Ahmed Alaa was supposed to get out of jail three weeks ago.
Reuters reported on Jan. 2 that Alaa, the 21-year-old arrested by Egyptian police following a September concert by the queer rock band Mashrou’ Leila, had finally been released on bail. More than 22 LGBTQ people and allieswere charged with “debauchery” in the week following the music festival, facing sentences of up to six years in prison as a result. The group’s lead singer is openly gay, which has resulted in it being banned from performing in Jordan.
Initial reports suggested the college student would pay a small fine of 2,000 Egyptian pounds (or roughly $113) while he awaited court proceedings.
But Egyptian authorities stalled his release for weeks, advocates tell INTO.
Alaa and fellow concertgoer Sarah Hegazy continued to be detained by security officers even after their bail had been paid. Hegazy would spend an additional three days locked in a cell by herself, isolated from other inmates.
Hegazy couldn’t be put in a room with other prisoners because of concerns about harassment and violence, according to Mohamed, an Egyptian activist working in asylum. The detainees’ identities were outed by local media in news reports of the crackdown, meaning that their personal information is now public information in a country often hostile to the existence of LGBTQ people or anyone supportive of their rights.
“Everyone has been talking about them,” Mohamed says. “I wouldn’t say they were in solitary confinement, but they were being kept on their own.”
Alaa, who was expelled from his university after his name made national headlines, has spent the greater part of a month in police custody. Local law enforcement cited administrative hiccups as the reasoning behind the delay. Officers claimed they didn’t know the prisoners’ addresses to release them to their families, Mohamed alleges.
Alaa was finally allowed to leave on Jan. 22, 20 days after his bail was posted.
Amr Magdi, a researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, tells INTO their treatment is an “utter disregard to the law.”
“We are seeing these cases increasingly in the last couple of years,” Madgi says in an email to INTO. “This is one more way to intimidate and punish dissidents and try to ‘make sure’ that after they are released they would not be active again or would not speak about the violations and ill-treatment they faced.”
Alaa is being released at a pivotal moment for Egypt’s LGBTQ community.
At least 10 men were arrested last week in Alexandria after police accused them of hosting “group sex parties” in the neighborhood of Hanoville. The suspects were arrested after neighbors reported a group of “weird” men congregating outside of an apartment allegedly used as a hookup space, one that required a code word for entry.
Although homosexuality is legal in Egypt, the men will be tried under a 1961 law used to prosecute sex workers, which authorities have repackaged to target the country’s queer and transgender population. Neela Ghoshal, an LGBTQ researcher for Human Rights Watch, tells INTO the “debauchery” law wasn’t used to criminalize same-sex behavior until the late 1990sbut it has become a defining feature of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s reign.
“Like in many countries in the world, when the LGBTQ community started to become more visible, the government looked for a way to crack down on them and happened upon this law,” Ghoshal says in a phone conversation.
The men arrested in Alexandria allegedly met with federal prosecutors on Jan. 15 and are awaiting trial. While reporting this story, Mohamed alleges that three additional LGBTQ people were arrested in Cairo on Jan. 18 in an unrelated incident, but details could not be confirmed prior to publication time. During his last correspondence with INTO on Tuesday, Mohamed claimed that the suspects’ attorneys are “still looking for them.”
To date, 85 LGBTQ individuals have been arrested in the ongoing crackdown on Egypt’s queer and trans community. Detainees have been beaten, tortured, and subjected to forced anal examinations designed to “prove” someone has engaged in same-sex behavior.
Those who undergo the discredited proceduredenounced by human rights groups around the worldcompare it to rape. Individuals are forced to lie face down while a doctor inserts his fingers into their rectum to examine its structure. But critics of the practice say there are lots of reasons a subject could have a loose anusincluding irritable bowel syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease.
Others rounded up in the four-month siege were interrogated to gain information on members of the LGBTQ community, according to attorney Ahmed Osman. He claimed in a Facebook post that police obtained passwords to the detainees’ social media accounts in order to read their messages.
The crackdown itself started on Facebook: Police used photos shared of the Mashrou’ Leila concert to identify attendees of the Sept. 22 show, which was held at Cairo’s Music Park.
INTO spoke with Hamed Sinno, the band’s frontman, in an October interview for an early version of this story. Sinno recalled that on the evening of the concert, the crowd numbered around 35,000 peopletheir largest audience ever. Amidst the crush, fans gathered near the main stage hoisted a small collection of rainbow flags in support of the LGBTQ community.
“I was a little proud to see that other people were trying to either express themselves, their politics, or their solidarity in Egypt,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a little moment of pride.”
But the singer noted that this wasn’t the first time Pride banners had been raised at their shows, calling the gesture “not exactly unprecedented.” Mashrou’ Leila plays in Egypt multiple times a year, as the band has a “huge following” in the North African country.
What makes this time different is that President el-Sisi is up for reelection in March.
While he is technically running unopposed at the moment, the incumbent may face off against Mortada Mansour, a lawyer who has been a vocal opponent of the 2011 Arab Spring. Mansour has referred to the nationwide protests as “the worst-ever day in Egypt’s history.”
Cracking down on sexual and gender minorities in the country has proven “strategically sound” for the president, Sinno argues. He wants to shore up votes with a conservative base that has been hesitant to back him.
El-Sisi led the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 as leader of the Egyptian armed forces. Morsi was a key member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that the new Commander-in-Chief has repeatedly lobbied to have labeled as a “terrorist” organization. But unfortunately for el-Sisi, many of the Brotherhood’s staunchest supporters are religious conservatives.
