The waving of the rainbow pride flag at a concert on the outskirts of Cairo has triggered a backlash of state repression against the LGBTI community.
Several flags were raised at a performance to 35,000 people by the Lebanese indie-rock band Mashrou’ Leila on 22 September. Mashrou’ Leila is fronted by lead singer Hamed Sinno, one of few openly gay musicians in the Middle East. Sinno paid tribute at the concert to the late gay icon Freddie Mercury.
Mashrou’ Leila lyrics reference historical gay and lesbian literary figures Abu Nawas, an eighth-century Arab poet, and Sappho, an Archaic Greek lyric poet. The band’s sexually subversive music has made them a beacon of resistance for the LGBTI community in Egypt, and a target for the homophobic government.
Egyptian authorities promptly barred the group from performing again after the Cairo concert. The group has already been banned twice from playing in Jordan due to Sinno’s sexuality.
The band described the Cairo concert as “one of the best shows we’ve ever played”. But the prideful display quickly incurred a backlash of state violence.
In the days after the concert, seven people were arrested for “promoting sexual deviancy” by waving the rainbow flag. At least 20 people have also received prison sentences, ranging from six months to six years. Several men have been subjected to anal examinations, ostensibly to determine whether they have engaged in anal sex.
Armed authorities have continued raiding cafes and homes, detaining at least 71 people — mostly gay men.
Dalia Abdel Hamid, gender and women’s rights officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said: “The magnitude of arrests might be larger than what we know, but these are the only cases that we have managed to document or intervene legally.”
“Homosexual acts” in public are illegal in Egypt. LGBTI people are often arrested on euphemistic charges, such as “debauchery”.
The wave of arrests is the latest development in the Egypt government's ongoing attacks against the LGBTI community, whose members live in hiding due to online surveillance, entrapment and abuse in detention. Human rights groups estimate that more than 300 people had been arrested — and nearly all convicted — since President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi came to power in 2013.
Al-Sisi’s homophobic regime has rivalled that of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, under whose rule 52 men were arrested in a gay nightclub in 2001. This was the previously largest crackdown on the LGBTI community.
Rainbow flags were flown symbolically in Tahrir Square during the 18 days of protest that toppled Mubarak in 2011.
After the latest wave of arrests, Mashrou’ Leila released a statement saying: “The [Egyptian] state apparatus is hellbent on executing the most atrocious of human rights violations.”
Egyptian media fanned the flames of moral outrage at the display of rainbow flags. Prominent prime-time TV host Ahmed Moussa said, “homosexuality is a crime that’s as terrible as terrorism.”
Mahram Mohammed Ahmed, chief of the government’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation, said: “Homosexuality is a sickness and disgrace that would be better hidden from view and not promoted for dissemination until it is treated and its disgrace removed.” He issued a ban on any positive or neutral discussion of LGBTI issues in media.
The country’s parliament is now debating criminalising homosexuality, with a punishment of up to 15 years in prison. The Coptic church is also organising a conference entitled “The Volcano of Homosexuality” on how to “cure” gay people.
The raid came as an Egyptian lawmaker introduced a bill this month to lengthen jail sentences for gay people from a maximum of three years to 25 years, alleging there had been a recent rise in lesbian relationships.
The homophobic crackdown in Egypt comes in the context of an international backlash against growing LGBTI liberation movements. Homophobic regimes are claiming lives in Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Tanzania and Indonesia.
The West cannot claim moral high ground either, with Sisi’s collaborator, US President Donald Trump claiming he was “amongst friends” at a recent right-wing anti-LGBTI conference, and Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull has subjected the LGBTI community to a derogatory public debate on their right to marry.