by Paul Gadalla
Rai Insights Contributor
The Egyptian regime continues to co-opt every aspect of ordinary citizens’ lives. The recent clampdown on Egypt’s LGBT community is a perfect example of how the Sisi regime, much like other regimes before his, have attempted to control all aspects of Egyptian citizens’ lives, even gender and sexuality, in order to control and confine the population.
Seven people were immediately arrested for raising rainbow flags at a Cairo concert in September of this year. Performing to a crowd of 35,000 were the widely popular Lebanese indie band, Mashrou Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay and a champion of LGBTQ+ rights in the Arab World. Now a number of human rights organizations estimate dozens have been charged with ‘debauchery’, a thinly veiled term meant to persecute members of the LGBTQ community in Egypt. These prisoners are now part of the estimated 60,000 imprisoned since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in a military coup in the summer of 2013.
The Sisi regime has sought to co-opt nearly every facet of Egyptian life from the political to the religious, and from the public to the private. He left the Salafist El Nour Party in power (while outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood) while trying to bolster more liberal Muslim groups like Sufis. He has appeared at Christmas mass in Cairo to court the country’s largest religious minority, the Copts. In Sisi’s first year of power he clamped down on the LGBT community in hopes to still gain credentials amongst Egypt’s conservative population. A raid on a bathhouse was even televised and 26 people arrested. Egypt’s intelligence services, using popular gay dating apps like Grindr, lured members of the LGBT community in Egypt and arrested them. He was showing that his police too could defend the public’s morals, not just the Muslim Brotherhood.
But this type of hypocrisy has long been present in Egypt. Since the time of Nasser, the government has looked to co-opt religion as a means to control the population and portray itself as the defender of public morals. Nasser nationalized Al-Azhar, Islam’s oldest university, as a means to control the religion most Egyptians practice. Anwar Sadat continued this legacy and even courted the Muslim Brotherhood in an attempt to counter Nasser’s secular Arab nationalism. When the Coptic patriarch refused to lend political support to Sadat’s peace plan with Israel by visiting Jerusalem with him, Sadat proceeded to have the patriarch banished from Cairo and confined to a desert monastery.
Mubarak as well was no better. Under his tenor, one of the largest attacks on Egypt’s LGBTQ+ community transpired when over 50 men were arrested in 2001 for ‘debauchery’. He also attempted to unify the call to prayer and continued restrictions on church building where the Coptic patriarch was forced to seek presidential permission to build or fix a church.
Already state religious institutions and media channels are joining in an anti-LGBT campaign in Egypt. State media channels have railed against Mashrou Leila and the band has been banned from the country. Egypt’s state media mouthpieces have even claimed the band managed to “turn” Egyptian citizens gay through its music. Muslim religious clerics were soon calling for an end to any such public display of so-called debauchery and the Coptic Church swiftly organized a conference against the ‘Volcano of Homosexuality’ in Egypt.
All these attacks, media, political, and religious show the extent of the deep state in Egypt. If one goes outside of the normal conservative confines of society, they will find an onslaught from various that the state has co-opted in order to keep citizens in line. The death of Italian activist, Giulio Regeni, from torture in prison is but one example of the horrors that await the 50,000 political prisoners held in Egypt’s jails. By controlling the media, religion, and now even expressions of sexual orientation, self expression in Egypt is hard to come by. It is only telling that the January 25 Revolution has been minimized in Egypt’s history books and the protests that once brought Sisi to power, have now been outlawed.
But all is not lost. Artists still to continue to push boundaries in Egypt through satirical shows like Abla Fajita and Teatro Misr which jab at religious hypocrisy in Egypt. Egyptians must continue to fight for individual expression or there will be no freedoms left in Egypt.
*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon