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January 06, 2015

It’s Time for International Pressure on Egypt’s LGBT Rights Abuses

Egypt is in the midst of a broad human rights and civil society crackdown: jailing journalists and activists, raiding and harassing NGOs, using violence against protesters, and sentencing people to death en masse. In many ways Egypt’s new government under President Abdel Fatah el Sisi seems more repressive than that of ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.

But Sisi may be outperforming Mubarak when it comes to persecuting the LGBT community and gay men in particular. Today the New York Times offered a scathing editorial on the trial of 26 men charged with “debauchery” after being arrested in a raid on a Cairo bathhouse. During the investigation, the men were subjected to so-called forensic anal exams, a horrific practice decried by medical professionals and human rights advocates alike.

While gay men have never had it easy in Egypt, the current crackdown is exceptional in its intensity. Eight men were recently sentenced to prison simply for appearing in a YouTube video allegedly depicting a same-sex wedding ceremony.

Rights activists in Egypt have started calling for international pressure on the Egyptian government to respect the human rights of LGBT people. This is a dire sign, since international pressure can sometimes cause backlash against local activists. Such a call signals that human rights defenders believe the situation is desperate.

International pressure can be an effective way of influencing change. After Uganda passed a repressive anti-LGBT bill, it was hit with trade sanctions. The law was repealed on procedural grounds, but President Museveni, who never hesitates to rile up his base with homophobic rhetoric, is now reluctant to take up a new version of the bill.

Thus far the United States has been relatively silent about Egypt’s human rights abuses and continues to send it billions of dollars in military aid. The U.S. government must not ignore the calls of LGBT activists as well. Along with the international community, the United States needs to take a strong stand on protecting the human rights of everyone in Egypt, including LGBT people.