LGBTQ crackdowns, civil society and social change: A video conversation
Reflecting on how society and human rights defenders respond to seminal moments of state violence against LGBTQ individuals

In the summer of 2017, the crackdown on people suspected of being LGBTQ that had started four years earlier in the summer of 2013, continued apace but without too much fanfare. Apart from one case of mass arrests in the winter of 2014, people were mostly being detained one or two at a time. In September, however, after a couple of concert attendees raised rainbow flags at Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila’s show, whose lead singer is openly gay, dozens of people suspected of being LGBTQ were detained, subjected to forced anal examinations, and, in some cases, harsh sentences were swiftly meted out.

Before this latest escalation, previous mass arrest campaigns were carried out in 2014 in the so-called Ramses Bathhouse case, and in 2001, when dozens were arrested during the Queen Boat raid amid a media frenzy. The Queen Boat ended with three-year sentences for around half the defendants and ushered in a period of crackdown, while the Ramses Bathhouse case ended with acquittals and a sense that times have changed.

Curious about what lies between these moments of ferocious crackdown, before the most recent wave of arrests, we spoke to Gasser Abdel Razek and Dalia Abdel Hameed from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an NGO formed in the crucible of the Queen Boat incident and consequent disappointment with the human rights movement. Established with a focus on rights to personal autonomy, bodily personal rights and privacy, EIPR has worked on LGBTQ cases since its inception.

A different moment

When state security raided the Queen Boat — a Nile boat that hosted semi-official gay parties — in May 2001, a total of 52 men were arrested over the ensuing days and charged with habitual debauchery. The men, who became known as the Cairo 52, were paraded in the media for months. The next three years saw a crackdown, thousands of arrests, and a period when there had been relatively more openness came to a dramatic end.

Abdel Razek chaired a meeting on the Sunday after the Queen Boat arrests at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, where he served as a founding director at the time. The center had distinguished itself from other law firms by representing Islamists because of a belief in the idea that human rights, including the right not to be tortured, belongs to all.

At the meeting, he remembers, there was a “lack of comfort” and several of the lawyers were reluctant to take the case on.

“We were saying that we defended Islamists, people we knew were in violent groups, because of their right to bodily integrity. Did we support the idea of someone leaving a bomb at a café and killing people there? No.”

And thus, the lawyers ended up taking on the case. But for most of the human rights community, there was no clear human rights concern. They, along with the Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, were the only groups in the human rights community to work on the case.

Abdel Razek remembers when the director of one of the largest human rights organizations was asked about the case by Cairo Times, an independent English language weekly magazine. “Very relaxed, he said, ‘You see, I don’t like khawalat.’” Khawalat is a common derogatory term used to describe homosexuals.

The December 2014 Ramses Bathhouse case was quite a different situation, although this was not immediately clear. A raid on a public bathhouse, allegedly a meeting place for men looking for sex with other men, led to the largest mass arrests on charges of debauchery since the Queen Boat case. Unusually, the raid was coordinated and accompanied by television journalist Mona Iraqi and her crew, who filmed the arrests of 26 men. It was a time when the general openness that had emerged with the 2011 revolution was coming to a close, with the morality police targeting LGBTQ people since the previous year.

Abdel Hameed recalls the discussions they had at EIPR at the time. They decided to coordinate a statement signed by regional organizations. After this, they resolved that it was time to be bolder, and ended up announcing explicitly for the first time that consenting sexual relations between adults should not be criminalized.

They were busy at work on the case, coordinating with LGBTQ activists and raising awareness on social media. In the process, they realized that something had changed, and that this change didn’t reside within the confines of the organization alone.

There were articles in the mainstream press, such as the privately owned Al-Shorouk and Al-Masry Al-Youm newspapers, condemning the behavior of Iraqi, the journalist who took part in the raid. There were media figures trying to make her accountable through the Journalists Syndicate. There were many lawyers working on the case.

One of the most important signs of change, pushing EIPR to develop its language regarding sexuality, was the way members of their constituency were engaging with them on social media. On the Ramses Bathhouse case, there was an increasing number of comments from people who asserted that though homosexuality was problematic for them, for the state to interfere was wrong. EIPR started to notice that this was a trend, noting similar comments on the question of abortion, for example.

In their work responding to the latest crackdown in the aftermath of the “flag incident,” their observations have been similar.

“We have seen that if we go public with a clear position,” Abdel Razek says, “we will get the expected attack but also far more support than before.”

A statement signed by eight organizations condemning the crackdown was the outcome of requests to EIPR to formulate one. One political party has released a statement condemning the crackdown, and others discussed whether they would. Whether they did or not, the point for Abdel Hameed is that “people have been targeted and arrested for the past four years and for the first time, parties and organized political groups are asking themselves what they should do.”

These signs, she says, are “unprecedented.” And in terms of online discussions happening among activist circles, she describes the stances as being “more progressive.”

