Nearly two years after the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak, the gay and lesbian community in Egypt enjoys a limited number of “safe” places where they can just be themselves (for the most part). Through word-of-mouth and the online forum, “Bedayaa,” the gay community is able to come together and wearily reminisce about the time of the revolution, a weariness that stands in contrast with the excitement that they initially felt. For many of Egypt’s gays and lesbians, sexual freedom was on the horizon then. So what caused hope to dwindle? And should — or could — the U.S. use its leverage in Egypt to play a role in restoring this hope?
With the election of an Islamist president, and last month’s passing of a new constitution, fears that anti-gay legislation could soon be introduced have increased among the country’s gay community. Many in Egypt worry that a government crackdown on homosexuality is imminent. The most notorious pre-revolution attack on gay men took place in 2001, when Cairo police raided a Nile boat, arresting dozens of gay men. Along with others taken from the streets, they became known as the "Cairo 52.”
Homosexuality and cross-dressing are severely stigmatized within Egyptian society. Until 2001, the Egyptian government refused to even recognize the existence of homosexuality; some speculate that it now does so only to brush off criticism from human rights organizations and foreign leaders. While Egypt currently has no specific legislation banning homosexuality, the government began using laws designed to protect traditional Islamic values, "public morality" and order against homosexual men. Today, there are plenty of ways the government is able to charge someone suspected on engaging in homosexual acts — one such charge being “debauchery” or breaking the country’s law of public morals.
The natural instinct for most gay Egyptians is to try not to draw attention to themselves but following their involvement in the revolution, they’ve been afforded greater visibility — and at a cost. Alongside other minorities the gay community has been criticized for its role in the uprising.
During the revolution, it was not obvious that Egyptian gay protestors were even visible as gays to the crowds protesting. Of course it’s a good thing to stand up to an oppressive regime, but the issue more so lies in the culture and the way Islam has been misused to oppress gay people much how Christianity has been used in the U.S. Legislative changes need to be made so that laws can’t be used against gay people to deny them their rights. The protest movement didn’t appear to include anything favoring such reforms, though.
While gay advocacy organizations are active in other predominantly Muslim countries such as Lebanon, Egypt's support groups are not well organized and struggle to be heard. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights is a human rights group that will talk about gays, but this cause is not a priority for them.
Gay Egyptians are beginning to fear that their new government, headed by a group of devout Muslims, will sooner than later institute Islamic sharia law. Sharia law, after all, which dictates that gays are to be killed, is much the reason why we see homosexuals frequently killed and/or tortured in countries where Sharia is the law of the land (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc.) If that were to happen, gay Egyptians may look back on the time of the revolution regrettably, as their actions could then be interpreted as handing a rope to the people that want to hang them.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have firmly embraced democracy, the means for reconciling that with its religious principles are not entirely clear: the issue of God's sovereignty versus people's sovereignty looks to have been fudged rather than resolved, and this is most apparent for women, non-Muslims and minorities, including Egypt’s LGBT community.
While President Barack Obama and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spoken out in the past for human rights protections for LGBT people throughout the world, including most recently and notably in Obama’s second inaugural address last week, it is probably unlikely that the Obama administration will push for human rights protections of the LGBT people in Egypt
While the aid lever probably helped persuade the generals in 2011 not to use brute force to smash the revolution, the threat of cutting aid is only so useful; it’s a one-shot pistol. Once fired it’s useless and more than likely produces a lot less leverage in regards to social and civil issues like rights for gays. History showcases this: Washington has used the aid-cutoff lever many times with Pakistan, for example, and it has never worked. The U.S. cut off aid to Pakistan in 1965, 1971, 1990, 1998 and 1999. Not once did Pakistan do what American policymakers wanted. In every case, the generals who run Pakistan ignored U.S. demands. Often they found a new, friendlier source of money and arms.
So, despite living in a “human rights world” and considering Obama’s address to the gay community in his inaugural speech last week, I’m not so convinced that the U.S. will use its leverage in Egypt to change their discriminatory policies towards gay Egyptians, although I do believe that a more widespread exposure of this issue could potentially lead to a strengthening of gay advocacy groups in Egypt, which would be the optimal way to bring about the change that gay Egyptians seek.