One year on from rainbow flag arrests, Egypt continues LGBT crackdown

by Ifeatu Nnaobi | All Out
Monday, 24 September 2018 16:54 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A rainbow is seen behind boats in the Mediterranean Sea at the city of Alexandria December 17, 2009. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One year after a brutal crackdown on LGBT+ people, the human rights record of the Egyptian regime has only deteriorated

On 22 September 2017, the rainbow flag was waved at a music concert in Cairo. A brutal crackdown on LGBT+ people followed quickly – clearly designed to intimidate and to erase the pride so bravely on show at the concert. This crackdown is still ongoing LGBT+ Egyptians do not feel safe – many of them believing it’s only a matter of time until they are arrested. In the one year since the rainbow flag event, the human rights record of the Egyptian regime has only deteriorated.

Last year’s crackdown started after a few people attending a music concert by Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila waved a rainbow flag. Over 35,000 concertgoers showed up to see the band and two other Arab bands perform. During the show, fans were photographed waving a rainbow flag – the universal symbol of LGBT+ pride – in solidarity with the group. The band’s frontman is openly gay, and the band has been outspoken about LGBT+ issues. In the days that followed, pictures of the event circulated on social media and Egyptian TV commentators and newspapers were quick to turn it into a public scandal; even asking the government to take action.

The government responded quickly. The group was immediately banned from playing in the country, and Egyptian authorities launched what activists and human rights observers believe is the most severe crackdown on the country’s LGBT+ community. Those arrested were charged with “promoting sexual deviancy”. Many were tried and convicted with sentences ranging from six months to six years in prison and fined. Some were even tried under Egypt’s national security legislation. In the weeks that followed, more people were arrested in connection with the rainbow flag incident. Human rights groups report that there have been at least 75 arrests.

Human rights activists have demanded a stop to the arrests as they violate the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. At All Out, over 60,000 people signed a petition to remind the Egyptian state of its responsibility to protect citizens and guarantee their freedom of speech and expression. The signatures were delivered to the Minister of Justice in 2017.

Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Egypt, but LGBT people are typically charged under debauchery and prostitution laws. The crackdown on LGBT+ people did not begin with the rainbow flag incident. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), documented a four-year period (2013 - 2017) in which Egyptian police escalated actions against people whose sexuality or sexual practices, actual or perceived, differed from those considered normative in Egyptian society. The report noted that an average of 66 people each year are arrested in relation to being LGBT+. This was before the mass arrests following the concert. In 2018 alone, over 30 people have been arrested in connection with being LGBT+.

Tourism is one of Egypt’s biggest selling points, both in terms of revenue for the government and reputation as a nation. All Out is launching a campaign targeting travel agencies in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.A. These companies are large investors in the Egyptian tourist industry and can have significant leverage on Egyptian government policy. They are well-positioned to constructively engage in this matter by using their global reach to create more awareness about this issue. We are asking the CEOs of companies such as Expedia and TUI to remind the Egyptian state of its responsibility to protect LGBT+ citizens and release from prison all those who were put in jail just because they are or assumed to be gay.

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