Persecution of Egyptian Gays is Warning to U.S.
December 22, 2001
By Geoffrey Mock
As America responds to the Sept. 11 attacks with legal measures intended to
protect its citizens, two imminent, high profile cases in Egypt provide a
cautionary tale of the price that can be paid when a country takes action to
fight its perceived enemies.
On Dec. 19, Egyptian courts were expected to hear the appeal of Saad
Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American university professor who was convicted and
sentenced to seven years in jail for his human rights work.
On the same date, another Egyptian court reduced the sentence of a
16-year-old boy, Mahmud, who in September was sentenced to three years’
imprisonment and three years’ probation for his alleged sexual orientation.
The appeals court reduced the sentence to six months in jail and six months of
Mahmud and Saad Ibrahim couldn’t be more different. One is a young boy
suddenly thrown into an international spotlight by an unexpected arrest; the
other is a longtime and well-known democracy advocate who knew for years that
his work would ultimately lead to trouble with security officials. But what
ties the two cases together, and should draw American attention in the
post-Sept. 11 world, is that both are signs of a more troubling trend in
Egypt: the government’s effort to muzzle civil society.
Egypt, like the U.S., fought its own war against armed Islamist groups in
the 1980s, and was largely successful in ending associated violence. However,
the cases of Mahmud and Saad Ibrahim bring into sharp focus how activities
intended to reign in armed groups are easily used against legitimate
non-violent opposition within civil society. When the U.S. utilizes military
tribunals and similarly secretive measures in the name of national security,
do we risk doing the same?
Ibrahim was tried before a State Security Court. Like Egypt’s military
courts, these security courts were established by presidential decree in the
fight against terrorism. But their disregard for basic due-process rights and
blind-eye to the use of torture have long been the target of criticism from
human rights activists and the U.S. State Department.
Evidence indicates that the legal action against Mahmud, whose arrest was
part of a larger effort by the Egyptian government to harass gays—and led to
the arrest and conviction of 23 allegedly gay adult men—is also political in
As with Ibrahim, the allegedly gay adults were tried in State Security
Court, which indicates the extraordinarily broad powers of these courts. The
point can’t be overemphasized: While military and state security courts were
instigated to fight terrorists, their main use is against non-violent
political critics, human rights defenders and now gays.
The rash of arrests of gays is unprecedented in recent Egyptian history;
homosexuality is not a crime in Egypt. But it shouldn’t be surprising that,
at a time when the government sees all critics as a threat to the political
order, it would similarly view people outside of the mainstream socially.
The history of Egyptian politics indicates it doesn’t have to be so.
Egypt could once take pride in its independent judiciary, an active variety of
non-governmental organizations and the framework of a democratic government
with a myriad of opposition parties and presses.
Even in recent years with its one-party rule, the Egyptian government has
included progressive sectors with officials trained by educators such as
Ibrahim providing a voice for democracy and Arab human rights. Its
intellectual life was vigorous.
Time and time again we have seen these progressive forces crushed between
the violence of the armed Islamist groups and the repression of the Mubarak
government. Yet, the history and vitality of the Egyptian people is such that
it is not too late.
The face of the future of democracy can be found in the young man and the
old intellectual in the courtroom. U.S. policymakers need to stand by them.
- Geoffrey Mock is an Egypt country specialist with Amnesty International.
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