On not being there Human Rights and solidarity in Egypt’s LGBTQ crisis

It’s a sick and repellent paradox that the Egyptian state media smears Egyptian LGBTQ people as tools of foreign influences, while they’ve been largely abandoned by their absentee, self-styled friends in northern LGBTQ groups. While in Egypt the media hurl curses at a few people who waved a rainbow flag, while lawmakers promise more draconian laws, while almost five dozen victims innocent of any known crime face prison terms, many international rights groups are silent or settle for symbolic gestures. This failure points to a crisis in the so-called international human rights movement, as advocacy appears to lose what efficacy it once had.

This is not about me, but I feel the need to place myself. I started working in human rights in the early 1990s, at a very immediate level: mostly in Romania, where I lived for two years. Two or three Romanian friends (and one Cameroonian student) and I began visiting prisons and documenting arrests under a sodomy law inherited from the Ceausescu dictatorship. Afterward, I went on to work for a number of “international” organizations, notably Human Rights Watch. In the Global North, people do not talk about mere human rights. They talk about “international” human rights, the “international” movement, meaning knowledge and standards that have been processed through certifiably “international” places: through offices in London, Geneva, New York. “Local” human rights don’t exist — they aren’t found in treaties — and “local” movements are like smart kids too small to sit at the grown-ups’ table.

When, years later, I decided to remain in Egypt after the 2013 military takeover, it was partly from a wish (perhaps sentimental, perhaps narcissistic) to work at that local, immediate level again. I had first come to Cairo in late November 2001, to attend the final session of the famous Queen Boat trial when 52 men faced charges of habitual debauchery and obscene behavior amid a homophobic media frenzy. After a decade and a half of comings and goings, I left for the last time — on that occasion, after a three-and-a-half year stay — in early 2016. I say “the last time” because a short but unpleasant interrogation by National Security made it plain I would never be let back in.

I stayed in 2013 because friends of friends were being arrested — including LGBTQ people. A crackdown on alleged gay men and trans people started within four months of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s seizure of power. I wanted to help my friends do something about it; I wanted to be there. My own role, never exactly formal, was simply to try to get information about horrific violations, collected locally, to the “international” sphere: to those places where the standards are set down.

By any measure, these efforts failed. The arrests went on. This mirrors a larger failure, which those “international” organizations recognize but only reluctantly confess: no form of pressure in their usual repertory seems to budge the Sisi regime. Ten years ago, those of us in international human rights groups who dealt with Egypt had the sense there was a wizened clerk somewhere in the Foreign Ministry, whose job was to calculate when abuses had gone too far. The old gnome did a running cost-benefit analysis; when the harm to Egypt’s international reputation from torturing Islamists, or harassing bloggers, or arresting queers got too crippling, he would send a message up the echelons: Put on the brakes.

If he ever existed, he’s gone now: retired, fired, or in Tora prison himself. This government is indifferent to being named-and-shamed on a global stage. Alaa Abd El Fattah remains in jail, cases against campaigners like Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid proceed deaf to international objections, and 60,000 political prisoners endure their endless agonies despite all the English-language press releases in the world. This mirrors the regime’s gross flouting of its own citizens’ opinions. In the Mubarak age, one felt, there was also a gnome in the basement of State Security headquarters in Lazoghly or the Maspero television building keeping up a comparable calculus of when repression pushed the Egyptian people’s patience too far. At some point, fearing a repeat of the 1977 bread riots or the 1986 Central Security conscripts’ mutiny, the overseers of oppression would tacitly back away. That clerk has been purged too. This state doesn’t just give away territory to the Saudis, it gives away much of its own popularity and nationalist credibility in the process. It doesn’t seem to care.

It seems grotesque to be dispassionate about the latest wave of violence against presumed-LGBTQ bodies, to try calmly to extract lessons from the spectacle. It feels absurd: as if a movie about Caligula or Genghis Khan were shown with the wrong subtitles, from The Sound of Music. Nonetheless, we need to study this condition, where a regime inflicts limitless violence and exerts surveillance without fearing oversight itself. This is no exception. It’s our future.

