Egypt Expands Crackdown on Gay and Transgender People

Cairo — At least 34 people have been arrested in Egypt as part of an expanding crackdown on the gay and transgender community following a rock concert last month when audience members waved a rainbow flag.

The crackdown has been fueled by social media, where images of the flag-waving were widely shared, and by dating apps and other websites, which the Egyptian police have used to entrap people suspected of being gay and transgender, activists and officials say.

Photographs and video of Ahmed Alaa, a 22-year-old law student, and others waving the flag at the concert by Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band with an openly gay singer, stoked public outrage and vituperative news coverage that described the flag-waving as an assault on Egypt and its morals.

Ahmed Moussa, an influential talk show host, suggested last week that Mr. Alaa and the others had been funded by unidentified enemies who wanted to “disgrace” Egypt by making it appear to accept homosexuality.

“I am warning you against calling this a matter of personal freedom!” he told viewers. “This is about religions! This is about morals!”

In a telephone interview on Saturday, Mr. Alaa seemed unconcerned about the uproar. “Everything will be fine,” he said. “They just said that they arrested gays to calm down the public.”

The next day he was arrested and charged by national security prosecutors — who usually investigate terrorism — with membership in “an illegal group trying to promote homosexual ideas,” according to his lawyer, Ramadan Mohamed. His trial date has not been set.

The crackdown has primarily targeted gay men and transgender women, groups that the Egyptian state and mass media do not consider distinct from each other. Hundreds of them have been arrested since 2013 as part of a broad crackdown on social freedoms by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which has killed hundreds of protesters and jailed thousands of political opponents.

The latest wave of arrests has drawn a stream of criticism from rights groups and condemnation from Mashrou’ Leila, which said in a statement on Tuesday that Egypt was “hellbent on executing the most atrocious of human rights violations.”

“What is happening now is unprecedented,” said Gasser Abed El Razek, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which has been monitoring the crackdown and providing legal aid to defendants. “We think they are doing this to respond to the fuss that the Mashrou’ Leila concert created.”

At least one recent detainee has been convicted, according to state media, which did not identify the person. It said the detainee had been sentenced last week to six years in prison for “committing debauchery.”

Most of the 34 people arrested since the concert were ensnared through social media and dating apps, prosecutors said. Egyptian authorities have long used online entrapment to arrest gay people, including during a crackdown in 2001. Officers lure someone to a date, arrest them and then use the messages sent during their flirtation as evidence in court.

One prosecution official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the existence of such apps and websites — and their increased use in Egypt in recent years — had made arrests and prosecutions much easier.

In an interview on Tuesday at the Giza courthouse, where five men suspected of being gay were on trial in a separate, older case, the official described the internet as teeming with gay people.

He said the police had not decided to start rounding up gay people but simply had gone online and kept encountering them. If gay people stopped using the internet to meet each other, they would stop getting arrested, he said.

Members of Mashrou’ Leila, who are currently artists in residence at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, said through a spokeswoman, Hind Azennar, that they were “heartbroken that the band’s work has been used to scapegoat yet another crackdown by the government.”

“We denounce the demonization and prosecution of victimless acts between consenting adults,” the band said. “It is sickening to think that all this hysteria has been generated over a couple of kids raising a piece of cloth that stands for love.”

The band also called for the creation of an “internationalist solidarity movement” to pressure Mr. Sisi’s government “to immediately halt its ongoing witch hunt and release all detainees.”

The persecution of gay and transgender people began in earnest in the fall of 2013 when a military curfew imposed after the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi ended. That returned control of the streets to the police, who were eager to reassert the authority they had lost during the country’s 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

The final years of Mr. Mubarak’s government, the turbulent days of the 2011 revolution and Mr. Morsi’s brief tenure were a time of relative openness for gay and transgender Egyptians.

At the time, the police were more preoccupied with trying to crush dissent and then protecting themselves when Mr. Mubarak resigned. Little attention was paid to gay Egyptians, who had last been the target of a widespread crackdown in 2001. That repression gained international attention with the arrest of dozens of gay men on the Queen Boat nightclub.

On Tuesday, Mr. Mohamed denied that his client, Mr. Alaa, had anything to do with the country’s besieged gay community. In a telephone interview, he said Mr. Alaa had been arrested for nothing more than being an excited music fan.

“He is not even gay and he doesn’t know any gay people,” Mr. Mohamed said. “He was just waving it to salute the lead singer of the band.”

by Nour Youssef and Liam Stack
Source – The New York Times