Egyptian activists to Netanyahu’s PR men: Our lives are not propaganda

Palestinian and Egyptian flags in  Midan Tahrir, September 9, 2011, at a protest against military trials and the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, at www.arabawy.org

Palestinian and Egyptian flags in Midan Tahrir, September 9, 2011, at a protest against military trials and the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, at http://www.arabawy.org

If you are a lesbian, gay, or trans Egyptian, your life is not your own. It’s not just that police could smash the door and seize your body at any moment; it’s that your desires and emotions, the most intimate elements of existence, now nourish somebody else’s political agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood’s mouthpieces trumpet that their archenemies in the military regime encourage “gay marriage.” The government responds by blaming the Brotherhood for spreading immoral sex. (In a slew of arrests last week, cops hauled in a teacher in the Cairo suburb of Helwan, accused of homosexual conduct along with several students. The press called the lead defendant a terrorist who recruited men to Islamism by sleeping with them. Prosecutors added that he liked to flash the Brotherhood’s four-finger salute during sex.) To be gay or trans in Egypt is to be naked in no man’s land, not just caught in crossfire but used for target practice by warring sides.

Yet it’s not just Egyptian politicians who practice callous exploitation. Egyptian LGBT people’s stories have been sucked into an entirely different conflict, and become fodder for Benjamin Netanyahu’s propagandists. Those PR experts aren’t particularly worried about LGBT people’s rights; they don’t care about an Egyptian or even Israeli audience. They want to impress Americans, and they want points of comparison. Like location scouts for an aging star’s comeback movie, they’re in search of settings: exotic backgrounds against which Israel’s reputation, otherwise decrepit these days, can seem to shine.

Muslim Brotherhood symbol and salute: The four fingers of love

Muslim Brotherhood symbol and salute: The four fingers of love

Take a guest blog post that appeared on a US foreign policy site: “The Plight of Homosexuals in Egypt.” It’s by Rachel Avraham, an experienced propagandist who used to work for United With Israel, a US hasbara organization; she is now “a news editor and political analyst for Jerusalem Online News,” which furnishes free English-language video on Israel to the foreign press. She writes about how “Eight Egyptian men were sentenced to three years in prison plus three years on probation for allegedly attending Egypt’s first same­sex wedding.” She isn’t really interested in what happens in Cairo, though. Her point is “the contrast between Israel and Egypt on this issue.” While “the plight of homosexuals in Egypt and the Arab world has deteriorated,” remember: “Israel is the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is protected by law.”

Avraham knows what she’s doing. Back in April, she editorialized that “pro-Israel activists” in the US “must go on the offensive and reach out””:

The anti-Israel activists have developed useful alliances with the LGBT, the African American and the Native American communities. Pro-Israel groups should learn from this model.

Avraham also knows the best defense is a good offense. While writing for United With Israel, she went on a rampage against Women of the Wall (Neshot HaKotel), pioneering Israeli feminists who pressed for women’s equal right to prayer at Judaism’s most sacred site, in the process exposing Orthodox hegemony over civil identities and law. Their crime? They made progressive Israel look bad.

Dangerous and anti-Israel: Woman carries a Torah scroll at An Israeli Jewish woman carries a Torah scroll in prayers near the Western Wall,  March 2013. Photos: EPA/Abir Sultan

Dangerous and anti-Israel: Women of the Wall supporter carries a Torah scroll in prayers near the Western Wall, March 2013. Photos: EPA/Abir Sultan

Borrowing from the Likud’s defamation handbook, Avraham accused the women of being “linked to anti-Israel groups,” that is, to human rights groups in Israel. But mainly she reviled them for neglecting “many more pressing issues facing feminists today” — most of which involve how horrible those Arabs are.

Women are getting raped en masse in Syria, either by government forces or by Islamist rebels as part of their sexual jihad [which, by the way, does not exist].  Around 50 percent of Yemen’s brides are under the age of 18. … Closer to home, hundreds of young underage Jewish girls are seduced by Arab men each year. Many of these cases evolve into abduction, rape, and abusive marriages. This problem is especially acute in Southern Israel, where sexual harassment by Bedouin men is a major issue.

You see? Israel has no problems (except for its Arabs), even if Israeli women say so. Look over there, people! Look at the Arabs! The grass is always less green on the other side of the, um, Separation Wall.

A few good men: Ad for a "National Security Trip to Israel," offered for sale on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies website (defenddemocracy.org)

A few good men: Ad for a “National Security Trip to Israel,” offered for sale on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies website (defenddemocracy.org)

Ben Weinthal riffs on the same themes. Weinthal works for the Foundation for Defective Defense of Democracies, a US neoconservative lobby striving to support Israel and promote a war on Iran. One of Weinthal’s tasks is to market this to the US LGBT community. (Weinthal doubles as a journalist of sorts, writing for the Jerusalem Post; it’s not a bad berth for propaganda purposes, because the Post is mostly read in America. Its website is among the top 3000 in the US.) His latest piece bears the headline “Analysis: Arab revolts, new Iranian leader fail to bring Israel-style rights for LGBTs.” It comes under a photo of rainbow flags at Tel Aviv Pride. Mostly the op-ed obsesses over Iran, since Weinthal’s job is to popularize war against the mullahs. But he spares some space for Egypt, too: “On the watch of the military regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, eight men were convicted for ‘inciting debauchery’ for their participation in a gay wedding.”

