The Trump administration isn’t, to put it mildly, known for its promotion of human rights. So it was a surprise in both Washington and Cairo when, in August, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson withheld almost $200 million in U.S. military assistance to Egypt partly because of the Egyptian government’s crackdown on civil society activists.
This was an important signal to send to a government that’s grown alarmingly more repressive since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in a 2013 coup. Yet we also know that the Trump administration doesn’t speak with a single voice. President Trump never fails to praise his Egyptian counterpart, and a recent press briefing by White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders included this exchange:
REPORTER: Sarah, the lawmakers in Egypt are preparing a measure that would criminalize homosexuality, with up to five years in prison. Will you condemn the measure?
SANDERS: I’m not aware of the specifics of that, so I'd have to look into that before I could make a response. But we'll certainly be happy to check into it.
The White House shouldn’t, of course, need to conduct research before taking a position on the criminalization of homosexuality. If Sanders did “look into that,” she would have found that the bill is only one aspect of an escalating campaign against LGBT Egyptians that began after a group of audience members raised a gay pride flag at a concert in Cairo by the Lebanese alternative rock band Mashrou’ Leila.
Even in a world with widespread persecution of LGBT people, the Sisi government’s crackdown stands out. Cairo has a large and longstanding, if somewhat hidden, gay community. Former president Hosni Mubarak ended an earlier period of relative tolerance, most infamously with the 2001 prosecution of the “Cairo 52,” men arrested in a raid on the Queen Boat nightclub, a gathering place for Egypt’s LGBT community. Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 led LGBT Egyptians to become more assertive, and their activism continued even during the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Muhammad Morsi.
Many self-styled liberals, in Egypt and elsewhere, supported Sisi’s removal of the Morsi government. For its part, the U.S. government refused to call the coup a coup, and Secretary of State John Kerry infamously went so far to say that in removing Morsi the Egyptian military was “restoring democracy.” It didn’t take long, however, for Sisi to show that his leadership resembled a dictatorship, not a democracy, and that LGBT Egyptians would be among the new government’s primary targets.
In a country where a large majority of the citizenry thinks homosexuality is a sin, scapegoating LGBT people is an easy way to divert attention away from actual problems. In the first years of Sisi’s rule, the Egyptian government has arrested dozens of gay and transgender people on charges of “sexual deviance,” “debauchery,” and “insulting public morals.”
Then, in September, a photo of the gay pride flag at the concert went viral on social media. The government rounded up not only the people who hoisted the flag, but dozens of other people — at least 65 in all — subjecting some to anal examinations, which are a form of torture. To date, nine people have received jail sentences of between one and six years. A unit in the security services known as the “morality police” are entrapping gay men online. Meanwhile, the Supreme Council of Media Regulation has banned any media coverage supportive of homosexuality, and government-supported media personalities are railing against homosexuality, likening it to ISIS.
Egyptian authorities are exploiting homophobia to try to foment a society-wide moral panic, enlisting the help of both conservative Islamic and Christian leaders. This serves to obscure the government’s myriad policy failings, including a “war on terrorism” that has only fueled more terrorism. It also dovetails with Sisi’s nationalist campaign against alleged foreign influence. A new draconian law regulating non-governmental organizations has tightened the government’s grip on those that receive funding from abroad. Like antigay demagogues elsewhere, Sisi depicts LGBT equality as a malign Western import.
Sisi may be overplaying his hand. It’s unclear how long appeals to bigotry will appease a restless and suffering populace. Homophobic sentiment in Egypt may be more wide than deep, especially among the young; as evidenced by the popularity of Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay. Attitudes are changing.
Still, there’s no question that Sisi’s steps are, for now, politically popular. The Egyptian leader apparently also sees his stance as popular on the global stage; he’s taken a prominent anti-LGBT role at the United Nations, leading a boycott of the selection process for the body’s expert on antigay violence and discrimination.
The Trump administration should show Sisi that persecution of LGBT people isn’t popular in Washington. This message is unlikely to come from President Trump or his closest aides. It’s certainly futile to hope that Vice President Mike Pence, who will visit Egypt next month, will take a stand, given his vehement opposition to LGBT equality.
But a statement from Tillerson condemning the proposed criminalization bill might well kill it. The United States, after all, has shown itself willing to hold the Egyptian government accountable. More broadly, Tillerson should condemn the crackdown unequivocally, and call for the release of all people detained on charges related to homosexuality and for an end to the vilification of LGBT people in the media.
Even if this issue doesn’t particularly move Tillerson, he should be made to understand that attacks on LGBT people are a threat to the rule of law and therefore to all Egyptians. The arrests are completely arbitrary, and violate both the Egyptian Constitution and Egypt’s obligations in international law. He should also convey to Cairo that persecuting LGBT people will result in significant negative consumer pressure as Egypt tries to sell itself as an attractive destination for overseas investment. It’s likewise bad for tourism.
Pressing the Trump administration to take a stand for the human rights of LGBT people might seem quixotic. But a secretary of state can carve out the space to influence foreign policy, especially when the president is disengaged or unpopular — or both. And we’ve already learned that the State Department is capable of surprises.
SHAWN GAYLORD is advocacy counsel for Human Rights First, focusing on LGBT issues. Follow him on Twitter @shawngaylord.