From Regeni to LGBT rights: that’s what Egypt became

Demonstration in Rome to demand justice for Regeni

After he brutal assassination of Giulio Regeni, the Italian graduate student killed in Egypt following his abduction on January 25, the European public opinion seems to have started to open its eyes on the misdeeds of Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime. Human rights activists denounced for years the crimes of the military tyranny, but Western governments have continued to ensure the regime’s survival, while the media sang the praises of Sisi, presenting him as the champion of secularism against Islamic fundamentalism. With this complicit silence, in Egypt human rights violations keep multiplying. In particular, the LGBT community has become the target of an unprecedented crackdown. We reconstructed the Egyptian situation with Scott Long, author of the blog A Paper Bird and probably the greatest expert about this country and LGBT rights in the world.

What’s going on in Egypt?

What we’re seeing in Egypt is a full-blown counterrevolution – and one of the most successful in history. Even when the Bourbons came back to France in 1815, they couldn’t restore the ancien regime intact. But the Sisi government has managed to recreate the Mubarak dictatorship with a taxidermist’s attention to detail – only more repressive, more sinister, more brutal and abusive. Their ruling principle appears to be that Mubarak failed and was overthrown because he was too weak.

What do you mean?

Mubarak permitted human rights organizations some latitude to work; he allowed street demonstrations; he occasionally omitted to throw bloggers and Tweeters in jail; he gave the press a certain limited freedom. They are now determined not to make the same mistakes, to clamp down on any independent forces in society with absolute and relentless cruelty and power.

What are the main crimes of Sisi’s regime?

The most publicized crimes of the regime would include its crackdown on civil society — the leaders of three of Egypt’s most important human rights organizations are now facing trial, and even possible life sentences, for “receiving foreign funds.” Another groundbreaking rehabilitation center for survivors of torture is facing closure. Thousands of NGOS have been shut down in the last two years on legal pretexts. There’s its muzzling of a free press: Egypt is now second only to China worldwide in the number of reporters it imprisons, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Most of the media has been tamed by terror and obediently reports only the government’s line.

And the police?

Torture by police has resumed with a vengeance. There are record numbers of Egyptians who simply disappear, abducted by security forces and tossed into concentration camps with no information available about their whereabouts or fate. There are more than 40,000 political prisoners in the country, by 2015 estimates. Some of the disappeared are victims of death squads; students and activists have been abducted like Giulio Regeni, with their bodies turning up in ditches days or weeks later.

What is the situation in Sinai?

The government is carrying on a war with an ISIS-affiliated insurgency in Sinai. Information on the war is strictly controlled, but every week or so the state releases the latest figures on the killed – 36 one day, 117 the next. This proves the “terrorists” just keep multiplying. It also suggests that most of the dead are merely local residents, probably innocent Bedouin, caught up in a government murder campaign.

Is the list of government crimes over?

But there are many less dramatic forms of repression, which are meant to destroy public space and private security. The surveillance capacity of the government is continually expanding, and they have bought software – some of it from an Italian firm [Daily News Egypt] – that may allow them to do keystroke-by-keystroke monitoring of whatever people do on the Internet. Skype is now banned on the data lines that most people use to access the Internet.

Anything else?

In 2014 the state started cracking down on sidewalk cafes downtown, forcing many to restrict their hours or close; on street vendors who are a key part of Cairo’s economic as well as social life; on people who express unpopular opinions, such as atheists, who’ve become a particular target of regime vengeance. The space to lead an ordinary life is constricting. The state wants to control every crevice of existence.

LGBT people are among these unpopular people, isn’t it?

LGBT people have been high on the roster of Sisi’s victims. There are now more than 250 we know of serving prison terms. That’s almost certainly only part of a much larger whole, but it’s enough to make Egypt the country that imprisons more people for their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression than any other in the world.

The military regime immediately began to persecute LGBT people…

When the arrests started in late 2013 – a few months after the military coup – I don’t think there was much of a strategy. There were a couple of large-scale police raids (one on a sauna/health club in a working-class Cairo suburb, one on a private party) that the authorities leaked to the media. They got favorable headlines.

What was the regime’s strategy?