Weinthal did no reporting for this piece; the absence of evidence is why it’s called “Analysis.” He explains, “The enormously dangerous anti-LGBT environment in Arab countries and Iran largely excludes chances for interviews.” Interesting. Then what am doing here? Actually, Weinthal need only come to any Middle Eastern country – even Saudi Arabia — and he’d find LGBT people and activists to learn from. But it’s easier to make things up. He needs very few facts, though: just enough to draw his contrast. He’s content to rely lazily on an equally indolent BBC reporter, who interviewed exactly two LGBT rights activists, from exactly one country, to write an alleged survey of gay life throughout the region. “In stark contrast to the plight of gays in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and other regional countries,” Weinthal proudly writes,

a BBC overview [sic] of LGBT communities in the Middle East noted, “One refuge in the region for some is Israel, one of the most progressive countries in the world for LGBT rights. Samesex relationships are protected by law, and the only annual gay pride march in the Middle East takes place in Tel Aviv – regarded as an international gay capital.” The author of the BBC article, James Longman, added: “Since 1993 – well before the US and other Western countries – openly gay people have been allowed to serve in the [Israeli] military.”

That pride march again. And soldiers. Hurray!

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Pride: A child waves a Palestinian flag at a demonstration in Midan Tahrir, Cairo, May 6, 2011. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, from http://www.arabawy.org

There are some problems with Weinthal’s “analysis.”

Many Middle East experts view emancipatory progress for the Arab world and Iran as meaning full equality for women and religious and ethnic minorities, recognition of Israel, and press freedoms, to name some of the key elements.

What “experts”? And who put “recognition of Israel” on the list? As it happens, the first Arab country to recognize Israel – Egypt – could do so only because it was a dictatorship, able to punish dissent against the treaty with prison terms and torture. Since then, movements for “emancipatory progress” in Egypt have opposed the existing accommodation with Israel, not just on its own terms but because it symbolizes the lack of democracy, because the state foisted it on a stifled public without consultation or consent. The resistance to Mubarak’s rule that culminated in the democratic 2011 Revolution largely grew out of the Popular Committee to Support the Uprising of the Palestinian People, founded 13 years ago during the Second Intifada. The Popular Committee was a training ground for a whole generation of Egypt’s liberals and leftists. Protesting on Cairo streets in solidarity with Ramallah, they faced down police repression and endured beatings and jail. The Committee also coordinated opposition to the government’s complicity in the 2003 Iraq invasion, including a massive anti-Mubarak demonstration in Midan Tahrir on the day the war began that shook the regime to its underground torture chambers. (40,000 strong, it was the single largest protest between the Sadat era and the Revolution.) Meanwhile, Tunisia, now the most successful democracy in the Arab world, still refuses to recognize Israel. Maybe Weinthal should revise his list.

What can possibly convert the Arab world into greater Israel, with its plethora of freedoms? How about a bit of war? “Turning Arab countries as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran into open societies for LGBTs will require a wholesale change in attitudes toward LGBTs. Robust Western interventionism certainly can spark changes.“ Western interventionism has done so well in its main Middle Eastern testing grounds, Iraq and Libya: two failed states, endless civil wars, tens of thousands slaughtered. Now those are changes. “Struggling LGBT movements” in the Middle East, as Weinthal calls them, have so much to look forward to.

Robust intervention for LGBT rights, I: American bombs fall on Baghdad on the first night of the 2003 war against Iraq

Results of robust intervention for LGBT rights, I: American bombs fall on Baghdad on the first night of the 2003 Iraq war

Weinthal and the Jerusalem Post and other Likudniks regularly accuse Israel’s critics of “moral relativism,” “endemic in the West today.” But the relativism here is Weinthal’s. He assumes human rights are neither universal nor absolute, but relative; Israel’s abuses against Palestinians are relatively insignificant because it treats LGBT people relatively better than its neighbor does. These are bizarre equivalences, belonging in neither math nor morals. Rights don’t work on a points system. You don’t get a pass for brutalizing some people because you’re kind to others.

Human rights has become a hegemonic way of understanding life in our century — and this means, as I’ve said for years, that it’s a tempting tool for cynics, who mimic its language for ends that have nothing to do with rights. This is acutely true in areas like sexuality and gender, where repression can make indigenous voices hard to hear. It’s easy for opportunists like Weinthal to pretend they don’t exist at all, and then speak for them, justifying injustice and occupation and war. This exploitation harms the struggles and lives of Egyptian LGBT people, recasting them as foreign agents, walking pretexts for occupation or for Western invasions. It endangers Egyptian advocates, and further victimizes victims. An Egyptian friend told me: “These people need to realize our lives are not their propaganda.”

Results of robust Western intervention for LGBT rights, II: An "effeminate" man murdered by militias in Iraq, March 2012. Sent to the author by an Iraqi source.

Results of robust Western intervention for LGBT rights, II: An “effeminate” man murdered by militias in Iraq, March 2012. Sent to the author by an Iraqi source

There’s an irony that neither Avraham nor Weinthal cares to mention: Israel helps prop up the Egyptian regime they claim to disdain. It does this with casual disregard for the rights they claim concern them. As Foreign Policy reports, in Washington “Cairo has found an awkward ally in the form of AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobby firm.” AIPAC is “actively pushing for continued U.S. aid to Egypt,” endangered by the regime’s appalling human rights record.

