Brutal gender crackdown in Egypt: The tomorrows that never came

An epitaph for Egypt's revolution: "Remember the tomorrows that never came?" Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

Heartbreaking epitaph for Egypt’s revolution: “Remember the tomorrows that never came?” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

You go home, you lock your door. If you live in a place like Cairo where everybody talks about crime, maybe you bolt it two times, three times. The door is centimeters thick but it marks an almost geological division: between your life, your self, and all those other lives that have no place in yours. Yet one knock, one blow of a fist, can tear through that integument like tissue paper. The flaccid walls melt, the architecture of a dream; they fold like cardboard stage-sets in a hurricane.

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another…. Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your  life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? … The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.” …

Everyone living in the apartment is thrown into a state of terror by the first knock at the door.

That’s Solzhenitsyn. But in each repressive society, among every persecuted people I’ve ever known, from old Bucharest to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the knock on the door takes on an almost metaphysical meaning: the barriers around your personhood dissolving. It’s a signal of intimacy, now transmuted into dread.

There is a crackdown, now, in Egypt. Activists calculate that, since last October, 77 people have been arrested, but the real figures are surely higher. The prison sentences are draconian; one victim got twelve years. It is one of many crackdowns. You could compile an honor roll of endangered people in Egypt: atheists, journalists, revolutionary protesters, Islamist supporters — of whom the army slaughtered more than 1000 last summer alone. What’s distinctive about this particular pattern of arrests isn’t so much its breadth as the peculiar intensity of its assault on intimacy and privacy. The police burst into people’s homes and apartments; they’re seizing those whose main offense is that their clothes and hair are different. Didn’t we hear a year ago — from everybody including the well-paid Tony Blair — that the Muslim Brotherhood had to be overthrown and its members murdered because they wanted to trample personal freedoms, impose compulsory hijab, to turn Egypt into a new Iran? So why are its successors, Sisi’s military dictatorship and its supposedly secular henchmen, the ones enforcing a dress code with truncheons and guns?

"Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot)." Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

“Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot).” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

The current wave of arrests started last autumn, as far as anyone can make out; back then I wrote on this blog about the first two cases. On October 11, police in El Marg, a working-class neighborhood in eastern Cairo, raided a bathhouse and gym and arrested fourteen men. Residents of the quarter had seemingly complained about the comings and goings in the place — they sacked it in rage after the raid. Beaten and abused in detention, the men were charged with fugur or “debauchery,” the term of art by which male homosexual conduct is criminalized in Egyptian law. The arrests got good press; Al-Akhbar Al-Youm, a semi-official newspaper, picked up the story immediately; and that must have provided encouragement. On the night of November 4, in the western suburb of 6 October City, police raided a private party in a detached villa. Among dozens in attendance, they picked up ten people (including a woman working as bartender). Here, the pattern began to set, like an obscene drawing scrawled in wet cement:

  • The invasion of a private dwelling.
  • The focus on gender nonconformity — after the proprietor of the house, police singled out the most “effeminate” guests, including a male bellydancer. (The link to the military regime’s exacting standards of manhood was very clear. The immediate motive for the raid was apparently that visitors to the house who passed a nearby, post-coup checkpoint had offended the soldiers’ sensibilities; the troops called the police in the nearby village of Kerdasa to come do something.)
  • The draconian sentences handed down. Eight defendants got the maximum permitted by the law on fugur — three years in prison; the host had a battery of related charges thrown at him, including “corrupting” others and managing a house for purposes of “debauchery,” and got nine years. (The woman was acquitted.)