Human rights in an age of austerity

The increasing disregard for reputation is not unique to Egypt. Frighteningly, the practiced and polished methods of old-style human rights advocacy, developed over five decades, exert less and less effect anywhere. Governments from China to the Philippines to the UK and the United States are acquiring an immunity to shaming. However much dishonor the media or the UN heap upon their actions, they neither change nor care. The Cairo regime is only one of many that — like the afflicted characters in Mohamed Rabie’s stunning, dystopian novel Otaredhave grown an impenetrable carapace sheathing eyes and ears from outside stimuli. Outrage and opprobrium no longer reach them.

The politics of international human rights has always essentially been absentee politics. Its premise was that, with countries where the public sphere wasn’t strong enough to combat government abuses, an alternative, absentee public could be built: a community of opposition circling the globe, fuelled by ethical indignation. Faith in the power of moral anger and moral persuasion to accomplish change lay at its heart.

This confidence in purely moral argument was rooted in a specific, transient historical moment. Timothy Mitchell, in his brilliant Carbon Democracy, argues that the age of coal — the first fossil fuel to drive modern economies — gave working classes enormous power over access to energy. Coal was hard to produce and transport. Miners, railway workers, dockworkers, and other workers’ movements could cut off its supply. They used this stranglehold over essential, material resources throughout the 19th century to press political demands for democracy. Oil, by contrast, is relatively easy to extract and send flowing. The laboring bodies that produce and ship it have much less control. Petroleum helped power a seductive age of abundance, in which strikes or struggles over resources seemed much less likely to succeed. This period of apparent plenitude started in the 1950s, with the “thirty glorious years” of oil-lubricated capitalist expansion.

Those years also saw the rise of so-called new social movements, which unlike working-class forces, built their politics around moral persuasion rather than resource battles. The human rights movement is perhaps the classic example, the prime product of the Age of Abundance. It never relied on strikes or the seizure of power; it rarely used material pressure at all. Its main tool from start to finish was moral indignation.

The Age of Abundance was always more appearance than reality. And now it’s over. This is an age of lethal austerity. Both economic collapse and the imminence of climate change mean the prosperity earlier generations dreamed of is impossible, unsustainable. Exclusively moral arguments mean much less in an era of scarcity. Lives grow cheap, possessions precious. The secret motto of this century is Bertolt Brecht’s: Grub first, then ethics. States, too, now care about controlling resources, not preserving reputations: about dwindling oil and high-priced technologies, not the intangible echoes of local or international opinion. Sisi’s transfer of territory to the Saudis is a fine example. He needs the cash and the petroleum; the public be damned. To keep Egyptians’ anger in check, there are always more and more sophisticated tools — purchasable with the cash — for surveillance, repression, torture.

A dark age surrounds us. It poses a crisis for the “international” human rights movement. As moral arguments matter less, some international groups become more and more dependent on their ability to access state power. To some degree, this has happened to the international LGBTQ movement — to groups based in Geneva, London, Washington, as opposed to their more principled local counterparts. Many of these organizations attach themselves to their governments, hoping not just for funding but for an influence that more public forms of advocacy no longer provide. As Ahmed El-Hady and I recently wrote, these groups thus become more and more subject to their governments’ agendas. In the case of Egypt, this means a deep reluctance to speak out about abuses against trans and gay people in an American client state. Egyptian queer activism has always kept its integrity and independence. Now, in a fragmented global landscape, Egyptian queers — like many other Egyptian movements — must struggle, and fall victim, on their own.

Principled ways forward

In this age of iron, there remain other directions that truly principled activism can take.

It is vital for the human rights movement to take economic needs and demands seriously; to pursue deep material analysis of oppression, not just rest on a rhetorical, moralistic high ground; and to rediscover the language of anti-imperialism, no longer heard in offices in Geneva, London, or New York. (The last time I remember a northern human rights professional referring to “imperialism” was probably 1997.) These are concrete solidarities that count. Opposition to empire, occupation, and neo-colonialism, to Western domination of international institutions, and international social movements as well, to the World Bank’s and IMF’s starvation policies, to the intimate military and financial cooperation between security states, to the subtle imperial maneuvers of a country like the US as it insinuates its soldiers into resource-rich countries in Africa, eroding their always-tenuous independence — these are among the only conceivable ways the international human rights movement can recover impact and integrity.

There is a related possibility and source of hope: one where the history of LGBTQ resistance in Egypt is important.

When the Queen Boat arrests made screaming headlines in 2001, almost no one in Egypt spoke out against them. In the human rights community, only the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Nadeem Center actively condemned the arrests and supported the arrested. Most activists remained silent — either out of moral qualms or the sense that the issue was too insignificant to risk retaliation.