Singling out LGBTQ people has offered el-Sisi a way to distinguish his presidency and illustrate that his leadership aligns with their values.
“The Muslim Brotherhood, during the brief period when it was in power, didn’t crack down on gays,” Ghoshal says. “Sisi came in looking for religiously conservative strategies to adopt to take over that base.”
“This has been the new normal since el-Sisi came into power,” Ghoshal adds.
The scope of September’s crackdown is unprecedented, but his entire presidency has been defined by anti-LGBTQ repression.
Just months after el-Sisi’s inauguration, a gay wedding held on a Nile riverboat was raided by police. At least seven men were apprehended and charged under the “debauchery” laws when a video of the nuptials went viral on social mediaa trademark of how the Egyptian police hunt down suspected LGBTQ people. The blurry footage shows two men dressed in black suits exchanging rings as they are embraced by a group of friends.
That same year 33 people were rounded up in a sting on a gay bathhouse in Cairo. Reports at the time called it the “largest mass arrest” of men suspected to be engaging in same-sex behavior in at least a decade.
El-Sisi’s government, it seems, keeps trying to outdo itself.
When INTO asked local advocates if they felt the crackdown would continue after the elections, answers on the subject were decidedly mixed.
Azza Sultan and Noor, two organizers with an umbrella activist group called the Alliance of Queer Egyptian Organizations, say things have already begun to return to normal in Egypt. “[The arrests have] decreased back to the usual level before the crackdown,” Noor claims in an interview. “The norm before the crackdown was three to four cases per month.”
Members of the LGBTQ community have begun returning to Cairo’s gay-friendly cafes, many of which shut down after the raids began last year. But queer and trans people, they say, are more “cautious” than before about anything which might out them to others.
“People are taking more precautions: the way they look, the way they dress, and their body languageeverything,” Sultan says.
The activists cited international pressure on the part of foreign governments and activists abroad as helping to curb the onslaught of detentions. They specifically highlighted the Alliance’s work in the United States, raising awareness about Egypt’s anti-LGBTQ crusade with politicians, Congressmen, and nongovernmental organizations.
El-Sisi’s government is “resisting” pressure by pretending that foreign advocacy doesn’t dictate its policy, Sultan says. “But I believe that money talks,” she adds.
Others, however, feel the international outcry has been almost nonexistent.
“There was a vague comment from the U.S. State Department during a media briefing, which is a whole different level of condemnation than an official state department statement,” Ghoshal claims. “That’s what activists have been asking for. The U.S. makes statements all the time about human rights abuses. Those are formal statements declaring that the weight of the government is behind the condemnation of what’s happening.”
“That kind of statement hasn’t been used in the Egyptian context,” she continues.
Neither President Trump nor Vice President Pence have directly addressed the continuing arrests. Pence declined to say whether he challenged el-Sisi about the crackdown during a recent meeting with the Egyptian president, offering a vague claim the two men discussed “the importance of respecting religious diversity in communities.”
It’s doubtful the U.S. government would take the same hardline approach as it had in the case of anti-LGBTQ abuses in countries like Malawi, Uganda, and Zambia. President Barack Obama opposed Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” law in 2009, as did the leaders of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Many of these nations threatened to revoke financial aid to Uganda if the legislation passedwhich it did not.
But the difference with Egypt is that Western leaders view the country as a moderate “ally” in the fight against radical Islam, Ghoshal says.
“Foreign governments feel like they have something to lose if they offend the Egyptian government,” she claims. “They’re unfortunately not willing to take that risk for a vulnerable population.”
Despite being pessimistic about the situation in Egypt, Ghoshal says she’s optimistic about the state of the LGBTQ movement.
A decade ago, it was impossible for queer and transgender people who had been persecuted by local authorities to find a lawyer. Attorneys would refuse their cases, believing their professional reputations would be tarnished as a result. Mainstream civil society and local NGOs completely ignored them.
Ghoshal compares the difference between then and now to “day and night.” One of the local LGBTQ advocacy groups recently toured the country to document the experiences of queer and trans people, whether in rural villages or major metropolitan hubs. Many of the interviewees weren’t aware that an LGBTQ movement existed or that Egyptian activists were out there working to further their rights.
“Those kinds of things you can’t easily undo,” Ghoshal says. “You can scare people, but once they’ve started making those contacts, it’s hard to suppress a movement. [I believe] the movement can push through this, even at great cost to their personal security.”
This sea change was apparent the evening of the concert, claims the band at the center of the crackdown.
Although the Mashrou’ Leila show would be followed by months of violence and repression, Sinno says no one took issue with the Pride flags at the time. The mood in the packed venue wasn’t hostile or belligerent but joyful; the excitement in the audience was so palpable that he found the energy both “incredible” and “overwhelming.” Fans were singing Sinno’s songs back to him, many of which deal frankly with issues of sexuality.
More than 35,000 Egyptians showing up to see a band with a queer frontman and having no problem with a pro-LGBTQ display is “actually kind of phenomenal,” he says.
“I think governments [like Egypt’s] are afraid to see those numbers in one crowd chanting the same lyrics,” Sinno claims. “That would be very problematic for any government who built its continuance on suppressing equality.”
Note: This post was updated from a previous version which alleged Alaa was a member of the LGBTQ community. Sources clarified his sexual orientation is unknown at this time. We regret the error.