Since then, the arrests have come in an accelerating rush, till now a new raid happens virtually every week. Some incidents:

  • In the Red Sea resort of Hurghada,on December 14, police arrested two men (according to their IDs) who were wearing “women’s clothing and wigs” in a nightclub; they found “lipstick and condoms,” “makeup and creams” on them, according to the media.  The press also reported that the morals (adab) police perceived a pattern of “young people aged 16 to 20 from the Western provinces and Cairo” coming to Hurghada to “wear women’s clothing, carrying handbags with makeup tools and accessories and sexual creams and condoms.” In April, a court sentenced one of the two victims to three years in prison; the other was sent to a juvenile facility.
  • In February, the same Hurghada vice squad announced the arrest of three more “deviants,” aged 19, 20, and 23: “dressed as ladies and carrying handbags, in which an inspection found cosmetics and women’s clothing.” They confessed they wanted to “turn into women.” The police reassured the public that a “security crackdown” on deviance was in progress. There have probably been more Red Sea arrests of which we know nothing.

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada "security crackdown" on trans people: from El- Dostour

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada “security crackdown” on gender-nonconforming people: from El- Dostour

  • On March 11, the newspaper Youm7 headlined a court conviction for a “prostitution ring” in the Mohandiseen district, in Cairo west of the Nile: “a mixed network of girls and ‘third sex.'” Among the five defendants they mentioned, two were women and three were (biological) men; two of the latter apparently had women’s nicknames. The defendants’ ages ranged from 17 to 23, and the paper cheerfully printed their pictures. They had apparently been arrested, after “the receipt of information” and “investigations,” in a vice squad raid on an apartment they shared. They received one-year prison sentences.
  • On the very same day, March 11, Youm7 also reported the vice squad in Alexandria had arrested nine university students for “practicing sexual deviance,” in a raid on an apartment in the Montazah district. The newspaper said they had been caught “in flagrante delicto.” Egyptian LGBT activists later reported they had been released without charge, but it has been impossible to confirm this for certain.
  • On April 21, the vice squad in the Suez Canal city of Ismaïlia arrested a 22 year-old with male identity papers, who was wearing women’s clothing in a public park. The victim faces trial this month; the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has sent a lawyer. Youm7 reported the case and printed two photographs of the defendant, face fully exposed, seemingly seized from her house or phone.
  • On April 1, vice police in Nasr City — a district of eastern Cairo — arrested four people in an apartment. Their ages ranged from 18 to 31; according to their friends, two of them identified as male-to-female transgender. They had only moved into the flat the day before; it seemed that neighbors or their new landlord reported them. Prosecutors charged them with fugur. A lawyer who went to the jail to help them heard police calling them the “four faggots [khawalat].” The case moved extremely quickly; on April 7, a Nasr City court convicted them all for”debauchery.” The oldest also was found guilty of “facilitating debauchery” and maintaining “premises for the purposes of debauchery,” under provisions of the same law. He received eight years in prison, while the other three took three-year sentences.
Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

  • Also in Nasr City, during the first week of May, the vice squad arrested five more people in another apartment raid. Marsad Amny (“Security Observer”) printed their full names. It also reported that they were “clients” of those arrested in the earlier raid; activists believe the cops found them through the phones or friends’ lists of the previous victims. According to police, they confessed that they “hold private parties and drink  alcohol and liquor, and then they imitate women and [practice] vice with men.” The press also pruriently reported they had acknowledged “abusing pills” (presumably hormones) for breast enlargement and to “soften the voice and remove unwanted hair from their bodies. … They said that taking the pills helped them to acquire the shape, parameters, and characteristics of the female body.” And they owned “industrial tools for the practice of sexual deviance,” which is anybody’s guess. Today — May 19 — the Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights told me that one of the accused has been given a four-year prison sentence; three received eight years; and the court sentenced the flat’s main tenant to twelve years.
  •  On May 4, police arrested six people in a flat in the Cairo district of Heliopolis. Youm7, which carried a report the next day, called them “effeminates” (mokhanatheen, مخنثين, sometimes translated “shemales” or “sissies,” sometimes more respectably as “intersex” or “androgynes”) and claimed they were part of an “international sex network,” apparently because one had a Moroccan passport. The paper carried three successive, sensational stories based on information the police leaked, including pictures of the defendants and even two videos filmed in the lockup. Another paper said they confessed to “suffering from excess female hormones in the body and having sex hundreds of times.” The media also quickly announced that two of the accused “had AIDS,” suggesting an HIV test had been carried out in detention. Charged with “debauchery,” they are facing trial.
Major General Hisham el-Sawy of the Minisry of Interior, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