Reflecting on the change

The change for Abdel Razek and Abdel Hameed is one of the outcomes of a long process of social transformation, of which January 25, 2011 was partly a product, and which itself drove that process further in a dramatic way.

Both point to the broader transformation in communications as key to the development of a social consciousness that stretched beyond the local.

The opening up that this allowed — a generation that grew up able to access different cultural products and develop greater familiarity with what is happening around the world — cannot be underestimated, they say.

“It is a mistake to see that the revolution was about political demands only,” Abdel Razek says. “The call for freedom was not simply the call for a democratic regime and regular elections, the right to form associations and parties.”

“If you accept that January 25 was the expression of a process spanning several years that was for the most part progressive, the reaction to the Ramses Bathhouse case had to be different from the reactions to Queen Boat,” Abdel Razek suggests.

Abdel Hameed credits the crystallizing of progressive positions regarding sexuality and reproductive rights in part to the work of organized rights-based and gender-oriented work, by EIPR for example, the founding of the Nazra Center for Feminist Studies before the revolution, and the taking up of sexuality as an issue by feminist organizations.

She points also to the turbulent years following the revolution, when there were a number of incidents of excessive and spectacular sexual violence, from so-called virginity tests conducted by security forces against protesters in 2011, to mass assaults and rapes in Tahrir Square in the following period.

“Through all of this, a rights discourse developed around these issues as well as a critique of the sexual violence of the state,” she explains. “As such, it is not surprising to find the same lawyer who worked on the virginity tests cases in 2011 working on the Ramses Bathhouse case in 2014.”

In this context, Abdel Hameed believes that radical organizations — like the Hisham Mubarak Center and Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture — have a particular role to play in keeping the movement moving forward.

EIPR is like Al-Nadeem Center, she says, in that they are human rights organizations who are also very concerned with feminism. “So it is them who can play this role at the intersection between feminist issues, sexuality and human rights.”

For Abdel Razek, by contrast, the development of the movement is inevitably driven by generational conflict. “When people age, their ability to accept new ideas gets less.”

And there are people, such as the four founding women of Al-Nadeem Center, who maintain that flexibility of thinking. “They are still prepared to change a bit, broaden their understanding, accept new ideas, and through discussion, accept new things.”

Both agree that the work of lawyers on these “morality” cases has played a key role in advancing legal protection and representation for victims of state violence, as well as advancing the field of human rights in Egypt.

“I think in Queen Boat, apart from the people who were actually arrested, the heroes of the story were the lawyers,” Abdel Razek believes. “They did something for human rights that was contrary to their personal convictions. Many of them, though uncomfortable with homosexuality, faced insults as ‘lawyers of the khawalat.’”

Abdel Razek believes that their decision to take on the case, to become the “lawyers of the khawalat” is what “allowed the new emerging generation not to be obliged to have the same discussion that we had on the Sunday after the Queen Boat arrests.”

Lawyers report encountering deep animosity toward homosexuality from police stations, to the prosecution, to the courthouses. Abdel Hameed describes an encounter that an EIPR lawyer had at Agouza Prosecution on a debauchery case. It was new year and there were several people arrested on prostitution charges. The secretary taking notes pointed to lightly dressed women, saying: “You could choose one of these to offer your services to and she will pay you back with sexual favors, or are you only into those ones?” referring to the men the lawyer was coming to represent.

Understanding the crackdown since 2013

The Ramses Bathhouse case was part of a crackdown on LGBTQ individuals that began at the end of 2013 in the months following a military takeover of power, and is still ongoing.

One of the forms that this crackdown has taken is the targeting of LGBTQ people through creating fabricated accounts on dating applications, arranging a date, entrapping them and then arresting them on charges of debauchery. Those arrested are faced with humiliating treatment in police stations, from the denial of visitation rights to threats of sexual violence, and actual sexual violence. Police often encourage other detainees to sexually assault LGBTQ detainees.

“There is a clear and open campaign on the part of the morality police,” Abdel Hameed says. “They don’t deny it.”

As with the Queen Boat case and following crackdown, there is the creation of a moral panic, whereby LGBTQ people are set up as a threat to society’s morals and the youth, she explains. She points to the common use of Quranic verses and moral pronouncements in court sentences, although the charges in these cases are civil and unrelated to Sharia references.

Asked about why this crackdown is happening now, both Abdel Razek and Abdel Hameed are reluctant to hypothesize, suggesting that there aren’t clear reasons. With encouragement, they offer a few “guesses.”

Abdel Hameed suggests that the crackdown is an attempt on the part of the authorities to present itself as a moral guardian, the impetus for which was spurred by its having ousted the Muslim Brotherhood, making it important to prove its credentials in terms of conservative morality.

With the creation of a moral panic, she suggests, the authorities are “killing two birds with one stone. They are presenting themselves as protecting society’s morals, and always these moral panics come at moments of real crisis. Now we are facing an economic crisis, so it is also a strategy of distraction.”

