Just after it became known in June that the attacker of Orlando’s Pulse nightclub had pledged allegiance to ISIS, Egypt’s foreign ministry immediately moved to condemn the attack on a U.S. gay bar.
Yet the statement didn’t acknowledge that Pulse was a gay club or that many of the victims were members of the LGBTQ community.
Three days later, a court in Cairo sentenced two 18-year-olds to three years in prison on charges of “debauchery”: The young men were apprehended through government surveillance of social media dating apps for gay men, according to court records.
It’s no surprise to gay Egyptians, says community leaders. In fact, they say Egypt has become one of the world’s biggest jailers of gay men, with as many as 500 behind bars on “morals” charges — and the crackdown is escalating.
“Most of the gay people in Egypt are even not out to their families — they are living in fear, not living their lives,” said Yousef Rizik, who at 18 is one of Egypt’s youngest gay leaders and among the few willing to speak openly about the wave of repression against the community.
“If you have money and you are just being secretly gay and not an activist, then you are fine but if you are poor with no connections and openly gay, then you are definitely in prison,” he added.
Activists say the current wave of arrests started in October 2015, as Egyptian security services extended their crackdown from Islamist groups to civil society organizations.
The situation is being echoed in a number of countries in the region, they add.
“Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait have all rushed to condemn the crime in Orlando labeling it terrorism while insisting Islam has nothing to do with it,” said a spokesman for Mesahat, an LGBT service organization operating in Egypt and Sudan.
“These same governments keep arresting and torturing gay people and are putting them in jail. Meanwhile they are sponsoring a religious discourse that feeds homophobia.”
A new phenomenon
The Quran mentions homosexuality only once, in a retelling of the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But gay people in the region say widespread condemnation of homosexuality came about only in the 1980s, when the rise of the global LGBT rights movement coincided with the expansion of ultraconservative Wahhabism sponsored by Saudi Arabia.
Activities and relationships that were considered normal 30 years ago are now described as haram, an Islamic term to describe religiously prohibited behavior like eating pork or consuming alcohol. Homosexuality is now frequently condemned as a “Western” vice and a threat to Arab and Islamic culture.
“Wahhabi attitudes spread to Egypt and took over a more enlightened, liberated Islam,” said Ahmed Hafez, an Egyptian analyst with the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based LGBT advocacy group.
“Now the police in Egypt are targeting gay people to show the public that they are on the side of morality and are doing a good job in fighting debauchery, as a distraction to hide their failures in the crackdown on terrorism or drug trafficking,” he added.