August 29, 2017 at 9:00 am EDT | by Brian Dooley
U.S. withholding Egypt aid over human rights is welcome news

The U.S. has withheld aid to Egypt over its human rights record.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision last week to withhold almost $100 million in aid to Egypt, and to condition nearly $200 million more on human rights progress, is welcome news. 

There’s plenty room for improvement. The Egyptian government has silenced virtually all peaceful dissent. Tens of thousands of people have been jailed or disappeared; many have been convicted in sham trials and tortured in prison. Political opposition figures, human rights defenders, and the LGBT community are key targets of this repression.

Although same-sex relations are not technically illegal in Egypt — the law doesn’t mention them — government authorities vigorously target LGBT people with entrapment, assault and prosecutions for debauchery and other “moral” crimes. The protection of minority rights is something the U.S. should concentrate on when deciding whether to grant the $195 million in military aid it has suspended.

Because of this persecution and social stigmatization, few LGBT Egyptians are out to their families, and data on their experiences is rare. 

But detailed new research by two Egyptian LGBT organizations helps to fill the gap. A survey of 372 people, conducted over three months this year, provides precious information on the priorities, fears, and needs of LGBT people across 19 provinces, from cities to rural areas. 

Bedayaa Organization for LGBTQI in the Nile Valley (Egypt and Sudan) area and Mesahat Foundation for Sexual and Gender Diversity conducted the LGBTQI need assessment report despite enormous risks.

“The restrictive security situation made access to the members of the LGBTQI community extremely complicated and dangerous,” said Bedayaa Executive Director Noor Sultan.

The work was hazardous, but the results offer invaluable views of a diverse group: People of all different ages and educational backgrounds. About half were in formal employment. About 34 percent of the respondents were lesbian and bisexual women and 13.2 percent were transgender.

The top needs, in order, were safe shelter (90 percent), advocacy at a local/regional/international level (85 percent), support groups and safe spaces to meet (80 percent) and legal support (79 percent). Finding lawyers to represent people accused on “moral charges” can be extremely challenging.

“We found some things we weren’t expecting,” said Sultan. “What surprised us was the high percentage for the need for lobbying and advocacy, which were the second-highest priority.”

A large majority (65 percent) identified the need to access a safe space to discuss issues related to gender and sexual diversity. And while 85 percent approved of advocacy and lobbying for LGBT issues, there was more enthusiasm for this happening at a local level (53 percent) than at the UN and other international bodies (35 percent).

When it came to activism strategies, 24 percent said pubic action and visibility would be best, while 22 percent favored a covert approach. A much larger number (42 percent) favored concentrating on community-building and organizing.

There were marked differences too between groups. More than 88 percent of lesbian women prioritized the need for training workshops, compared to 61 percent of bisexual respondents. The need for legal support was identified by 100 percent of transgender/transsexual respondents, and by 68 percent of lesbian women.

Denying and suspending aid is good first step from Tillerson, but much more pressure needs to be asserted to encourage Egypt’s government to protect its vulnerable communities.

Even the most basic needs, including shelter in times of danger, were cited by those in the survey. The need for shelter was cited by a majority of all groups, from 98 percent of transgender/transsexual respondents and 79 per cent of bisexual respondents.

Other needs noted by large majority included videos on human rights of LGBT people, documentary making and photography (77 percent), and magazines to address legal, sexual, and rights issues.

The authors had hoped “to provide a local perspective of the needs of this community to adopt an evidence-based approaching decision making and providing services,” and they have produced extremely rich new data.
“It would be useful if more research like this is carried out in the Middle East and North Africa to get more information on LGBTQI realities in Egypt and in other countries,” said Sultan. 

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