A still from the trailer of big-budget Egyptian film Yacoubian Building (Image: Strand Releasing/YouTube)
When mass protests broke out in Egypt on January 25 2011, the uprising took many people around the world, including Egyptians, by surprise. But some believe the stage was in fact already being set for revolution years earlier — and that popular culture played a part.
On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bou Azizi, a Tunisian street vendor had set himself on fire in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the humiliation inflicted on him by a municipal official. His act sparked mass street protests in Tunisia which 28 days later, led to the overthrow of the authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
When Ben Ali fell, analysts questioned whether the uprising in Tunisia would inspire similar revolts in other North African countries with despotic regimes, including Egypt which they pointed out, also suffered enormous socio-economic inequalities, widespread youth unemployment and political marginalisation of the masses.
The thought of a mass uprising in Egypt was however, quickly dismissed by Egyptian officials as “outrageous”.
“Egypt is not Tunisia”, scoffed veteran diplomat Amr Moussa when I asked him if Egypt would be next. I met Moussa on January 19, 2011 at a Sharm El Sheikh conference on Arab Economic Integration — a gathering that was overshadowed by the dramatic events unfolding in Tunisia. The veteran diplomat who had served as foreign minister under Hosni Mubarak, confidently told me that Egypt was “a much bigger country and vastly different in terms of demography”. Moussa’s argument convinced me. Indeed, Tunisia is a homogeneous society with a relatively well-educated population unlike Egypt — a more diverse society with in excess of 16 million illiterate people, according to a 2012 study released by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics.
Besides, there was widespread political apathy in Egypt. For decades, the Egyptian people had silently tolerated rights abuses at the hands of the corrupt regime. So patient were the Egyptians with their repressive government that analyst Khaled Diab joked about their political apathy in an op-ed published in the Guardian in June 2009, saying that: “The people of Egypt possessed some sort of a cultural gene against rebellion and risk taking.”
It was not surprising that the Egyptians had shown remarkable immunity to the Tehran protest virus, he wrote, explaining that “the Egyptian people had for decades, been ruled by a long succession of foreigners who cared little for their well being. They considered their native rulers just as alien.”
The widely-anticipated political pandemic had hitherto, failed to materialise… Until Tunisians revolted.
But contrary to popular belief, the eighteen-day uprising that overthrew Mubarak was not an “overnight eruption”. In fact, it had taken several years of ground-laying and a series of events helped pave the way for the revolt that was to come.
Some analysts believe the stage was being set for the 2011 mass protests from as early as 2004, not long after the fall of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.
This was the year Egyptian intellectuals, artists and activists founded the Kefayya (Enough) Movement that would oppose the Mubarak regime and call for fundamental constitutional and economic reforms. Although the overarching ideology of the movement is largely secular, many members of the then-outlawed but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood joined forces with the leftists and secularists.
Moreover, there were the workers’ unions, which in the years leading up to the uprising had organised a series of labour strikes, protesting low wages and rising food costs. The 2008 labour protests which began as an initiative of workers in the textile industry in Mehalla El Kobra and other Egyptian cities, inspired mass momentum and were the first spark that ignited the street protests that followed two years later.
Egypt’s pro-democracy youth activists were also active and widely credited for using social media networks to fuel the anger against the brutal regime. The April 6 Youth Movement and “We are All Khaled Said” Facebook group mobilised Egyptians for the protests by posting videos of police brutality and calling for civil disobedience.
Again, contrary to popular belief, the January 2011 uprising was not merely a “people’s movement”, as it has often been described. Some analysts think the uprising may have been driven by the security state much like the revolt that ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, two years later. Breakaway members of Tamarod, the movement that last summer gathered signatures for a petition calling on the Islamist president to step down, later revealed that “state security agents had guided and influenced our campaign”.
Some members of the group went as far as admitting that “some of the movement’s founders had been planted by state security” according to a Reuters article published online on February 20, 2014. Similarly, the January 25 uprising may have also been guided, albeit more subtly by the deep state — a term used to refer to the country’s combined security apparatus: the intelligence services, the police and National Security. It was no secret that Mubarak had been grooming his son Gamal to succeed him — a move that was rejected by senior-ranking generals in the army. The generals had expected the succession bid to cause popular unrest and decided to be prepared to step in.
