Mass arrests for waving the rainbow flag. Humiliating anal examinations meant to “determine” homosexuality. Being detained naked for visiting a public bathhouse. This the reality for queer people living in Egypt right now. In 2014, president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi granted the military absolute power to rule, and now a keen interest in pleasing more conservative, religious powers in the country has resulted in inhumane crackdowns on LGBTQ* people. Following last summer’s successful benefit to help victims of the “gay purge” in Chechnya, the people behind Salon – Zur wilden Renate are throwing in again for KHWAT, this Saturday, January 27, 8pm. Godmother, Dubais, DJ Kali and more are all there to entertain for the cause and all proceeds go to support victims of Egypt’s discriminating treatment. Co-organizer and former Cairo resident Alexander Molyneux-Berry explains exactly what’s going on and what Berlin is taking a stand against.
So what’s going on with homosexuals in Egypt right now?
The incarceration of homosexuals is being used as a political tool in Egypt. The Egyptian government at the moment is actually a non-religious entity – a military regime that ousted a religion-based political party and put the president in prison. They get a lot of criticism for being secular and so for them, politically, it’s good to champion cases against homosexuality and attack [queerness] as moral indecency. It wins over the more conservative, traditional, religious people of Egypt. The secularists stay quiet because at the end of the day there’s bigger fish to fry.
The description for the benefit mentions a concert in Cairo last September with Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is gay, and some flag waving. What exactly happened?
Up until now, arrests for homosexuality have been of limited to people who’ve been caught in the act. This incident is different because the concert went down peacefully, [like any other concert]. But when people at the concert were waving the rainbow flag, many conservative Egyptians saw it is a very politicised expression of homosexuality. The social media backlash that followed was crazy. Two days afterward, people were saying a lot of bullshit like “This is not Egyptian,” and “They are spreading indecency.” And people were [later] arrested for waving a flag.
The Arab Spring brought a lot of changes to the Middle East. What has the Arab Spring meant for queer life in Egypt?
For me, queer life in Egypt peaked in 2012-13 during the reign of the Islamic presidents Mohamed Morsi and Adly Mansour because state services and most of the state were rebelling against the Muslim Brotherhood, meaning that everything was super relaxed regarding the gay community. I remember a gay street party in a Greek club in Cairo, one of the gayest parties ever. I mean… a gay street party in downtown Cairo and the police didn’t want to do anything about it? That would never happen today. It got much worse for queer people when the military took control. As a tool to show the conservatives that they aren’t liberal, the government says it believes in family values and that homosexuality is a sin. Everything about it is a political tool if it served them to be liberal and accepting of homosexuality I’m sure they would champion it. Luckily, the scene manages to get by anyway, just like they always have, but by being more careful about what you do.
Why did you leave Egypt?
I left Egypt and came to Berlin because of an incident in a hammam where TV-host Mona al-Iraqi went to a bathhouse with a TV-crew. When they wouldn’t let her in, she called the police who raided the bathhouse, pulled the [primarily straight] naked men out onto the streets and arrested them all. The men were later released after pressure from the West, and as they weren’t gay, the action was pointless. But the public ended up shaming gay people instead of shaming al-Iraqi for a despicable act.
In November last year, a German man got arrested for using Grindr in Egypt. Has the recent crackdown meant anything for expats or tourists in Egypt?
By law in Egypt, you can be deported for being gay if you’re foreign. However, Egypt is not going to actively seek gay people to deport because it needs the tourists. From a tourist’s perspective, you are completely fine – as long as you are not hitting on your customs officer. Regarding expats, I know quite a few LGBT German expats who live a normal life with an Egyptian boyfriend. That’s because of social status and standing. Even if you’re not necessarily rich as a white person you automatically get put at top of society. As I said, the campaign against homosexuals is very politicised. They [the government] will do something big and pointless, then release it to show the public, so they mainly target Egyptians.
What does the future look like for the queer community in Egypt?
It looks bleak. As long as there’s an identity crisis in Egypt about whether they are going west or east, it will continue because they won’t be able to take a stand. There are cities where things are more liberal, in the touristy cities like Sharm el-Sheikh people get away with more. Again, if you’re well off you are fine, I know same-sex couples who’s been living together for years. If you’re in your bubble, you’re fine. But the government will continue to take these stands against certain gay Egyptians.
So who are you supporting with this benefit?
In Egypt, it’s basically impossible to fund or give money to an organization that the government deems illegal. This makes it very hard for us to donate without putting people in Egypt in danger. We can’t specify explicitly who we’re going to support, so the only thing we can say is that all proceeds go towards a discreet network in Egypt helping affected and at-risk LGBTQ individuals.
KHWAT خوات / A benefit for our queer family in Egypt | Sat Jan 27, starts 20.00, Salon – Zur wilden Renate, Alt-Stralau 70, S-Bhf Ostkreuz