Karim was holding his breath in the trunk of a car, the stale pungent air heavy in his lungs, when the officers came.
He was already hundreds of miles from his home in Egypt.
In his possession, he only had a few items in a small bag: a wallet, a ring of his mother’s, and a well-thumbed comic book.
His boyfriend was already in prison. He was next. He had to leave.
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LGBTI crackdown in Egypt
The young psychology major, at 21, ran away due to the 2017 crackdown on the LGBTI community by police in Egypt.
No less than 84 have been arrested and received jail sentences ranging from six months to six years.
The charges were varied, including ‘debauchery’, ‘inciting sexual deviancy’ and ‘joining an outlawed group’.
‘With the new law, just by continuing to exist I am considered illegal,’ Karim told Gay Star News.
‘I had to leave Egypt. It’s not safe for people like me anymore.’
Karim’s boyfriend Omar [not his name] was one of the many arrested following rainbow flags being raised at the Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo in 2017.
Going on the run
He fled from Cairo to his aunt’s home in Alexandria. He spent the next week trying, desperately, to get a job on a ship.
Karim’s plan was to abandon the boat once they reached a destination safe for LGBTI people.
But he fled in November, and no one was hiring in the low season. He couldn’t stay at his aunt’s house for long, as she would soon grow suspicious and contact his homophobic family.
He set his sights on Israel. However, he was left without a way to get there.
So he made several anonymous online profiles on his phone, begging for anyone to come to his aid.
An older man, around 61, reached out on Twitter. He said he would be making the 10-hour journey to Israel from Egypt and he’d be happy to take him.
Their journey would take them through Cairo – the very place Karim wanted to avoid.
It was at a random police checking point when the officers stopped the car.
Karim had gone into the trunk around 10 minutes beforehand, and hoped he would not be seen.
‘Can I see what’s in your trunk, sir?’ the officer asked the driver, Karim remembers.
‘Nothing’s in it other than a spare tire,’ the man replied.
‘Fine,’ the officer responded. ‘Go on ahead.’
Karim eventually made it to Tel Aviv.
He worked in a bar, cash in hand, and stayed at the manager’s home for four months. Every day he hoped he would hear from his partner Omar, but he didn’t.
He got a bar job on a minor cruise ship. And then when the ship made it to the UK, he claimed asylum.
Karim has yet to be given asylum but he holds out hope.
‘For the first time, I feel like I’m safe,’ Karim said.
Omar, his partner, was a part of a student union for advocates. He was working to get his law degree to tackle restrictions on freedom of speech in Egypt.
He was jailed for four years.
‘I feel like Omar has been silenced. In a way I wish it was me who was in prison.
‘Omar would know what to do. I feel hopeless.
Egypt bill will jail you for gay sex, LGBTI activism and even waving a rainbow flag
In 2017, MP Riyad Abdel Sattar also authored a measure that would sentence LGBTI people, and allies, to jail.
‘Any person engaging in homosexuality in a public or private place should be subjected to punitive action that should be no less than one year and not exceeding three years in jail,’ it reads.
‘Individuals that incite same sex relations, either by inciting, facilitating, hosting, or calling for, even if they don’t perform the act itself, will be punished to prison…as well as shutting down the venue.’
Both publicity and advertising for LGBTI parties, bars and clubs will be banned.
‘It is strictly prohibited to carry any symbol or sign of the homosexual community, as well as it’s prohibited to produce, sell, market, or promote such products. Violators will be sentenced to prison for a period no less than one year and no more than three years.’
This means activists, journalists covering gay events, or anyone even carrying a rainbow flag could be imprisoned.
The bill remained stagnant in parliament after the crackdown dissipated.
But, for Karim, the danger remains very real.