Major General Hisham el-Sawy , director of the general administration of the morals police, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

The news accounts and police statements actually suggest a still wider crackdown coming. The stories stress again and again that the “deviants” “advertise themselves through social networking sites,” or “through the pages of Facebook.” I interviewed a man arrested a year ago who recounted how the cops told him, “We know the cafes where you people gather, and we know the websites you use too.” Some of the recent court decisions adduce defendants’ personals ads, on sites like “Worldwide Transsexual Dating,” as evidence against them. Plenty of LGBT Egyptians use apps like Grindr, or have ads on multiple sites, or have posted indiscreet things on their own Facebook pages or in supposedly secret groups. A few strategically placed informers, and these people — thousands of them — could wind up in prison.

All that has happened before. From 2001-2004 Egyptian police arrested thousands of men for “debauchery,” entrapping many over the Internet. I can say with pride that this crackdown ended because we at Human Rights Watch, together with Cairo activists, documented it in clear detail, including the sleazy methods undercover cops used to delude and capture people. (“It is the end of the gay cases in Egypt,” a high Ministry of Interior official told a well-placed lawyer in 2004, “because of the activities of certain human rights organizations.”) For the next eight years, excepting an abortive spate of arrests of gay men suspected of being HIV-positive in 2008, no one went to prison for fugur in Egypt.

"A salute to our martyrs:" A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A salute to our martyrs:” A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead whom military and police killed. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Years of relative calm, then this. What underlies these new horrors?

First, media sensationalism feeds the arrests. Each juicy story gives police more incentives to pursue publicity. Youm7 (Seventh Day“), a privately owned paper, is the worst offender. They’ve blared out each new arrest with hungry glee, publishing names and faces, marching into jails with police collusion to capture the miscreants on videocamera.  Founded six years ago under Mubarak, Youm7 has parlayed its official connections to become one of the most popular papers, and websites, in Egypt. Since the Revolution, it’s become unofficial mouthpiece for the military and the security state. During the Morsi presidency, it whipped up hysteria against the Muslim Brotherhood (most famously, it claimed that the Brotherhood had dispatched roving medical vans to perform female genital mutilation door-to-door in rural Egypt, a story that spread widely before people noticed there was no evidence). More recently, its editor-in-chief was one of the elect anointed to tell a waiting world that Generalissimo Sisi planned to run for President.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” The face was not blurred in the original.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7  didn’t.

Youm7 and its imitators dehumanize the arrested “deviants,” portraying them as both pathological and irrefragably criminal. Each article offers new images and verbiage of degradation.

But here’s the second point: of course, the government is feeding these stories to Youm7. And spreading stigma is a defining mark of the post-coup military regime. The whole strategy of Sisi’s government has been to divide and conquer Egypt, with a thoroughness earlier rulers never achieved in living memory: by creating instability, conjuring up threats and then assigning faces to them, it gins up the impression of necessity around its palsied grip on power. It started last summer, portraying the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters (at least a quarter of the country) as not just terrorists but rabid animals whom only death could discipline, indifferent to life, including their own. Stripping humans of their humanity, however, unleashes an energy that brooks no confinement to particular targets. The circles of lives unworthy of living, of those expelled brutally from both the society and the species, keep expanding. Egypt is now devouring itself in an infuriated quest to define who is no longer Egyptian. The “perverts” are just the latest victims.