“General Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who was head of military intelligence in 2010, had already been picked by his bosses as the country’s next defence minister and was asked to prepare a study of Egypt’s political future. He proposed that the army should be prepared to move in to ensure stability and preserve its central role in the state in the likely event of civic unrest breaking out,” journalist Richard Spencer wrote in an opinion piece published in the Telegraph in June 2014. Political analyst Hassan Nafaa was quoted as telling Spencer that: “When the revolution of 2011 exploded, the army had already made plans to deploy.”
“They chose to sacrifice Mubarak rather than the regime itself,” Nafaa added.
Egypt’s powerful military firmly believes it is entitled to remain in power, having fought two wars with Israel. Besides, at stake — should the country be ruled by a civilian president — is the military’s vast business empire estimated to be as much as 40 percent of the country’s GDP.
So how did the deep state in Egypt prepare unsuspecting Egyptians for the uprising that was to come?
Culture and the arts served as the catalysts for the movement for change that was being shaped as early as four or five years before the actual “revolution” erupted. From 2006 onwards many artistic works, including locally-produced films screened in Egyptian theatres, helped fuel the people’s anger and frustration, inciting protests against the inept government. While some may dismiss this theory as absurd, in reality, there is strong evidence to support it.
Take the big-budget film “Yacoubian Building”, based on the novel of the same name by author Alaa Aswany, a member of the opposition Kefayya Movement. The three hour epic, screened in Egypt in 2006, shed the spotlight on a host of societal ills including the rampant corruption, sexual repression and religious fundamentalism plaguing contemporary Egyptian society. It also reflected the hopes of young Egyptians for a just society based on rule of law and respect for civil liberties. Like Egypt itself, the building in which the film’s lead characters reside had crumbled “from a once-elegant edifice of Art-Deco splendour now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo”, Nana Asfour, who works as a cultural editor for the New Yorker, wrote in a 2007 review of the book.
The book brings to life “a seedy and despicable Cairo where only the corrupted and corruptible can fare well” she wrote, adding that “in this scathing critique of contemporary Egyptian society, one is hard put to find a redeemable character”.
From Abdou and Busayna, who by necessity acquiesce to selling their bodies to feed their families, to Talal, who seeks solace in religion and later resorts to “martyrdom” — they all are victims of their merciless society. The film also portrays the fake religiosity widespread in today’s Egypt where many conceal their greed behind deceiving pious behaviour and appearances — like prominent lawyer Kamal El Fouli who rigs the parliamentary vote in favour of Hag Azzam, justifying the action as “implementation of God’s will”.
“Our Lord created the Egyptians to accept authority,” El Fouli tells Azzam in the film.
Shocking as it was to an audience previously unaccustomed to having the realities of their everyday lives mirrored so brazenly, the Yacoubian Building was a wake-up call to many Egyptians who were able to identify with the film’s characters. It was also the first in a series of films produced between 2005 and 2010 that were fiercely critical of society and which spurred Egyptians to rebel against the flagrant injustices within it.
Heya Fawda (“It’s Chaos”), an Egyptian-French 2007 co-production and the last film by internationally-acclaimed Egyptian director Youssef Shahin, meanwhile brought international attention to Egypt’s longstanding problem of police corruption and brutality when it was screened at that year’s Venice Film Festival. Police brutality was one of the main causes that triggered the 2011 uprising which aptly coincided with the country’s National Police Day. Set in Cairo’s populous district of Shoubra, the film shockingly depicts the brutal actions of a shady police officer, feared and loathed by the residents in his neighbourhood. So shocking was his brutality that it prompted some film critics to question whether the film was “serious or a lampoon”.
Khaled Youssef, who co-directed the film with Shahin, was later credited with having had the vision to foresee the coming political changes and for “stirring the still waters” with his films. The filmmaker and scriptwriter, who joined the pro-democracy activists in Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising, would later reveal himself as a fierce opponent of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood regime, aligning himself closely with the military-backed authorities that replaced the ousted Morsi. His close links with the military have raised questions over whether his films were actually the outcome of his foresight or a premeditated and carefully calculated plan by the country’s security apparatus to topple Mubarak.
Youssef’s follow-up to Heya Fawda was another shocking revelation of the flagrant social injustice prevalent in modern-day Egyptian society. Set in a Cairo slum area, it depicts the daily struggles of the inhabitants of this deprived neighbourhood, including sexual violence against women and the plight of street children. The film ends with the residents of the slum rising up in arms to protest their conditions — which some observers viewed as a possible beckoning call on needy Egyptians to rise in similar fashion.
