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Liberal hopes dashed as Egypt turns conservative

CAIRO: In this Dec 9, 2015 file photo, Egyptian journalists hold posters calling for the release from prison detention of Mahmoud Abou-Zeid, known as Shawkan, in front of the Syndicate of Journalists building. —AP
CAIRO: In this Dec 9, 2015 file photo, Egyptian journalists hold posters calling for the release from prison detention of Mahmoud Abou-Zeid, known as Shawkan, in front of the Syndicate of Journalists building. —AP

CAIRO: When Egypt’s military overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, Egyptians like Nabil dared to hope that their conservative country was on the brink of change. Like many gay Egyptians, Nabil faced a life of persecution and intolerance, and when the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi came to power in 2012 he fled to the United States.

Many believed that Morsi’s ouster amid mass protests a year later and replacement with then-army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi would nudge Egyptian society in a more liberal direction.

But two years after Sisi took office, those hopes have been dashed by a crackdown, not just on the gay community, but on writers, intellectuals and even belly dancers who have fallen foul of conservatives and Egypt’s influential Islamic authorities. “I was hoping that with the change of that theocratic regime of the Muslim Brotherhood the people will realize that they’ve been fooled all this time and become less conservative,” Nabil said.

But any thought of returning from the United States, where he has been granted asylum, has been set aside for now. “Things are worse. Egypt has gone backwards,” says Nabil, 29, who asked to be identified with a pseudonym for his protection. Morsi’s overthrow unleashed a crackdown on his supporters that killed hundreds of protesters and detained thousands. Authorities then began rounding up liberal and leftist political activists who had been involved in the protests against Morsi and the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Morality Laws

As Sisi has consolidated his rule, the suppression of political dissent has paved the way for a rise of conservatism, says rights lawyer Negad El Borai. “One-voice regimes are usually conservative by default,” Borai says. “They’re linked not only to restrictions in the political sphere, but in freedoms in general.” Sisi had initially promised modernity and vowed religion would not be used in politics again.

But the authorities’ actions say otherwise. In April, 11 men accused of homosexuality were sentenced to prison terms of up to 12 years after they were convicted of “debauchery”. Egyptian law does not prohibit homosexuality, but gays are prosecuted under debauchery laws. “They like to show they are still Muslims: ‘We’re a Muslim state you guys, we have arrested some gays here’,” says Nabil.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) has documented at least 200 cases against gays and transgender people since Morsi’s overthrow. “The sentences are terrifying,” says Dalia Abd El-Hameed, head of the gender program at the EIPR. The crackdown has widened, with several artists jailed for violating morality laws. In February, writer Ahmed Naji was imprisoned for violating “public modesty” after a state-run newspaper ran an excerpt from his novel that described a sex scene. Islam Behairy, an Islamic researcher, was in December sentenced to a year in prison for “insulting religion” over remarks he made on his television program criticizing books in the Sunni Muslim canon.

Al-Azhar Leads Backlash

In January, poet Fatma Naoot was sentenced to three years in jail after she criticised in a Facebook post the slaughter of cattle and sheep for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. She had left the country. And last year, three belly dancers known as Shakira, Bardis, and Reda El-Fouly served time on accusations they broadcast “obscenities” in music videos. Al-Azhar, Egypt’s top Islamic authority, has been central to the conservative backlash, leading a charge against Behairy that saw his television programme discontinued. “Al-Azhar today has more political influence than under Mubarak,” says Borai.

The constitution adopted in early 2014 after Morsi’s overthrow strengthened Al-Azhar’s role, making it “the main reference on religious studies and Islamic affairs.” Some critics say a lack of legal clarity is allowing for morality laws to be applied too broadly. Lawmaker Zakareya Mohyeldin is trying to abolish an article in the criminal code that leaves the definition of blasphemy vague. That section “imprisons thinkers and it is against freedom of thought and creativity,” he says. But others, including Borai, do not believe changing laws is the solution. “You can incorporate the best law in the world, but if society and the judiciary are not open and just, this law is worthless,” he says. – AFP

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