The Politics behind Egypt's LGBT Crackdown

11/06/2017 01:33 pm ET
Young people wave a rainbow flag at a Cairo concert featuring the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila. Activist Ahmed Alaa confirmed
© 2017 Private
Young people wave a rainbow flag at a Cairo concert featuring the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila. Activist Ahmed Alaa confirmed that he raised a rainbow flag at the concert in a Buzzfeed video including this image prior to his arrest. 

Egypt is in the throes of a major crackdown on its LGBT community. Dozens have been detained, with the media, government, and Islamic establishment working in sync on a hate-filled anti-gay campaign. One prime time TV host, Ahmed Moussa, called homosexuality as “terrible as terrorism,” while a government official labelled it a “sickness and disgrace.” Not to miss out, the most prestigious Islamic institution in Egypt, Al-Azhar, ordered sermons to blast homosexuality and stop the spread of “abnormalities.”

Egypt’s not new to anti-gay hate campaigns, steamrolled by the authorities and state-backed media. Indeed, authorities have on-off targeted the LGBT community for nearly two decades, with the notable raid on a Cairo gay party boat in 2000 that resulted in 52 arrests and 23 sentenced to hard labor. In 2014, authorities raided a bathhouse, arresting 26 men, after a controversial Egyptian media report accused it of being a place for homosexual activity.

This latest campaign began after a September 22 concert in Cairo by Lebanese rock band, Mashrou3 Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay. The band is popular among Arab liberal youth for its highly politicized lyrics challenging patriarchy and homophobia. Two audience members waved rainbow flags, prompting their arrest, as well as the detention of at least 70 others.

All of Egypt’s anti-LGBT campaigns are repetitive in content and application. Government, media, and religious bodies coordinate efforts to publicly expose and humiliate LGBT citizens, raids are made on LGBT-friendly venues, while authorities emphasize their moral justification in the crackdown. And they almost always serve a political purpose—this time is no exception.

In Egypt’s current climate, the targeting of the LGBT community is part of a wider crackdown on political activism and civil society that has been ongoing under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. On the broader scale, the persecution of Egypt’s LGBT community is a rule out of an old playbook among Arab regimes: espouse a conservative social policy, particularly on matters of gender and sexuality, to appease Islamic sensibilities and maintain “religious” legitimacy.

Much of the Arab world remains highly conservative, and as such, Islamic bodies—ranging from legitimate institutions to extremists—yield considerable influence, and enough to threaten ruling regimes. Even secular Arab leaders require some level of endorsement from religious authorities in order to acquire the legitimacy needed to be respected by their largely conservative constituency. That is why women’s rights in the region remain the most regressive in the world, and hate campaigns targeting the LGBT community regularly flare up.

The balance is particularly delicate in Egypt, where the majority of the nation’s 95 million people are conservative and religious. The nation is still reeling from the turbulence of the revolutions and counter-revolutions between 2011 and 2013, which saw the Muslim Brotherhood briefly ascend to power. That the Brotherhood won elections in 2012 underscores the high level of religious conservativism in Egyptian society. Even if the Brotherhood’s political bungling ultimately resulted in their downfall in 2013, conservative Islamic attitudes are still widespread among a large portion of Egyptians.

Egypt is also battling an ongoing jihadist insurgency in the northern Sinai, and jihadists have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to strike at the heart of the nation through a series of terror attacks in main cities.

At a time of high tension between the state and the nation’s Islamists, reasserting Islamic legitimacy is more crucial than ever for the Egyptian government, and it turns to the old playbook of accommodating conservative Muslim views on social policy to do just that.

But this approach has been tried and failed. Seeking legitimacy through encouraging conservative interpretations of Islam hinders social development and only plays into the hands of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. The young and ambitious Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman recently emphasized this point in an interview with the Guardian. Salman spoke of the parallel need for “social transformation” and “economic transformation,” and has enacted reforms—such as allowing women to drive, reducing the powers of religious police, and expanding entertainment venues in the kingdom—to push back on Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious establishment.

In seeking to modernize Saudi Arabia, Salman notes that the rigidity of social and cultural norms, which were maintained to appease religious bodies, has thwarted the kingdom’s potential. While the kingdom no doubt has a long way to go—the LGBT community is equally repressed in Saudi Arabia—it has at least demonstrated it will no longer play by the old book of appeasing Islamists to maintain legitimacy, at the expense of the country’s social and economic development.

That is a significant departure from how Arab regimes have dealt with conservative Islamic establishments, and paves the way for greater reforms down the road, and eventual modernization. If modernizing Egypt is indeed what Sisi hopes to achieve, persecuting defenseless minorities—such as the LGBT community—to appease Islamists is not the way to go.

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