Police and media together have generated a full-fledged, classic moral panic. Just ten days ago, walking downtown during Friday prayers, I heard a sermon piped over loudspeakers in the very heart of Cairo: “Why do we now see men practice abominable vices?” the imam demanded. “Why do they put on makeup, lipstick, and behave in the way of women?” I forget the answer. The question was the point. These forms of “deviance” are now the common topic in corner mosques as well as national news. All the typical tropes come up. Youm7 interviewed pundits about the “problem” — a psychologist, a professor of Islamic history, and a “security expert,” who compared queerness to drug addition.

Recently a serious phenomenon has surfaced in our society, with devastating  effects on individuals, society and the nation. This phenomenon is the crime of homosexuality [“الشذوذالجنسى,” sexual deviance].

Advocating personal freedom, which our society could not apply correctly, does not mean that the individual is free in his actions regarding his personal and physical requirements. Affronts to legitimacy and legality should be disciplined, so that they do not conflict with the laws of nature or violate human dignity. But “homosexuality” is an affront to all humanity.

“Homosexuality” is filed as a taboo — but we must open it up whatever the reaction. It is a phenomenon that has swept Egypt following the revolution. Although it existed before it has now risen to the surface. …  It has even appeared in the recent involvement of some Arab princes in the practice of “homosexuality.”

As that suggests, you can subsume plenty of other enemies under this sweeping rubric. Revolutionaries, dissidents, and even Gulf magnates who may have given money to the Brotherhood are all tarred. In a violently xenophobic atmosphere, Western criticism of the arrests only proves there’s a foreign conspiracy against Egypt’s morals and manhood.

And, third: manhood is basic here. The crackdown mainly targets the people in Egypt’s diffuse and fragile LGBT communities who are most vulnerable and visible, those who defy gender norms. This is despite the fact that, while Egyptian law does criminalize male homosexual conduct, it says nothing about “crossdressing” or “effeminacy.”  Still, in many of these cases people were convicted of homosexual acts with no evidence but their looks (or the clothes or makeup in their handbags) alone.

Evidence survives that Egyptian cultures before the advent of British and French colonialism had specific niches for the gender non-conforming. Khawal is now an insult for men who engage in homosexual conduct, regarded as a terrible term of opprobrium. In the 19th century, however, it meant male dancers who dressed as women, who enjoyed (like some South Asian hijras) a recognized role as celebrants at events such as weddings.

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: "Egypt - haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer."

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: “Egypt – haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer.”

Whatever those niches were, though, in the 20th century they closed. Khawal came to mean not a gendered role but a sexual practice. Despite a few well-publicized cases of Egyptians seeking sex reassignment surgery, there was little social space for most people – particularly men – to cross gender lines for anything like a significant section of their lives. Only in recent years has there been a growing awareness of “transgender” identity, and an expanding willingness by a brave, determined few to live in at least a liminal space where gender blurs. Many of these folks don’t define themselves as “trans,” nor are they bound to particular gendered pronouns.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

One way to put this is that “gender identity,” if it means anything in Egypt, often exists in a continuum with “sexuality” rather than as a disaggregated axis for identity. But the development of downtown Cairo and a few other urban zones as places where all kinds of self-consciously “alternative” styles tacitly tolerate each other; the burgeoning availability of Internet information; and the discursive and personal freedoms the Revolution pried open, all encouraged a lot of people to experiment with new ways of appearing and even living, with being “ladyboys” (a term often heard in LGBT people’s Arabic), or fem, or trans. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The attention also meshes with other potent anxieties. I’ve written here before how the Revolution raised a nervous question about what Egyptian manhood meant. The generals who seized control of the country after Mubarak fell began at once to disparage dissenting youth as effeminate: long-haired, culturally miscegenated, and incapable of masculine virtues like loyalty and patriotism. As if in reaction, revolutionaries adopted a language of attacking others’ manhood: “Man up,” a call to courage and defiance suggesting that opponents were wusses, became a running cliché of revolutionary speech.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version disparages the police as "gay." Activists painted over the insult and turned it into a statement on homophobia.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version calls the police “gays.” Other activists painted over the insult and made a different statement: “Homophobia is not revolutionary.”

