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Egypt’s true colours: the rainbow crackdown

Egypt has been showing its true, non-rainbow colours. At a concert on September 22nd by the band Mashrou’ Leila (whose lead singer is openly gay), a large rainbow flag was raised, apparently by a woman. Three days later Public Prosecutor Nabil Sadek ordered this to be investigated as a criminal act that “incited homosexuality”. A hunt for the flag-wavers ensued, with expressing solidarity for LGBT apparently defined as a moral crime.

By mid October 2017 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.

Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, but it is prosecuted under morality laws with punishments of up to 17 years in prison, hard labour and fines. The first man arrested was entrapped by police on a dating app the next day. He had no lawyer at his trial, and was convicted of debauchery and sentenced to 6 years in jail within days. Over the next four days at least sixteen more men were arrested, and Amnesty and others have reported further arrests. Unusually, a woman suspected of rainbow flag-raising has also been charged with “promoting sexual deviancy” and “habitual debauchery”.

This kind of witch-hunt has become routine in post-coup Egypt. Since President el-Sisi took power in 2013 the country has become a dangerous place to be gay, with hundreds of LGBT men and women rounded up by the morality police. Egyptian prisons are notorious for their brutality, with widespread threats, beatings, stripping and torture. Egyptian human rights groups suggest that men are more likely to be raped in detention awaiting trial than anywhere else in the penal system. Men suspected of being gay are also forced to undergo anal examination, which The UN Committee Against Torture and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights consider to be torture.

Why? The New York Times recently suggested that popular Egyptian culture suggests that terrorism and homosexuality are both being used to “ruin” their youth. This seems to suggest that the current extremist threats to security across the Middle East have been overtly or subvertly linked to a parallel “moral” threat. After the Mashrou’ Leila concert various TV personalities publicly asked with the regime to ‘save’ the youth of Egypt from homosexuality. Freedom of expression by gay men and women perhaps constitutes a challenge to regimes accustomed to assuming moral guardianship and control over intimate human choices such as dress code and sexual practice. Being gay is seen as subversive (like terrorism) and representing moral danger (like terrorism). One senses a McCarthyesque fear of a slippery slope, an Arab Autumn in which the old order is tossed aside for something that looks more like an episode of a Western soap opera, a ‘what is happening to us?’ question that ignores the fact that it has already happened, a vision of Apocalypse born of dogma and fear of ‘other.’.

It gets worse. The persecution of gay men is not limited to restriction of freedom. Egyptian jails are no party at the best of times, but Egypt has also legalised sexual assault by prison doctors in a travesty of claimed evidence gathering. The Egyptian authorities confirm that forced anal examinations are routine in cases of suspected homosexuality, but insist that since they are performed by doctors they are professionally and ethically acceptable. The deputy director of the Justice Ministry’s Forensic Medical Authority, Dr. Maged Louis said, in a 2015 interview that anal examination of men ‘forced into a prostrate position, the position that Muslims take when they pray’, allows accurate detection of past homosexual activity. He claimed that a heterosexual bottom looks different to a homosexual one and “cannot admit more than one joint of the small finger.”

Aside from this being complete nonsense, medical ethics do not condone this. Professionally and ethically sound doctors absolutely do not poke anything into the anus of any person with capacity without their consent. This constitutes assault, however medically you dress it up. Moreover, most of the adult population would fail such a test. Have you ever been examined by your doctor? This doctor wonders how on earth Dr Louis thinks the entire speciality of proctology would function for the heterosexual population it this were actually true, and also suggests that whilst inserting any part of a finger into the bottom of someone who doesn’t invite you to put it there would indeed identify a criminal, that would be the person whose finger it is.

There is no moral defence to Egypts human rights abuses, but the tragedy is that Egypt uses a type of moral argument to defend it. Worse, they seem to believe it. External pressure is needed on the government, to help it understand that, in destroying the very freedoms that secular societies now take for granted they will drive the brightest and the best away, whilst aiding and abetting the very terrorist threat that laps at their shores.

The colours of the Rainbow flag are an expression of diversity, human freedom and mutual support. Egypt is showing its true colours in response, and they appear to be the colours of superstition, intolerance, dogma and cowardice.

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