New age or new fears for gay Egypt?
As Egypt’s parliament sits for the first time, we examine the future of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights
It seemed like the dawning of a new age. On 25 January last year, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protested in the streets asking for democracy. On the Friday (28 January), millions joined them and demanded change to the ruling regime. With the youth movement leading the protests a new, secular and more liberal Egypt seemed possible. After two weeks of intense pressure President Hosni Mubarak resigned on 11 February. And the military, which had allied itself to the protestors, took charge of the country, promising to give control to an elected parliament and new president within six months.
After one year, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are still in control, and have been recently accused of supporting the old regime and committing acts of violence against the latest protesters on the streets.
Now, after parliamentary elections during December and January that have seen the highest turn-out in the history of Egypt, the new parliament is sitting today for the first time (23 January). But does this mean that a new democratic liberal country is starting? Does it mean more rights are on the horizon for minorities, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Egypt?
Unfortunately, early indications suggest that LGBT rights may even suffer in the new Egypt. The results of the parliamentary votes were as follows, about 46% to Freedom and Justice party (generally thought of as the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, who can be considered as moderate Islamists), 24% to Al-Nour party (a Salafi Islamist party that can be considered as extremists), 15% to different liberal parties, and the rest (5%) is distributed to small parties and individuals with different backgrounds including Islamist, liberals and people from the former regime.
Positively, the Freedom and Justice Party have already stated they would not go into coalition with Al-Nour, as the party advocates a Saudi Arabian-style state with discrimination against women and minorities. This indicates that a moderate coalition is more likely, however it will be dominated by the opinions of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Despite being ‘moderate’, they have clearly stated that the rules of religion set the limits on the freedoms they are prepared to offer Egyptian citizens. And modern interpretations, in the Middle East at least, set lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights as being contrary to Islam.
A decade ago Dr Essam El-Erian, vice president of the Freedom and Justice Party who is also heavily involved in the Muslim Brotherhood, commented: ‘From my religious view, all the religious people, in Christianity, in Judaism, condemn homosexuality… It is against the whole sense in Egypt. The temper in Egypt is against homosexuality.’ While his tone has perhaps softened since then, experts say his opinions have not changed.
And when Mohamed Badei, general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, was asked about human rights at a public meeting last year, he said: ‘We totally support human rights, but not everything, for example the west had legalized same-sex marriage under the name of human rights and democracy and this is something that we will never accept in Egypt.’
He also stated: ‘It is not permissible for democracy to allow what's forbidden (haraam) or forbid what's allowed (halal) even if the entire nation agreed to it.’
This plays to a point which may be even more important for the long-term future of gay rights in Egypt than the make-up of the parliament. The constitution is currently being reviewed but it was the military supreme council that decided who was going to sit on the constitutional committee. That has meant that liberal parties and the youth movement, who were most likely to be sympathetic to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights are badly underrepresented. Many of the youth protestors of last year wanted to see a secular Egypt. But it now seems highly likely that ‘article two’, which states that Islamic law is the driving force behind the constitution, will remain.
That means that all legislation will be interpreted in the context of Islamic law and that is an issue which rings many alarm bells for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Egyptians. Currently in Egypt there is no clear law against homosexuality, but the old regime used other public order and morality laws against homosexuals. The most famous case was in 2001, the ‘Queen Boat incident’, when more than 50 people were sent to prison after being arrested in what was considered as a gay club. In the same way future moralistic interpretations of the law seem possible or even likely if Islam is the country’s guiding force – whether or not homosexuality is actually criminalized.
And there is a third worrying sign for gay and trans citizens. The military council has promised to stand aside in June following presidential elections – though many Egyptians expect them to ensure they hold considerable sway even after that point. But Mohamed ElBaradei the most liberal candidate for the presidency has dropped out.
Instead Amr Moussa is far ahead in the presidential polls. Dan Littauer editor of Gay Middle East and a contributor for Gay Star News says Moussa clearly separates lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights from other human rights.
In response to an interview question with Stephen Sackur, on the BBC's Hardtalk show, Moussa furiously rejected gay rights, calling it a trivial issue, which is unacceptable and un-Egyptian.
Moussa was asked to outline his vision for human rights in the new Egypt, which he described: ‘I stand for civil society and a clear modern constitution that guarantee the liberty of everybody with an article dealing with the Islamic reference as article two as it exists today. We are for it, I am for it, everybody is for it. But we are also for, I am also for stipulation that all Egyptians are equal before the law. Regardless of religion, colour, creed or anything else.’
In fact the word ‘stipulation’ implies he would set these rights as less important than article two. So for an Egyptian constitution expert, it could suggest that Moussa would want even those human rights he does support interpreted in the context of Islamic law.
When Sackur pressed Moussa if sexual orientation will be included in equality before the law, he replied: ‘What is this trivial issue that you are raising?’
‘But this is a part of Egypt,’ insisted Sackur.
‘No, no, no, no! That is not a part of Egypt, why should we accept lesbian or… why should we? What is the measurement for that?’ Moussa furiously responded.
‘So those sorts of cultural issues you believe are not important in defining the new Egypt?’ Sackur repeated.
Moussa replied: ‘There are more important things to define in the new Egypt than this question about lesbians or homos! Those things are exceptions… [to] basic rights.’
Littauer said: ‘It is too soon to determine if the 2012 Egyptian government will have any impact on LGBT rights. Article 2 is the legal basis for interpreting what is deemed as “public order and public morals" and thus used against members of Egypt’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in absence of any law that prohibits consensual same-sex practices.
‘And article two is likely to remain in some way or another as part of the Egyptian constitution, which is, as it stands now, being revised by a committee appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, with little or no input from parliament.
‘Whether the legislators are likely to revise the context of its interpretation specifically with regards to LGBT rights remains unclear, although indication from the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and the main presidential candidate is not encouraging and leave room for worry.’
It seems everything lies in the balance; the amount of control the military will allow to parliament or the president, the future stance of the parliament, the presidential elections themselves, the exact wording of the constitution and the level of debate there will be around human rights in general, let alone gay rights. On all these points it is, perhaps, too early to be sure if the outcome will be good or bad.
Meanwhile a Facebook group attempted to gain support for a gay, bi and protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo on 1 January. But fewer than 1,000 supporters backed the move. Some were concerned about being outed and some LGBT activists were even worried they did not know the identity of the organiser and feared it cause a backlash. As a result the plan was called off in December.