The Ministry of Interior was trying, at the time, to resuscitate the reputation of the police, who were the most hated part of the Mubarak regime; the police had basically disappeared from the streets in the wake of the 2011 revolution, and it was a key aspect of Sisi’s plans for control to bring them back. Painting the police as defenders of the nation’s morals, persecutors of a widely despised group, seemed a useful way to boost their popularity. So the Ministry of Interior pretty obviously encouraged local police stations to arrest visible LGBT people – mostly trans people. And the trials increased.

Have these motivations changed since then?

The issue really became political in late 2014, when there was the well-publicized case of a home video showing two men staging a mock wedding ceremony. It went viral on YouTube — there was reason to think the police themselves had got their hands on it and released it. It caused huge uproar in Egypt, and exiled representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood started tweeting that this was the logical outcome of the military coup: Sisi was bringing “gay marriage” to Egypt. After that, the government saw it as politically urgent to show that Sisi, and not the Brotherhood, was the true champion of Egypt’s moral values.

And Mona Iraqi appeared…

Yes, the famous bathhouse raid in December 2014 was clearly meant to be a public show trial exhibiting the state’s commitment to eliminated “sexual perversion” from national life.

And now? How is the situation now?

And the arrests go on. Increasingly the police entrap people over the Internet, using Grindr and other social apps. Trans people are still special targets of the arrests and torture. Indeed, I think a buried motive for the whole campaign is the military regime’s desire to enforce its own normative ideas about masculinity and gender roles on a society it still sees as slipping out of moral control. Since the Revolution, conservatives and Mubarak supporters have painted dissidents as a bunch of long-haired deviants: men who behave like women, coupled with women whose sexualities are out of control. The anti-trans campaign is a way to show very publicly what punishment awaits people who don’t behave like their assigned genders, especially men who aren’t masculine in the appropriate way.

What are the repercussions on LGBT people’s daily lives?

Friendship networks have been disrupted or destroyed by the crackdown so far: the police harassment of gathering places (mostly cafes) downtown has made many people too terrified to go out and risk meeting other LGBT people face to face. So in this environment of social isolation, information on safety doesn’t circulate. The police can pick victims off one by one. There’s very little room to manoeuvre for the activists. LGBT groups are underground and unable to do anything in public. A few lawyers and human rights groups try to provide legal defense for those who are arrested. There aren’t enough lawyers to go around.

How can we help from abroad?

Figuring out ways to help these lawyers do their work, financially and otherwise, is potentially one of the most important things that can be done from abroad. But the most important thing is to pressure governments to stop supporting the murderous Sisi regime. The regime is propped up by foreign military aid. It’s time for European and North American governments to shut off the spigots of arms and money that keep the military in power.

Less liberty, less equality and less fraternity in exchange for more security: this (false) promise seems to sum up the political program of Al-Sisi. How can we counter this reactionary rhetoric?

That’s definitely the rhetoric. But I think Sisi’s regime is an excellent and instructive example of how the rhetoric is disconnected from reality. The dictator promises security, but in fact Egypt has become less secure. The state’s brutality toward civilians only feeds the insurgency in Sinai, which is – so far as we can make out through the official lies and enforced media silence – is steadily expanding. Last fall’s bombing of a Russian plane has been devastating to the tourist industry, which is the largest single sector of the economy. And the war is spilling over into Cairo. Last summer there were bombs almost every week in the capital – attacking embassies, consulates (including the Italian), subway stations.

The draconian measures taken against street demonstrations or expressions of dissent have shut off normal channels for ordinary Egyptians to express discontent. A fraudulently elected Parliament ignores popular demands. The country seems to be in both short-term and long-term crisis: a slow process of social and economic erosion is taking place, but at the same time it seems ready to explode, violently and abruptly.

Unfortunately Sisi’s rhetoric does not seem very different from that of many Western parties and governments…

Unfortunately Sisi is a tacit model for what a lot of right-wing forces elsewhere woudl like to do. In the US, for example, Ted Cruz has already cited him as a role model. But people need to learn about not only the regime’s brutality, but its self-destructiveness. Sisi shows the security paradigm turning on itself, and causing social and political devastation. LGBT people have been early victims, but increasingly every Egyptian is a real or potential victim. And Western public must heed this warning, before they become victims of renewed cycles of repression and violence themselves.

©2016 Il Grande Colibrì
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