What resulted? An environment where all sides constantly debated masculinity and leveled accusations at its absence. Coupled with a fear of national vulnerability and diplomatic irrelevance (which the military governments carefully cultivated) this created ideal conditions for defaming transgressors against gender as traitors to culture and country. A stridently soldierly, macho dictatorship could hardly look for a more useful bogeyman than the mokhanatheen, who embody like a freeze-dried concentrate all the vices it attributed to its enemies.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: "The names change, the crime remains the same." The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: “The names change, the crime remains the same.” The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Fourth: the crackdown is convenient for the reputation of the police. In the Revolution’s wake, Egypt’s police forces stood discredited and despised. The cop represented the point where most citizens met and suffered from the power of a regime beyond the law. Almost everybody had a personal story of police extortion, or arbitrary harassment, or torture. After February 2011, the police almost disappeared from most Egyptian streets – loathed and cowed figures, fearing for their lives.

With Sisi’s ascendancy the cops are back with a vengeance. You see them at every traffic circle, big-bellied, smug, hitting up taxi drivers for their daily bribes. The regime’s purchased politicians praise the gendarmerie whose lucre-fueled alertness saves the nation from Islamist terror. Their presence hasn’t necessarily made them popular; memories of their abuses die hard. But going after still more despised enemies of virtue gives their image a lift. The news stories hammer home the moral: when it comes to “deviance,” our security forces are on guard.

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo. At top: "Those who appoint a successor never die." a parody of a proverb. At bottom: "O system! You're afraid of a pen and brush. ... You long to fight with walls, to have power over lines and colors." ACAB: "All cops are bastards."

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo, 2012. At top, Mubarak’s face emerges under that of General Tantawi, his Minister of Defense who overthrew him: “Those who appoint a successor never die,” a parody of a proverb (“Whoever has a child never dies”). At bottom: “O system! You’re afraid of a pen and brush. … You long to fight against walls, to have power over lines and colors.”At upper right, a policeman is beating a graffiti artist. ACAB: “All cops are bastards.”

Finally, you have to notice that this crackdown so far doesn’t proceed by policing public spaces like cruising areas or cafes, or by sneaking into pseudo-public spaces like Internet pages or chatrooms. It may go there, but not yet. It’s private homes the police invade. With each news story, they tout their X-ray ability to peer through the walls like cellophane.

And this is the grimmest message, though at first it may not seem so. If Egypt’s Revolution had one collective goal, it was to roll back state power. State surveillance of personal life, of people’s rooms and bodies, was the precondition for the state’s other abuses: especially torture, the crime that all the Arab Spring revolts most focused on, the ultimate assertion of government authority over people’s physical existence down to their bones and nerves and skin. The Revolution rebelled against the policeman’s eyes at the window, his ears in the walls, his clawed hand on the shoulder.

That’s over. There is no privacy. The hand is a fist, and it is knocking at the door. The knock is a reminder that the state is still there, that it can control whatever you do, what you wear, what your bodies desire. The knock insinuates itself into your dreams. It’s trans or gay or lesbian people, or effeminate guys or mokhanatheen, who hear and fear it now; the message reaches them first, in the early stages. Accustomed to dread, they’re an attentive audience. (A gay man with nothing exceptional about his appearance told me three nights ago that he is afraid to answer the door these days, afraid to go out of doors lest his neighbors see him and suspect something and report him to the police.) But it’s a message for everyone, and eventually everyone will listen. The Revolution promised “personal freedoms,” but forget it; “our society” couldn’t “apply them correctly”; they’re a corrupt aspiration, an evasion of the necessity of control. Remember all those dreams of tomorrow? Tomorrow went away.

