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LGBTI in Egypt: The moment police demanded I became a political spy

LGBTI in Egypt: The moment police demanded I became a political spy

Fans wave rainbow flags at Mashrou' Leila gig in Cairo.

What is it like being LGBTI in Egypt? The best description I can give is that ‘better safe than sorry’ has to be your motto.

It wasn’t always this way. Throughout history, many Middle Eastern cultures and civilizations have tolerated or event embraced homosexuality.

In ancient Egypt, for example, homosexuality was woven into mythological religious stories.

Even when Egypt was under Islam, during the Abbasid dynasty or caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, it was accepted. The Persian Arabic poet Abu Nawwas praised men’s beauty publicly in his poetry during the Abbasid dynasty.

Today, however, Egyptian society considers gay sex shameful. Rather than having a specific law against homsoexuality, Egypt uses ‘morality laws’ to punish LGBTI people. We face prison and fines and the authorities often make up extra charges to increase the punishment.

‘You’re a faggot and we have the proof’

The police often set traps and do not hesitate to use LGBTI people’s sexuality against us. Indeed, I have experienced this myself.

This was back in 2010, before the 2011 revolution in Egypt. But it was a time of political turmoil, after the parliamentary elections. At the time, I was in my first year at university.

Unexpectedly, one of the university police officers asked me to attend a small ‘meeting’ in his office. I, of course, said ‘OK’ and he set  an appointment for me.

When I arrived, this is how the conversation went:

Me: Assalamu Alaikum [May peace be upon you, a normal greeting.]

The police officer: Waalikum As Salam [And unto you peace, the usual reply]. Would you please have a seat? You look so tired.

Me: Yes, your office is a long way from my college.

Him: OK. What would you like to drink? We have hot drinks, cold drinks and soft drinks.

Me: Thanks so much. May I just have a cup of water?

Him: We would like to ask your help with something.

Me: [Rolling my eyes, wondering what kind of help would they need from me? After all, they’re the police and I am just a new student,] OK, how can I help you?

Him: We want you to spy on your colleagues and tell us their political views on the current regime, especially the conservative ones.

Me: Well, I am not used to spying on others and it’s not in my nature to do it.

Him: Well, we can make a deal. I know that you’re a faggot and that you’re getting fucked and we have the proof. So this is the deal for clearing you, otherwise, you will have to face the consequences.

Forcing LGBTIs to spy on each other

I told my parents what the police officer had said and they panicked. They were shocked and tried to contact many of our acquaintances to ask for help. In particular, they turned to my uncle, who is an ex-army officer, and who agreed to work on it.

Very luckily, I was able to get away with it.

But I had learned for myself how police will use their victims. Likewise, they force LGBTI people to report other LGBTIs to them, in return for releasing them and deleting their criminal records.

And, of course, those who get used as spies are the lucky ones, in many ways. Most LGBTIs get detained, jailed, and even fined too.

So how do gay and bi people meet in Egypt?

Against this backdrop, you may ask how LGBTI people get to meet each other.

The only option for many of us are dating apps such as Tinder, Hornet, Grindr. They are top of the list in the LGBTI community in Egypt because they are mobile, private and anonymous.

Despite this, these apps are far from safe. Before meeting anyone else from the LGBTI community in Egypt, you have to consider if it may be a trap.

Obviously you can’t see who is typing you messages on their PC or smartphone. So you have no idea who they are or even what they may look like.

For most guys, the ‘date’ you end up going on is best described as a ‘hook-up’.

Many of us can’t imagine a long-term relationship. The restrictions society puts on our daily lives, our need to keep our sexuality secret and the conservative atmosphere makes it impossible for most people to make a relationship last. So we end up having one-night stands for some brief fun.

Moreover, it is not just the police we have to fear. Most people are aware meeting someone from an app may also expose you to sexual harassment, rape or even being killed. I, myself, have been assaulted on a ‘date’.

Egypt’s police crackdown

For a little over 12 months, the police have been running an even tougher crackdown on LGBTI people in Egypt.

Though you may argue the crackdown started before, it escalated when gay-fronted Lebanese band Mashrou Leila held a huge concert in Cairo in September last year (2017).

During the gig, fans flew rainbow flags in the crowd. The result was a witch-hunt. Egypt banned Mashrou Leila from performing in the country again. And police started targeting LGBTI people, some of whom fled their homes to avoid arrest.

The Egyptian police stepped up using fake profiles on dating apps – making dating feel like a minefield.

A snapshot of being LGBTI in Egypt

This is just a snapshot of what it feels like to be an LGBTI person in Egypt, or in fact across the Middle East and North Africa. But it is just a tip of the iceberg of so many stories I can tell about the secretive world my friends and I have to live in.

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