Last but not least, was the 90 minute comedy “The President’s Chef” released in 2010. In the film, a simple cook tries to convey to a president out of touch with his people, the hardships faced by average Egyptians in their daily lives. Film critics drew similarities between the film’s lead character and the real president who during the last ten years of his rule, had often been criticized for isolating himself in his own ivory tower, oblivious to the needs of his people.
In a country with a long tradition of strict censorship rules, one cannot help but wonder if the censors’ decision to pass those films was a coincidental loosening up of their tight restrictions in a bid to give a semblance of democracy and free speech. Or was it instead, a deliberate and tactical scheme to pave the way for Mubarak’s ouster?
Looking back at the events of the last three years that have ended with the return of the old regime minus Mubarak, it appears clear that nothing in Egypt happens by sheer coincidence.
In a heavy blow to press freedom in Egypt, three Al Jazeera English (AJE) journalists were convicted Monday on charges of spreading false news, aiding a terrorist organisation and endangering national security.
Australian award-winning journalist Peter Greste and Canadian-Egyptian national Mohamed Fahmy, AJE Cairo Bureau Chief, were handed down seven-year jail sentences each. A third AJE journalist, Baher Mohamed, was meanwhile, sentenced to ten years — three more than his colleagues, on an additional charge of possessing an empty bullet case. The three journalists have been in detention since December and have steadfastly denied the charges against them.
Ten defendants in the same case — including three foreign journalists — were sentenced to 10 years in absentia, while three others — including Anas El Beltagui, son of jailed Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed El Beltagui — were acquitted.
The rulings shocked and outraged journalists and rights activists around the world, fuelling concern about freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary in Egypt, three years after the country witnessed a mass uprising that toppled the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, raising hopes of greater freedoms.The unexpectedly harsh verdicts also sent a chilling message to journalists working in Egypt that the government was adamant on pursuing its zero-tolerance approach to dissent and that journalists are not immune from the authorities’ policy of silencing critics at any cost.
Sherine Tadros, an Egyptian journalist and former AJE reporter denounced the verdict in a Twitter post shortly after it was pronounced, saying: “As a friend of the jailed journalists, I feel incredibly sad; as a journalist, I am scared and as an Egyptian, I’m ashamed.”
“The ruling sends a clear message to journalists to adhere to the official narrative or risk severe punishment,” an Egyptian broadcaster who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Index after the verdict.
Meanwhile, in an interview on Al Jazeera shortly after Monday’s court session, Amnesty International director Steve Crawshaw deplored what he called an “outrageous ruling”, adding that the verdict was another step in Egypt’s “campaign of terrorizing people and terrorizing the media”.
Since Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was deposed on 3 July, dozens of journalists have been detained in Egypt as part of a massive government crackdown on dissenters of all stripes: Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters, secular activists and journalists.The release this week of two journalists — including Abdulla El Shamy, a reporter for the Al Jazeera Arabic Channel who had been held in detention since mid August — had raised hopes that at least 14 other journalists still in detention, would also be acquitted. The judge’s decision to prolong the detention of the AJE journalists however, has raised questions about the new government’s commitment to democratic principles.
“Today’s verdict is deeply disappointing. The Egyptian people have over the past three years, expressed their wish for Egypt to be a democracy. Without freedom of the press there is no foundation for democracy,” Britain’s ambassador to Egypt, James Watt, told Reuters after the verdict.
In the past eleven months, journalists covering “anti-coup” protests staged by Muslim Brotherhood supporters have allegedly been deliberately targeted by security forces and pro-government mobs who accuse them of being “paid agents” and “spies”. Since the Islamist president’s ouster last July, five journalists have been shot dead and several others wounded by riot police while reporting on the clashes between protesters and security forces, prompting an outcry from rights groups. In a statement released in April, the Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information denounced the increased attacks on journalists and called on the Press Syndicate and media outlets to ensure their protection. The New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists which ranked Egypt among the three “most deadly” countries for journalists in a 2013 report, also called on the Egyptian government to investigate the assaults on journalists and hold the perpetrators of such crimes to account. The calls came in response to the death of Mayada Ashraf, a 22 year old reporter who worked for the privately-owned Al Dostour newspaper. She became Egypt’s latest journalist-fatality when she was shot in the head on 28 March while covering the dispersal of a Muslim Brotherhood protest in Cairo.