Although Abdel Razek is at pains to point out that we cannot really know the causes of the crackdown, he does not find this argument very convincing. His hunch is that the crackdown reflects a “fundamental position” on the part of the current authorities, unlike the former regime of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.

Often these types of campaigns are meant to be strategic distraction, and Mubarak did this, he says. But with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his government, Abdel Razek thinks the situation is quite different, that they have conservative attitudes on many issues.

The crackdown is part of a broader crackdown on rights and freedoms in Egypt. “We consider that the deeper crisis is the crisis of civil liberties,” Abdel Razek says. The increase in blasphemy cases against Copts and Shia, as well as the increase of LGBTQ cases, “expresses the real direction of the state.”

Understanding the crackdown also requires acknowledging the role of the revolution. The new ruling elites, Abdel Hameed suggests, are reacting to the clearer and more coherent discourse of freedom that accompanied the revolution.

“You can see that in the media with the coverage of the beginning of the crackdown, describing LGBTQ as a phenomenon that came with January 25, so it is also part of the broader demonization of youth,” she says.

With the revolution, the police suffered a major blow, and they have returned. The police are one of the few arms of the state that is now receiving heavy investment, Abdel Razek says.

“This is something we have to understand in our dealings with the institutions of the state, if you give one of these institutions tools, they will use them,” he says. “When you have something called the morality police, it will work and bring cases.”

The latest wave of arrests is unprecedented, Abdel Razek says, not only in terms of the numbers arrested, but the scope of the arrests across various governorates. In a marked escalation, some detainees are facing state security courts on the charges of joining an outlawed group, usually used against Islamists.

It was the media that instigated this wave, they suggest. They link the particular ferocity seen in the media in the wake of the “flag incident” to the way that raising a flag is seen as a public, and thus provocative act.

“The state was responding in the first few days,” Abdel Razek suggests, “and then it clearly made a decision and has been very systematic about it. It responded in this way because this fits with the beliefs of state officials, and so as not to waste an opportunity that opponents would capitalize on.”

Taking the struggle forward

The strategy of advocating not for LGBTQ rights but for broader rights, such as the right to bodily integrity and the right to privacy and freedom from state interference was one that came into question after the Ramses Bathhouse case.

The privacy discourse is no longer enough, Abdel Razek and Abdel Hameed believe, and is problematic in a number of ways.

For instance, Abdel Hameed says, “It gives space for the acceptance of certain forms of homophobia, the idea that they are free to be how they want, as long as I don’t have to see.”

Choosing to work in this way in a morally conservative society, rather than choosing the language of LGBTQ rights, which may be alienating, was “about being sensitive to the public and moving along incrementally,” she says.

The same quandary confronts them in their work on any issues that might be seen as “sensitive,” such as access to safe abortions.

So in choosing an incremental approach in work their work on sexuality, whether the question of abortion or LGBTQ rights, EIPR ends up taking positions that are “not progressive enough” for them, Abdel Hameed continues.

“But if we remain limited to this idea that we are in Egypt, that people are conservative,” she believes, “we can end up behind our public.”

They do not disavow centering their work on the right to privacy and freedom from state interference as a tactic, but believe the time for that tactic in Egypt is done.

The latest discussions within EIPR, Abdel Hameed explains, have been about moving from a focus on the right to privacy to focusing on the question of consent as a principle. “It is a key concept that can enable work on violence, changing problematic laws that are based on moral positions rather than protecting people.”

Their public are ready for this, they believe.

Although the space for action now is smaller than it was, and although EIPR itself is threatened by the state with a court case and a newly passed law that heavily restricts the work of civil society, they do not want to be complacent.

“Our imagination of what our work is changed a lot due to the revolution, especially when it comes to feminist issues,” Abdel Hameed explains. Even if again, their main work will be in the area of the law because there is no longer a movement in the streets, it won’t be in the old way of just presenting a legal bill, or getting 17 organizations to present the law.

“We have the ambition, and I don’t know if we will achieve this or not,” she says, “But, say if we want to present a bill on safe abortion, this would be something with thousands of women standing behind it.”

Though the state is working hard on reversing the progressive social change that has occurred with all its commitment and strength, Abdel Razek believes that “to take things backwards is very hard.”

“Although it seems that on several issues, society leans in a conservative direction, I think that’s only on the surface,” he says. “The surface today does not allow for the expression of this, but we will see in a future moment how deep this progressive change has been and is still present and doing well.”

Abdel Hameed is more pessimistic. “Yes, we had a big victory, and it is hard to go back to how things were, but that’s also subject to our ability to function in the coming period.”

If these changes, which she calls a “paradigm shift” are not incorporated into education curricula and media practices, “it will be very hard to preserve these victories.”

“Like you wrote, we belong to the margins and are returning back to them,” Abdel Hameed says. “But it’s important to distinguish that the margins we are returning to are much broader than the margins we came out of. So even when we are working in the margins, we are talking to more people. And this is something we shouldn’t underestimate.”

Naira Antoun 

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