Symbols, perversity and the enemy within

I still remember the caricature that was printed in Rose al-Youssef that year, of a young man with bell-bottoms, a shirt and disproportionately large breasts, a nod to the archaic notion that gay men are nothing more than women trapped in men’s bodies.  The punch line was something along the lines of, “Oh, are they arresting queers now?” The media had their fill of bashing the LGBTQ community that summer in 2001, when 52 men were arrested from the Queen Boat nightclub. The media rhetoric was painfully similar to that surrounding the crackdown on the metal music scene in 1997, when 100 people were arrested for “devil worship” and the media characterized the debacle with terms like, “conspiracy,” “destructive,” “perverse” and “westernized.”

But authoritarian paranoia aside, the metal scene was one among several developments within a society that was permitted a margin of freedom in terms of culture and entertainment. Although the state acted as the sole arbiter of art and cultural production since 1957, from the mid-70s on, by the time President Anwar Sadat died and Hosni Mubarak came to power, there was a greater openness to the outside world. The spread of cable TV and satellite channels introduced an entire generation to a new variety of cultural and self-expressions.

There was nothing inherently “dangerous” or “perverse” about the metal scene, with all its different subcultures; there was no upsurge in crime rates, nor did the phenomenon result in the destruction of Egyptian culture and values. But the very notion that a group of people chose a different mode of self-expression, which at times emphasized rage or complete disdain for conventional norms or values, offended the sensibilities of Egypt’s middle class too much to be dismissed as mere youth angst or disenchantment. At the same time it gave the Egyptian state the perfect fodder for its moral crusades.

There have been arguments that Cairo 52 was politically motivated (rumors circulated that one of Mubarak’s sons is gay), and the scale and savagery of the state and its media in maligning its victims (calling them “devil worshipers”) incurred international uproar, even if it resulted in little being done to most of those implicated (out of the 52 men arrested, 21 were indicted, after several retrials, and 29 acquitted in the final round of trials in 2003). The state did not repeat the performance of Cairo 52 until 2014, when Mona al-Iraqi tried to recreate the Queen Boat fiasco by instigating a police raid and arresting the patrons of a public bathhouse in downtown Cairo, allegedly to raise awareness about HIV in Egypt. However, she failed in her attempts, as there was overwhelming condemnation of her approach and tactics in setting up the victims and violating their basic rights to privacy and consent (the 26 arrested men were all acquitted of any charges in 2015).

Enter enemy number one: The identity renounced

Neither of the two incidents spurred a so-called LGBTQ “community” in Egypt to action, at least not in any concerted way. The notion of any community remains a highly fragmented, clique-centered collectivity, rigidly divided by class, and also suffering from a terrible sense of internalized homophobia. There might have been a few attempts at initiatives or small groups sharing information or resources, yet even those observe the invisible yet definitive lines of class and socioeconomic divisions. There might be thousands of individuals using today’s social media and dating apps to connect with each other, to meet and perhaps even form friendships. If one were to randomly survey the users of such apps, it is likely some respondents would say that, while they engage in MSM practices (a term that some use to describe “men having sex with men”), they don’t necessarily subscribe to certain identities.

It is also this fragmentation and lack of any centralized structure, however, that has made “the community” resilient in the face of the state’s continued attacks. Instead of concentrated or even visible organized forms, the amorphous and underground presence of LGBTQ individuals in Egypt has helped many people “disappear” when there are crackdowns. But the price of resilience and survival is that the LGBTQ community has no clear past or present.

The generation that grew up at a time of increased connectivity, the globalization of goods — both material and immaterial — social networking, and so on, made perfect use of all these different media forms. But lest anyone forget, this same generation grew up in a time of political apathy, the death of politics under Mubarak. There was no longer a political project and there was no longer a national message of struggle and liberation. There was a heavy dismantling of the post-independence state, increased privatization, real-estate bubbles, complete securitization of state and society, the rise of the new bourgeois suburbs. By the time the revolution broke out, politics was almost absent from people’s lexicons and imaginaire. Citizen, in the etymological sense of civitas, the conditions and rights of someone living in the city, had completely lost its meaning.  

The death of politics in general and the NGO-ization of social struggle since the early 1990s throughout most of the developing world, not just Egypt, made the birth of an Egyptian gay rights movement, similar to the one that took place in the US and later in Europe, almost impossible. The rise of human rights discourse helped a great deal in embarrassing the regime and forcing it to abide by international treaties, or at the very least exerted some pressure to curb the its more brutal treatment of minorities. Various activists and initiatives that took up the LGBTQ struggle had a crucial role in documenting and disseminating the violations and abuse faced by LGBTQ individuals. Yet this advocacy and rights-based approach had its limits, and its intention was never to mobilize.