Several Egyptian journalists have in recent months, complained of intimidation. They said they had received threats from security agents or were subjected to smear campaigns aimed at tarnishing their reputation. In today’s repressive, deeply polarised climate in Egypt, many local journalists have decided to “play it safe” adopting the state narrative and persistently vilifying the Muslim Brotherhood while lionising the military and the new president.
Not surprisingly, there has been little sympathy for the jailed AJE journalists in the Egyptian press. Out of fear of being labelled “unpatriotic” by the public or suffering an even worse fate, most local journalists have either remained silent on the AJE case or taken a stand against the defendants, referring to them as part of a “Marriott Cell” and implying they were “traitors” who had been working to sabotage the country. Some of the guests interviewed by talk show hosts on state-influenced media channels recently, have echoed the prosecution’s argument that “channels like Al Jazeera brought down Iraq and were planning to do the same in Egypt”. In the wake of Monday’s court rulings, it is highly likely that the current trend of journalists practicing self-censorship will continue.
After Monday’s verdict, Egyptian State Television reported that Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry had forcefully rejected pressure from foreign governments to overturn the court decision. On a visit to Cairo the day before, US Secretary of State John Kerry had reportedly raised the issue of media freedom in talks with the country’s new President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Kerry who had expressed concern about the jailing of journalists in Egypt, reacted to the verdict Monday by calling it “chilling and draconian”.
Meanwhile, rights activists also expressed alarm at the outcome of Monday’s court proceedings, calling the trial “political”.
“The charges against the journalists are politicised,” said Mohamed Lotfy, a rights activist who has worked as a researcher with Amnesty International. “The AJE journalists are pawns, caught in the middle of a political dispute between Qatar and Egypt.”
The Egyptian authorities are angry over Qatar’s continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood, delcared by Egypt a “terrorist organisation” last December. The Egyptian government has also accused the Qatari-funded Al Jazeera network of bias in favour of the outlawed group — an accusation that has been repeatedly denied by the network.
While most activists are “appalled” by Monday’s verdicts and have laid the blame on what they call a “highly politicised judiciary”, Sahar Aziz, an Associate Professor of Law, Texas A&M University, told Index she believes judges in Egypt are themselves “victims” of the country’s turbulent political transition.
“There is evidence that some judges are under indirect pressure from the executive branch to adjudicate these political cases in ways that legitimise the official narrative that the state is facing a threat to its national security,” she said, adding that “Over the past year, a group of judges reputed to be independent have been expelled from the judiciary through ‘voluntary retirement’ or in other settlements with the governing judiciary apparatus. This has sent a chilling message to other judges that the cost of truly independent adjudication is prohibitively high.”
But the government’s piling pressure on the judges meant little to family members of the jailed journalists who were stunned by the ruling.
“It is shocking. We were totally unprepared for this,” said Andrew Greste, Peter’s brother who had expected Peter to fly back to Australia with him where his elderly parents were eagerly awaiting their son’s return. “Obviously, it will take some time to rethink our plans and decide what we can do next,” he told journalists outside the courtroom.
Mohamed Fahmy’s fiancee Marwa, who attended the court session, broke down crying on hearing the verdict. The couple had been planning their wedding in April.
Wafaa Bassiouny, Fahmy’s mother, shouted out as she walked out of the courtroom, “What has my son done to deserve this? He was just doing his job. He is now unable to move his right arm, isn’t that enough?”
Fahmy has been denied adequate medical treatment by prison authorities for a shoulder injury sustained before his arrest and has now lost full use of his right arm
But all hope is not lost. It is still highly likely that through an appeals process, the sentence may be reduced, or the journalists may even be acquitted at a later date. Only by recognising justice and reversing its current course, can the new government in Egypt gain credibility in the eyes of the international community and win the backing and solidarity it badly needs.
A shot from the trailer of Halawet Rooh (Image: Mohamed Elsobky/YouTube)
Just as Egyptian free expression advocates were celebrating the decision by Egypt’s State Censorship Board to allow the screening of Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical epic Noah, news of the withdrawal of Lebanese diva Haifa Wehbe’s new film Halawet Rooh (Beauty of the Soul) from theatres in Egypt put a damper on their cautiously optimistic mood. The fact that the decision to suspend the screening of the controversial film was made by interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb — rather than by the censors — has added fuel to the fire.
