Midan Tahrir is a square that occupies a central position in the geography and psychology of Cairo. To the south of the square sits the Mugamma, a Kafkaesque administrative building of tiny windows, a brutalist design, and an army of employees processing the bureaucracy of the Egyptian government. To the north, the square is graced with the elegant pink facade of the Egyptian Museum, where glittering treasures and beautiful statues from antiquity have been kept in what appears to be the exact positions they occupied when the museum opened in 1902. At the museum’s side stands the now burnt-out headquarters of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Further west is the Nile, and to the east lie the dust-caked but still grand buildings of Cairo’s downtown. Just visible to the southeast one sees the red and white-trimmed windows of the old campus of the American University in Cairo, where I had the privilege to study Arabic in the fall of 2007.
On January 25, 2011, an extraordinary event occurred in Midan Tahrir. The square filled with protestors, many of whom were young students, who had been ignited by calls across social media and a simmering rage against Mubarak’s dictatorship. For 18 days, the protestors called upon Mubarak to step down from the presidency and allow for democratic elections to decide the next leader of Egypt. During the sit-in, protestors formed a human ring around the Egyptian Museum to protect it from looting; Christians protected Muslims while they prayed, and Muslims returned the favor. Services across the city shut down. My friend Heather who was living in Cairo at the time with her young baby Saif said that grocery stores first ran out of alcohol and cigarettes, then yogurt and bread. Individual neighborhoods banded together to self-police (evidently, even Saif participated with the help of a feather duster), and despite a number of precarious situations, the overall tenor of the revolution remained peaceful. When Mubarak resigned on February 11, there was a feeling of euphoria and hope.
The feeling was not to last. With Mubarak’s departure, power quickly concentrated into two groups: the army, whose generals mostly retained their positions; and the Muslim Brotherhood, which was popular not only for its Islamic credentials but because it had been responsible for organizing a number of essential social services that Mubarak’s regime had failed to provide. The Muslim Brotherhood was, however, regarded with skepticism and fear by the United States and Europe, in large part because of perceptions that the Brotherhood had close ties to terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and that it sought to impose a draconian version of sharia law (perceptions which the Brotherhood continues to dispute).
In the excellent documentary The Square, one of the protestors (if my memory serves, it was Ahmed Hassan) explained that the aim of many of the students was to implement a secular democracy, one that was not tied to the traditional triumvirate of Egyptian power: the dictatorship, the army, and the Brotherhood. But such a choice had not yet emerged by the time that democratic elections were organized in 2012.
Instead, the main rivals in the elections were Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik from the army. The Egyptian people elected Morsi, but he was not to hold power for long. On June 3, 2013, after four days of protests against Morsi’s rule, an army-led coup ousted Morsi – an event that was mostly noted with speeches expressing concern but no real actions by other world powers. Since a few months after the coup, Egypt has been ruled by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and a number of pro-Morsi demonstrations have been violently suppressed.
A year into al-Sisi’s rule, the general crackdown on political protest is alarming and I was greatly troubled by what I saw in my brief time back in Egypt. While I did speak to a few Egyptians who were in favor of al-Sisi (generally expressing a variant of the sentiment that Egypt is not ready for democracy and can only be ruled by some form of dictator), the majority of viewpoints I heard were strongly opposed. “Worse than Mubarak” was a common sentiment. The stories told by these Egyptians (who I will not name for safety reasons, although I recognize that this is bad journalistic practice), as well as a number of recent current events, suggest that Egypt is currently a place where any form of dissent is brutally suppressed.
One friend now living in the States told me he can no longer speak to his Egyptian friends about politics because they are worried about being arrested. A woman I used to work with living in the Mohandiseen neighborhood of Cairo told me that, conservatively, she estimates that over 50,000 Egyptians have been secretly detained and jailed. She said that every Friday there are massive anti-government protests in Giza, and these and other protests often end violently. Six peaceful demonstrators were shot in front of her apartment, their bodies lying for hours because no one was brave enough to remove them.
Just days after we left Egypt, on the fourth anniversary of the revolution, approximately 20 people were killed in various protests across the country. Video evidence shows that many of these protests were peaceful. One woman was killed as she went to lay a wreath on the grave of people who had died during the 2011 revolution. The death toll during that week was not as high as the 64 people who were killed a year previously, on the third anniversary of the revolution; and certainly not as high as the hundreds of protestors who were killed on August 14, 2013, when the army moved to suppress demonstrations that were either in opposition to the coup or in support of the Muslim Brotherhood. But the reduced number of casualties may simply reflect the success with which the government has rooted out all forms of protest. Midan Tahrir, where I wandered about freely three weeks ago, was entirely cordoned off on the day of the anniversary.
Other recent events have been equally horrific. In March last year, an Egyptian court stunned the world when it issued 528 death sentences against Morsi supporters. Months previously, 37 protestors who had been arrested during the August 14 unrest were gassed to death after having been trapped in the back of a truck in the summer Egyptian heat. Mohamed Soltan, a 27-year-old American citizen and graduate of the Ohio State University, remains in jail despite a well-publicized hunger strike.
