Tolerance only allows certain citizens to sleep

Since the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) published its report The Trap: Punishing Sexual Difference in Egypt — a report that documents an array of serious violations committed against LGBTQ individuals, or those perceived to be so, by institutions of law enforcement and public health in Egypt — we have increasingly been met with certain recurring questions. We have come to describe these as the questions of “ordinary citizens.”

In fact, we have been dealing with these types of questions since we began working on the issue of sexual difference at EIPR many years ago. By “ordinary citizens,” we refer to those who do not have strong political affiliations — while they may reject homosexuality on religious or moral grounds, they often don’t have a specific opinion on how to address the reality of having those who have different sexual orientations share the same world and national group as them, especially if these individuals were to openly declare their sexual orientation.

While they do not want LGBTQ individuals to be abused, they also do not want to see them.

Ordinary citizens ask us: Why is it that you are advocating for this issue in particular when there are thousands of other people who face much more serious violations and are, therefore, more deserving of your attention? Have we finally solved all our problems so that you now have time to address something like homosexuality? Doesn’t this endanger public morals and our social cohesion?

Our commitment to this issue stems from our being professionals in the human rights field. We believe that human rights belong to everyone. The people who deserve our support and defense the most are precisely those who are socially excluded, those who are most oppressed and who have society’s consent to be so.

But although we are interested in this issue from both a legal and political perspective, we are primarily concerned as citizens, very much like those ordinary citizens.

We see this bond of citizenship as a moral responsibility. It is remarkable to us that in a debate in which LGBTQ individuals supposedly pose a moral threat to the bonds of citizenship, that the more dangerous threat is overlooked.

This more dangerous moral threat is embodied in the disregard of the suffering they face at the hands of the state, whether in the form of enthusiastic support or indifference and the turning of a blind eye. It is this that represents the greatest threat to the bonds of citizenship.

On ordinary citizens and their isolation

The dilemma ordinary citizens in Egypt face when thinking about questions of homosexuality is not historically unprecedented. One can even claim that the moral confusion they face is rooted in the bond of citizenship itself.

Citizenship, as it has been shaped in the modern capitalist state, presents us with an elusive and contradictory relationship. It offers equal rights and freedoms to all, and at the same time allows the violation of people’s dignity in a way that is particular to its very bonds.

Citizenship as a modern social bond is supposedly a higher moral commitment than that presented by the bonds of blood or religion — citizenship assumes absolute equality among its members.

At the theoretical level, and as we can read in constitutional, legal and political literature, whether in its Western origins or in Egypt, a national group is supposed to be completely and utterly free of any hierarchies or preferential treatment of some members at the expense of others. As such, the obligatory commitment to show solidarity to any of its members subjected to violations is supposed to be much higher.

Here, however, the dilemma becomes quite clear. Every definition of the boundaries of a national group is based upon parameters determined by the dominant group(s) of what it means to be a citizen.

Interestingly, because the bond of citizenship lacks any strong religious or metaphysical basis, and specifically because it is a bond between free and equal individuals, it appears in the eyes of its advocates and supporters as more fragile than any other bond. In Egypt, we see that it has been constantly threatened since its birth by different behaviors, such as alcohol consumption or extramarital relations, which then provoke a level of anger and violence that can be difficult to contain.

As such, the defense of the fragile bond of citizenship requires the constant and active intervention of those at the top of the social hierarchy. Their involvement redefines the moral system of ordinary citizens in order to protect social peace. This practice of placing restrictions on certain groups under the pretext of maintaining public order is not particular to our part of the world. It lasted for centuries in Western Europe — the birthplace of modern citizenship — and continues today in more complex forms.

Excluding any individual or group from the bond of citizenship in a legal manner, such as by stripping them of their nationality, is almost practically impossible to achieve, though we see some attempts to do so today in Egypt. As such, criminalization and social stigma fill this gap. In Egypt, we find laws criminalizing debauchery (also something that originated in the Western world before making its way to us). We find laws that impose restrictions on the followers of non-dominant religions in practicing their rituals or freely expressing their faith, all under the pretext of maintaining public order.

And social stigma can escalate into blind violence that, while not explicitly sanctioned by the state, evolves in the space of stigma created in large part by the state’s policies.

With criminalization and stigma, any sense of solidarity or fraternity between equals gives way to sentiments of dominance and superiority. The consequence of such feelings is the increased isolation of citizens from one another. Our ordinary citizen becomes isolated from the neighbor who follows a different religion, the neighbor whose lifestyle appear suspicious, from the work colleagues who appear different.

In the end, this leads to the impoverishment of social life. It’s a poverty that is usually compensated for by a sense of superiority, and so when isolation and misery increase, so too do feelings of superiority. Good ordinary citizens are only able to sleep soundly if they are reassured about the fortification of their narrow spaces against the unknown. In this manner, stigmatization and criminalization become double-edged weapons: They isolate those who are different and also isolate those who deem themselves normal or ordinary. The first feels inferior, while the second superior, and ultimately it is the bond of citizenship that suffers.

The fragility of tolerance and the promise of solidarity

It is no longer possible to hide the different forms of violence carried out in the name of superior-isolated citizens against those who are different. As a result, these citizens often wake up to the news of church bombings, of men and women arrested for exchanging kisses in public, of young people arrested for raising a rainbow flag. Because to the good ordinary citizen, the bond of citizenship represents a moral burden, and the idea of tolerance appears in order to address it.

