It’s a sick and repellent paradox that the Egyptian state media smears Egyptian LGBTQ people as tools of foreign influences, while they’ve been largely abandoned by their absentee, self-styled friends in northern LGBTQ groups. While in Egypt the media hurl curses at a few people who waved a rainbow flag, while lawmakers promise more draconian laws, while almost five dozen victims innocent of any known crime face prison terms, many international rights groups are silent or settle for symbolic gestures. This failure points to a crisis in the so-called international human rights movement, as advocacy appears to lose what efficacy it once had.
This is not about me, but I feel the need to place myself. I started working in human rights in the early 1990s, at a very immediate level: mostly in Romania, where I lived for two years. Two or three Romanian friends (and one Cameroonian student) and I began visiting prisons and documenting arrests under a sodomy law inherited from the Ceausescu dictatorship. Afterward, I went on to work for a number of “international” organizations, notably Human Rights Watch. In the Global North, people do not talk about mere human rights. They talk about “international” human rights, the “international” movement, meaning knowledge and standards that have been processed through certifiably “international” places: through offices in London, Geneva, New York. “Local” human rights don’t exist — they aren’t found in treaties — and “local” movements are like smart kids too small to sit at the grown-ups’ table.
When, years later, I decided to remain in Egypt after the 2013 military takeover, it was partly from a wish (perhaps sentimental, perhaps narcissistic) to work at that local, immediate level again. I had first come to Cairo in late November 2001, to attend the final session of the famous Queen Boat trial when 52 men faced charges of habitual debauchery and obscene behavior amid a homophobic media frenzy. After a decade and a half of comings and goings, I left for the last time — on that occasion, after a three-and-a-half year stay — in early 2016. I say “the last time” because a short but unpleasant interrogation by National Security made it plain I would never be let back in.
I stayed in 2013 because friends of friends were being arrested — including LGBTQ people. A crackdown on alleged gay men and trans people started within four months of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s seizure of power. I wanted to help my friends do something about it; I wanted to be there. My own role, never exactly formal, was simply to try to get information about horrific violations, collected locally, to the “international” sphere: to those places where the standards are set down.
By any measure, these efforts failed. The arrests went on. This mirrors a larger failure, which those “international” organizations recognize but only reluctantly confess: no form of pressure in their usual repertory seems to budge the Sisi regime. Ten years ago, those of us in international human rights groups who dealt with Egypt had the sense there was a wizened clerk somewhere in the Foreign Ministry, whose job was to calculate when abuses had gone too far. The old gnome did a running cost-benefit analysis; when the harm to Egypt’s international reputation from torturing Islamists, or harassing bloggers, or arresting queers got too crippling, he would send a message up the echelons: Put on the brakes.
If he ever existed, he’s gone now: retired, fired, or in Tora prison himself. This government is indifferent to being named-and-shamed on a global stage. Alaa Abd El Fattah remains in jail, cases against campaigners like Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid proceed deaf to international objections, and 60,000 political prisoners endure their endless agonies despite all the English-language press releases in the world. This mirrors the regime’s gross flouting of its own citizens’ opinions. In the Mubarak age, one felt, there was also a gnome in the basement of State Security headquarters in Lazoghly or the Maspero television building keeping up a comparable calculus of when repression pushed the Egyptian people’s patience too far. At some point, fearing a repeat of the 1977 bread riots or the 1986 Central Security conscripts’ mutiny, the overseers of oppression would tacitly back away. That clerk has been purged too. This state doesn’t just give away territory to the Saudis, it gives away much of its own popularity and nationalist credibility in the process. It doesn’t seem to care.
It seems grotesque to be dispassionate about the latest wave of violence against presumed-LGBTQ bodies, to try calmly to extract lessons from the spectacle. It feels absurd: as if a movie about Caligula or Genghis Khan were shown with the wrong subtitles, from The Sound of Music. Nonetheless, we need to study this condition, where a regime inflicts limitless violence and exerts surveillance without fearing oversight itself. This is no exception. It’s our future.
Human rights in an age of austerity
The increasing disregard for reputation is not unique to Egypt. Frighteningly, the practiced and polished methods of old-style human rights advocacy, developed over five decades, exert less and less effect anywhere. Governments from China to the Philippines to the UK and the United States are acquiring an immunity to shaming. However much dishonor the media or the UN heap upon their actions, they neither change nor care. The Cairo regime is only one of many that — like the afflicted characters in Mohamed Rabie’s stunning, dystopian novel Otared — have grown an impenetrable carapace sheathing eyes and ears from outside stimuli. Outrage and opprobrium no longer reach them.