The curious case of Egypt’s first gay magazine
The closing down of an online magazine catering for the gay community in Egypt, believed to be first of its kind, has stirred concerns from rights activists about the status of homosexuals in the country.
Ehna, which translates from Arabic to “us,” halted its online circulation earlier this year in hushed circumstances, with an abrupt statement, after launching its first issue.
On the magazine’s Facebook page, once abundant with empowering slogans, links and screenshots from the magazine’s web pages, a lone message posted on May 27, reads:
“We have been forced to shut down the online magazine due to security reasons. We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience.”
Ehna had a bold mission statement: To become the voice for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Questioning (LGBTIQ) communities in Egypt. The magazine attempted to defend their rights, tackle homophobia in the country and raise awareness on issues such as HIV, spotlighting celebrity members of the gay Egyptian community.
But as the site’s announcements gathered pace, the site came to a standstill.
Commenters who had breathed a sigh of relief that an online magazine for the homosexual community had launched, were left stumped.
The magazine’s online, mainly social media, presence remains masked in ambiguity since May 27: Ehna’s creators are anonymous and appear to be isolated from homosexual rights organizations in the country.
At the time of writing this article, Ehna did not respond to Al Arabiya English when contacted for clarity on the issue. Even finding out where the publication is based has sparked confusion.
Despite the magazine describing itself as “a magazine for homosexuals in Egypt,” Charbel Maydaa, the executive director Helem, the Lebanese non-profit organization working on improving the legal and social status of LBGTs, said: “Due to security purposes, we cannot disclose where the Ehna magazine is based.”
Maha Youssef, a spokesperson from the Bedayaa organization for the LGBTIQ community in Egypt and Sudan described the short-lived magazine as a “courageous initiative started by Egyptian LGBTQI members,” which Bedayaa had strongly supported.
Long-battling with stereotypes and discrimination, Egypt’s gay community has maintained it has been vilified by press and public, where homosexuality has been viewed a cultural, social and political taboo.
One of the most recent examples of this came in June, when an Egyptian delegation at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva was quoted as implying that homosexuals are considered not to be “real people” in the Middle East.
“Concerning the highly controversial notion of sexual orientation, we can only reiterate that it is not part of the universally recognized human rights,” Egypt’s diplomatic representative Omar Shalaby said at the U.N. Human Rights Council said.
The delegate called on the council “not to undermine the credibility and legitimacy [on] his important work in the eyes of real people who actually need it, especially in regions where such concepts are rejected by both its Christian and Muslim inhabitants like the Middle East,” the statement added.
Bedayaa’s Youssef says the main obstacles facing the homosexual community in Egypt are the “lack of personal security and social acceptance.”
“The frequent stigmatization and discrimination towards homosexuals made the community remain invisible and out of access to all services, such as health advice,” adds Youssef. Ehna magazine provided readers with such content.
A copy of the May issue obtained by Al Arabiya English, which has now been pulled down from their website, includes a double page spread offering information on sexually transmitted diseases, an article to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and an essay on the Egyptian law's stance on homosexuality.
Homosexuality is not mentioned in the Egyptian law. However, Youssef notes, because of the conservative social system, (criminal) charges such as “offences against public morals and sensitivities” or “violating the teachings of religion and propagating depraved ideas and moral depravity” are usually made against homosexual community members.
And since the mass uprising in 2011 which resulted in the complete overhaul of the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, not much has changed for the nation’s gay community.
Notably, with an Islamist rise in parliamentary and presidential power, the revolution’s democratic tide has not been felt the country’s LGBT community.
Egypt’s Mohammed Mursi won the first democratically-elected presidential race as the chairman of its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing. While the Brotherhood was banned during the Mubarak-era, they were still quick to speak out about the topic – whenever it came into media spotlight.
In 2001, 52 men who were arrested aboard a floating gay nightclub called the Queen Boat, which was moored on the Nile in Cairo.
In the first – and final – issue of Ehna, a few pages were dedicated to remembering the 2001 incident, which became known by Egyptians as “Cairo 52.” The magazine pages recount the event, with an eyewitness account from a man who was aboard the Queen Boat.
Of the 52 accused, 29 were acquitted and 23 were convicted for with "habitual debauchery" under Law 10 of 1961 on the Combat of Prostitution, and defaming Islam. All 52 men had pleaded innocent but they were sentenced to up to five years prison with hard labor.
The trial was held in a state security court, allowing no appeal.
Back then, Dr. Essam Elarian, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, who is now the vice chairman of the FJP, expressed a common opinion.
"From my religious view, all the religious people, in Christianity, in Judaism, condemn homosexuality," he told the BBC. "It is against the whole sense in Egypt. The temper in Egypt is against homosexuality."
The event drew international intrigue, with media exclusives that revealed the men were subjected to beatings and forensic examinations to "prove their homosexuality."
One Queen Boat eyewitness told the BBC in 2002: “The police told the man to take down his trousers. They wanted to see if he was wearing typical Egyptian underwear - baggy white cotton. If he was not, they said he must be a homosexual. He failed the test.”
Last year, the country’s LGBT community had wanted to hold a demonstration in Tahrir Square to push for their rights, but canceled it, saying the country was not ready, Egypt-based news website Bikya Masr reported.
“There was a joy and openness after the first days of the revolution,” says Bedayaa’s Maha Youssef.
“Many believed that the collapse of the previous political system would open doors for them [the homosexual community] to live without stigma or discrimination.
“But now the majority of LGBTQI community members believes that the rise of Islamist political parties - particularly the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP and the Salafi al-Noor Party - could further marginalize the Queer community and cause the issue of gay rights to once again fall completely off the political agenda.”
Ehna’s pages also covered the Egyptian revolution, citing the LGBTIQ’s own revolutionary resolve – to stand out from the crowd and gain societal rights.
The magazine’s launch was hailed by gay rights groups as another Middle Eastern support framework for homosexuals. It followed a Morocco-based online and print publication, called Mithli (meaning “homo” in Arabic), established in April 2010 and created by Moroccan LGBT group Kifkif.
Kifkif states that it did not apply for a government license from the Ministry of Communication, “as one is supposed to do to release any public magazine,” a statement from the group says.
“Only 200 copies of the first edition were released in April (2010) to a number of interested people and advocates for freedom of intellectual, ideological and sexual choices,” says staff member Karim S., not disclosing his full name.
In May, Kifkif had published its 14th issue of Mithli, which included news from the Algerian LGBT group Abu Nawas.
But with Ehna’s incapability to make it to its second online issue, doubts remain over whether the magazine’s creators can tackle possible governmental obstructions to become at the forefront of the homosexual community’s plight in Egypt, let alone the wider Arab region.
“Nevertheless,” says Youssef, “we always think that there is a glimmer of hope; that the future will be better than the past.”
(Rana Khoury contributed to this report)