AIPAC, which was credited with helping kill an amendment to cut Egyptian aid in July, is now operating behind the scenes in private meetings with lawmakers to keep alive Cairo’s funding … Publicly, few governments or lobbying firms want to be viewed as supportive of a crackdown that has led to more than 800 deaths and thousands of injuries across Egypt. … But [an AIPAC] source noted that AIPAC’s support for the aid was not contingent on the way Egypt treats anti-government protesters. “The primary criteria on how we evaluate this issue is if Egypt is adhering to the peace treaty.”

A recent study found that, no matter how many Egyptians the Egyptian government kills, US aid to the ruling military will not substantially decrease. It attributed this partly to “continuing support” from “Egypt’s influential allies.”

President Sisi knows how to show gratitude. He told Corriere della Sera this week that he was “prepared to send military forces inside a Palestinian state,” to “reassure Israelis in their role as guarantors.” Thus Egypt and Israel would partner in a joint occupation. The idea of getting Egypt to annex Gaza has floated around Israeli policy circles for some time; back in August, while bombs fell in Operation Protective Edge, it was urged by none other than Rachel Avraham. She had an interesting justification: she claimed Sisi could “help” Gaza build a society “that respects human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights,” a bit odd given what she writes about Egypt elsewhere. But then, she’s asserted the same thing about Israeli rule. Direct annexation of most of the West Bank, Avraham argues, would bring Palestinians “women’s rights, gay rights, and other benefits.” The appeal to LGBT rights here is hardly more than a verbal tic, purely mechanistic. The point is military domination; just as when Weinthal advocates “Western intervention,” the gays’ lives merely figure on a rote list meant to promote conquest and occupation.

Israeli propaganda where Egypt is concerned is all opportunism, with no obligation to be consistent. One day Egypt is the gays’ enemy, the next it’s their friend. It doesn’t matter, because the gays don’t matter. Occasional spurts of criticism count for little against Israel’s (and America’s) investment in a stable, supportive, repressive partner in Cairo.

Israeli propaganda meme. The picture on the L shows Iranians, not Palestinians, and they aren't gay. (See ) The picture on the R

Israeli propaganda meme. The picture on the L shows Iranians, not Palestinians, and they aren’t gay. (See http://bit.ly/1vi7Lk3 ). Nor is there any record of hangings for homosexual conduct in the occupied West Bank or Gaza. The picture on the R actually shows two posed employees of the Israeli Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Office. (See http://bit.ly/1rthU9P ).

Egyptian sexual-rights activists have already called for days of action to protest how state and media politically exploit LGBT lives. It’s only fair they should have the chance to answer other kinds of propaganda. I asked three Egyptian community activists with long histories of defending sexual rights if they would care to comment on Weinthal’s and Avraham’s articles. Their responses are below. (The first colleague answered in English; the other two wrote in Arabic but added an English translation. The original Arabic is at the end of this post.) I don’t necessarily agree with all they say (nor would they necessarily endorse everything I wrote). But they should be heard.

Dalia Abd El-Hameed heads the Gender Program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). The EIPR has provided legal assistance to people persecuted for alleged homosexual conduct in Egypt ever since it was founded in 2002. She writes:

For months, we have been busy trying to sort out news on the crackdown on gays and LGBT people in Egypt. Activists and people from the community were trying to do their best whether in terms of legal intervention, documentation of the violations and keeping record of the crackdown, and responding to the fierce media campaign demonizing and pathologizing homosexuality. Personally, I do not separate this crackdown on LGBT from the general oppressive climate and the regressive rights and liberties status. Journalists, students, human rights activists and gender and religious non- conformists are all under attack by the regime.

Yet, amidst this ongoing tragedy, one most unfortunate event was pro-Israel Zionists picking up the issue to exploit it for purposes of pinkwashing. It is crucial,  for us as activists from the region, to heavily condemn these attempts and refute the fallacies in the two recently published articles by both the  Jerusalem Post and Foreign Policy Blogs.

First of all, bragging that gays are allowed to serve in the Israeli army is a disgrace, not a thing to take pride in.  The struggle for LGBT rights and gender equality has always been and will always remain a struggle against patriarchy and its ugly manifestations in militarization and war crimes like those which are committed by the Israeli army against Palestinians.

The authors of the articles have also enlisted “recognition of Israel” as a key point to achieve emancipation in the region, and this is yet another deception. Our long journey for freedom in Egypt since January 2011 is not a de-contexualized fight, rather it is part and parcel of the universal struggle of people for their rights and in the heart of it lies the Palestinian cause, that taught us how to remain true and faithful to our beliefs and convictions.

Pinkwashing: These colors bleed

Pinkwashing: These colors bleed

Ramy Youssef, an activist working on sexuality, gender, and human rights as well as in anti-harassment campaigns, wrote:

When a serial killer is caught there’s always somebody to say how nice they seemed, what a good neighbor, how kind to children. Who would have suspected they buried those bodies in the yard? There’s always a story about something beautiful about their personality. Even Stalin was such a family man.

Israel, we’re told, is such a safe house for homosexuals. Gay paradise on earth. It’s where you can find peace, acceptance and tolerance if you are gay. This strong circle of love and happiness sadly doesn’t include Palestinians. For Israel, Palestinians fall into a different category, the one to be bombed. Palestinians are the bodies buried in the yard.