Even though the January 25 revolution did mobilize many segments of society beyond the limitations of political channels or mediums, and LGBTQ individuals, being part of that society, were also mobilized and did participate in the revolution with a semblance of some kind of community consciousness, the revolution was not able to put forth an agenda of rights, nor to integrate such an agenda within a larger political project. As a matter of fact, most so-called revolutionary coalitions, whether left, center-left, or even liberal and secular, all shelved the entire schema of sexuality and gender. In a shameful and typical political move, many revolutionary coalitions and groups deemed issues pertaining to gender and sexuality to be a political minefield that should be postponed till we have a more “accepting” political atmosphere.

Enter enemy number two: The trap of the liberal bourgeois

Three bands played a concert at Cairo Festival City Mall on September 22, headlined by the popular Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay. The concert, attended by thousands (mostly under the age of 25), witnessed the spontaneous waving of the rainbow pride flag. In less than 48 hours, all state-owned and state-run media and news outlets ran the story, changing their tone and style quickly from “homosexuals” to “perverts,” from “sexual identity” to “sexual deviance,” from a music concert to a “festival of perversity.” The spontaneous gesture of waving a rainbow flag that might not mean anything at all to many LGBTQ individuals in Egypt, has been described and singled out as the most dangerous threat lurking in the shadows and a sinister conspiracy aiming to destroy Egyptian society (It was even compared to the drug pandemic of the late 1980s), and has been used to subsequently roundup and arrest at least 57 people (at the time of publishing), who are currently facing accusations of debauchery and attempts to threaten the moral fabric of society, charges commonly used in Egypt to prosecute LGBTQ individuals.

The rainbow flag was first used as an emblem for the LGBTQ community by American activist Gilbert Baker in the San Francisco Pride of 1978. Several theories exist as to the origin of the flag. Baker himself, later in his life, thought that the idea behind it was elemental and derived from nature, rather than any particular reference. He created the flag as an attempt to express the diversity and spirit of the LGBTQ community, and hoped that his flag would replace the more loaded symbol, the pink triangle, which was previously used as a symbol by gay men. Originally the pink triangle was one of several Nazi symbols used to demarcate those classified as “degenerates,” alongside overlapping triangles of different colors for Jewish people and a black triangle for Roma people, among others. It was reclaimed as a symbol of resistance by some later on. The rainbow flag did eventually become one of the symbols of the LGBTQ community, undergoing revisions and variations along the way.

The struggle for LGBTQ rights in the US can be seen as a logical offshoot of the larger mobilization that took place with the civil rights movement and the student movement throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The movement might have expressed different political orientations, from radical left to center-right, but in its different permutations and combinations, it came to be seen as an identity-based movement, specifically aimed at reorganizing society along the lines of alternative social and sexual configurations beyond the typical heteronormative family model.

One is tempted to think that 2011 would have been the year in which a similar mobilization would have taken place in Egypt, with individuals overcoming class and socio-economic and divisions, but the political setting did not permit it. Even a more personal, rights-based approach to resistance was deemed too “sensitive” for Egyptian society (a realization that was immortalized by the late Vice President Omar Suleiman’s comments “The Egyptian People are not ready for democracy” in his interview with Christiane Amanpour). This in itself raises a lot of questions about what kind of struggle the fragmented LGBTQ community can embark on vis-a-vis the Egyptian state and its oppressive structures. The fact that only a fraction of LGBTQ individuals might have been exposed to, are familiar with, or even inspired by, the pride flag and the LGBTQ rights movement in the US undermines the entire premise that raising the rainbow flag at a music concert constitutes a “wider gesture of resistance,” as some have described it.

It is inevitable that a more affluent, bourgeois section of LGBTQ individuals are the most visible and able to assert their presence, protected by numerous privileges. As they adopt, identify with and attempt to reenact symbols of resistance and narratives of struggle, it becomes imperative to critique such gestures. It is incumbent on us to understand what it means to borrow and appropriate such symbols and tactics of struggle from other movements. The dominance of a privileged faction and their emphasis on certain notions of freedom, or discourses on sexuality, undermines the incredible diversity and poignant struggles that other segments go through and represent.

Implicating the entire LGBTQ community in a specific narrative not only undermines its internal diversity and actual struggles, but also exposes it to the ire and wrath of a society that views sexuality through the prism of religiously sanctioned heteronormativity.