There are those who actively welcome the violations committed against those with non-normative sexual orientations, but we find that a significant number of citizens simply feel no responsibility toward this violence. They argue that, while society is willing to tolerate anything that happens behind closed doors, it is unacceptable for these practices to take place in public. These practices hurt people’s feelings because they do not comply with social principles. In other words, they seem to be saying, “I don’t approve of you being subjected to violations, but I also refuse to have your behavior imposed upon me.” It is as if the ordinary citizen equates the harm that befalls people burned along with their churches to the harm caused to the ordinary citizen of seeing a crucifix raised in their villages.

Tolerance does not address the problem. Tolerance only offers ordinary citizens a sense of comfort that allows them to sleep soundly, their consciences at ease, while the nation continues to be a prison for others.

Invoking tolerance presumes a reality that doesn’t exist. It presumes that all citizens equally enjoy the same freedom of expression, to the extent that such free expression poses a threat to the moral cohesion of the majority.

In other words, it assumes a context in which state and society refrain from interfering in the private lives of individuals. But in Egypt, as we documented in our report, entire police administrations are dedicated to the entrapment of LGBTQ individuals and individuals with non-normative sexual practices through dating applications. These same applications are also used by civilians to steal from, blackmail, attack and even murder LGBTQ people.

Because the call for tolerance ignores the ways that the state apparatus exercises its authority over people who present no real threat to anyone, it is, in a nutshell, an evasion of the responsibility and the moral burden of the bond of citizenship.

Ordinary citizens turn a blind eye to violations against individuals who have different orientations or practices. State legislation and policies banish them from the umbrella of protection granted to other citizens, thus making them a clear target for violence and punishment, under the pretext of upholding morality and social order.

Tolerance, or simply passive acceptance of the other, is revealed, then, as void of political and moral value.

The struggle in the public and legal spheres should demand the dignified freedom of expression for individuals with different identities, orientations or practices.

A close look at the current laws, whether in the Penal Code or the law on combating prostitution and debauchery, for example, reveals that their premise is the protection of public order, morality and decency. Of course these terms have no specific definitions — they are obscure and will remain obscure, allowing the state to exercise its domination unhindered.

The call for tolerance should be replaced by calls for a legal system in which the state does not interfere in sexual relations among its citizens unless such relations are non-consensual. In other words, it is the principle of consent that should determine whether the state intervenes in the private lives of its citizens. This would mean that marital rape, domestic violence, intra-familial rape, female circumcision and sexual abuse of children would be the state’s priorities in combating sexual crimes, rather than the criminalization of sexual relations among consenting adults.

Individuals’ morals and convictions should not be subject to state interventions unless the behaviors based on these convictions result in grave violations against other individuals — cases that result, for example, in the displacement of religious minorities or the expulsion of families believed to have a sexually transmitted infection.

To proclaim, “Do whatever you want as long as I am not forced to actually see you,” is not enough because it wrongly presumes the existence of a respect of privacy in the first place. But it also presumes that the right of privacy is more important than the rights to free expression or personal security.

Equality for LGBTQ individuals and individuals with non-normative sexual practices includes being able to express their orientation without inferiority, guilt or disdain. As long as such sentiments prevail, it will not be possible to prevent social harm from befalling them even if the legal harm and police violence were to cease.

We say this because it appears that for women and Copts in Egypt, as the legal barriers diminishing their status as equal and free citizens are in decline, the social violence they face is on the rise. Perhaps this inverse relationship can be explained by how threatened certain citizens feel by the lower social barrier between themselves and these “different” citizens and this feeling is then translated into widescale violence.

Confronting this violence cannot be achieved by a proclamation of tolerance. It requires a more serious questioning of and confrontation with the prevailing consciousness. Perhaps we could then shift from tolerance to solidarity, and eventually to the free, equal and dignified standing of different individuals, regarding of their differences and who approves of these differences.

You cannot stand in solidarity with someone you despise. You will be unable to extend your narrow comfort zone to others if you are full of disdain for them. Solidarity means expanding this zone and making more space for others, thus eliminating the miserable isolation in society and its illusionary false comforts.

Solidarity offers a new opportunity to those who seek it. Not only does it address the injustices faced by the marginalized, it also frees and liberates individuals from the isolation and narrow mindedness created by false feelings of superiority.

Yassin al-Hajj, a Syrian intellectual, expresses a similar idea when he defines freedom as a constant departure from the self and an introduction of the other. Our lack of freedom — we the ordinary tolerant citizens — is evidenced by the lack of an effort made toward this departure.

Freedom, as a limitless departure from the self, could allow for re-establishing the bond of citizenship on a different basis — one that does not exclude individuals for their religious, sexual or racial identities. It is an attempt, therefore, that does not annihilate its opponents or enemies, whether local or global.

The opponents of freedom are the ones who truly stand between citizens and their freedoms: not LGBTQ individuals or anyone else. Confronting their strategies — including their selective and often hypocritical adoption of some just causes, such as LGBTQ causes in some cases — deserves the engagement of everyone interested in freedom, citizenship and democracy in the world today.

Amr Abdel Rahman 
Dalia Abdel Hameed