Egypt: Why Is the Egyptian Government So Afraid of a Rainbow Flag?

Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy) is the author of “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution” and a contributing opinion writer.

It was a calamitous ambush. On Oct. 21, militants fired rockets and detonated explosives in the desert southwest of Cairo, killing at least 59 Egyptian police officers and security officials in the worst assault on security forces since 2015. The shocking attack is the latest reminder of the very real threat that armed militants pose to Egypt’s security forces.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seems incapable of quelling this menace: An insurgency that has killed hundreds of troops and police officers in northern Sinai continues; judges and police officers in Cairo have been attacked.

So with such a real and present danger, why would Mr. Sisi’s government, aided by a team of media personalities and religious authorities, spend the past month whipping up a frenzy over another kind of “threat” altogether?

As part of what can best be described as hysterical homophobia, more than 65 people, mostly gay men, have been arrested in the crackdown against L.G.B.T. Egyptians. At least 20 people have received prison sentences, ranging from six months to six years. Several men have been subjected to anal examinations, which human rights groups describe as a form of torture, ostensibly to determine whether they have engaged in anal sex.

This wave of arrests and raids began after gay-pride rainbow flags were flown at a concert by a Lebanese indie-rock band, Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay. It was not the first time fans displayed rainbow flags at a Mashrou’ Leila concert, a gay friend who has attended some of the band’s previous concerts in Cairo reminds me. He also reminds me that rainbow flags were flown in Tahrir Square during the 18 days of protest that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Same-sex relationships are not illegal in Egypt, but gay men are arrested under “debauchery” laws. So why now? Why the parade of men “confessing” to being gay and “repenting” on TV talk shows, and the psychiatrists touting “conversion therapy”?

Across the Middle East and North Africa, increasingly bold expressions of sexual freedom are clearly unsettling regimes accustomed to being guardians not just of “national security” but also of our bodies and sexualities. Mr. Sinno is unapologetically “brown, queer and from a Muslim family” by his own description. Mashrou’ Leila, with its sexually subversive songs — which include references to gender fluidity and Abu Nawas, an eighth-century Arab, and Sappho (both known for poems that celebrate same-sex love) — have become icons for a beleaguered but determined L.G.B.T. community and a lightning rod for our moral guardians. Read more via the New York Times