CAIRO — Long before Tahrir Square captured the imagination of the world as the stage for Egypt’s revolution, it was an infamous, clandestine meeting place for gay Cairenes.
Gay men could be seen in Tahrir cruising with knowing glances as they leaned against the guardrails, Cairo’s traffic swirling around them. They were hidden in plain sight.
In many ways, the huge demonstrations of early 2011 that took place in Tahrir Square and led to the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak inspired Egypt’s gay community to join the call for a new, more democratic nation.
But now more than a year into the revolution, Egypt’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has stepped back out of the public eye and retreated into the shadows once again.
Their high hopes for a more open, accepting society have been put on hold as the ruling military continues its firm grip on power and socially liberal revolutionaries have largely failed to secure positions in the legislature.
On a recent reporting trip to Egypt in the days surrounding the anniversary of the ‘January 25 Revolution,’ Tahrir’s central location in Cairo made it a rendezvous point for many of my interviews. And here I met Taher Lamey, a doctor and member of the LGBT community who volunteered in the tented field hospitals of Tahrir helping victims of attacks by Egyptian security forces.
Tall, with light eyes and a broad smile, Lamey led me several blocks away to the Ministry of Information known locally as “Maspero,” where protest marches have been held to challenge what Taher calls “lies” and “twists of the truth” by the government.
Along the way, Taher pulled me by the hand, making sure I was not lost as crowds jostled us, some curious, some angry that a foreign journalist was here. A few of us had already been attacked and I would often overhear conversations suggesting I was a CIA agent or a spy for the Israeli Mossad. Taher said such violence rises up out of nowhere, and, as he put it, “it looks suspiciously like somebody presses a button and the thugs appear.”
At one of the demonstrations at Maspero, the military killed 27 Coptic Christian protesters in October.
Copts are a religious minority in Egypt, making up less than 10 percent of the population, and how the religious minority is treated is a kind of litmus test for how other minority communities in Egypt, such as the LGBT community, might be treated.
Taher is not so hopeful, saying, “We’re still a long way from establishing any kinds of rights for gays and lesbians … If anything, we’re going back.”
This was not Taher’s first impression. In the heady days following the toppling of Mubarak, he said he had high hopes for the revolution. He said, “The best of the country is involved in this. But they won’t win. If these people were in charge you would expect a lot from this country. International connections, democracy, social justice, social welfare..”
And, he believes, LGBT rights.
“I’m sure also that would have definitely been better because they’d have been liberals, ” he explained.
But in a country whose newly elected parliament is controlled by a two Islamist parties that control more than two-thirds of the seats, that possibility, he added, is “a long way off.”
Taher sighed and said he’s thankful he also holds a Dutch passport.
“I could leave. I have a fear of what happens next. I think we will be the next Iran,” he says.
The fear of Egypt becoming an Islamic state runs deep in the country’s LGBT community, and indeed in some corners of Egypt’s wider, secular minority that was so active in the revolution.
“There was a joy and openness after the first days of the revolution,” said Azza Sultan, a Sudanese lesbian living in Egypt, and a member of Bedayaa Organization for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) of the Nile Valley, operating in Egypt and Sudan. “But most of them returned again to hide.”
A number of gay men and lesbian women say the rise of Islamist political parties — particularly the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi al-Nour Party — could further marginalize the gay community and cause the issue of gay rights to once again fall completely off the political agenda amid the turbulence and paranoia of a country in transition.
“Many believed that the collapse of the previous political system will open doors for them to live without stigma or discrimination,” Azza said. “I was very optimistic and very positive but now especially that it has been a year and none of the revolution demands have been met, I started to worry.”
Azza said the Muslim Brotherhood wants to impose Sharia law on Egypt, a double bind for all women and most pointedly for lesbians.
“It is very difficult for them to take any decision in their lives, or to move towards independence.” she said referring to all women.
And, she added, “If it is that hard for heterosexual women it is definitely harder for a lesbian one.”
Still, Azza said, “There is a glimmer of hope that the future will be better than the past.”
Muslim Brotherhood leaders have become hesitant to speak directly about LGBT issues in recent months along with the rest of Egyptian society. But Mohammed Badie, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, made his views on LGBT issues clear last year. According to an article in Africa Online, he said, "The West has allowed gay marriage under the pretext of democracy, which we will never allow in Egypt. And we will not allow under the pretext of national unity that a Muslim woman would get married to a Christian man which violates the Islamic law.”
This kind of populist political rhetoric directed against gays might be the reason a sense of caution now pervades Cairo that was absent in the revolution’s early days. Some activists who had been vocal on LGBT rights would not meet for interviews. It seemed that a window was perhaps closing on the immediate openness about LGBT issues in the early days of the revolution now overwhelmed by general chaos in the country.
But one man, a 30-year-old English language teacher, remained defiantly open about his sexuality.
“I’m out and I don’t give a shit,” he said during an interview that took place on a boathouse in the middle of the Nile at a going away party for a gay American leaving Cairo. But after appearing in this GlobalPost article and making it widely known that he is gay, the man was fired from his job and felt compelled to leave Cairo and apply for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). [Editor's note: His name has been removed to prevent further repercussions.]