"Shut up! because your freedom doesn't help me": Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

“Shut up! because your freedom doesn’t help me”: Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

 

 

From Egypt: Manhood on the front lines

Ahmed Spider, before and after

So Ahmed Spider’s website was hacked tonight. Where you used to find gauzy, Vaseline-blurred images of a willowy figure with a pruned beardlet, now there’s a glowering fuck-you troll in diapers, a message that the site’s been pwn3d, and some mocking posts from the hackers, who have monikers like “Turbo_Power” and “Black_Moon”:

“Susan” is cute, and now she’s talking about politics  — how hilarious! And moreover she’s singing … The best young men have participated in this revolution, while you sit at home playing at your keyboard.

Now, it’s not as though I have any sympathy for the guy. Ahmed Spider, whoever he really is — nobody seems to know exactly — is one of the odder side-effects of the revolution, one of those strange beings who crop up in the crevices where paranoia, social change, new forms of media, and the loonier outliers of celebrity culture all conjoin. For years, he used his website mainly to promote his not-very-well-sung songs. After February, though, he discovered a new career opening, as conspiracy theorist. He started up a YouTube channel, featuring musical monologues by himself, about suffering Egypt, the virtues of Mubarak, the iniquities of revolutionaries, the real reasons for 9/11, American and Zionist plots, and more. These videos never quite went viral; they were more like a lingering cold. He named Wael Ghonim, one of the revolution’s icons, as a Masonic subversive; after the Maspero massacre in October, he accused activist Alaa Abd el Fattah of inciting it (and Alaa now languishes in jail facing the same charges). He vehemently supports the ruling junta (SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces). Some pro-regime TV channels give him inordinate airtime.

Most revolutionaries thoroughly loathe him. His attack on Alaa Abd el Fattah they regard as especially unforgivable. Some call him things like “SCAF’s main tool.” That seems unlikely; he’s too eccentric, too pathetic a product of the dream of fame, to be a useful tool for anybody. But what’s interesting is the way his eccentricity is used against him. He’s undeniably a bit fey, he has a lispy accent, and his suspiciously plucked-looking eyebrows and gelled hair don’t quite fit either the respectable contours of traditional Egyptian manhood or the scruffy, Che-in-a-keffiyeh look favored in Midan Tahrir. So he becomes “she,” “Susan,” a faux artiste glued to the piano while the “best young men” go out and fight for what they believe. Or take this nasty cartoon that circulated on Twitter:

from @ahmad_nady on Twitter

Ahmed Spider (on the right, if you didn’t guess): “If you still love Zbider, googoo, you should throw in prison everybody people consider a MAN.” The general: “As you wish!” And the bicycle spinning in his thought-balloon — agaala — is common slang for a male who gets penetrated.

From @ahmad_nady on Twitter

Compare this to the same artist’s depiction of Alaa, his wife Manal, and their child — “for the best revolutionary couple ever.” It’s the Holy Family versus the fags. You get the idea.

The revolution is certainly not averse (or at least some revolutionaries aren’t) to manipulating homophobia. However, the truth is that Alaa — who’s certainly the “MAN” that Zbyder means above — with his long hair and rather unathletic figure, not to mention his feminist wife, is not exactly the traditional model of Egyptian manhood. And in fact, he’s notorious for saying friendly things about gay rights, and even endorsing the idea of same-sex marriage in his voluminous tweets. (His father, the revered Ahmed Seif el-Islam, was the first human rights activist to provide legal defense to the men arrested on the Queen Boat in 2001.) There are, in other words, some paradoxes here.

The other night, I asked a friend here who’s sensitive to these matters whether there’d been a change in the way Egyptians, or at least some Egyptians, imagine manhood since the Revolution. Alaa Abd el Fattah’s story was the first thing he mentioned. Specifically: After the military jailed Alaa in the wake of Maspero, Nawara Negm, a well-known revolutionary, published a piece in which she praised him as a dakar, a real, manly man: he faced SCAF and its overweening power boldly, went off to prison bravely, never flinched.

