On February 27, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry swore in the nation’s first “special envoy for the human rights of LGBT persons,” a new diplomatic post created to contend against homophobia worldwide. At a posh D.C. reception, Kerry made familiar promises. “In country after country, LGBT communities face discriminatory laws and practices that attack their dignity, undermine their safety, and violate their human rights. … That’s unacceptable. And we believe it has to change.”
The night before, police arrested seven people in Cairo. The Egyptian government’s pet press organs trumpeted that they were dangerous “transsexuals” (some may indeed be transgender, though their identities remain unclear). The vice squad seized them in a nightclub but proudly proclaimed it had “monitored” them through fake social media profiles, part of a police strategy to infiltrate LGBT communities and exploit people’s desperate isolation. The victims face charges of “debauchery,” the term in Egyptian law for sex between men. They’ve been jailed since then; we’re told the guards have mistreated them and denied them food. They are only the latest victims of a huge state crackdown on alleged trans and gay people that has imprisoned more than 150 since 2013.
John Kerry now heads to Egypt, to raise money for the government that jailed them, at an economic summit there this week.
The irony is blatant; the hypocrisy, shameful. In 2011, Hillary Clinton, Kerry’s predecessor, declared that “gay rights are human rights,” and the Obama White House loudly moved those rights to the fore of its diplomacy. For Clinton’s presidential ambitions and for an administration that needs gay voters — and donors — the international initiative has been great domestic politics. Abroad, where it counts, it sometimes looks less impressive. Kerry is happy to throw LGBT people’s freedoms out the window while courting the Egyptian regime; his casual self-contradiction shows how little the promises matter. For Obama’s foreign policy, LGBT rights — like human rights in general — are a talking point, not a priority.
The human rights situation in Egypt is appalling. Since now-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in a 2013 military coup, jail cells have swelled with over 40,000 political prisoners. Courts hand down life sentences or death sentences for the simple act of holding a demonstration. The government threatens to shut down Egypt’s embattled civil society, including its few, brave human rights groups. A presidential decree means that activists who accept foreign funding could face life in prison. Since the coup, security forces have killed over 1,500 protesters, mostly Islamists — mostly in cold blood.
The regime adeptly manipulates the language of the war on terror. It claims its brutal repression is needed to combat radicalism and protect security. A recent report in Mada Masr — one of the few remaining independent press outlets in Egypt — shows how, instead, the heavy-handed suppression of dissent feeds extremist movements by leaving citizens no political outlet for discontent. The ongoing arrests of alleged LGBT people, however, are the clearest if cruelest refutation of the “antiterrorism” claims. Accused trans women and alleged gay men are no terrorists. They pose no threat to the state. The public campaign to extirpate them is about power, not security. It’s an attempt to revive the reach and reputation of the police, by publicizing their onslaught against an unpopular minority. It’s part of resuscitating the old Mubarak dictatorship’s machineries of control.
The U.S. watches these brutalities with only perfunctory protest. America gives almost $1.5 billion in annual assistance to Egypt, almost all of it aid to the military that wields the levers of repression. Kerry has personally fought attempts to tie that military largesse to democratic reform.
This week’s trip to Egypt, however, is a particularly gross insult to human rights activists still carrying on the struggle there. The Sisi regime is holding a vast “economic summit” to draw foreign investment. The investment opportunities on offer — skyscrapers, tourist resorts, new desert cities — promise little help to most Egyptians. But Sisi needs the appearance of attracting international business to give a despairing populace hope he can revive a decayed economy. The summit is about legitimating the dictatorship, not uplifting Egypt’s millions of poor.
Kerry is coming to give his credibility to the show. He’s putting the full weight of the United States behind the fundraising efforts of a repressive military government.
There’s certainly an argument for the U.S. to engage, in some form, even with the worst rights-abusing governments. No contact means no leverage. And realistically, few expect the U.S. to sever its military links to Egypt, any more than it’s prepared to drop regional supporters like Uganda. But if U.S. leaders pose for photo ops with brutal allies, that only redoubles their responsibility to speak out clearly for human rights. Shaking hands while staying conveniently silent about torture or repression is unacceptable. And when the U.S. lends its top diplomat as a salesman for dictators, it goes way too far.
People in Egypt — whether ordinary citizens trying to survive or fighters for democracy envisioning a free future — don’t expect much from the United States. They’ve seen too many betrayals. Successive U.S. administrations have eagerly endorsed dictatorship along the Nile, as long it didn’t torture people too openly and kept the terms of peace with Israel. Plenty in Cairo remember how the Obama administration hemmed, hawed, and hesitated during the heroic 18 days of revolution in 2011, frozen in its tracks by the terrifying prospect of a liberated Egypt.
Egyptians fight for their own freedoms; they don’t delude themselves by dreaming the U.S. will save them. But they do listen. They can tell hypocrisy when they hear it. LGBT Egyptians know about Kerry’s promises to put the U.S. on the side of their rights; they know when he is throwing his weight and his government’s on the opposing side. LGBT Egyptians know their friends. And John Kerry is no friend of freedom in Egypt.
SCOTT LONG is a longtime human rights activist and advocate for LGBT rights. He lives in Egypt and blogs on politics at Paper-Bird.net. RAMY YOUSSEF, a democracy activist, was the first gay man in Egypt to come out in public under his own name, in 2012. Threats forced him to seek asylum in the Netherlands this February.