For LGBT Egyptians, Israel is no good neighbor. It is sad, inconsistent and extremely cynical when a country like Israel talks about LGBT rights, or human rights in isolation from the rights it violates itself. The basic human right is living. In Israel, not only do they manage to shatter this right, but they do it with style. Israeli troops bombs, torture, shoot, and kill Palestinian citizens on a regular basis. Aside from the astonishing fact, which is not a secret at all, they also breach the right of movement. They keep Palestinians penned up, prevent them from moving outside certain limited spaces, and justify this by “security.” If you’re gay and Palestinian, your gay identity won’t keep Israel from locking you into this cycle of violence and imprisonment.

I am not interested in hearing Israel talk about protecting sexual identity, because it doesn’t respect the most basic identity of human beings: humanity.

An activist who asked to remain anonymous, with a long record of work on LGBT rights and health, wrote:

It’s amazing how some western writers love to bring up Israel ‘s record on LGBT rights whenever Egypt or any other country’s LGBT record is discussed. This raises suspicion towards the real motives for writing those articles. Are you really concerned about LGBT Arabs or about promoting Israel’s image?

LGBT rights are not measured by pride celebrations, nor by how many LGBT tourists come to your country. Singling out the issue of LGBT when comparing Israel and surrounding countries is a failure to understand context and a camouflage of other pressing problems. Israel is also a militarized colonial state. Egypt and other countries suffered centuries of colonialism which did much to contribute to the current homophobic and transphobic situation.

Using LGBT rights to improve the image of Israel to the world is an insult to LGBT communities throughout the region. It’s an insult to LGBT activists in Israel when their struggle becomes politicized and used as a diplomatic tool. It’s an insult to LGBT Arabs who are being exploited for political gains.

Men of Israel: a 2013 Pride poster by Tel Aviv's Evita Bar shows Israel's gay world as a paradigm of peaceful, macho diversity. The religion represented by the second man from the R is unknown to me.

Men of Israel: a 2013 Pride poster by Tel Aviv’s Evita Bar paints Israel’s gay life as a paradigm of peaceful, multi-sectarian, but unmistakably macho diversity. The religion represented by the second man from the R is unknown to me.

1.

عندما يتم القبض على قاتل مسلسل هناك دوماً من يحاول أن يظهر محاسنه، من حسن الجيرة و لطفه مع الأطفال. من سيخمن أنهم دفنوا جثثاً في باحتهم الخلفية؟ هناك دوماً قصة بشأن موطن جمال في شخصياتهم. ستالين على سبيل المثال كان محب للعائلة.
إسرائيل – كما يخبروننا – ملاذ أمن للمثليين|ات. جنة المثليين على الأرض. إنه المكان حيث تجد السلام، التقبل، و التسامح إن كنت مثلياً. هذه الدائرة القوية من المحبة و السعادة للأسف لا تتضمن الفلسطينين|ات. بالنسبة للإسرائيل، الفلسطينين|ات يقعوا ضمن تصنيف أخر، من يستحقون القتل. الفلسطينين|ات هم|ن الجثث المدفونة في الباحة.
بالنسبة للمثليين|ات، و ثنائي|ات الميول الجنسية، و متحولي|ات الجنس و النوع الإجتماعي في مصر، إسرائيل ليست بالجيرة الطيبة. إنه لأمر محزن، غير متسق، و هزلي عندما تتحدث دولة مثل إسرائيل عن حقوق المثليين|ات، و ثنائي|ات الميول الجنسية، و متحولي|ات الجنس و النوع الإجتماعي، أو حقوق الإنسان بمعزل عن الحق الذي تنتهكه بدورها،لا ينتهكوا هذا الحق فقط و لكن لديهم اسلوبهم الخاص. القوات الاسرائيلية تدمر، و تعذب، وتقذف وتقتل المدنين|ات الفلسطين|ات. بغض النطر عن الحقيقة المذهلة- والتي ليست بسر- أن إسرائيل تنتهك الحق في حرية الحركة للفلسطينين|ات بوضعهم|ن في قفص، و منعهم|ن من التحرك  خارج حدود معينة. ويبرروا ذلك بقولهم “دواع أمنية” اذا كنت مثلي|ة فلسطيني|ة فهويتك المثلية لن تحميك من أن تجرك إسرائيل لدائرة العنف.
شخصيا لست مهتم  بسماع حديث إسرائيل عن الطوائف والميول الجنسية، لأنها لا تحترم أكثر الهويات أساسية للجنس البشري “ألا وهو البشرية في حد ذاتها”.
2.

من المدهش مدى حب بعض كتاب الغرب لذكر ملف إسرائيل في حقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا عند مناقشة وضع هذه المجموعات في مصر او دول عربية أخرى، حيث أن ذلك يثير الشكوك في الدوافع الحقيقية لكتابة تلك المقالات. هل هم مهتمون فعلا بحقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا العرب أم يهمهم تحسين صورة إسرائيل؟ حقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا لا تقاس بمسيرات الفخر أو بمدى إقبال السائحين عليها. طرح قضايا المثليين والمتحولين كقضية فردية هو فشل في فهم السياق وتمويه على قضايا أخرى ملحة. فإسرائيل هي دولة عسكرية قائمة على الاستعمار. مصر ومن حولها من الدول عانوا من قرون من الاستعمار والذي ساهم للوضع الحالي من رهاب المثلية والتحول الجنسي. استخدام حقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا لتحسين صورة إسرائيل هو إهانة لتلك المجتمعات في المنطقة كلها، إنها إهانة لنضال النشطاء لحقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا في اسرائيل عندما يتم تسييس نضالهم واستخدامه كأداة دبلوماسية، كما أنه إهانة للمثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا العرب والذين يتم استغلالهم لأهداف سياسية

Two trials, two travesties

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover the faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover their faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Eight men were sent to prison today in Cairo, because their faces flickered through a video that prosecutors said showed a “gay wedding.” They got three years; after that, they’ll serve another three years’ “probation,” sleeping every night from dusk to dawn in a police station. Their lives are ruined.

