The rise of ‘political effeminacy’ in Egypt

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid
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“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” former U.S. President George W. Bush said in his address to Congress and to the American people on Sept.20, 2001. By this he meant that those who refused to support a war on Afghanistan would be condoning terrorism, thus eradicating all the shades of gray that might exist between black and white and overlooking all sorts of other sentiments that do not adopt one side of the argument or the other. He did not, for example, assume that it is possible to fully condemn the Sept. 11 attacks while not viewing a war on Afghanistan as the appropriate reaction. Neither did he deem it possible to fully support the elimination of the terrorist group responsible for these attacks while not viewing a war on Afghanistan as the appropriate means of achieving this end. The possibilities between “with us” and “against us” were countless at the time and they even included skepticism about issues that might have seemed givens to the majority of Americans, like the involvement of al-Qaeda in the first place. Those who were not fortunate enough to subscribe to one of Bush’s two camps would, according to that logic, be seen as terrorists, traitors, unpatriotic or “effeminate.”

The term “political effeminates” emerged in Egypt following the dispersal of the sit-ins that condemned the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Mursi. Until that moment, Egyptian society had been sharply divided between anti-Brotherhood and pro-Brotherhood supporters. The first took to the streets on June 30 to demand the ouster of Mursi and the second staged sit-ins after July 3 to demand the return of Mursi. This division gave the impression that members of the first group would automatically support any action that clamps down on the second and that only members of the second group would oppose such an action. That was apparently a naïve miscalculation because no sooner had the casualties triggered by the dispersal been revealed, a third group made its surprise appearance. Members of this group, mostly activists, have always opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, did support the president’s ouster and were certain that participants in the sit-ins were far from being peaceful protestors, yet strongly believed that a political resolution was still possible. They did not object to the necessity of ending the sit-ins, but rather the way in which it was done. In other words, their concerns are ethical and humanitarian and have nothing to do with their political views, which have stayed the same throughout. They also have their apprehensions about the return of pre-revolution state repression as they see the police taking control once more and of post-revolution military rule as they see the army having the upper hand once more. In other words, they believe that popular support for the dispersal of the sit-ins has been taken advantage of by state institutions struggling to embellish their image in the Egyptian street and striving for a role in any future arrangement.

This group managed to infuriate members of the camp that wholeheartedly supported the ending of sit-ins regardless of how violent this might turn out to be since, for them, uprooting the Muslim Brotherhood is the nation’s number one priority and since, also for them, human rights should step aside when national security is at stake. Supporters of the dispersal might have felt betrayed by that dissident group which, they must believe, aided, even if unintentionally, the Muslim Brotherhood in their self-victimization scheme and which created a rift in the ranks of the anti-Brotherhood camp, that seemed at one point to be comprised of all non-Brotherhood Egyptians, let alone lend credibility to Western claims about the return of autocracy to Egypt.

It is not clear who decided to call them “political effeminates” but whoever did it saw that as the perfect retaliation and succeeded

Sonia Farid

It is not clear who decided to call them “political effeminates” but whoever did it saw that as the perfect retaliation and succeeded, for the term is now used by almost all experts and analysts who believed there was no alternative to the bipolar status quo and who argue that any deviation from that would do nothing but empower the Brotherhood and compromise the case against its members. It is also not clear if this term in specific was chosen because of its impact on a society that adopts fixed concepts of masculinity and femininity, thus forbids any formula that lies in-between, but there is no doubt that the sexual rather than the political connotations determine popular reaction to such designation. What is quite clear, though, is the fact that the term does not really apply to the context in which it is used. If “effeminacy” means that a man is displaying female behavior then this often implies that this man in unable to make a decision about his identity , which is not the case with the anti-dispersal groups. Unlike what the media would like us believe, members of this group have made a decision not to support the clampdown on the sit-ins and not to change, meanwhile, their stance on the Muslim Brotherhood. They have made the decision not to separate politics from ethics and not to condone an action just because its end result might be desirable.

Black and white

In fact, this group drew everybody’s attention to the fact that there are always alternatives other than the ready-made ones offered by the powers-that-be for the sake of polarizing society between one extreme and another. They made it possible for the people to create their own choices even if they do not abide by the officially accepted ones and to see the contradictions inherent in a situation where “good” and “bad” are the least relevant units of measurement. This, by the way, is not related to how realistic their views are at this moment in time or how applicable their scenarios were within this context, but rather to how adamant they were not only to voice an opinion that is contrary to the public sentiment of the majority of Egyptians, but also to initiate a new approach to seemingly black and white situations.

The term “effeminate,” whether in its conventional or political sense, is meant to be derogatory on the part of the designator but not necessarily the designated. If society believes that a man needs to display a pre-defined set of behaviors that fall under “masculine,” this view is not necessarily shared by all men, so those who do not abide by it are not offended when they are accused of violating it and the same applies to political effeminacy.


Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. She is a translator, editor, and political activist. Her social work focuses on political awareness and women’s rights and her writing interests include society, politics, and security in Egypt. She took part in a number of local and international conferences and published several academic papers. She can be reached at [email protected]

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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