Gays in Egypt, Tunisia Worry about Post-Revolt Era

Manila Bulletin, May 22, 2011 | Go to article overview

Gays in Egypt, Tunisia Worry about Post-Revolt Era


CAIRO (AP) - While many of their compatriots savor a new political era, gays in Egypt and Tunisia aren't sharing the joy, according to activists who wonder if the two revolutions could in fact make things worse for an already marginalized community.

In both countries, gays and their allies worry that conservative Islamists, whose credo includes firm condemnation of homosexuality, could increase their influence in elections later this year.

"Our struggle goes on - it gets more and more difficult," Tunisian gays-rights and HIV-AIDS activist Hassen Hanini wrote to The Associated Press in an email. "The Tunisian gay community is still seeking its place in society in this new political environment."

In much of the world, the push for gay rights has advanced inexorably in recent years. Countries which now allow same-sex marriage range from Portugal to South Africa to Argentina.

Throughout the Arab world, however, homosexual conduct remains taboo - it is punishable by floggings, long prison terms and in some cases execution in religiously conservative Saudi Arabia, and by up to three years imprisonment in relatively secular Tunisia. Iraq and Yemen each experienced a surge of killings of gays two years ago.

In Egypt, consensual same-sex relations are not prohibited as such, but other laws - those prohibiting "debauchery" or "shameless public acts" - have been used to imprison gay men in recent years.

Ten years ago, Egypt attracted worldwide attention - including criticism from international human rights groups - when 52 men were arrested in a police raid on a Nile boat restaurant/disco and accused of taking part in a gay sex party. After a highly publicized trial in an emergency state security court, 23 of the men were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of one to five years for immoral behavior and contempt of religion.

The case caused a storm in Egypt as some newspapers published names and photos of the defendants in graphic stories. At the start of the trial, many defendants covered their faces with towels in the presence of photographers.

In 2008, four HIV-positive Egyptians were sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted of the "habitual practice of debauchery." Human rights groups warned that the case could undermine HIV/AIDS prevention efforts in Egypt.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch - which monitors discrimination against gays as part of wide-ranging global activities - says there are no organizations in Egypt which specifically identify as gay-rights advocates.

"There's been no movement on this issue in Egypt since the revolution nor is there likely to be any improvement in the short-term," said Heba Morayef, the main Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Some of the void in advocacy is filled by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which in a decade of existence has defended people entangled in various anti-gay prosecutions as part of its broader civil-liberties agenda.

The group's executive director, Hossam Bahgat, said the once-common use of entrapment to arrest gays has subsided in recent years. But he said anti-gay debauchery trials still take place occasionally.

Short-term, Bahgat was skeptical that any Western-style gay-rights movement could take hold in Egypt - despite the sense of liberation following the February ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the longtime authoritarian president.

"The challenge is to ensure that what emerges from the transition isn't just a democratic government but also a democratic society," Bahgat said, referring to the quest for equitable treatment of women, religious minorities and gays.

"Any attempt to fixate only on the issue of same-sex relationships is not going to be very fruitful and can cause more harm than good," he said. "We have to learn to coexist, to not only accept our diversity, but even celebrate it."

In the long term, Bahgat said he was cautiously optimistic because Egyptians under 30 - a majority of the population - seem more open than their elders to the concept of a diverse Egypt. …

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