It’s not even clear yet what charges they were convicted of. The heavy book thrown at them seems to have included “incitement to debauchery” (fujur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct in Egyptian law); that’s article 14 of Law 10/1961, in itself worth up to three years in prison. There were also articles 178 or 179 of the criminal code, anti-pornography provisions that punish “manufacturing or possessing materials that violate public morals,” or “inciting passersby to commit indecency on a public road.” The charges were ridiculous. The defendants didn’t spread the video or incite anyone to anything — when the film went viral on YouTube, those who were in it tried desperately to get it taken down. The film clip wasn’t remotely pornographic. YouTube is not a public road. There was no proof the men were gay. A representative of the country’s Forensic Medical Authority — who inflicted abusive and intrusive anal examinations on them all, and found even by those bogus standards they were “unused” — said, “The entire case is made up and lacks basis. The police did not arrest them red-handed and the video does not prove anything.” In Egypt, though, trials no longer proceed through proof, just prejudice and fear. Rampant political opportunism trampling the remains of rule of law: that’s General Sisi’s Egypt.

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

On October 26, in a court in a sun-baked Cairo military compound, 23 defendants also got three years in prison, and three years of further dusk-to-dawn confinement. They included my friend Yara Sallam, a feminist and human rights activist, and six other women, and sixteen men. Among them also were Sanaa Seif, a young democracy activist, the daughter of the late, heroic human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif el-Islam, who died in August while working on her defense; a well-known photographer, Rania El-Sheikh; Mohammed Anwar or “Anno,” a revolutionary veteran who was a gifted member of a modern dance company as well; and more. Their crime was being on the scene of a peaceful June 21 demonstration near the Presidential Palace. The protest was against Egypt’s new, repressive protest law, which the military government imposed by decree last year. The law lets the state imprison anyone who voices opposition in the streets without permission. It’s meant to put any and all dissent in its proper place: a penitentiary.

If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

“This is a politicized sentence. There isn’t any evidence against the defendants,” one of the defense attorneys told the media after the verdict came down. Who the hell cares? The day after the verdict Sisi excreted a new decree. It gives military courts jurisdiction over crimes committed in almost any public spaces. The security establishment saw its powers expand exponentially at a penstroke, like a black mushroom cloud ballooning out to darken the country. More and more civilians will appear before military prosecutors and military judges, to face military sentences, their civil rights shrunken to scraps and rags. Meanwhile, Sanaa Seif’s sister Mona Seif (who has campaigned for years against military trials for civilians) and her mother Laila Soueif are on a hunger strike to protest the increasingly total reach of state repression. Before last week, they refused food; since the verdict, they have refused liquids as well. No one doubts: the government would like to see them die.

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Three years for peaceful protest; three years for exchanging rings. Every trial in Egypt these days is a travesty. “Travesty” has many meanings, among them a joyous play with gender; in Latin America, in Turkey, travesti refers to trans people, whose communities subvert some of the most rigid social norms. And trans people have been among the victims of Egypt’s regime, rounded up in bars and on streets and in private apartments for defying the military definition of conformist, nationalist, ideal manhood. Self-expression looks like dangerous deception to the Sisi state.

That’s the state’s inward irony, its private joke. By the draconian terms of Egyptian law these travesties of trials themselves should be jailed: for assuming false identities; for conspiring to deceive; for defrauding the public they claim to defend; for cross-dressing as justice.

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

Egypt: Tweet and blog against homophobic brutality, September 24 and 25

Prisoners in the courtroom cage during the Queen Boat trial wear masks to protect themselves from sensation-seeking photographers: Cairo, 2001

Prisoners in the courtroom cage during the Queen Boat trial wear masks to protect themselves from sensation-seeking photographers: Cairo, 2001

URGENT! This Wednesday and Thursday, September 24 and 25, Egyptian activists want a worldwide storm of tweeting and blogging to protest the recent, massive wave of brutal repression of LGBT people.

Here’s the call to action in English, followed by Arabic. (You can learn more and join the event on Facebook — and while you’re at it, check out the Solidarity with Egypt LGBT page as well.) The Arabic version below includes sample Arabic tweets (in red) but please write your own in English! Paste the hashtag
#ضد_حبس_المثليين
in Arabic, or use it in English —  #stopjailinggays. Please share widely and join in!

TWO DAYS OF TWEETING AND BLOGGING: #STOPJAILINGGAYS

Because the Egyptian government has recently focused its efforts on monitoring people’s private lives, whether in the bedroom or on their facebook accounts …
Because the police have paused in chasing “terrorists” and are going after people for their sexual orientation and gender identity …
Because since October 2013, police have arrested more than 80 people for the “crime” of being gay or transgender …
Because some of these people receive humiliating treatment including physical violence and rape threats in detention …
Because the Forensic Medical Authority conducts anal examinations on these people, considered sexual assault and a violation of human rights and medical ethics …
Because they are sentenced for up to 10 years on charges of debauchery — a vague word …
Because the media has been waging a sensational campaign against LGBT people in Egypt, violating people’s privacy by publishing names and photos …
Because of all of this, on September 24 and 25 we will be tweeting and blogging using the hashtag
#ضد_حبس_المثليين
which means “Against the Jailing of Gays.”
Join us. Invite your friends. Raise your voices.