About 30 gay men were at the party, a mix of Egyptians and expats.When he first told me to meet him here on the boathouse, it immediately called to mind the plight of the so-called “Cairo 52,” a group of gay Egyptian men arrested in 2001 on the Queen Nile boat and subjected to imprisonment and torture during a wave of anti-gay repression under Mubarak. The crackdown was viewed within the gay community as a possible attempt by the Mubarak regime to appease Islamists who were already becoming a politically formidable force in Egypt.
Now that Mubarak’s regime has been ousted, there are questions about whether the newly empowered religious parties will once again crack down on the gay community. Coming from a devout Muslim family, he said he understands people of faith, even those who would be seen as Islamic fundamentalists.
“I used to pray and read the Koran,” he said, waving his hands in the air, as if erasing it all. “Being honest with yourself is the thing that liberates you,” he added.
But he said he was worried about an oppressive Saudi-style government coming into power in Egypt now that religious parties have taken the majority of seats in Egypt’s Parliament after the January elections.
“Once they [the Muslim Brotherhood] started and became a public party, there was very strong language about the immorality we see on the street should be stopped,” he said.
He looked around the room at the drinking guests.
“Alcohol, of course, was a big no-no.”
“They all say, we’re pro-human rights, we’re pro-women’s rights,” but he does not believe it. With Islamists in power, he says, “I don’t think that LGBT people will be in a different position. There’s no silver lining. It’s all downhill.”
The rapid changes in the post-election environment are reinforced by a press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo with whom I had hoped to discuss the announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that LGBT issues will become a major part of diplomatic policy. Mark Caudill wrote by email, “Concerning LGBT issues, I’m afraid I have little of value to contribute. It’s an important topic competing with other important topics which, at the moment, are more urgent.”
This would be made clear when at least 16 American NGO workers were detained in Cairo this February, accused of operating illegally and “spreading anarchy” in Egypt.
One activist agrees to speak as long as his full name is not used. T. describes himself as a human rights activist concerned with minority, sexuality and bodily rights, along with LGBT rights. He did not want to confuse his LGBT work with his paid human rights job, saying his boss does know he is gay and that he does such work on a volunteer basis.
We meet in Groppi, a famous art deco French café, now a sad, largely empty shadow of its former self. T. says he broke relations with his family, who became upset with his human rights work. “After the revolution, in May or April (2011), I was more active in the scene.” He used his home as a safe space, leading to “rumors about men and women coming over to the house at various hours and times.” He now lives with roommates in the center of the city.
T. says rather than religious groups, he is more afraid of people who claim to be secular centrists preferring the status quo they knew under Mubarak and use religion when they want to. “The middle class in Egypt is more extremist than Salafists. The Queen Boat happened in a secular regime. This was grounded by the support to the case of the sensitive and religious middle class.”
“I am not scared, ‘the Islamists are coming, the Islamists are coming,’” he says, mocking those who are worried about any potential religious revival. “We have been living with them. Our society has been conservative for years,” he says, “a male-dominated monster.”
At the same time, T. is also aware as a human rights activist how much the religious movement suffered under Mubarak. “They were jailed and tortured,” he says of the Muslim Brotherhood. “It’s a denial to say we woke up now and Islamists are these things. My main enemy will still be the army. I can have a fight with the Muslim Brotherhood, but I can’t have a fight with the army.”
Scholar Hassan El Menyawi, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at New York University, has pointed out that the Mubarak regime successfully played the Muslim Brotherhood and the LGBT community against one another for years, noting in a 2006 essay: “While the Muslim Brotherhood is against homosexuality and therefore has little interest in forming an alliance with gay men, the group should be cognizant that its own antagonism toward gays is being used to the advantage of the Mubarak regime.”
El Menyawi fled Egypt after being tortured by the Mubarak regime for his own activism on LGBT issues.
And as for the future?
“We as LGBT people are waiting to have a huge fight. What bothers me is we don’t have a community. We are not united. We are only scattered groups,” T. says.
While alliances between LGBT activists and Islamists might seem unlikely, various alliances among different groups are certainly forming. Mostafa Fathi is a journalist and Editor in Chief of Horytna.net radio, an internet radio station whose name means ‘Our Freedom’ in Arabic. Though not gay himself, Mostafa is a vocal proponent of LGBT rights, and author of the book, “In the World of Boys,” about a man who comes to realize he is gay. It is thought to be the country’s first book where the main character is gay and unashamed.
Mostafa offers a rare measure of optimism.
“Many Facebook friends say they are gay now, something they might not have done before the revolution,” he tells me.
Opening Facebook, he takes me to a page called Gay in Egypt, which he says was behind a planned June 1, 2011 march to Tahrir, called “The Egyptian Day for Homosexuality.” The march was cancelled.
“A lot of gays said it is not the right time. Let’s make it in one year, or in two years,” Mostafa says, disagreeing. “I feel it’s very important at this time in Egypt to talk about the issue, homosexuality. This is the right time. I know many people are uneducated, but now is the time.”
Michael Luongo is a freelance journalist based in New York, and working primarily in the Middle East and Latin America. Michael has written extensively on LGBT issues in the Middle East and Muslim countries, with experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Gaza & Palestine, Israel and other locations. He is the editor of Routledge’s Gay Travels in the Muslim World, the only gay-themed American book ever translated into Arabic. He is the 2011 LGBT Journalist of the Year for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association, given largely in recognition of his LGBT Middle East work. This report for GlobalPost represents his third visit to Egypt.