The recent arrests of seven men, after appearing in a video of a wedding party of two males, has reignited debate about whether homosexuality is a crime, and if “debauchery” is the right label for it.
The case has brought back to the fore Egypt’s most publicized clampdown on homosexuals, when 52 men were arrested at a bar on May 11, 2011. Of those, 25 were sentenced to up to five years in prison for “debauchery” and “defaming Islam.”
This led to activists marking May 11 as the Egyptian Day Against Homophobia (EDAHO). “Legally, homosexuality isn’t a crime that people should be charged for in Egypt,” said EDAHO in a statement. Nonetheless, there are “different forms of homophobic violations.”
Reuters journalist Lin Noueihed wrote: “Though homosexuality is not specifically outlawed in Egypt, discrimination is rife. The accused are typically charged with debauchery, immorality or blasphemy.”
NBC Cairo correspondent Duncan Golestani concurs: “Egypt has no specific laws banning homosexuality, although there are plenty of ways to charge someone suspected of engaging in homosexual acts. Police will often charge gay people with ‘debauchery’ or breaking the country’s law of public morals.”
A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center highlighted that “in Egypt’s conservative, predominantly Muslim society, homophobia is embedded, with 95% of Egyptians sharing the conviction that ‘homosexuality should not be accepted’.”
State involvement in igniting homophobic sentiment was highlighted by journalist Shahira Amin in a report published days after the wedding video was filmed. “Some analysts said at the time that the sudden crackdown was a means of diverting attention away from the regime’s failures, including a political crisis and a looming economic recession,” wrote Amin.
“Critics of the 2011 crackdown also believed it was an attempt by the then-autocratic regime to present an image as ‘the guardian of public virtue so as to deflate an Islamist opposition movement that appeared to be gaining support every day’.”
Amin quoted Egyptian homosexual Karim, who said his community’s hopes for more tolerance and freedom following the Jan. 25, 2011 revolution were dashed. “We had a lot of hope then, but the last three years have only brought disappointment,” Karim said. “There has been no change in people’s attitudes. In fact, we get insulted more often now, as people feel emboldened knowing that the authorities are siding with them.”
Homosexuals, Karim added, were more concerned following the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is why they took part in the June 30, 2013 protests that toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi. “We were overjoyed when he was toppled, and hoped there would be fewer restrictions on us from then on.”
However, according to a report by U.S.-based Human Rights First: “Since the 2013 ouster of the Morsi regime, arrests of members of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community have increased along with the escalated crackdown on political dissenters, activists and journalists.”
The current Egyptian authorities are trying to prove to the people that they are not less conservative than the Brotherhood, and that they will continue to safeguard Islamic values, HRF added.
This view is supported by Adam Dott, a homosexual Egyptian graphic designer: “We know that we’re an easy target for the government, because if they decide to crack down on us we’ll get little support from the community, and the government may even gain more popularity because they’ll be seen as protectors of morals.”
Adel Ramadan, legal officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said: “After the fall of [Hosni] Mubarak, the criticism of revolutionary groups has always contained a sexual element. Women who participate in protests are often called prostitutes or ‘loose’ women, while male revolutionary activists are called homosexuals.”
This was made easier, Golestani said, because homosexuals became more visible due to their role in the revolution: “The natural instinct for most gay Egyptians is to try not to draw attention to themselves, but taking part in the revolution has brought greater visibility - at a cost.”
While activists and rights groups accuse the current government of intensifying the crackdown on homosexuals, Islamists and Brotherhood supporters attribute the appearance of the gay marriage video, and what they see as an increase in the number of homosexuals, to the moral decadence of the state following Mursi’s ouster.
Pro-Brotherhood activist Amr Abdel Hadi blamed the 2014 post-Mursi constitution for the spread of homosexuality. “It is normal now to see men marrying each other after the drafting of the coup’s constitution by people known for immorality and lack of principles,” he wrote.
Abdel Hadi accused the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of making Western values its reference, and of making the official religious institution serve its interests. Salafist leader Moatasem Shendi said gay marriages were due to an increasing tendency to disregard religious values. “Now we don’t need more evidence that we are facing a war on Islam,” he wrote.
Sheikh Abdel Hamid al-Atrash, head of the Religious Edicts (Fatwa) Committee at Al-Azhar, called for the expulsion of all homosexuals from Egypt “so that vice would not be allowed to spread in our society.”