them of fujur (“debauchery,” the legal term for consensual sexual relations between men) but also threatened them with charges for adultery. (Consensual adultery is not a crime in Egyptian law,)

The vans took them all to a police station in 6 October City. More beatings followed. The officers forced the “effeminate” men to clean the station toilets as punishment. .

In the early evening of November 5, all were transferred to a police station in Giza (the vast district of Cairo proper west of the Nile) and brought before the niyaba. The scene was chaos, with relatives of the accused screaming and weeping. My colleague and the lawyer he brought monitored the interrogations as best they could. Two things were obvious:

a)     The police had absolutely no evidence anything illegal happened in the villa. The only allegedly incriminating items they confiscated were belly-dancing clothes and, they claimed, women’s makeup.

b)    Nor was there evidence any of the men had committed illegal acts — especially the homosexual acts on which the investigation concentrated – in the past.

After nearly six hours, the lawyers there expected all the arrestees to be freed for lack of cause. Reportedly, the wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) in charge of the case was ready to order their release. However, after a phone call, the chief prosecutor of the district overruled him.

Night passage: Cairo checkpoint

Night passage: Cairo checkpoint

The complaint against the party had come from the military itself. The villa stood near a checkpoint, and the soldiers there didn’t like the noise, or the way the guests looked and acted when they passed. Military police had phoned the 6 October cops to shut the party down. The soldiers wanted the egregious villa closed permanently; for this, a legal case would be necessary. To please the military, the Giza prosecutor ordered the case kept active, and sent the victims off for forensic anal exams.

Performed without consent, these tests are abusive and torturous, devoid of any medical value. Reportedly the results “cleared” the men. (A medical finding in favor of arrestees is never final. In my experience, most reports on anal exams contain an “escape clause” saying the defendants might still be guilty: for instance, “It is scientifically known in the case of adults that sexual contact from behind in sodomy with penetration can happen  –through full consent, taking the right position, and the use of lubricants – without leaving a sign.” If so, what is the tests’ point?)  It’s not yet certain whether or how the woman in the case was tested, or indeed what her place in any potential charges might be. But meanwhile, the prosecution has ordered them all detained for an additional 15 days.

Armored personnel carriers sealing off a  Cairo road

Armored personnel carriers sealing off a Cairo road

The story has already made it to the Egyptian press, most notably in a longish article in Al- Watan al-Arabi on Sunday: “Homosexuals [mithliyeen] arrested in Egypt during the celebration of the ‘Feast of Love.'” Oddly, it alternates between using the PC, recently-invented term al-mithliyeen (derived from mithliyyu al-jins, “same sex,” constructed by analogy to “homosexual”) and an older language of “sexual perversion.” But it conflates both with sex work:

Security services received information that  a number of homosexuals [mithliyeen] organized ceremonies in a villa on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, to practice sexual perversion on Valentine’s Day. Police raided the villa where they found, according to the official record, young people dancing with each other near the pool, and others, including minors and a dance teacher, putting makeup on their faces and their skins, with women’s underwear and wigs for dancing in their possession. …

The public prosecutor ordered the detention of suspects for 15 days pending investigation on charges of “organizing the collective exercise of acts contrary to morality [adab], and practicing sexual perversion, and  [forming] the headquarters of a business contrary to morality” …

Egyptian law criminalizes the practice of sexual perversion, and society rejects those habits and treats them with disdain, but there are places, including cafes and nightclubs in Cairo, known to be frequented by sexual perverts.

There is a “homosexuals in Egypt” page on the social networking site Facebook titled [in English] “Gays in Egypt” that has won likes from more than 11,000 people. Page members are known to be “youth of tender age, many of them still minors, roaming some streets and parks and major cities to offer sexual services to adults and the elderly for a fee. Some of the dating sites are a way to find clients.”

The article warns about mithliyeen “using social media sites to network and promote their ideas rejected by society.” It relays a question:

What drives these young people to this behavior you may deem perverted? Is it poverty? Is it a desire to earn money the easy way? Or is it more complex, associated with a sense of inferiority and the desire to get paid as a kind of compensation for a homosexual role considered insulting?

L: Good Facebook (placard from Midan Tahrir during the 2011 Revolution); R: Bad Facebook ("Facebook, Friend or Foe," book by Dr. Gamal Mokhtar on the danger of social media to Arab and Egyptian youth)

L: Good Facebook (placard from Midan Tahrir during the 2011 Revolution); R: Bad Facebook (“Facebook, Friend or Foe,” book by Dr. Gamal Mokhtar on the danger of foreign social media to Arab and Egyptian youth)

So what is happening? In El-Marg, on Cairo’s eastern verges, 14 men still languish in jail, facing charges of fujur, arrested in early October in a raid on a local gym. Do these cases presage a new crackdown, a return of horrors ten years gone, when police slunk into chatrooms and raided private homes, arresting and torturing hundreds or thousands of men to root out “sexual perversion”?