يومين للزقزقة والتدوين #ضد_حبس_المثليين

بمناسبة إن الدولة متفرغة في الفترة الأخيرة لمراقبة الناس في أوض نومهم وعلى صفحاتهم الخاصة، وبدل ما الشرطة تقبض على الإرهابيين مخصصة وقتها كله لملاحقة المثليين من أول أكتوبر السنة اللي فاتت الدولة قبضت على أكتر من 80 واحد بتهمة المثلية، بعضهم بيتعرض لمعاملة مهينة جوة السجن من ضرب وذل وشتيمة، وتهديد بالاغتصاب، غير إن الطب الشرعي بيطبق عليهم كشوفات غير آدمية وبيكشف على فتحات الشرج بتاعتهم عشان يثبت هما مثليين ولا ﻷ، بعضهم أخد أحكام بالسجن بتهمة الفجور، اللي هي تهمة مطاطة ومش واضحة، ولإن الإعلام قاعد يخلق أساطير حوالين المثلية الجنسية زي إنها مرض نفسي والقنوات والجرايد بينتهكوا خصوصية الناس وينشروا أساميهم وتفاصيل حياتهم

فاحنا يوم 24 و25 سبتمبر هنزقزق وندون باستخدام هاشتاج #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية الجنسية مش جريمة والدولة المفروض عندها حاجات أهم تعملها من مراقبة مين بينام مع مين،

شاركونا بالتدوين والكتابة خلال اليومين دول ودي نماذج من التويتات اللي ممكن تستخدموها:

المثلية هي ميول عاطفية أو جنسية ناحية انسان من نفس الجنس. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش جريمة. إزاي حبس المثليين في السجون هيحل المشكلة؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش اختيار. محدش بيختار يكون جزء من فئة مهمشة ومرفوضة من المجتمع. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

أكبر مؤسسات الطب النفسي بطلت تعتبر المثلية الجنسية مرض نفسي من السبعينات. مفيش علاج نفسي معترف بيه عالميا للمثلية الجنسية. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثليين جنسيا بيتعرضوا لعنف مستمر، سواء من الدولة اللي بتجرمهم، أو من الأهل أو في الشارع. المثلية مش مقبولة بس العنف مقبول؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش تقليعة ولا موضة ولا بدعة من الغرب. المثليين موجودين في كل العصور وكل الحضارات. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

جسمي أنا حر فيه. عاوز تتحكم في جسمي ليه؟ تقبل حد يقولك تعمل ايه وماتعملش ايه في جسمك؟ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

من حق كل شخص بالغ انه يختار يدخل في علاقة ولا لأ ويختار مين الشخص المناسب ليه من غير تدخل من أي جهة. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية مش مرض نفسي ولا بتسبب أمراض نفسية ولا جسدية. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

شهد العام الأخير تصاعد في عدد المثليين والمتحولين جنسيا الذي تم القبض عليهم فيما يزيد على 80 شخص. #ضد_حبس_المثليين

المثلية غير مجرمة بالنص في القانون المصري ولكن يستخدم مصطلحات فضفاضة مثل الفجور لملاحقة المثليين جنسيا #ضد_حبس_المثليين

عقوبة الفجور المستخدمة للقبض على المثليين تصل ل 3 سنوات ويضاف أحيانا اتهامات أخرى ليصل الحكم ل 10 سنوات #ضد_حبس_المثليين

الشرطة لم تستهدف فقط المثليين جنسيا ولكن استهدفت أيضا المتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا #ضد_حبس_المثليين

النيابة بتحول المتهمين للطب الشرعي والذي يقوم بعمل فحص شرجي ضد إرادتهم بمخالفة حقوق الإنسان ويعتبر انتهاك لكرامتهم وخصوصيتهم

التغطية الإعلامية لعبت دور كبير في التحريض على المثليين والمتحولين جنسيا واستخدمت ألفاظ سلبية مثل الجنس الثالث أو الشواذ #ضد_حبس_المثليين

الإعلام انتهك خصوصية وسرية المتهمين عن طريق ذكر أسماء المتهمين أو نشر صور وفيديوهات لهم مخالفة للمهنية ولأخلاقيات الإعلام #ضد_حبس_المثليين

Egypt’s “gay wedding” furor: A ship of fools

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

In Egypt any man can harass, brutalize, and rape a woman. It happens all the time. The State will ignore it for as long as possible; the media will say she asked for it. Just try a harmless expression of mutual, consensual desire, though. They’ll hound you to within an inch of your life.

Let’s start with the video. It came out of nowhere, but by Saturday morning it was everywhere. That day — it was August 30 — I spent with some young, impeccably liberal Egyptians. They kept staring with stunned fixation at their smartphones, repeatedly hitting “play,” watching it go viral, wondering what was going to happen to the men.  The YouTube comments could have told you what was coming: “They’re outside of prisons; they should worship God within them,” one outraged viewer wrote. That night I met with some of the men in the clip. One of them kept breaking uncontrollably into tears. They were trying to report the invasion of privacy, get YouTube to take it down. No use: By next day, it was on the website of Youm7 — the tabloid that’s been carrying on a homophobic campaign for months — and on TV. You think you are just a private person, contained in the fences of your skin; then suddenly you find you’ve escaped yourself, become a common spectacle and possession, a fetish cupped in the palms of everybody’s hands. No doubt this is why politicians and movie stars are so vacuous, stripped of self; but imagine sitting in ordinary obscurity and abruptly discovering you’re now an infinitely duplicable, circulating flash of light. “Mirrors and copulation are both abominable,” Borges wrote — it was one of the aphorisms of his invented world of Tlon — “because they multiply mankind.” But that was before the Internet.