On Wednesday, the premier ordered the film to be removed from cinemas and sent back to the State Censorship Board for re-evaluation. The move led Ahmed Awad, the head of the State Censorship Board to tender his resignation, saying he was “not consulted” and categorically rejects government interference in his work.
Former Culture Minister Emad Abu Ghazy reminded the prime minister of a court ruling forbidding interference in the work of the independent censorship board. “The Premier has no right to suspend the screening of the film,” Abu Ghazy told AFP.
Popular TV talk show host Ibrahim Eissa meanwhile, cautioned that the ban does not auger well for freedom of expression.”Those who ban films today for damaging public morality will in future, ban films for political reasons,” he warned in an episode of his show “Hunna Al Kahera” broadcast on the privately owned CBC Channel.
Rights activists and groups have also expressed concern over the suspension of the film’s screening, saying the move is part of a wider clampdown on artistic expression in Egypt. In his column in Saturday’s edition of the independent newspaper Al-Shorouq, film critic Kamal Ramzy chided the government for not having learnt history’s lessons on censorship. “Instead of focusing on problems of corruption and the rule of law, the prime minister is instead, more occupied with censorship,” he lamented.
Mehleb meanwhile, downplayed the criticism levelled at him. At a meeting with intellectuals and literary figures on Saturday, he insisted that “there is a clear cut distinction between freedom of artistic expression and creativity on the one hand, and infringement on moral values on the other”.
The premier’s decision to suspend the screening of the film came in the wake of an outcry from conservatives in Egypt who denounced the film on social media networks as “obscene” and “a threat to public morality”. Oddly enough, some “liberal” Egyptians too, have joined the online campaigns accusing Ahmed El Sobky, the film’s producer of “destroying an entire generation” and being “more dangerous than bombs and missiles”. El Sobky’s trademark films are often “low quality” productions characterised by a mix of violence, belly dancing and sexually explicit scenes. His target audience are generally the uneducated, low income youth who traditionally celebrate public holidays by going to the cinema.
Film critics have also decried the film as “sexually provocative,” lambasting lead actress Haifa for “revealing too much flesh”. “There is hardly a scene in which Haifa does not appear half nude,” scoffed critic Ramy Abdel Razak in his review published Thursday in the independent daily Al Masry El Youm.
Critics question how a particularly steamy scene in which Haifa’s clothes are ripped off by a rapist, got past the State Censor board. Overlooking the fact that the film was rated “Adults Only” — which meant it was inaccessible to children under 16 — Egypt’s National Council for Childhood warned in a statement released last week, that the film was “harmful to minors” and “violates public morality”.
The “raunchy” film had been in cinemas for two weeks before it was removed and had reportedly grossed some £84,100 in its first week in theatres. At the time of publication, a two-minute trailer for the film on YouTube had over 3,6 million views.
Described by critics as a “poor imitation of Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore’s widely-acclaimed Malena”, the film tells the story of a young boy’s obsession with a beautiful nightclub singer. The woman, whose husband is abroad, is pursued by the men in her working class neighbourhood and her ardent young admirer subsequently takes it upon himself to protect her.
Fifteen year-old Karim El Abnoudi, who plays the role of the boy infatuated with Rooh, has reportedly been verbally harassed at his school and on the streets, with his classmates and some laymen — angered by what they had read or heard about the film — hurling insults at him and calling him “an infidel”.
The withdrawal of the film from theatres has fuelled fears among some secularists and rights organisations that increased censorship is stifling freedom of artistic expression and creativity in Egypt. In March, the State Censorship Board banned 20 music videos from Egyptian TV Channels for allegedly containing “explicit content”. In another sign that the interim government is putting the lid on artistic expression, a misdemeanour court in the Southern Egyptian province of Bani Suef in March upheld a verdict against Egyptian author and rights activist Karam Saber, who eight months earlier had been sentenced in absentia to five years in prison and LE1000 in bail for “blasphemy”. In June 2013. Saber was convicted on charges of “contempt of religion” and “inciting sedition” in a collection of short stories he wrote two years earlier titled Where is God? Both Al Azhar (the country’s highest Islamic authority ) and the Coptic Orthodox Church had earlier concurred in the opinion that the book was “blasphemous” and “ought to be banned”.