In the post-2013 crackdown on LGBTQ Egyptians, this indifference has disappeared. After the brutal, media-sponsored police raid on the Bab el-Bahr bathhouse in Ramses in 2014, a significant part of the Egyptian intellectual community raised their voices to condemn both the invasion of privacy and press complicity. In this, they joined the working-class families of the arrested men, who also saw the raid not as a defense of religion or tradition but as an assault on the private worlds, and bodies, of their sons and brothers and husbands. Today, even amid the moral panic fed by rabid talk-show hosts and pundits, many Egyptian revolutionary veterans and much of the Left regard the rainbow-flag furor as an attack on freedom of expression and an intolerable state aggression against bodily autonomy. The issue cannot be sidelined as “insignificant” anymore.

This change is itself revolutionary — and a product, I think, of Egypt’s own freedom struggle, its thwarted revolution. Back in the hopeful days of 2011, the scholar Lisa Hajjar traced what she called a “torture trail” running through the Arab Spring rebellions. Across the region, the crime of torture was a central issue: not just for its brutality in itself, but because it symbolized the authoritarian state’s claim to absolute, invasive power over individual bodies.

This was particularly true in Egypt, where torture was a defining issue for the opposition at least from 2003 on — a nodal point where disparate groups could unite in saying “no” to the penetrative policing of privacy and physical existence. The focus created a politics where bodies themselves became powerful sites and explosive forces of resistance. This was true in Tunisia, where Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation ignited the Arab Spring, and literally made his body a torch of opposition to government control. It was true in Egypt, where people consciously and deliberately put their bodies on the line in Tahrir, at Maspero, in Mohamed Mahmoud. It was true of feminist campaigns to combat sexual harassment and rape. It was true of the opposition to the security services’ expanding surveillance powers. It was true of the continuing determination of dissidents to demonstrate, to take their bodies to the street even as the Sisi government tightened punishments for protest. It was true of the demands for dignity and bread.

This is a politics of physical, immediate presence, not the absentee politics of abstract international standards. It is a politics of being there. The claims to privacy and to bodily autonomy that LGBTQ Egyptians make — whether resisting police raids or forensic anal exams — are part of this politics. In all these struggles, rights become material and tangible, stationed in concrete spaces like sidewalks or hospitals or bedrooms, and in muscles, sinews, genitals, stomachs.

Thinking and working in these terms is neither seamlessly clear nor easy. A politics of the body brings certain kinds of power to bear — strengths and solidarities rooted in material immediacy, in physical need. It also brings vulnerabilities. Everyone in Egypt knows the insufficiency of bodies facing several thousand cops in riot gear. Too many people in Egypt know the nakedness of bodies exposed to the actual fact of torture. In the United States, too, the violability of certain bodies (black, indigenous, female, trans) before the armed state or incarnate white supremacy is a constant fact — inescapable, except that certain other bodies constantly escape it. I often remember a taciturn, terrifying line from the Welsh poet David Jones, about a soldier blown apart by a shell in the First World War:

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.

Precisely our fragility is at stake here; it is the necessary obverse of our power. Bodies can be jailed or tear-gassed. Their space to associate or protest can be shrunk or strangled. They can be destroyed or starved, by debts or arms deals far beyond their horizons. International standards and international solidarity can’t simply be replaced; they help resist that violence. Neither, though, can they substitute for the demands and desires of concrete people. We need to reconceive them, to reverse the order in which they’ve arrogated primacy, so that they amplify rather than replace that immediacy. Their partisans need to learn from connections being forged in local, material struggles.

International groups have a long way to go in learning. Knowledges that have risen from Egypt’s social movements are important beyond its borders. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (which linked health, food, privacy, gender, sexuality, and other bodily issues in its work) and the Nadeem Center (which treated torture survivors not just as victims but as potential agents of change), among many others, pioneered ways of thinking that northern groups have yet to assimilate.

In an age of material deprivation, in a century of scarcity, on continents riven by resource wars, our own bodies are — literally — our most vital resources.  Our flesh is the first power we must command. The politics of the body, of its privacy and autonomy and needs, will be essential to defending freedom. The forms such a politics will take will differ from place to place; its full implications are far beyond my imagining.  But it’s in that politics that we will conceive a human future. LGBTQ people will be part of it. I, too, want to be there.


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