In an interview during the run-up to his election last year, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asserted that the moral reform of the people is one of the president’s responsibilities.
He added that “the law alone isn’t enough, we need to utilize other tools, such as the media, education, places of worship and the family … Aren’t those the elements that shape one’s personality and awareness? We need to work on those tools and promote them.”
He continued, “Do you want to know what I will do as president?” he asked, “I’m saying it loud and clear: State institutions, namely those with educational, religious and media roles, have to help us regulate morals that we all think are problematic.”
Sisi’s comments came in the midst of a heightened anti-Brotherhood sentiment following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in 2013, in a quest to safeguard “the Egyptian identity” from radical Islamist thought, as expressed by many who supported the regime change.
In providing the alternative to the Brotherhood rule, the Sisi-led regime has been adopting some measures that show that it is not less compromising than Islamists when it comes to morality and the state responsibility in safeguarding it.
Last November, Egypt’s ambassador to the United Nations, Amr Abul Ata, gave a speech on the 20th Anniversary of the International Year of Family, insisting that, “Egypt believes that the traditional family is the natural and fundamental core unit of society. The family has the primary responsibility for the nurturing and protection of children.”
He denounced “attempts by some member states to introduce notions of gender identity and sexual orientation issues in resolutions related to family and children, and to impose them on other member states,” warning that the persistence of such attempts is “against the provisions of many universal laws, among which is the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women and the Convention of the Rights of the Child.”
A source who asked to remain anonymous says that the security and media crackdown on the LGBT community in Egypt has been ongoing, albeit more systematically. He explains that informants are usually around all the community’s meeting places online and offline.
“If you go meet someone, you may find the police there waiting for you, to fabricate debauchery charges against you, even if you have no actual partner with you,” he says.
“In my close circle there are about 10 gay and trans people, six of whom have left the country, and the remaining four are still looking for a chance to leave,” he adds.
According to Dalia Abdel Hameed, head of the Gender Program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), cases against the LGBT community have always been there but the systematic crackdown is a different story.
“LGBTs used to get arrested in individual cases, based on someone’s report. But now the vice police has dedicated itself to hunting down people from the LGBT community. They log into their Internet forums and find them through investigating those under arrest and inspecting their phones, interrogating them about the finest details of their sexual intercourse with each partner.”
In December, activists launched the “media informant” campaign against media personalities who have assumed the role of moral police, especially after the airing of the a television show, in which presenter Mona al-Iraqi showed footage of several men getting arrested in a Ramses bathhouse, in downtown Cairo, after she had reported them to the police, allegedly for practicing homosexuality.
Since last November, Abdel Hameed says, the state has been increasingly relying on the media to legitimize its enforcement of “good morals,” and to demonize LGBT people by portraying them as sick and criminal.
In the past few months, security forces have arrested over 150 people in different occasions on charges of practicing homosexuality, all of whom underwent compulsory medical examinations. Many were sentenced to prison for as many as eight years.
The state sending messages of not tolerating LGBT practices is not new and were equally present during the rule of President Hosni Mubarak. In one high-profile incident, commonly known as the “Queen Boat raid,” 52 men were accused of homosexual acts and were arrested on charges of debauchery in May 2001. 23 of them were sentenced to prison. However, the repeated attacks and relatively high number of arrests in a small period of time recently arguably suggest a need to restore moral authority especially in the aftermath of the deposition of an Islamist regime.
This authority is also manifested in on going restrictions of religious practices that are deviant from the mainstream.
“The state’s approach to the different minorities varies between Copts, Shia Muslims, Bahais, and atheists. But, we can generally say that, despite a small number of individual crackdowns on minorities, the state is tightening its grip on religious freedoms,” says Amr Ezzat, researcher and head of the Freedom of Religion and Beliefs Unit at EIPR.
Last July, the Sports and Youth Ministry, together with the Edowments Ministry, launched the “National Campaign to Fight Atheism.” It began with statements by the Ministry of Endowments on the number of atheists in Egypt, and progressed to a raid on a downtown café in Abdeen, which the head of the district described as a “café for atheists and Satan worshippers.”
Last September, the Endowments Minister Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa described the Muslim Brotherhood as being “closest to Shias, most of them adhere to the Taqiyya (a form of religious dissimulation) even more than Shiites, and they find no problem in lying to reach their goals.” By the same token, his deputy, Sabry Ibada said in an interview on a satellite channel that, “The Shia threat to Egypt is larger than Zionism. It is Mohamed Morsi who allowed the Shiites into Egypt, while Mubarak banished them […] we shall not allow them back in.”
Ezzat explains that, “In recent years there were less restrictions on social movement. There were still reports on things like a siege on an atheist’s house, the killing of a number of Shias and a Salafi convention attacking and instigating violence against Shias. But now that the state has shut down the public space and with the powerful return of the police, these waves [of social movements] have receded.”
He adds that the Muslim Brotherhood knew they were a target of accusations of restricting religious freedoms, so they treaded carefully around the issue, save for the few incidents where preachers would incite against the Shia or atheists.
“But on an official level, they were more careful,” he adds, alluding to Ibada’s more reckless anti-Shiites comments on air.
Some of the assumed moral authority of the state in recent months was pronounced as a direct response to the Muslim Brotherhood and their presumed radical thought.
Last September, the education minister added a new subject to schools curricula titled “intellectual and moral security.” According to a study by the National Center for Pedagogic and Developmental Research, which is affiliated with the ministry, the decision aims “to reform errant behaviour threatening security, to cultivate students’ love of their country and sense of belonging and include subjects that are concerned with intellectual security.”
The center advised school officials to start a database of students who appear to defy this notion. The minister also suggested that “evidence of scientific inimitability in the Quran and Hadith” be included in the school curricula.
In the same month, the defense minister made a decision to deduct two years from the compulsory conscription term of those who memorize the Quran and Al-Azhar staff members teaching the Quran.
Aside from the underlying political tensions potentially causing a more overtly pronounced moral authority by the state, Ezzat thinks there is a deeper issue.
“In democratic countries, the state protects human rights and freedoms; they are of great value. In other cases, however, there are things more valuable than rights and freedoms, like religion, morals, or traditions. Such regimes take a national and conservative view of the nation, its religion and morals, and they make sure it is preserved. Therefore, they resist calls for diversity or straying away from these values, and see this as the beginning of the downfall of the state,” Ezzat explains.
He adds that there are sometimes changes that slow down or boost this pattern, citing social mobility, which he says has gained momentum in recent years, and the reopening public space as challenges to the state’s attempts to preserve its values. But with the state re-establishing its position, a visible quest to preserve values has arrived as part of that mission.
“We can see the moral authority of the state even at police checkpoints. It has become normal to ask drivers about their relationship to passengers, smash alcohol bottles, or inspect personal phones,” Tamer Waguih, a columnist on Egyptian issues reflects.
Waguih situates this re-establishment of moral authority by the state within a context that is aversive to the revolution and the associated liberalization of values.
“The counter revolution needs conservative morals, even if its leaders themselves do not comply with such values. Regulating the state’s control through morals is one of the necessary tools for curbing revolutionary spirit and actions. Words like “shame on you,” “you’re being disrespectful,” or “he’s old enough to be your father,” are all essential vocabulary in the counter revolution’s battle,” Waguih concludes.