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A brief appearance of the rainbow flag at a rock concert in an affluent Cairo suburb on 22 September 2017 sent shockwaves through Egyptian society amid fears of a Western conspiracy to spread homosexuality in the country. The concert was given by Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese rock group that seeks to challenge social taboos in Arab societies and whose lead singer is openly gay.
The extremely rare public display of support for gay rights was followed by calls in the media for the government and religious authorities to come to the rescue of a society dangerously poised on the brink of the moral abyss by legislating against homosexuality or invoking religion to condemn the deviants (al-shawath), the pejorative term used to describe homosexuals in Egypt and other Arabic-speaking societies.
The Egyptian penal code does not explicitly outlaw same-sex relations, but those suspected of engaging in such relations are charged under a law that prohibits ‘debauchery’ and ‘immoral behaviour’. Like conservative Christian groups in Western Europe and America, Islam and Coptic Christianity regard same-sex relations as a curable malady at best and an abomination at worst.
Two of those accused of waving the flag at the concert have been detained by the police and are being questioned about their sexual preferences. In the weeks since, the number of those arrested on suspicion of being gay has reached 33. Some were rounded up in a random fashion from a café in central Cairo, manhandled by the police before being detained. As in previous crackdowns, they are expected to be subjected to anal examinations to determine whether they had had homosexual sex – a common practice which has been roundly condemned by Amnesty International and other rights groups worldwide.
One notorious talk show host, known for his close ties to the police, called it a matter of national security because, he alleged, inviting a band known for its approval of homosexuality was part of a conspiracy to undermine the Egyptian state and society.
On another talk show, called Wake Up, a young man – seated behind a screen to hide his identity as a former gay who had ‘repented’ – was quizzed by the guests in an effort to expose a conspiracy by foreign organizations that support Egyptian gays.
The show degenerated into a shouting match, with the host and guests trying to outdo each other in displaying their anger and disgust at homosexuality and its perils while calling on the government to come down harder on the affliction.
Even the otherwise moderate al-Shorouk newspaper was not to be outdone by the sensationalist media. In his daily column ‘How to Deal with the Problem of Homosexuals’, editor Emad el-Din Hussein wrote that ‘what happened [at the concert] was disastrous by all accounts … and should be dealt with decisively’. However, he warned against jailing the suspects because that would not solve the problem. ’A gay person, or to be more accurate the deviant person, is psychologically ill; he should be treated to turn him into a normal person again.’ He continued that homosexuality was an epidemic far more rampant abroad than in Egypt because of its religious culture, and he urged parents and schools to monitor what children watch on the internet to stave off the danger.
Additionally, the new body created to replace the notorious Information Ministry has issued a decree banning all forms of ‘propaganda for homosexual symbols … because homosexuality is a disease and a disgrace (which is) best kept secret … until it is cured or gotten rid of … Propagating such slogans is corrupting to society and those who do so should be punished’.
Critics have highlighted the disparity between this frenzied response to a matter that is private and the lack of indignation over serious public issues such as abject poverty or rampant corruption, torture or abuse of power, despite the fact that all these ills are illegal and un-Islamic.
The fact of the matter is that Egypt has become more intolerant politically, socially and culturally since the 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak failed to produce a more democratic political order. A young novelist is currently serving time in jail charged with ‘offending public decency’ for an explicit description of a homosexual encounter in his novel.
Furthermore, Egypt’s conservative culture has become even more so under the Islamist ideology that has seeped into all levels of society, a trend that has been compounded by the influence of Wahhabi (Saudi) Islam across the region.
Yet perhaps there is a small ray of hope for the gay community in the Middle East. Instead of the pejorative ‘deviants’, the more value-free term methlyeen is gaining currency, even in hostile reporting.