MEPs and some of the UK's top stars have petitioned the president of Egypt to pardon 23 men jailed for their sexual orientation. For the sake of even-handedness and to garner public support, the campaign must call for the release of all prisoners of consicence and the dismantling of Egypt's two-decade-old emergency laws.
Backed by UK media celebrities including Elton John, Eddie Izzard, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson, and over a hundred fellow MEPs, former British soap opera star MEP Michael Cashman formally presented Egypt's EU ambassador last week with a petition addressed to President Hosni Mubarak, the only man who can grant a pardon in the case.
The 23 men were convicted in November for allegedly lewd behaviour in public, habitual debauchery, denigrating monotheistic faiths and propagating deviant ideas. They were among 52 men arrested by police last May on the Queen Boat, a well-known gay hangout in Cairo. The other 29 were subsequently released without charge.
While the Egyptian ambassador to the EU has argued that the case has nothing to do with their sexual orientation, since being gay is not outlawed in Egypt, the petitioners and international human rights groups insist that all the charges, which they say evidence for which is lacking, are euphemisms for homosexuality.
Legal terms and hair-splitting semantics aside, there is little doubt that the men's sexual orientation was the reason behind their arrest and subsequent conviction. However, previous efforts by human rights groups, gay activists, US and European politicians have not yet secured the men's release.
Cashman, who is understandably concerned about the plight of these men, has suggested that, if diplomatic initiatives fail, the EU should suspend its association agreement with Egypt on human rights grounds. I would, however, argue that coming to blows over this case is merely attacking the symptoms of a more serious malaise that has been growing alarmingly over the past couple of years.
Throughout a good part of the 1990s, Egypt seemed to have finally found the path to economic prosperity and to be earnestly pursuing a process of democratisation. However, a dramatic reversal of Egypt's economic fortunes has seen a deterioration in its human rights record. Its animosity towards its most powerful and organised political rival, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, after a period of toleration, has re-emerged. Using the pre-text of anti-terrorism, thousands of brotherhood members, who employ peaceful political means, and other, more militant, Islamists are currently lingering in detention centres and prisons or are the victims of torture.
As part of its efforts to minimise the social fallout of its political detentions and deflect attention from rising unemployment and poverty, it is attempting to take over some of the Islamist platform, while appearing to offer a more secular alternative. Many commentators believe the government has cynically attempted to placate the public with sensationalist, high profile cases of defending national security and the faith against corrupt intellectuals and social activists. It is in the context of the government's ‘moral cleanup' and its growing existential paranoia that the Queen Boat case was presented to the public as some sort of decadent cult bent on tearing apart Egypt's social fabric.
On the face of things, Islamists, secular activists and homosexuals have little in common. However, there is a common thread that links them all. They are all cases that would not stand the scrutiny of Egypt's independent judiciary but have all been tried by emergency state security and military courts. These tribunals exist under a 20-year-old ‘state of emergency' that has been in place since the late President Anwar Sadat was assassinated. Apart from questions being raised by Egyptians about how a country can exist in perpetual emergency, it would confirm European public fears of the corrosive effects on human rights of proposed sweeping anti-terrorism laws that may, too, one day prove difficult to shrug off.
The EU, which views Egypt as a key strategic ally and prestigious regional player, has voiced, at best, muted criticism of these draconian emergency laws and of Cairo's handling of political opponents, particularly Islamists. Gays are indeed victims of state heavy-handedness, but they are not the only ones. Ordinary Egyptians may greet with suspicion EU pressure to release these 23 men while thousands more prisoners of conscience languish behind bars.
Cashman says that if his current drive does not work he and his associates will launch an international petition and, if all else fails, call on the European Commission to suspend its association agreement with Egypt – signed last summer but not yet ratified by either side – arguing that the EU cannot “bankroll” human rights abuses. The European Union, however, is unlikely to jeopardise so openly its ties with what it views as a key player and reformer on the Middle Eastern and African stage.
However principled his stance may seem, such a confrontational approach is unlikely to help these men's case, particularly in the court of public opinion. In a country where heterosexual sex out of wedlock is still a hot topic of debate in conservative circles, gay sex is largely a taboo subject. In short, Egyptian society has a problem coming to terms with sexuality – whatever its persuasion. Even straight but unmarried couples have to exercise a certain amount of discretion.
Although gays in Egypt tend to live beneath society's radar, most Egyptians don't wish them harm and leave them in peace. People know exactly where the gay hangouts are and who their gay friends, colleagues, and even ministers are – they just don't often advertise it in the public sphere. However, if quizzed publicly about it, many people will say its wrong or fudge the issue. This has made Egypt's embattled civil society and liberals – already facing hard times fighting for other rights – reluctant to take up the banner of gay rights.
It is important for Cashman and his supporters to see through the government smoke screen and campaign against the infrastructure that make such abuses possible, thereby tapping into the groundswell of popular opinion. If they wish to be courageous defenders of human rights, I believe they must press the government to resume its stalled democratisation drive by abolishing emergency laws, releasing all civilians convicted in exceptional courts and dismantling the state security apparatus that has made life for a large number of Egyptians more perilous.
Calling only for the release of these 23 men will play into the hands of conservatives who often claim that homosexuality is a western ‘import' designed to ‘weaken' the fabric of society. It will also further weaken the cause, in the public eye, of the Egyptian human rights movement which the government has been trying to paint as unpatriotic and the mouthpiece of foreign powers.
It may not be the kind of direct gay lib activism that Europe has become used to, but most Egyptian homosexuals will be content to go back to living, as they have traditionally done, discreetly, away from centre stage, and most Egyptians will be glad to let them be until society is one day ready to face up to its various sexual identities. It took Europe long decades of hard graft to bring about its sexual revolution and sustain it. Egypt's own revolution is still pre-pubescence.