Yesterday, some of those accused of being in the video went on trial. They face years in prison. The whole fiasco reminds many Egyptians of another moral panic that crushed innumerable lives: the Queen Boat show trial of 52 men, back in 2001.

I won’t link to the video here; the men have been exposed enough. It lasts little more than a minute; it shows some kind of party on one of the boats that cruise the Cairo Nile. (You can buy a ride individually or rent the felucca for a group.) The cameraphone tilts and pans past some celebrating people; there’s a cake, and two seem to exchange rings. When it went viral, it was instantly dubbed “Egypt’s First Gay Wedding.”

4549887301409591956-الفنان محمد صبحي

Mohamed Sobhi attempts to keep gay marriage from spreading to him

Some of the men I talked to asserted the whole thing was a joke. One of the alleged grooms called the popular talk-show of Tamer Amin to say as much — that he had a girlfriend and was just “playing around with rings.” If it was a marriage between men, then in a sense it was intrinsically unserious, since the law doesn’t recognize that. Nor does the law punish playing at marriage. The furor kept mounting though. Amin, on his show, called for retribution. (Tamer Amin is eager to anathematize people he thinks are gay, but equally happy to excuse rape. When a Cairo University student was sexually assaulted earlier this year, Amin told viewers that “She was dressed like a prostitute … The sexually repressed boys couldn’t control themselves … I blame her for dressing like this, and her parents for letting her leave the house in that dress.”)  Mohamed Sobhi, an actor notorious for his paranoid rants against Jews, demanded the State “respond’ to the “the spread of the phenomenon of gay marriage.”

And the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the dictator’s most feared opposition, berated the regime that overthrew it, for going soft on perversion. A former MP for the Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party warned that “For the first time in Egypt, we hear of gay marriage. The coup leaders embrace the Western agenda of demolition and decay of religion, and Egypt is converted into a brothel.” She added that the “authority of the coup” lay behind the wedding.

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

The supposed ceremony thus became a political crime. The State took up the challenge: it started arresting people. Last Wednesday, September 3, police picked up at least 13 people in the streets around Ramsis Station, and interrogated them about the video. The next night, they seized an unknown number as they were leaving a club downtown — I’ve heard figures as high as 26. Most were released, but somebody pointed an incriminating finger. On Saturday, the media announced that men from the film had been arrested, by police directed by Major General Magdy Moussa. (The exact number is still not clear. Most news reports say seven people were arrested; Al-Mogaz says two more are being sought; Youm7 claims ten are involved, and even after a confused hearing Tuesday, where the lawyers were denied access to court papers, it’s impossible to verify a figure.) [NOTE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has now confirmed eight defendants have been arrested.] Youm7 showed grainy video of people being hauled to jail. The full names of nine victims, some presumably still at large, appeared in the press.

Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

We will hurt you when we find you: Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

The charges against the men aren’t clear, but they reportedly included incitement to “debuachery” (fugur, the legal term in Egyptian law for homosexual acts), and “publication of indecent photographs.” The images showed “the purpose was the celebration of attachment to one another, in scenes deemed shameful to the maximum degree.” Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, personally intervened in the case to show its seriousness, ordering quick action. Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority conducted anal examinations on the arrested men — an intrusive, abusive, torturous and medically worthless procedure. They found no evidence of homosexual conduct. That didn’t stop a court, on September 9, from ordering the men jailed for another 15 days so the furor can continue.

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medica Authority, who said the "bride" had turned out "normal"

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medical Authority, who said the “bride” had turned out “normal”

I spoke to one of the men trawled up in the police nets last Wednesday night: picked up at 3:30 AM on a street near Ramsis Station. This is his story:

I was standing with a friend — he had tight jeans, that was probably why they thought we were gay. Suddenly a policeman came out of nowhere and grabbed us. We were thrown into a microbus nearby. I tried to scream and the policemen told us to shut up. There were about 13 of us crammed in there, all picked up in various places.

In the past, Cairo police often looked for gays by riding in a microbus with an informer, who pointed out victims passing in the street. Almost a third of the Queen Boat defendants were arrested that way (not on the boat!) This time, the microbus took them to the Mugamma, the huge Stalinist building in Tahrir Square, a symbol of State bureaucracy. There police broke the men into groups for interrogation. One man “scampered off by a different door” — possibly he was the informer.

Soldiers in front of the Mugamma in Midan Tahrir, January 2011, by Joseph Hill

The Mugamma looms above Tahrir Square, guarded by soldiers, during the Egyptian revolution, January 2011: by Joseph Hill

My group was me, my friend, and another man I didn’t know. We were taken up to the 12th floor, the “Adab” [morals] division.
At first the police were very aggressive with us. They beat us with sticks, and called us many names. Then the boss came in to question us.

The boss was very civil. He said for months they had been arresting gays as a way of stopping the spread of AIDS, because these men were having sex without condoms.

This is false. So far as we know, no evidence that anyone transmitted HIV through barebacking has been presented in any cases so far. The manipulation of public-health rhetoric is a bit strange coming from a government that claims it can cure AIDS by turning it into sausages.