It is not only the Muslim Brotherhood who has been targeted by the al-Sisi regime. The crackdown appears to extend to anyone expressing criticism of the government (a popular protest slogan is: “Neither Morsi nor the military”), including journalists. Three journalists from Al-Jazeera have been jailed for seven years for allegedly aiding the Brotherhood; the evidence against one of the journalists, Mohammed Fahmy, is that he had a spent bullet in his possession which he picked up at a protest site. While the Court of Cassation has allowed an appeal of the judgment to proceed, the journalists currently remain in jail.
One of the biggest complaints I heard was that the democratic process has not been respected in Egypt. Even people who were vehemently opposed to Morsi’s rule expressed the desire to accept the will of the people and to wait for a future election to campaign for a new leader. Many people also suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood has been unfairly demonized and mistakenly aligned with more extremist Islamist groups. It is not entirely clear who is responsible for recent atrocities, such as a number of violent attacks against Coptic Christians. And in breaking news, a group expressing affiliation with the Islamic State attacked security posts in northern Sinai just a week ago, taking the lives of at least 27 people. I have seen nothing linking this group with the Muslim Brotherhood, but it may well be that al-Sisi’s crackdown on the Brotherhood has provided a window and a motivation to increase recruits to more hard-line groups.
The government suppression of the Brotherhood contrasts with a statement made by my friend Abdullah, who thinks that al-Sisi is trying to be more of an Islamist than the Islamists in a bid to stem dissent. (Note that Abdullah uses the word Islamist, not Islamic, thus distinguishing between a political group and a religious viewpoint. In a future post, I’ll explore the importance of not letting extremist views dictate what is or is not in line with Islam, or control perceptions by non-Muslims of what it means to be Muslim.). What this translates to is a suppression by al-Sisi’s regime of any expression deemed to be anti-Islamic by the extremist groups. Most relevantly for the purposes of the Out in Africa Ride project, this means a crackdown on LGBT rights.
The numbers of arrests that have been made for perversion or related offenses in the past year have skyrocketed. According to the blog Erasing 76 Crimes, there have been 109 arrests in just over a year. Other rights activists believe that there have been more than 150 arrests in 2014.
Notable incidents in the past few months include the detention on September 3 of several dozen people in connection with a “gay marriage” video. The video surfaced on the internet and showed a group of men on a boat in the Nile, with blurry images of what looked like a cake and the exchange of rings. At least eight of these men were later arrested on charges of “incitement to debauchery” and “publication of indecent photographs.” The arrested men were subjected to anal examinations, a procedure which is obviously intrusive, torturous, and of no evidentiary value. The eight men were sentenced to three years in prison, a sentence that has since been reduced to one year.
Another 26 men were arrested on December 7 from a bathhouse in Cairo. The men were hauled naked to waiting police trucks, with an Egyptian TV presenter present to document the scene. Many of the men were beaten before they were arrested. The men were acquitted in early January, but the damage to their personal lives had already been done. Many men covered their faces with scarves in the courtroom, even though their images had already been broadcast in footage of the raid.
Dalia Abd el-Hameed, the director of the Gender Program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, associates the crackdown on the LGBT community with the larger atmosphere of oppression in Egypt’s current regime: “Personally, I do not separate this crackdown on LGBT [people] from the general oppressive climate and the regressive rights and liberties status. Journalists, students, human rights activists and gender and religious non-conformists are all under attack by the regime.”
And longtime Egypt observer and LGBT rights activist Scott Long sees the current slew of arrests as a reflection of political wrangling between the regime and its enemies, with both sides accusing the other of moral laxity. “It’s not just that police could smash the door and seize your body at any moment; it’s that your desires and emotions, the most intimate elements of existence, now nourish somebody else’s political agenda.”
The current state of LGBT rights are an ominous reminder of what Egypt was like under the Mubarak regime. On May 11, 2001, 52 men were arrested aboard the Queen Boat, a floating gay nightclub that was moored along the Nile River in Cairo. The arrests sparked a series of trials that were condemned by international human rights groups; 21 of the men were eventually sentenced to three years.
Many of the charges in the Cairo 52 trials and more recent cases come from a 1951 law criminalizing prostitution. The law is ambiguous, but a 1975 decision of the Court of Cassation held that the questionable provision encompassed consensual non-commercial sex. Later court pronouncements suggest that this ruling could be overturned, but such an event does not seem likely in the light of recent events. Instead, the ambiguous legal situation acts like a sword hanging over the heads of Egypt’s LGBT community, ready to be wielded as needed by competing political forces.
The current climate of oppression concerns a much broader swath of society outside the LGBT community. The parallel between the recent arrests of gay men and the arrests of the Al-Jazeera journalists, for instance, is obvious. When a marginalized community is under attack, it is often a sign that broader civil liberties across society are at risk. The crackdown on the LGBT community should cause immigrants, racial and religious minorities, and any other groups lacking political power to take note.
The revolutionary spirit that took over Midan Tahrir in 2011 pointed away from the abuses of the Cairo 52 trials, not back towards them. That revolution has not been achieved. Egypt today appears to be a country where dissent is outlawed and where nonconforming groups are at risk, whether these groups are part of a political opposition or are simply identified with the youthful, progressive energy that was such a major factor causing Mubarak to fall from power. But Egypt has a long history, and this chapter is far from over. The Egyptian people have seen that their voice can have strength, and it will be difficult to silence that voice now that it has been heard. It remains to be seen how the energy of January 2011 will bubble back to the surface, and what forces will then be at play. In the meantime, Midan Tahrir watches and waits.