Raising the flag for liberation in Egypt and beyond

Mural of Sarah Hegazi in Amman | Photos: Flycatchr via Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Hegazi was a courageous fighter against injustice and oppression and an inspiration to the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights far beyond Egypt, says Alice Finden.

This is an article from the current issue of Middle East Solidarity magazine – help us continue our work by donating £2 for a digital copy online

This summer, activists around the world shared memories and tributes to Sarah Hegazi who claimed her own life on 13 June this year. Sarah had been suffering post traumatic stress and depression after a harrowing imprisonment by the Egyptian state in 2017.  She had claimed asylum in Canada and had been living with her trauma. A year later she wrote, “Even after my release, fear of everyone, family, friends, and the street continued to haunt me.”

Sarah was arrested along with Ahmed Alaa for raising the rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert. The lead singer of Mashrou’ Leila, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay and advocates for LGBTQ+ rights in Lebanon where the band is from. On raising the flag, Alaa said:

“It was a great moment for feeling free, for helping people to practice their rights … It makes me happy. It makes me feel human. I can speak. I can share my opinion in public. It was the best moment of my life.”

Sarah and Ahmed were both charged with “promoting sexual deviancy and debauchery” and jailed for three months. Sarah wrote that during that time, she was tortured with electrocution, sexually assaulted and humiliated. The authorities also arrested dozens of other people at the concert.

State violence and police brutality targeted at sexual minorities is rife in Egypt. In the first month after Sarah’s arrest, The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights estimated that 54 arrests had been made under the debauchery laws.

The Egyptian police use apps such as Grindr and Growlr as a means of entrapping LGBTQ+ people. In 2015 Middle East Solidarity Magazine interviewed LGBTQ+ people about their experiences of state violence in Egypt and Lebanon. At the time, Ramy told us: “I think the crackdown under al-Sisi is definitely the most violent of all time”.

State targeting of LGBTQ+ communities has been happening for a long time in Egypt. The “Queen Boat Panic” of 2001 highlighted the first instance of a systematic crackdown, through the use of repressive Public Order and Public Morals Codes to criminalise people engaged in “homosexual acts”. This case involved arrests of 52 gay men on a boat party on the Nile who were thereafter tried for “public depravity”.

El-Sisi’s regime has become infamous for its mass arrests, arbitrary detention and unfair trials. Many who are kept in Egypt’s overfilled jails are political prisoners and have been tortured, and some are ‘disappeared’. There are also major concerns over infection rates of prisoners given the current Covid 19 pandemic.

Shady Habash, one of the regime’s latest victims, was imprisoned for making a music video that criticised el-Sisi. He died in Cairo’s Tora prison in May this year after being detained for two years without trial. As Sarah said: ‘Whoever differs, whoever is not a male Sunni Muslim heterosexual who supports the ruling regime is considered persecuted, untouchable, or dead.’

But as Sarah told us in an article she wrote in 2018, it is not only the state who should be held accountable, but also various forms of religious extremism. She wrote:

“Islamists and the state compete in extremism, ignorance and hate, just as they do in violence and harm. Islamists punish those who differ from them with death, and the ruling regime punishes those who differ from it with prison.”

There has been an outpouring of support and commemoration of Sarah by her fellow activists online. Tributes were made on social media with the hashtag #RaiseTheFlagForSarah.

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