In one of his letters smuggled from his cell, Alaa responded to her:

I am writing this note with a deep sense of shame. I have just been moved from the appeals prison, at my request and insistence, because I simply couldn’t withstand the difficult conditions there: because of the darkness, the filth, the roaming cockroaches, crawling over my body night and day; because there was no courtyard, no sunshine and, again, the darkness….

I found Nawara’s celebrating my “manliness” confusing … I couldn’t “man up” and bear it, even though I knew only too well that thousands were bravely and stoically enduring far worse conditions, even though I never had to suffer the untold horrors of military prisons, nor was I ever subjected to the torture meted out to those comrades of mine who had been sent down to the military courts. …

Even my decision to refuse questioning by a miltary court, which so many of you have celebrated and praised, that too came with a grain of cowardice. The day we had met to take the decision, I was not brave enough to seek my wife Manal’s opinion on the matter, even though I knew full-well I would be leaving her on her own, through the final days of her pregnancy; even though I knew I would be leaving her to face, on her own, the trials and tribulations of running our life …

The only slightly theatrical modesty goes far toward explaining why Alaa is so loved among his comrades. The confession of a certain cowardice, and, most especially, the apology to his wife — the admission that they should have been equal partners in his decision, an idea few Egyptian men of whatever profession would entertain — seemed to my friend to adumbrate a different kind of masculinity, detached a bit from the traditional anxieties about courage and control. It’s also obvious, though, that while declaring himself less than a dakar, Alaa leaves the value of manliness itself unquestioned. He shifts the semantics around the dakar, but neither rejects the term nor redefines it completely. “It is true that I am not the ‘real man’ Nawara believes me to be,” he says, “but I am no coward either.” That self-description seems to me to capture some of the dilemmas here of revolutionary manhood.

among the martyrs

The revolution is a macho thing. Perhaps most revolutions are. All around Cairo, in the progressive hangouts, you can see the guys strutting round, cocksure in their rock-star status as heroes of the ongoing fight for freedom, their egos ablaze with the fires lit by the glimmers in awed girls’ eyes. If they’ve been on the barricades recently, some of them wear their battle scars like love bites. Beyond and behind them, ghostlike, there are, of course, the martyrs, those killed by Mubarak or the counter-revolution: women and men, unforgettably dead, their visages ubiquitous on posters or banners whenever the revolutionaries gather. Sometimes they appear smiling, natural, with faces in which only now one can read a shadow of surprise — images pulled, as if by an emergency or an unexpected message, from their ordinary lives in which dying seemed a distant thing, called to carry out a errand on which they hadn’t planned. Sometimes they’re shown with skulls crushed or chests bullet-ridden or limbs neatly folded over a docile corpse. Sometimes you see them split-screen as Before and After, as if one made the transit from beautiful life to glorious and terrifying death in the quick flick of a camera shutter. Always, though, they’re presented more as victims than as heroes. You don’t see them doing, though you may see footage of them dying; they are mute emblems of pure suffering, which extinguished them that the rest of us may go on struggling. Aluta continua. It’s as though, by being passive in their extinction, they clear the space for the living heroes to be heroes. The more the martyrs underwent, and the higher the hecatombs grow, the more their agency and power come to inhabit the guys (of course, particularly the guys) who survived.

But these guys in turn — because they’re like Alaa, maybe long-haired, certainly radical, definitely non-traditional in one way or another — have to defend their power from the accusation that they’re passive or perverted. They need to assert the idea of their manhood against the conservatives, against the saurian relics of the ancien regime, against the slurs that they’re sissy-boys or Westernized sexual freaks. They too have to say, over and over: I may not be a “real man” by your definition, but I’m a man, I’m not a coward. This is the irony: the same things the revolutionaries say about Ahmed Spider, the counter-revolutionaries have already said about them. 

