Thinking Out Loud: Lessons from Egypt

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A tourist’s view of what Egypt’s new democracy means for LGBT rights.

2011 will be known in large part for the Arab Spring. From my LA home, I felt such camaraderie with those brave, ordinary people who, as if on cue, came together to oust dictators and call for democracy. In Egypt, the word “Tahrir,” which once meant only the busy downtown square of cell phone shops, restaurants, tony hotels and the grand Egyptian Museum, now refers to the revolutionary fire that brought down Mubarek and continues to burn into a profoundly uncertain future.

I’m fortunate I actually got to see Tahrir last month—both the place and the expression in Egyptian faces as they hotly debate, over bubbling Sheesha pipes and sweet, thick black coffee, what comes next. Egyptians are impassioned and opinionated about most things and their new democracy is definitely not coming quietly. I am hopeful, but like everyone I spoke to, very worried. 

Tahrir is definitely inspiring. How can I not compare it to our American origin story? We are taught that democracy is synonymous with freedom and progress. Now that anything is possible in Egypt, LGBT rights must be part of the discussion, right? 

They’re not. 

As I traveled discretely with my partner, calling her “my friend” through clenched teeth and looking vainly for subtle signs anywhere that we weren’t the only gays in town, I felt like I’d time-traveled to the 50s. 

Egypt rightly prides itself on its sophistication and comfortable coexistence of different ideas. Homosexuality is not per se illegal. But Egypt is a Muslim country as a matter of law. Subjective notions of what is indecent or offensive to Islam have been used to randomly imprison LGBT people. You might remember the “Cairo 52,” half of whom were sentenced to hard labor in 2001 for partying on a boat while gay. Dozens have since been arrested and brutally sentenced for crimes as innocuous as posting on dating sites. There are worse places to be gay (Uganda springs to mind), but few countries match Egypt for its total suppression of mere conversation about LGBT rights. 

But everything that came before January 2011 could change tomorrow. While the military retains a tenuous grip on things for now, elections have begun for the country’s new parliament and who will best represent the needs of the people in drafting the new constitution. 

Democracy is not magic, as our high school textbooks suggest. Democracy in a country with dwindling resources, crushing poverty, 25% illiteracy, and a non-existent government infrastructure (detritus of country-wide corruption) looks a lot like mob rule. The liberal party’s talk of secularism and vague freedoms means little when you can’t afford propane to heat your food and the only people who seem willing to help are the religious groups canvassing your village and providing discount fuel. Freedom implies choice. To most Egyptians, there are no real choices. 

Except perhaps the choice between the fundamentalist Salafists, who would remove women from public life completely, and the much more moderate Muslim Brotherhood who have, more or less, promised to maintain the civil rights status quo. The Muslim Brotherhood are in the lead, mostly because they have their act together and it’s better than alternative. But the Salafists are in 2nd place with a shocking 30% of the vote. Remember that only a generation ago, few Egyptian women even covered their heads.
I’ve always believed that LGBT rights were inextricably connected to women’s rights and the end of rigid gender roles. As I watch Egypt retreat into more conservative religiosity for a sense of security, I know a reversal of women’s rights is inevitable. I am unable to imagine how LGBT rights in this environment could be anything more than a secret dream for now. 

Already knowing the answer, I asked my Egyptian guide if I was being pessimistic. He said no. Egyptians just aren’t ready. At home, I’d dismiss such a statement as mealy-mouthed cowardice. Not so in Egypt, or likely any place with a desperate and uneducated populace. I see that democracy can fast-track regression just as easily as it can bring progress. And how can I not see the same fact at play right at home? I hope I’m wrong. Inshallah.

A tourist’s view of what Egypt’s new democracy means for LGBT rights.

2011 will be known in large part for the Arab Spring. From my LA home, I felt such camaraderie with those brave, ordinary people who, as if on cue, came together to oust dictators and call for democracy. In Egypt, the word “Tahrir,” which once meant only the busy downtown square of cell phone shops, restaurants, tony hotels and the grand Egyptian Museum, now refers to the revolutionary fire that brought down Mubarek and continues to burn into a profoundly uncertain future.