In a joint statement released in September (in the wake of the sentence handed down to Saber), 46 Arab Human Rights Organisations expressed concern for the diminishing space for free artistic expression and creativity. The Arab Network for Human Rights Information also said the verdict against Saber “belies any notion of respect for human rights by the state and violates provisions in the new constitution guaranteeing freedom of creativity and artistic expression”.
A provision in the new charter, endorsed by an overwhelming 98% of voters in a popular referendum in January, guarantees freedom of thought and opinion stipulating that any individual “has the right to express his opinion and to publicise it verbally or in writing or by other means”. Another provision in the 2014 constitution guarantees freedom of literary and artistic creation, stating that “the state shall promote art and literature, sponsor creators and protect their creations, providing the necessary means to achieve this”.
Many artists and writers had joined the mass protests in January 2011, hoping that the revolution would bring an end to decades of repression. For a short period after the fall of authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s artists and literary figures capitalised on their new-found freedoms, tackling subjects long off limits to them — like sex and religion.The rise of Islamists to power in 2012 , however brought new limitations to the short-lived free flow of artistic and creative expression. New legislation was introduced by the Islamist-dominated parliament, banning art with obvious sexual references as well as concerts featuring female singers. The downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in July 2013 rekindled hopes for an end to censorship and suppression of creativity. But in the new restrictive cultural atmosphere — reminiscent of the Mubarak era — these hopes have been quickly dashed, giving way to disappointment, frustration and fear.
“It is ironic that the ban on Wehbe’s film would come from the interim government that replaced the ousted Islamist regime,” prominent blogger Zeinobia wrote last week. Many of the liberal Egyptians who joined the uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood president in July last year had said they were protesting against “religious fascism” and had hoped the new government would be secular and more democratic.
“The interim government has demonstrated that it is more Islamic than the Islamists,” lamented Sameh Kassem, culture editor at the independent Al Bawabh news website .
“The withdrawal of Wehbe’s film from theatres and the verdict against Saber are attempts by the interim government to appease the ultra-orthodox Salafis ahead of presidential elections scheduled on 28 and 29 May,” he told Index.
Egypt’s Salafis, the ultra-conservative Islamist movement that had initially backed ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, later decided to side with the military and lent its support to the military-backed interim government after his deposition.
“The military-backed authorities are trying to woo the Salafis to guarantee their votes for former military chief Abdel Fattah El Sisi in the upcoming elections,” Kassem said.
Since Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, backed by the army and General Abdel Fattah al-Sis, there has been a rise in the number of arrests of people based on their sexual orientation (Image: Adham Khorshed/Demotix)
A Cairo misdemeanour court on Monday sentenced three men to eight years in prison “for committing homosexual acts”. A fourth defendant in the case was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour.
The men were allegedly found dressed in women’s clothes and wearing make-up when they were arrested last month, following a police raid on a private apartment in Cairo’s northern residential suburb of Nasr city. The apartment had been a meeting place for some members of Egypt’s gay community, who had been attending a party there when the raid occurred.
During Monday’s court session, prosecutors said one of the defendants had rented the apartment to receive “sexual deviants” in his home and host parties for them. While there are no laws banning homosexuality in Egypt, “debauchery” or breaking the country’s law of public morals is outlawed. Egyptian courts use legislation on debauchery to prosecute gay people on charges of “contempt of religion” and “sexual immorality”.
The severe sentences the four men received on Monday have raised concerns among rights campaigners of a widening crackdown on Egypt’s long-oppressed and marginalised gay community. Youth-activists expressed their dismay and disappointment at the verdicts on social media networks. In a message posted on her Twitter account on Tuesday, Shadi Rahimi, a journalist and photographer working for Al Monitor described the verdicts as “outrageous”. Blogger Nervana Mahmoud meanwhile said: “The verdicts demonstrate that the current regime is as conservative as their Islamist predecessors.”
The recent crackdown on Egypt’s gay community is highly reminiscent of the security clampdown in the spring/summer of 2001 when authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak was still in power. In May 2001, 52 people suspected of being gay were arrested on charges of immorality during a raid on a tourist boat moored on the Nile in Cairo. Twenty three of the men were sentenced to up to five years in prison with hard labour. The highly-publicised “Queen Boat case”, named after the discotheque-boat that for long had been a known meeting place for Egypt’s gay community, signalled what rights campaigners feared might be an end to long years of discreet and quietly tolerated public activity by the country’s threatened LGBT population. Some analysts said at the time that the sudden crackdown was a means of diverting attention away from the regime’s failures, including a political crisis and a looming economic recession. Critics of the 2001 crackdown also believed it was an attempt by the then-autocratic regime to present an image as “the guardian of public virtue so as to deflate an Islamist opposition movement that appeared to be gaining support every day”.