But now, he said, there is this video. He said we have a new president, and Sisi is determined not to let this kind of thing happen, and will not let the Muslim Brotherhood get any benefit from it. I told him I didn’t know anything about the people in the video. All the same, they took our phones and made backups of all the information on them.

We were kept there for six hours, till after 10 AM. After the boss left the other policemen came back and made fun of us, calling us female names and asking if we were carrying condoms. My friend and I were set free; they held on to the third guy who was with us, because they said there was a theft charge against him. I don’t know what happened to the others.

The information on the phones — particularly if passwords were stored on them — could help the police open the victims’ Facebook and other social-media accounts. Plenty more could be rounded up that way.

Don't blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

Don’t blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

This whole uproar raises several issues. First: why now? The men I spoke to told me the video was made last October. One theory, seized on by the press, is that someone released it now to get revenge on a participant. It’s not implausible, though, that the authorities somehow obtained it earlier, and have been waiting for the moment when it might prove useful. There is plenty to distract people from in Egypt these days. Rolling power outages afflict the country; September 4 was promptly dubbed “Black Thursday” because the blackouts were so severe. Meanwhile, no sooner did Sisi win his rigged Presidential election than he announced massive cuts to fuel subsidies, pushing up prices for many basic goods. In such straitened circumstances, the spectre of “gay marriage” has long-proven value as a distraction. In Morocco in 2007, a YouTube video allegedly showing such a ceremony provoked riots — and jail terms for participants — in the town of Ksar el Kbir. In Kenya in 2010, similar stories stirred up vigilante violence in Mombasa. In Egypt itself, the first, sensational press reports in the famous Queen Boat case said a same-sex wedding was taking place on the raided vessel; some months before that, the press had pounced on unproven rumors of a marriage in the Delta town of Zagazig. “Gay marriage” has become a perfect encapsulation of cultural powerlessness before the imperial West.

Second, of course, the video leaked amid a months-long campaign of arrests and vilification of people accused of homosexual conduct or of dissident gender expression. Transgender people in particular have been rounded up in clubs and on the streets, and seized in private homes. These arrests continue. In early August, police arrested a woman and two men in Rehab City, a gated community on Cairo’s outskirts, and charged the latter with homosexual conduct. I’m reliably told the cops stopped one of the men at a checkpoint, on his motorcycle; finding him suspicious, they went to his home, and found the conclusive evidence — condoms. (So much for the officers’ concern for public health.) Later that month, “security forces” arrested ten people in what they called a “prostitution ring” in Giza, in western Cairo. They included, it seems, a trans woman, whose photo was singled out to appear in El-Watan. (Only the eyes were imperfectly blacked out; obscuring the face was done by me.)

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

But it’s not just alleged gays and trans people who are victims of the atmosphere of repression. The police presence in downtown Cairo is formidable now. Just under three weeks ago ago, cops raided a host of sidewalk cafes, forcing them to shutter because they had tables on, well, the sidewalk. (I recall when Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved similarly against street life in Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district, Western conservatives condemned it as creeping Islamic totalitarianism. When Sisi does it, nobody bothers.) The next day, they cracked down on street vendors. Grim, barred trucks from Central Security palisaded the avenues, filling up with hapless men whose crime was hawking scarves and jeans in the passageways off Qasr el-Nil. There is a general campaign of social control going on, and a general rehabilitation of the reputation — and power — of the police. Homosexuality is simply another convenient bogeyman. Its particular convenience, though, is that it unites several things Sisi despises: “Western” influence (as in those marriages), abnormal gender roles, and the youth culture and revolutionary decadence symbolized by the downtown world. Attacking “debauchery” allows him to set the State firmly against all those debilitating forces.

Third: the fact that the latest arrests came after criticism by the Muslim Brotherhood shows where Sisi senses his greatest vulnerabilities. Having overthrown the conservatives, he needs to prove his moral credentials. It’s significant that no comparable wave of repression happened under the Brotherhood itself: they had no credentials to prove. (It’s also significant that this panic has burgeoned during the week the government sentenced several Brotherhood leaders to decades in prison.) Sisi’s Minister of Religious Endowments — who more or less controls all the country’s official mosques — explained the official line elegantly to the media last week. Every Egyptian should reject “all anomalies” such as homosexuality, “because in the end they only serve the forces of extremism and terrorism, which claim to be the protectors of religion and morality.”

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gomaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gumaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Finally, what all this produces is fear, comprehensive and immobilizing. No one can guess what will come next, how far the crackdown will go. There are vague stories the State has planned a massive trial of alleged homosexuals for later this month, or next month; no one knows whether this mini-Queen-Boat is enough for them. Cairo Scene, a English webzine for the privileged party set, has claimed the police are already arresting gay men over Grindr; no one has been able to confirm a single case, but the rumor only adds to the terror. My sensible colleagues are pruning their phone lists, taking down photos from Facebook, and waiting — waiting for what, nobody can tell. Even I have drawn up a list, for friends, of things to do if I’m arrested; when insouciant I behave that way, you know something is wrong. A full-fledged moral panic is spreading in Egypt. It even has a song — by an Egyptian band, proclaiming that something must be done to stop the she-men with skinny jeans:

The panic infects political discourse, turning everything to triviality. The contrast between the indifference accorded real and terrible stories of violence against women, and the seriousness with which a mock wedding is reviled, remains ominous. The men on the boat may have been careless or presumptuous, but the whole country increasingly resembles a ship of fools. The absurdity isn’t innocuous, though. The point of moral panics is that they can always find new victims.