Nobody can say yet. But the talk of perverted social media, of foreign influence creeping in, of technology mating with immorality, of hangouts and watering holes that are “known” and watched, is ominous. It suggests that the relative visibility of a small LGBT community, mostly in Cairo’s downtown, is wakening anxieties.

Yet this case, like the El-Marg one, also suggests how much of this is about manhood: a complex of fears and fantasies that military rule, with its overt adulation of power and muscle, only intensifies. Why hone in on “ladyboys”? Why the prurient questions about perverts who dare to “act like men?” The same friend who went to the Giza niyaba also managed, bravely, to make his way into the El-Marg police station last month, trying to find out more about the victims detained there. It was harrowing. The El-Marg officers praised themselves for striving, during the feast of Eid el-Adha when the arrests happened, “to protect moralities of the State.” But some slight default of ideal masculinity in my friend set their alarms off — and they started menacing him:

Before answering my questions the uncertain police officer looked at me and said “Do you know that I am the one who received the complaint of the neighbors, the one that guided us to arrest the group of 14 men? …. They said the place had drug addicts and immoral acts, so we sent a task force and surprisingly they didn’t take much time till they arrested the 14 men” …

I asked the police officer to describe the club for me, so he said “It’s an ordinary health club with gymnastics equipment, steam rooms and closed massage room.” He looked at me and asked in a humiliating and sarcastic tone “Come on  … you’ve never been in one of those rooms with any one before?” …

[H]e insisted on harassing and insulting me once more by saying “You know that those who were fucked in that place used to pay, while those who used to fuck wouldn’t pay a penny, so would you like to pay or go for free?”…

I understood he didn’t want me to know if they forced the arrested men to go through anal examinations or not … “Well this whole medical test comes later after a permission from the prosecution office, but we don’t wait, we have our own vision.” The comment made me ask “What do you mean by your own vision?”, so he answered saying in a very confident tone “Like when you find someone, and sorry for my language, who only has two balls but no penis, do you think he was fucking or getting fucked? Aren’t you a man? You definitely understand.”

Being a man: Egyptian police assault protester, May 2006

Being a man: Egyptian police assault protester, May 2006

He adds, “the police officers were mocking the families of the 14 men, especially that some of the old[er] men among the 14 arrested men are married and have sons or daughters who would go to ask about them.” When they did, they were “made fun of by the police officers.” During his foray into the beast’s belly, he watched one cop take a call from another police station: the brother of one of the men had gone there, unsure where to turn, asking desperately about his arrested relative. “Fuck, so his brother is being fucked and he shows up there acting like a man … I’ll fuck him up.”

The tone’s consistent with what Khaled el-Haitamy, the El-Marg police chief, told the Egypt Independent about the gym: “The owner of the place is a son of bitch and a khawal … He fled the scene. These gays are sick!”

Black and white: Egyptian police officers joke, with Central Security anti-riot forces in the background: Reuters, 2012

Black and white: Egyptian police officers joke, with Central Security anti-riot forces in the background: Reuters, 2012

This morning, Alaa al-Aswany, Egypt’s bestselling novelist, has his debut column in the New York Times. It’s a barely-qualified defense of military rule, with all the usual cliches: in a showdown with the evil Morsi, “the army sided with the will of the Egyptian people.” (No mention of how the army massacred Egyptian people at Mohamed Mahmoud, or Rabaa). Al-Aswany’s magnum opus, The Yacoubian Building, famously called State-sponsored masculinity into public question: not only through a sympathetic gay character, but through another protagonist, Taha el-Shazli, a desperately poor boy who joins an Islamist rebel group in shame and rage, after policemen brutally rape him in a station cell. These days, Al-Aswany sides with the police.

It’s to be expected, maybe. That official, militarized manhood is inescapable. 6 October City, with its stunted mediocrity, still bears its imprint. It’s named (like other sites around the country) for the one great triumph of Egypt’s armed forces, the stunning crossing of the Suez Canal on the first day of the 1973 war. It was wrested from the desert by the the military-ruled State: indeed, its 1981 foundation — and the decision to push Cairo’s margins into the encircling sand — came along with new laws on the ownership of desert land. These formalized government control over empty spaces, and ensured that developing any of the patrimony would require buying influence with the security bureaucracy. The laws helped set in literal concrete many of the crony networks that rule the State today. The powers that be built the artificial city; no coincidence, then, that their values insinuate themselves into its interstices. They’re enforced at its checkpoints, just as they were forced onto Taha el-Shazli’s body.

The idea of November 4 as “Love Day,” by the way, comes from the late Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin — who also promoted Mother’s Day in the country. Once, some forty years ago, he watched a desolate funeral trundle down the street with no one attending or walking behind. He wondered about the silence of loveless lives, and the moldlike spread of solitude, and suddenly he had the notion of a day to celebrate human connection. The problem with official masculinity is how many people it shuts out: the inadequate, superfluous, unloved. The more the checkpoints multiply, the more unwanted there are.

Soldiers set up barbed wire at a Cairo checkpoint

Soldiers set up barbed wire at a Cairo checkpoint