It's Early Days In Egypt – But There Is Hope


I met Hassan on Grindr. Egypt has a chequered and complicated past when it comes to the persecution of the LGBTI community. Homosexuality is not an offence but practicing gay men are subjected to state-sanctioned harassment and face prosecution for a range of related offences, including debauchery and contempt of religion. This makes online forums and social media tools such as Grindr essential devices for gay men to meet each other and form the semblances of a community.

It was a cold and wet day in Sydney when I sat down in front of my computer to talk to Hassan on Skype. Hassan — and no, that isn’t his real name — is a gay activist who has been involved in the protest movement in Egypt over the past year. The miserable weather in Sydney stood in stark contrast to the blisteringly hot days I had experienced just a few weeks back in Egypt.

The weather was not the only point of difference between Sydney and Cairo. Hassan’s moving account of living as a closeted gay man in Egypt made clear that the freedoms enjoyed by gays and lesbians in Sydney are not yet a reality in much of the world.

I asked Hassan to tell me how he had become involved in the 25 January protests. He said that he had not previously been involved in any political groups or movements. He had gone along to the protests with a group of friends after being galvanised into action by the protesters’ demand for "bread, freedom and dignity". It proved to be a portentous decision: the protests at Tahrir Square marked the moment when a young generation of activists confronted the fear that had paralysed those fighting for a future free from authoritarianism.

Wasn’t he afraid, given the Mubarak regime’s propensity to head off dissent with brutal displays of force? After pausing for a moment, Hassan replied: "I wasn’t afraid; that’s why I joined. I believe that if you have no dignity and no freedom then there is no need for life."

The protests did not quite turn out as Hassan had expected. Shortly after he arrived, he was arrested. He spent 30 wretched hours in one of the police force’s holding cells.

The initial euphoria that greeted the news that Mubarak was stepping down gave way to anger as the protesters realised that the military establishment had served up Mubarak as a sacrificial lamb in order to maintain its hold on power. Any concessions that have been made, such as the promise to hold presidential elections by the middle of 2012, have been made grudgingly in response to continuing protests. Although the number of protesters out on the streets has decreased since the height of the revolution, a resolute minority has continued to meet the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ intransigence and fatal violence with dogged determination and hope.

I asked Hassan what he thought about the resounding victory of Islamist parties in the elections. Although the participation of some of these groups in the 25 January protests were limited, they have reaped most of the benefits of the revolution.

"I don’t like the Muslim Brotherhood at all. They give Islam a bad name because most of what they want to do doesn’t come from Islam at all. All they are interested in is money and influence," Hassan responded. I could discern the steely look in his eye even from the pixelated image on my laptop screen.

Hassan went on: "They were hardly involved in the protest. They also thought that the protesters were a bunch of kids like the government thought. But then once they saw that things were changing, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood told their members to go to Tahrir Square. They joined the protest like cows, but it wasn’t because they believed in the revolution."

This provided a partial explanation as to why the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, had done so well in the first two rounds of elections, receiving about 40 per cent of the vote. It seemed that Egyptians who were not directly involved in the protests attributed the success of the revolution to the Muslim Brotherhood who had long been the public face of opposition to Mubarak and his cronies.

The Salafist’s El Nour party, which advocated a state run according to the strict dictates of Islam had also performed quite well. El Nour had won about 20 per cent of the vote. It was this result which was causing the most consternation overseas.

According to Hassan, the Salafists had no public presence before the 25 January revolution; existing only behind closed doors. Hassan’s analysis of El Nour’s solid showing in the polls was that the party had capitalised on its association with Islam. A personal anecdote that Hassan recounted brought home the fact that even the hyper-religious weren’t immune from political opportunism.

"I knew some Salafists before the revolution. They were not organised into a political party and they told me that they were not involved in any political activities. I got this same answer from the many Salafists I spoke to. But before the elections I found out that they had created a party called El Nour, and were demanding their rights and asking for the mixing of religion and politics."

Hassan was particularly scathing about the Salafist’s prescription for Egypt’s political and economic development. Egypt faces a number of very significant challenges, including a moribund economy, low levels of education and the fact that its tourism industry, its largest export, has ground to a virtual standstill. Some of the Salafist’s early public pronouncements, such as their wish to cover the pyramids and ancient archaeological ruins depicting "idolatrous" gods in wax struck me as plain bizzare.

"If the Salafists really care about Egypt, they will wait until Egypt is more stable before they start demanding that religion should be brought into politics. There are more important things, like education. Most people in Egypt have very low levels of education and can’t think for themselves. This is a real problem and one which should be addressed first."

The military’s unwillingness to play a diminished role in the Egyptian polity and the success of political parties which advocate a fairly rigid and inflexible application of Islamic law did not fill me with confidence about the prospects for sexual freedom in Egypt. It was with some trepidation that I posed my next question to Hassan: "Do you think the lives of gay men and women will become easier now that Mubarak is gone?"

Hassan paused for what seemed like a long time. I wasn’t sure if this was the result of thoughtful contemplation or due to my Skype connection dropping out.

"I have hope that things will change because people are now freer to talk about a range of issues, including sexuality. It’s early days yet, but there is hope. It’s my life and I won’t allow anyone to control it."

"Is this what you meant when you said that you went to Tahrir Square to fight for dignity and freedom?" I asked.

"Exactly," Hassan replied, "There are more protests planned for 25 January 2012. This will be the second revolution, when we, inshallah, will get what we originally fought for."

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