Why Is the Egyptian Government So Afraid of a Rainbow Flag?

Fans of the Lebanese indie-rock band Mashrou’ Leila waving a rainbow flag during a performance in Cairo on Sept. 22. Credit Benno Schwinghammer/Picture-Alliance, via Associated Press
Fans of the Lebanese indie-rock band Mashrou’ Leila waving a rainbow flag during a performance in Cairo on Sept. 22. Credit Benno Schwinghammer/Picture-Alliance, via Associated Press

It was a calamitous ambush. On Oct. 21, militants fired rockets and detonated explosives in the desert southwest of Cairo, killing at least 59 Egyptian police officers and security officials in the worst assault on security forces since 2015. The shocking attack is the latest reminder of the very real threat that armed militants pose to Egypt’s security forces.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seems incapable of quelling this menace: An insurgency that has killed hundreds of troops and police officers in northern Sinai continues; judges and police officers in Cairo have been attacked.

So with such a real and present danger, why would Mr. Sisi’s government, aided by a team of media personalities and religious authorities, spend the past month whipping up a frenzy over another kind of “threat” altogether?

As part of what can best be described as hysterical homophobia, more than 65 people, mostly gay men, have been arrested in the crackdown against L.G.B.T. Egyptians. At least 20 people have received prison sentences, ranging from six months to six years. Several men have been subjected to anal examinations, which human rights groups describe as a form of torture, ostensibly to determine whether they have engaged in anal sex.

This wave of arrests and raids began after gay-pride rainbow flags were flown at a concert by a Lebanese indie-rock band, Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay. It was not the first time fans displayed rainbow flags at a Mashrou’ Leila concert, a gay friend who has attended some of the band’s previous concerts in Cairo reminds me. He also reminds me that rainbow flags were flown in Tahrir Square during the 18 days of protest that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Same-sex relationships are not illegal in Egypt, but gay men are arrested under “debauchery” laws. So why now? Why the parade of men “confessing” to being gay and “repenting” on TV talk shows, and the psychiatrists touting “conversion therapy”?

It would be easy to label the crackdown a distraction. There is much that Egyptians need distracting from: disastrous economic austerity policies, the insurgency in Sinai, 60,000 political prisoners.

And it does make for a convenient topic. Egypt’s political parties might disagree on how to remedy any or all of those issues — but homophobia cuts across disagreement. “All political parties here, even the ‘leftist’ ones, think homosexuality is a disgrace,” my friend told me. “Some people think gay people should be stoned, others recommend burning them after stoning, while some sheikhs are saying their hands and legs should be cut on opposite sides of their bodies, and ask in the softest of voices for their imprisonment or deportation.”

But there is more than just distraction at play. A talk-show host who suggested that both terrorism and homosexuality were being used to “ruin our youth” by a nameless external enemy offered perhaps the most honest explanation for this vicious round of homophobia in Egypt: the conflation of a security threat with a “moral” threat.

After the Mashrou’ Leila concert — attended by an estimated 35,000 — a parade of TV personalities pleaded with the regime to “save our youth” from homosexuality. Egyptian authorities promptly barred the group from performing again. In June, Jordan had done the same.

Across the Middle East and North Africa, increasingly bold expressions of sexual freedom are clearly unsettling regimes accustomed to being guardians not just of “national security” but also of our bodies and sexualities. Mr. Sinno is unapologetically “brown, queer and from a Muslim family” by his own description. Mashrou’ Leila, with its sexually subversive songs — which include references to gender fluidity and Abu Nawas, an eighth-century Arab, and Sappho (both known for poems that celebrate same-sex love) — have become icons for a beleaguered but determined L.G.B.T. community and a lightning rod for our moral guardians.

Armed with social media and audacity, more people are questioning taboos around religion and sexuality. There are online L.G.B.T. accounts offering information and solidarity, in Arabic and English. One is the newly formed Alliance of Queer Egyptian Organizations, which coordinated protests outside Egyptian embassies and consulates on Oct. 19. My.Kali, one of the region’s first L.G.B.T. magazines, started publishing in 2008. In July, a video went viral showing an Egyptian lesbian (who lives in the United States) talking about her relationship with a woman and her father’s reaction to her coming out.

Egypt, of course, is far from alone in its witch hunt. From Chechnya to Azerbaijan and from Tanzania to Indonesia there are similar crackdowns by governments obsessed with policing people’s sexuality. (And let’s not forget that President Sisi’s booster, President Trump, is no friend to L.G.B.T. rights.)

Morality crusades unite military regimes and religious zealots alike. Mr. Sisi, a former army general who became president after forcing out Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, understands the potency of connecting the catchall “national security” to “inciting debauchery” as a deliberate reminder that the Islamists do not hold the copyright on piety. (Mr. Mubarak, too, often vaunted his regime’s religiosity to outdo its Islamist rivals.)

On Oct. 19 — a day of global solidarity with L.G.B.T. Egyptians — I saw Mashrou’ Leila in concert in Montreal. That day, a protest had been held outside the Egyptian Consulate there. Some concertgoers flew an Egyptian flag alongside a rainbow flag. Mr. Sinno told the audience that the best way to fight the crackdown in Egypt was to keep up international pressure. He understands the importance of visibility — for safety and for solidarity.

“Getting just one email from some queer kid in Tunisia who says something super emotional,” Mr. Sinno had told me this summer, after he was banned from performing in Jordan, “even just one of those messages justifies taking on the Jordanian state.” He can now add Egypt to that list of states he’s taking on.

Mona Eltahawy is the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution and a contributing opinion writer.

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