A large number of LGBT Egyptians have joined the massive street protests in Cairo and other cities and are in full solidarity with calls for the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the creation of a new democratic government in Egypt, according to a gay human rights activist.
Scott Long, former LGBT coordinator for Human Rights Watch, an international human rights group, said he has been in contact with gay Egyptians over the past week.
Many have informed him that LGBT people are among the hundreds of thousands who have assembled in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand an end to what they view as an oppressive government that has persecuted a diverse segment of the population, including gays, lesbians and transgender people.
“There are LGBT people marching and joining the protests, not as LGBT people,” Long said. “They’re not marching under a rainbow flag. But certainly friends of mine are out there.”
Long said at least two gay men he knows were arrested in the first street protest in Cairo on Jan. 25 — not for being gay but on a charge of disturbing the peace. Authorities arrested protesters on that charge in an initial attempt to stop the demonstrations last week before determining they were too large to control.
“I’m impressed by the bravery of everyone in Egypt,” he said. “But also by the bravery of LGBT people who are standing with the rest of the opposition. And beyond that, I don’t think anybody knows what will happen in the future.”
Long currently serves as a senior fellow at Columbia University School of Law’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.
In 2004, while with Human Rights Watch, he was the principal author of a lengthy report on anti-gay persecution in Egypt that the group published in English and Arabic. The Arabic edition of the report received 80,000 individual visits on the Human Rights Watch website in the first year it was released, Long said.
Among other things, the report said well over 1,000 gay men had been arrested in cities and towns throughout Egypt between 2001 and 2004 in a crackdown against LGBT people.
“We documented hundreds of arrests,” Long said. “I would say that probably thousands of people were arrested in raids on private homes and through entrapment over the Internet.”
Long and others monitoring the rapidly changing developments in Egypt this week have said the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic organization considered to be the most organized opposition group to the Mubarak government, bills itself as a fundamentalist faction that would never embrace LGBT rights.
But Long said the Muslim Brotherhood is not an extremist entity like the Taliban is in Afghanistan and is expected to join a coalition of mostly secular factions to form an interim government should Mubarak agree to resign.
“The Brotherhood joined the opposition movement late,” he said. The opposition on the streets is being led by young secular leftists. I don’t think the Brotherhood can stake a claim to being the leader of this revolution.”
Pro-Democracy activists in Egypt have been pushing for Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize winner and former International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei to become the head of a transition government.
“ElBaradei, who everyone hopes will become the transition president, is a secular, liberal figure,” Long said. “I think he’s a good man.”
President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spoken out in the past for human rights protections for LGBT people throughout the world. It could not be immediately determined whether the Obama administration would push for human rights protections for LGBT people in Egypt as part of his behind-the-scenes effort to persuade Mubarak to resign and his call for immediate democratic reforms in Egypt.
The 2004 Human Rights Watch report said authorities charged the mostly gay men ensnared in the anti-gay crackdown with violating a provision in Egypt’s anti-prostitution law that prohibits the “habitual practice of debauchery.”
According to Long, Egyptian courts interpreted the sweeping law to cover consensual, non-commercial sexual relations between people of the same sex. He said police used the law to arrest gays, even though it was clear that the men charged were not engaging in prostitution.
The report also documented widespread use of torture against the gay men arrested in the crackdown, with many of them sent to the same police detention centers known for physical abuse of political prisoners that Egyptians participating in the past week’s protests have denounced.
Following a 2004 news conference in Cairo called to release the Human Rights Watch report, the anti-gay crackdown stopped, Long said. He said “debauchery” related arrests of gays resumed to a lesser degree in 2008 after authorities alleged that gay men with AIDS were endangering the public by engaging in promiscuous sex. Long said those arrests subsided a short time later.
“I think the accounts of torture we gave in the report really did have an effect on average Egyptians’ perceptions of homosexuality,” Long said. “We made a very deliberate decision to frame it as a report about part of the ongoing torture crisis in Egypt. They understood that gays are people like them, subject to similar fears of police brutality and arbitrary state actions.”
Long said that although the anti-gay crackdown begun in 2004 was precipitated, in part, by pressure from Islamic leaders to curtail homosexuality, he said sources familiar with Egyptian politics believe Mubarak himself started the crackdown in an attempt to go after an opposing political faction.
“I’ve never gone on the record with this before but will now,” Long said. “There were widespread rumors that Gamal Mubarak, Mubarak’s son whom he was trying to anoint as his successor, was gay. And the first people arrested in the crackdown were relatives of another leading family in Egypt whom the Mubaraks suspected of having spread this rumor.”
Long noted that the rival family members arrested on homosexuality related charges were on board the Queen Boat, a commercial entertainment vessel on the Nile River that was known to host gay parties. The so-called “Queen Boat” raid marked the start of the 2004 crackdown against gays in Egypt.
“I think the whole thing started as a kind of political ploy to send a message that you don’t insult Gamal Mubarak,” Long said. “And after that, police officers across the country got the message that, well, cracking down on these people is a good thing to do. It’s good for your career, and so the crackdown spread.”