Since what has become known as the ‘gay marriage’ video was released on August 29, there has been a coordinated government crack down on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) in Egypt.
The video showed a gathering of men on a felucca, with two of them seemingly getting married, exchanging kisses and rings. The makers of the video have since claimed it was joke, and that the gathering was nothing more than a birthday party. One of the men in question called a TV show to say that the ring was a birthday gift, that he had a girlfriend, and that this video has turned his life upside down.
On Saturday, a misdemeanor court sentenced eight participants in the video to three years in prison, in addition to probation for another three years after the sentence is completed.
The law used to convict them, which criminalizes “debauchery,” carries a maximum sentence of three years. But, according to Scott Long, a gay rights activist and author of the Paper Bird blog, they may also have been charged with anti-pornography provisions that criminalize the possession of materials “violating public morals.”
Using such charges against LGBT defendants is common, Long argues. And, as with many other cases, particularly political ones, justice is seldom served. Opponents claim the police and courts tend to support projections of conservatism by the ruling regime.
In this particular case, Long points to the fact that the video clip, which went viral, isn’t remotely pornographic and that there was no evidence that the men were gay, even after “abusive and intrusive anal examinations” were conducted by the Forensic Medical Authority.
“The entire case lacks basis. The police did not arrest them red-handed and the video doesn’t prove anything,” he wrote.
“The debauchery law originated as a prostitution law. There are punishments for providing a house for debauchery, which is patterned on laws against brothels, so they charge whoever’s name is actually on the lease with this. So the charges can add up,” Long told Mada Masr. In one case, an individual was sentenced to 12 years because he was the main tenant of the apartment.
Once they are arrested, gay men are often subjected to a “forensic anal exam,” which is meant to determine whether or not they have been involved in sexual activity. The practice continues, despite heavy criticism from human rights organizations, who claim the results of such examinations are inconclusive.
Furthermore, according to Long, testimony from LGBT individuals who have been to jail shows that they are often subjected to sexual harassment from guards and fellow inmates.
Crackdowns on LGBT people by subsequent regimes have been framed by the state’s battle with Islamist powerhouses over who can be more conservative. The belief is that, if the ruling regime wants to keep Islamists out of power, it needs to showcase enough conservative tendencies to appease the larger public.
Long agrees, saying about President Adel Fattah al-Sisi, “He still feels he has to do something to appease the Brotherhood’s constituency. It’s really telling that in the wedding video case, the government made this a security issue around the time when the Brotherhood started criticizing the video,” he said.
Last April, four men were sentenced to three to eight years in prison on charges of debauchery, after being arrested in an apartment dressed in women’s clothing.
Ramy Youssef, an Egyptian gay rights activist, says the recent crackdown is coordinated and the government is doing it to gain good publicity for the regime.
Following the revolution, and the 2013 ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi, “the military institution wants credit and validation from the people,” he says, adding that the public defense of morals is the best way for the government to get this validation.
Youssef also believes that the crackdown may be a way for the state to distract people from the political and economic issues Egypt continues to face.
“Part of me says it’s to distract the people from all the corruption that’s happening. The former president and his people are getting out of prison, and things are getting worse with the electricity cuts,” he says.
There were also crackdowns on the LGBT community in 2001, 2004, and 2007. The high-profile “Queen Boat raid” in 2001 ended with the sentencing of 23 people to prison, an episode which remains firmly etched in the memory of many LGBT people.
“It’s a seasonal crackdown; it happens every three or four years. The authorities decide we need more morals and they go for gay people, as we are the easiest targets,” says Youssef.
Society is also encouraged to play a role, particularly through media smear campaigns. The result, according to Long, is that individuals have their homes raided, their neighbors inform on them, and many of them end up in jail.
They may also be tracked through the Internet. Grindr, a dating application commonly used by LGBT people, recently released a warning urging LGBT individuals to hide their identities, as the Egyptian government might be posting undercover.
The warning followed a report from Buzzfeed that Egypt has stepped up surveillance of Facebook, Twitter and Skype, along with other forms of social media. According to the report, technology is being used from “See Egypt,” a sister company of the American cyber-security firm Blue Coat.
Although denied by the government, Long believes that either the technology from Blue Coat is already in place, or it is just a matter of time until it is.
Youssef freely admits that at some point he expects to end up in jail, as he is a public activist who talks to the media using his real name.
Nevertheless, he chooses to remain in Egypt. “I really want to do this, I really want to do something for the community.” He says to leave, “would make me a huge hypocrite. There is something that I need to do here. Something very unique that I am doing.”
He has published a guide on his Facebook page with advice for LGBT people if they are arrested, and he and three of his friends are currently working on a project where they collect the voices and stories of LGBT individuals in a booklet they plan to publish in November.
He also dreams of someday establishing a safe house in Egypt for LGBT people who may have been thrown out of their homes or feel endangered.
Nothing like this currently exists, and although Youssef uses the term “community” to describe LGBT people in Egypt, he is also edgy about it. A community implies “people who are fighting for one cause,” whereas there are broader groups, he says, although he acknowledges that the majority of LGBT people are very supportive to each other in times of need. “If someone is in trouble or is kicked out of his home, he will always have some place to go.”
This kind of activism is more personal than organized public activism, but Youssef believes it is just as important. He says the very fact that some LGBT people are willing to express themselves publicly through their clothes and make-up is a form of activism. Even if they never come out publicly and hide their sexuality from their families, the fact that they express themselves at all is a form of activism, he adds.
There are other, more public, types of LGBT activism taking place in Egypt. “Solidarity with Egypt LGBT,” whose members are Egyptian but wish to remain anonymous, organized a global protest recently.
Due to safety concerns, the protest took place online, with people expressing support through the hashtag “solidaritywithEgyptLGBT.”
Globally there were also protests in front of Egyptian embassies in support of the rights of LGBT individuals.
Solidarity with Egypt LGBT explained to Mada Masr that global pressure ensures the Egyptian government is “under strain, as its actions toward those of differing sexual and gender identities are no longer on a merely local, obscure level. The existence of a peaceful, vocal opposition provokes a situation in which the government will have to change its oppressive policies.”