It’s a vicious cycle of insecurities, then. Some examples:

Amr Gharbeia

There’s Amr Gharbeia, a very courageous blogger and human rights activist. When a dissident march on the Ministry of Defense in July ended in a brutal attack on the demonstrators and a tear-gas-smeared melee (a description from my side is here), three people kidnapped Amr in the confusion, dragging him off, threatening him, and accusing him of being a spy. He was freed later, but the publicity around his disappearance led to a bizarre backlash, in which the mere fact that he had a ponytail seemed to play an exacerbating part. One Facebook page put up by vestigial pro-Mubarakites accused him of being gay. That one’s gone now, but this one conveys the same spirit. It’s titled “I Call on the Military Council to Subject Amr Gharbeia to a Virginity Test“:

This country is full of sissy guys, either from the 6 April Coalition [the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the leading revolutionary Facebook groups] … or any other shitty coalitions which continue disgusting us. But truly, these are some guys who’ve been drinking beers in the university and smoking hash till they were wasted; then they mingle with the harem, or even get inspired by the roles of women, like our courageous hero Amr Gharbeia. And now they are chanting for democracy, and that they are revolutionary young men who can bring the president down, and even Tantawi.

We’ve gone from “the country of the million belly-dancers,” the page says, to  “the country of the million revolutionaries.” And clearly, they’re pretty much the same thing.

This is, moreover, fairly typical of the insults that many male demonstrators face, sometimes from unfriendly onlookers, sometimes from the oppressors themselves. It’s worse, arguably, on the very infrequent occasions that women’s or gender issues actually appear on the protesters’ programs. Last march, when feminist groups and allies tried to stage a march on International Women’s Day, angry crowds disrupted and broke up the effort. The women took the full brunt of the brutality, of course. Yet even one male participant wrote how “some of them pointed at me and described me as a fag who should wear a scarf over his head like women because he is a disgrace to the mankind.”

But any protest attracts a shower of insults, and worse. I can’t count the number of demonstrators inside Tahrir and out, men and women too, who have told me about being called khawal by police — a terrible insult in Egypt, similar to “faggot” but with a connotation of extreme effeminacy. And police sexually abuse men as well as women. It’s impossible to say how often, because few men will talk about it. Maged Butter, a revolutionary from Alexandria arrested in the battles of Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo last week — a bright, brave, but slight, breakable-looking young man who could easily arouse all the cops’ fears and resentments about class as well as gender — wrote after his torture and release that

5 soldiers surrounded me, beat me with batons all over my body w/ extra dose for my head, and dragged me along M.Mahmoud st, 2 beating me with batons, 1 kicking me, 1 fingering my ass, 1 checking my pockets, till the end of the st., also kicking my balls.

The telltale finger in the ass is probably not the worst that many detainees have undergone.

So there’s reason to think that, out of the revolutionary cauldron, out of the moil of changes and ideas, novel ways of thinking about manhood as well as womanhood will emerge. But the thinkers and the ideas themselves are under pressure: both the internal pressure to show a traditional strength, and the external pressure to prove one’s not a khawal or a coward, a bicycle or a bitch. One positive fact, I think, is that the revolutionaries are now at a pass where they cannot endure the military — which, with universal conscription for men, has always provided what is virtually an institutional definition of masculinity in the country.  After SCAF’s repeated, murderous rampages, no one on the left has any patience left with its values. The dissidents reject the army’s temptations and seductions, all its pomps and works and promises. And this is quite a change from the spring, when many revolutionaries turned on the blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad (still imprisoned by the junta as I write) for criticizing compulsory military service — which they saw as an unpatriotic gesture. To cast aside the adulation of the military means that one structuring and constraining power over gender is, for at least one individual, out the window.

The other positive force is simply the presence of courageous and militant women everywhere in the Revolution, including the barricades and front lines. And there is more to write about this than I can possibly say, now or in future. But one place to start is simply by letting the voices of women speak for themselves — and I’ll begin that in the next post.

N.B. Particular thanks to Ahmed of the fine blog Rebel with a Cause for thinking through some of the issues with me.