When the Egyptian people took to the streets in January and February 2011, many were not simply asking for a more prosperous and stable country. Many were demanding a fairer, more open society where everyone, regardless of political persuasion, was afforded the same basic rights and freedoms enshrined in a democracy. And when the autocrat Hosni Mubarak stepped down as a result of those protests, they must have believed that they were on the path to achieving those demands, which many fought and died for.
Three and a half years on and the country is now in the hands of a military general, who won an “election” in which most of the political parties were not involved. Under military rule the democratically elected – regardless of Western views – party The Muslim Brotherhood, which succeeded Mubarak’s downfall, has been criminalised, journalists have been imprisoned for allegedly interviewing members of that party, and dozens of protesters have been killed. Personal freedoms are restricted, opposition parties squashed, and violence is the word of law.
Now Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s government has identified a pressing threat to Egyptian society –not the all-powerful security forces, not the mass corruption, not even the raging battles in the streets between opposing factions. No, the pressing threat is homosexuality. There has been a crackdown on mainly gay men, identified through social media sites like Facebook, and the gay dating/hook-up app, Grindr. Although homosexuality isn’t illegal in Egypt, authorities have been posing undercover in order to trap gay men and arrest them on grounds of “immorality”, “debauchery” or “contempt of religion”. Grindr has had to adapt the app in repressive countries including Egypt, to automatically block locations for fear of arrest.
In September, 8 men were arrested for holding a gay wedding party and posting the video on YouTube which then went viral. The public prosecutor’s office said the celebration was “humiliating, regrettable and would anger God”. The men face up to 3 years in jail, and were forced to undergo medical examinations to “test homosexuality”. The “tests” came back negative.
The response from the Egyptian people to this persecution seems to be negligible. Egypt is a very religiously conservative country, where 95% of the people in one recent survey stated they are opposed to homosexuality. Many Egyptians will see no problems in the arrest of 6 men for advertising their apartments as safe places for gay couples and will consider their two years hard labour just punishment.
The issue isn’t only about the widespread homophobia and oppression of the LGBT community, terrible though it is: this is history repeating itself. In 2001, there was an infamous, internationally condemned trial of 52 men accused of having a sex party on a disco boat. 23 of the men were sentenced to between 1 and 5 years in jail. It could just as easily have happened this year. The man at the top may have changed, but the brutal security forces are still the same, the people are still not free and all the power is still concentrated in a similar elite backed by the army.
Yet the majority of Egyptians aren’t speaking up against Sisi, but for the military ruler. After the turmoil and sacrifice of the past few years, many of them are sticking to what appears to be security and relative peace, even if the iron grip of the state is just as strong and merciless as ever. The Egyptian State Security Investigations Service is well-known for their systematic use of torture, unchanged from the days of Mubarak.
People were spurred onto the streets in early 2011 by dreams of a better country. They were prepared to fight for it, and even to die for it. Yet those aspirations never materialised. The golden thoughts that spurred on the revolution, and dreams of a country free from the oppression that ordinary Egyptians have suffered for decades, have all been revealed as mirages. Instead, dissent is still silenced, minorities oppressed and people imprisoned for love. It doesn’t seem as though anything has really has changed.
Perhaps campaigning for the rights of gay people is too far removed from the immediate concerns of the populous. Maybe it is a freedom that they don’t believe in, nor are prepared to fight for. But if more ordinary Egyptians won’t, then who will?