Update: 7 arrested for ‘promoting sexual deviancy’ after raising rainbow flag at Mashrou’ Leila gig

Security forces reportedly arrested seven people on charges of “promoting sexual deviancy” on Monday, after a rainbow flag was raised at a Mashrou’ Leila gig over the weekend.

Prosecutor Nabil Sadek ordered State Security Prosecution to immediately investigate, according to the state-owned Middle East News Agency, but no information has been released regarding the detainees’ names or whereabouts.

Mashrou’ Leila performed a well-attended gig with two other bands, El-Morabba3 and Sharmoofers, organized by Music Park at Cairo Festival City in Fifth Settlement on Friday. During their performance, a small group of people held the rainbow pride flag, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, provoking varied reactions on social media.

The popular Lebanese band, whose lead singer is openly gay, has a large following in Egypt. The band is no stranger to controversy for lyrics that challenge the political and social status quo and address issues of sexism, homophobia, religion and politics.

While homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, anti-prostitution and debauchery laws are frequently used to crack down on LGBTQ individuals.

Lawyer Amr Abdel Salam, vice president of the Egypt-based Al-Haq International Human Rights Organization, filed a complaint with the Public Prosecution against the organizers of the event, the director of Cairo Festival City Mall, members of the Lebanese band and the admin of Rainbow Egypt Facebook page, accusing them of “spreading debauchery.” 

The Musicians Syndicate banned Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila from performing in Egypt, announcing on Sunday that the group would only be granted a permit to perform in the future if they first acquire security approval.

The decision is due to be reviewed during the syndicate board’s general meeting next week, according to syndicate deputy Reda Ragab.

Mashrou’ Leila had obtained a performance permit for the Festival City gig from the Musicians Syndicate, the Manpower Ministry and Egypt’s National Security Agency.

Ragab criticized security agencies for allowing the band to enter Egypt, during a phone interview with Al-Shawarea Al-Masreya (The Egyptian Street) program, aired on Al-Assema TV channel,  absolving the syndicate from all responsibility, and adding that it only supports “respectable art” and is against “perverse art.”

Mahmoud Othman, a lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, told Mada Masr that intervention by the syndicate in this case “contradicts its supposed role in protecting artists, securing their interests and supporting them. [The syndicate] breached its mandate simply to appease the state and executive authority, which believe that sexual freedom is a threat to public order.”

If the syndicate goes ahead with banning Mashrou’ Leila, this will be in violation of Law 430/1955 for artistic works and Article 67 of the Constitution, which obliges state institutions to protect artists, Othman said.

“It is not within the remit of the syndicate to question audience behavior. Its mandate stops at collecting fees and issuing permits to artists. According to an April 2017 ruling by the State Council Administrative Court, artistic syndicates have no right to intervene in the content of artistic works, nor express their opinions. This falls within the jurisdiction of the Artistic Works Authority, while dealing with audience behavior is the job of security,” Othman added.

Egypt’s Musicians Syndicate has a history of attempting to ban gigs based on subjective moral judgements. In February 2016, the Musicians Syndicate tried to cancel two gigs it referred to as “parties of devil worshipers,” according to the head of the syndicate, Hani Shaker, who said they were part of a “Western conspiracy to corrupt young Egyptians.”

Shaker said during an interview with Al-Assema TV that Alaa Salama, head of the syndicate’s resources committee, made him aware of a party by “devil worshipers” at Shehrezade nightclub in downtown Cairo, where people were dressed in “strange clothes,” including black T-shirts with what he referred to as “the Masonic star of David” on them, and wearing makeup. Salama reportedly asked authorities to stop the gig, but they arrived at the venue too late.

A second gig at Amoun hotel in Mohandiseen, Giza, was canceled by organizers after they were informed of the syndicate’s intent to shut it down for its “satanic” nature, Shaker added.

Mashrou’ Leila were also banned in Jordan in June this year, and the previous year in April 2016, with Jordanian security claiming “the content of their music violates the values, traditions and customs of Jordanian society.”

The band responded in a statement in 2016, saying that banning them based on their music essentially means any artist whose work engages issues of personal rights and freedoms should be banned, and that this is contrary to democratic values.

“We also have been unofficially informed that we will never be allowed to play again anywhere in Jordan due to our political and religious beliefs and endorsement of gender equality and sexual freedom … We denounce the systemic prosecution of voices of political dissent. We denounce the systemic prosecution of advocates of sexual and religious freedom. We denounce the censorship of artists anywhere in the world,” they wrote, highlighting that their censorship is linked to their political views as well as outspoken lyrics that challenge notions of religion, gender and sexuality.

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