Enter enemy number three: Middle-class religiosity

It is always amusing and disconcerting when one reads about how many Egyptians genuinely still believe that homosexuality is “contagious,” and can be “contracted” through mere sight. This pathological rhetoric harks back to 19th century attempts to catalogue human sexuality in terms of perversities and disease. A colorful taxonomy of degeneracy that, metaphorically and semantically, still haunts us today (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is a contemporary descendant of that mode of thinking). Egyptian media’s recent coverage is a testament to this lingering and outrageous modernist relic. But it’s not just the notion of pathological ailment or diseased bodies and minds, it is far more pernicious than this.  

There can be no doubt that Egyptian society has been undergoing profound cultural and social changes since the early 1970s. In successive waves that have affected almost every segment of Egyptian society since the 1970s, the religious revival of conservative Sunni Islam, à la Saudi Wahhabism, instilled a petty, paternalistic attitude toward social norms, politics and interpersonal relationships that is deeply inimical to personal rights and agency. It is not that Egyptian society was not patriarchal or even conservative before the Islamist revival, not at all, but the revival played on something far more sinister. It played on the frustration and disappointment with the failure of the post-independence modernizing project through the toxic binaries of godless modernity versus pre-modern believers’ utopia (we have Sayyid Qutb to thanks for this), the homogeneous Ummah versus the heterogeneous multitude, and most importantly, the West versus Islam.

I have read a huge number of comments concerning the so-called “flag incident” that invoke the famous story of the Prophet Lut and the subsequent doom leveled against his people and his wife. The story is mentioned eight times (10, if one counts the references to his wife) in the Quran, each time emphasizing the unnatural aspect of “men desiring men” (women never count and are never mentioned). Different schools of Sunni jurisprudence disagree in deriving a particular judgment from the story as to the proper punishment for “sodomites.” While earlier jurists differed and oscillated between death, corporal punishment and exile, later Sunni jurists are almost unanimous in meting out a death sentence — with the exception of the Hanafi school, ironically enough the official school of jurisprudence that Egypt follows.  

In a rather unusual turn of phrase, Egyptians use the adjective “luti,” as in “sodomite,” to describe or malign someone who engages in homosexual acts (The English language circumvented this by ascribing the act to the place and not the prophet). The term is technically blasphemy, according to Sunni Islam, and means a person who behaves like Lut.

The story of Lut is central to how Egyptians understand sexual difference. Arabic itself, through the long history of Islam, developed a complex lexicon to describe, exalt, condemn, and at times celebrate, sexual difference. However, most of this has been lost, as many Egyptians adhere to a traditional, conservative version of Sunni Islam and insist that, just as God destroyed the people of Lut for their transgressions, so God will destroy Egypt because of the rainbow flag.

Enter the last enemy: The Enemy within

In the late 1990s, at the height of Mubarak’s widely unpopular privatization program, and the beginning of some of the bloodiest inter-sectarian conflicts in the South of Egypt, Egyptian media decided to deflect all possible attention by running one of the worst smear campaigns in recent history against metal music fans. The use of the media and the press as political tools by the state is still as effective as ever.

The flag incident is a crucial moment, one in which everything that has been happening over the past seven years influences and is reflected in responses to it. It is no surprise that many Egyptians are deeply disenchanted with the state, it is no surprise that many Egyptians feel frustrated and helpless. It is no surprise that many Egyptians feel threatened. And it is no surprise that many Egyptians are only able to rationalize their malcontent and fear through the prism of a superficial, yet extremely conservative variant of morality.

LGBTQ individuals are being scapegoated by many in society who are projecting this current disenchantment and frustration onto them, rallying behind a state and media-led battle. Moral guardianship has become the saving grace of a corrupt, brutally authoritarian state in its search for “the real enemy,” “the real battle,” and everything else, even the devastating economic downturn, ongoing militant attacks and impending water crisis, takes a backseat, until the “real enemy” is faced. This is deeply symptomatic of this moment. The only way millions of people can express how desperate and angry they are is through blaming a bunch of 20-year olds for waving a flag.

The current crackdown is but one link in the state’s long chain of “the politics of distraction.” The unprecedented authoritarianism that Egyptians are experiencing at the moment cannot be brushed aside by creating a media frenzy around the existence or the “agenda” of an imagined, so-called, LGBTQ community. The anger, frustration and fear are all legitimate responses to our current reality, and acknowledging them is essential to any kind of debate we are going to have. Yet they have nothing to do with the presence or absence of LGBTQ individuals. There can be no doubt that the rights, safety and freedom of those who were arrested and rounded up in the wake of the “flag incident” must be defended,  but the fight is not just about LGBTQ individuals. The fight concerns the freedom, dignity and happiness of all Egyptians.

AD