Not surprisingly, many of Egypt’s gay men and women were at the heart of the January 2011 protests demanding democracy, freedom and social justice. They had hoped that the revolution would usher in a new era of change including greater freedoms and tolerance, allowing them to better integrate into mainstream society. Karim, who requested that only his first name be used out of concern for his safety, told Index: “We had a lot of hope then but the last three years have only brought disappointment. There has been no change in people’s attitudes. In fact, we get insulted more often now, as people feel emboldened knowing that the authorities are siding with them.”
Rights campaigners agree that life has gotten worse for Egypt’s gay citizens since the Arab Spring. Adel Ramadan, a legal officer at the Cairo-based Egypt Initiative for Personal Rights told NBC News last year that “after the fall of Mubarak, the criticism of revolutionary groups has always contained a sexual element. Women who participate in protests are often called prostitutes or ‘loose’ women, while male revolutionary activists are called homosexuals”.
Meanwhile, the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt in the post-revolution era fuelled fears among rights groups and Egyptian gay citizens over greater restrictions on the gay community. They anticipated an even harder crackdown under Islamist rule and worried that the Islamist-dominated parliament would pass anti-gay legislation. Whether or not their fears were justified is uncertain, for Islamist rule in Egypt was short lived, lasting only one year. President Morsi was toppled by military-backed protests on July 3, 2013 and the People’s Assembly (the lower house of Parliament responsible for issuing legislation) was disbanded by a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling in June 2012, only a few months after its members were elected. However, in their time in power, there were signs indicating a potential tightening of restrictions on Egypt’s gays. In August 2012, a man was arrested for allegedly leading a “gay sex network” while later that year, vigilantes beat four men suspected of being gay before handing them over to the police.
“Many of my gay friends fled the country when the Islamists came to power; they were terrified of what would happen to them under Islamist rule. They knew they would not be able to live freely so they emigrated,” said Karim. “Those who stayed behind, participated in the 30 June mass protests demanding Morsi’s downfall. We were overjoyed when he was toppled and hoped there would be fewer restrictions on us from then on,” he added.
Paradoxically, since Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, there has been a rise in the number of arrests of people based on their sexual orientation, according to the US-based Human Rights First group. The group says the surge in arrests and prosecution of gay men and women is part of the military-backed regime’s efforts to reassure Egyptians that the current regime is as conservative as any Islamist party.
In October 2013, state-owned Akhbar el Youm reported that at least 14 men were arrested for “practicing homosexuality” after a raid on a health club in El Marg district in northeastern Cairo. According to the weekly newspaper, police found the men “in positions that were against religious precepts”. Less than three weeks later, police arrested ten more people on “homosexual-related charges”. The arrests occurred during a police raid on a private party held to celebrate Love Day (Egypt’s equivalent of Valentine’s Day) in Cairo’s western suburb of 6 October. The men were subjected to humiliating anal examinations before being convicted of prostitution and sentenced to between three and nine years in prison. Mohamed Bakier, one of the defence lawyers in the case, said the charges against them were “political rather than criminal”. He added that the harsh sentences they received were meant to deliver a message that the society is still conservative.
Similarly, the severe sentences handed down to the four men on Monday may be an attempt by the military-backed authorities to appease a sceptical public and win over conservatives in the deeply polarised society ahead of upcoming presidential elections in which the former defence minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi is the lead contender.
The verdicts, meanwhile, coincided with another court ruling upholding three-year jail terms imposed on three secular revolutionary activists convicted of organising or participating in unauthorised protests, prompting rights campaigners to concur in opinion that this is all part of the wider, ongoing crackdown on personal freedoms.
Whatever the motives are behind the harsh sentences, one thing is certain: The verdicts have increased anxiety over the insecurity of Egypt’s vulnerable gay community. “We no longer feel safe,” said Karim. “We know we are being targeted by the police and sooner or later, they will come after us.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 52 Egyptians were arrested in May 2010. The incident took place in May 2001.