Homosexuality in Egypt: A National Security Threat?
Homosexual persecution in Egypt is a paradox. On the one hand, since the election of Egyptian President Abel Fattah al-Sisi in 2013, the number of gay and trans people that have been arrested has quadrupled: 76 gay men have been detained in September 2017 alone. On the other hand, homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, and same-sex relationships are constitutionally permissible.
The beginnings of modern state persecution against homosexuals can be traced back to May 2001, when Egyptian police officers raided a gay disco on the “Queen Boat” in Cairo, arresting 52 men. The detainees were brutalized by police officers and humiliated by the media. This was significant because it was the first time that gay men were put on trial in Egypt. Since then, homosexual persecution has intensified with the Egyptian government not only hunting down homosexuals at well-known gay hang out spots but also targeting them through in-depth surveillance measures, including the use of gay online dating apps.
Unfortunately, the situation still remains painfully ambiguous. Indeed, the following question must be asked; Why is it that the Egyptian government is continuing to round up and imprison gay men, invoking unrelated legislation which prohibits “debauchery” and prostitution in an attempt to justify the oppression of homosexuals on grounds of perversion and immorality? The answer, according to Professor Nicola Pratt, is that homosexuality in Egypt is seen as a national security threat.
Homosexuality presents a disruption of gender norms in Egypt. Egyptian society is fundamentally heteronormative, it is founded upon the idea of traditional heterosexual relationships and conservative ways of structuring the family. However, it is worth noting that it is not just homosexuals who have been impacted by this deeply heteronormative mindset, women have also been subordinated. It wasn’t until 2000 that women were allowed to divorce their husbands and the National Council of Women was established as part of the Egyptian government. In the midst of this hypermasculinised society it is clear that 21st century Egyptian homosexuals have been played a particularly bad hand. They are public about their gay rights in a time when their country is perhaps the most socially insecure and hostile toward homosexuality it has ever been in recent decades. Economic crisis in the 1980s meant that the Egyptian government was forced to make a number of economic reforms in 1991, leading to a significant rise in the level of unemployment. Male anxiety increased as men felt emasculated by poverty and saw a growing number of women in the workplace. The current oppression of homosexuals is the result of this explosion of insecurity and tension that has built up over time. Homosexuals are persecuted in an attempt to reclaim heteronormative values and vent male insecurity.
As well as being a source of social insecurity, homosexuality is also a source of political insecurity. For many, homosexuality calls into question the national identity of Egyptians; it is seen as infiltrating traditional notions of ‘Egyptianness’. Egypt is a country with deeply conservative Islamic roots, holding to values that are proudly anti-Western. Homosexuality is seen as a Western construct, an attempt to undermine Egyptian sovereignty. As a result, the West is equated with homosexuality and vise-versa. Western fashion or lifestyle choices are seen as inherently gay, impacting the way that homosexual men are treated by the authorities. For example, when gay men are arrested by police-officers they are sometimes made to show what colour underwear they are wearing. It is a norm in Egypt for men to wear white underwear, if gay men are found to be wearing coloured underwear they are usually treated more severely because coloured underwear is seen as Western. Furthermore, gay prisoners who ‘look more masculine’ in the sense that they have big muscles or facial hair, are less likely to be beaten or have shorter prison sentences in comparison to more feminine looking men. Stereotypes are used as a powerful tool for persecution.
From the perspective of Western liberal democracy and universal human rights, the homosexual persecution that is taking place in Egypt is morally reprehensible. Whilst it would be wrong to argue that Egypt should submit to a colonised, Western understanding of how to do politics, state persecution of homosexuals cannot be justified. Yet, very little is being done by the international community. Amir Magdi, a researcher for Middle East and North America Division of Human Rights Watch, has said that, ‘Egypt’s allies, like the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Germany have been largely silent over one of the worst crackdowns against LGBT communities in the whole world’. However, the problem is not just that Egypt’s allies are doing very little to tackle homosexual oppression. Homosexual Egyptians do not feel free to leave their country because of the stigma attached to European immigration, the problematic way that European countries have dealt with immigrants and the negative way that immigrants have been perceived by European citizens in recent years. To make things even more problematic, whenever Egypt’s allies try to highlight Egypt’s human rights abuses, it reaffirms the narrative of Western interference and sovereignty infringement.
Therefore, while more needs to be done by the international community in terms of holding Egypt to account, the subject of international interference also brings attention to an important issue. It highlights the challenging dichotomy between respect for sovereignty and historical values and the fundamental idea of universal human rights. If Egypt’s allies or indeed the wider international community are going to criticise Egypt’s treatment of homosexuals on the grounds of human rights abuses, it seems that from the perspective of the Egyptian government, these countries need to justify what gives them the precedent to make this claim outside of the notion that ‘it’s not Western’. Indeed, the foundation for universal, obligatory human rights that all countries should follow regardless of what their deeply held religious values may espouse, must be brought to the fore. The international community needs to highlight what is it that allows Western notions of human rights to ‘transcend’ the cultural norms and values of non-Western or even anti-Western countries.