Fans of the Lebanese group Mashrou Leila show a a rainbow flag at the concert in Cairo, Egypt, 22 September 2017. (Photo by Benno Schwinghammer/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Analysis

Arab Spring Revolutions: Dreams and Prospects of Political and Social Change for LGBTIQ+ Community (Egypt and Sudan as a Model)

Revolutions are a series of events and processes

The Arab Spring protests were a strong cry against injustice, marginalization, and political corruption. Despite the different local contexts in each country, these revolutions have intersected in many demands such as justice, freedom, eradication of corruption and improvement of living conditions.

Looking at the outcomes of political and social change that came about as a result, many may say that these revolutions failed to bring about real change. Most of these revolutions led to harsher, more brutal and hostile regimes towards political and human rights activists, democracy and human rights. There is no doubt that the Arab Spring revolutions have greatly contributed to the formation of the collective consciousness of many groups in society, especially youth, women and marginalized groups such as the LGBTIQ+ community. These revolutions have also taught the significance and necessity of political and social change from the perspective of intersectional feminism of issues and provided more platforms for freedom of expression and more creative opportunities for organizing .

Though these revolutions may have failed politically, they have succeeded in bringing about real social change, broadening people’s perceptions, and drawing their attention to working on intersectional issues broader than the traditional concept of political change,” says Noor Sultan, a queer activist living in Cairo.

Inclusiveness of demands and intersection of issues

The Arab Spring in many countries was a symbol of freedom and political and social change at many levels. They contributed to raising awareness of the significance of struggle among large number of young people, women and groups, dreaming of change to create a better reality and a more prosperous future.

Like any political movement, there were social forces with more specific human rights demands and direct intersections with political demands. For example, social movements demanding women’s rights and gender justice in Egypt have sought to enact their agenda since the beginning of the revolution, in which women were active participants.

On March 8, 2011, groups of women and feminists went out to celebrate the International Women’s Day in Tahrir Square at the heart of the Egyptian capital. It was the first real test of how much political elites supported social change, and how far the Egyptian street was willing to understand that the change in the country would not only lead to political and economic breakthroughs, but also represent a revolution against patriarchy based on empowering corrupt parasitic elites resistant to democracy, freedom, and social justice. 

The violence which this march faced—and the systematic violence that women were subjected to at various stages during and after the first days of the revolution, documented by many human rights groups—was a strong indication that the political change of the regime did not entail a radical and comprehensive wave of social change.

Women’s rights were not a priority in Tahrir Square, and some activists focused on political and economic rights, away from civil rights,” says Nada al-Banna, an Egyptian queer activist. “They had a lack of understanding that political change may include the preservation of political gains from the previous regime. The quarrel between political activists and feminists over the so-called ‘Suzanne Mubarak laws‘ was the greatest proof of this shortsightedness”, she added.

A queer agenda or transgender and queer bodies

The queer movement in the MENA region is relatively recent, compared to other social movements. The first groups that advocated for the rights of LGBTIQ+ people emerged in Lebanon and Palestine, coinciding with the establishment of Aswat group  in 2003 and the Lebanese “Helem” organization in 2004. AlQaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society was also formed in 2007, and then followed by other groups in the greater Maghreb region in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and the rest of North Africa, such as Egypt, Sudan, and others.

However, the LGBTIQ+ movement in the region generally did not start with the Arab Spring, but it began many years earlier with a noticeable presence and significant activity from queer groups. These revolutions pushed this movement forward and contributed substantially to its emergence and diversified its agenda and political discourses because these revolutions entailed dreams and hopes for social and traditional political change.

 “I had been living in a religiously strict family when the revolution occurred,” says Berry, an Egyptian transgender woman and a queer activist. “My sexuality was a crisis for me especially when my family knew it. However, the revolution helped me to accept myself and reveal my identity to more people around me. The revolution was a motive to get out of all closed doors,” she added.

Because of the recent movement of LGBTIQ+ people in the region, most queer organizations and groups had adopted local agendas that mainly focused on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity in their countries. Despite the large presence of LGBTIQ+ individuals since the outbreak of these revolutions in many countries such as Egypt and Sudan, this participation was underscored in the presence of queer and transgender bodies with all their revolutionary enthusiasm and their dreams of change. 

However, there was an absence of queer agendas with a clear vision or a loud voice at the time. “At the beginning, I went to Tahrir Square and participated in the revolution as an Egyptian citizen, not because of my sexual orientation or my gender identity. It was a turning point in creating awareness about my sexual orientation and my identity personally, and it was also a turning point in building my knowledge of human rights and personal and social rights,” says Medhat Al-Aiadi, an Egyptian queer non-binary activist.

Egypt after Revolution: Advocacy and strategies of queer struggle

The Arab Spring revolutions in general and the Egyptian revolution in particular have contributed to developing the LGBTIQ+ movement and crystallizing its advocacy and support—the participation of the movement was a fundamental and pivotal issue in the link between the queer movement and the Egyptian revolution. For safety and security reasons, this participation did not include highly visible individuals from the community in the early days of the revolution, but rather was an emergence of issues and advocacy agendas and strategies at the local, regional, and international levels.

The LGBTIQ+ generations who witnessed the Egyptian revolution had belief that the queer issues were fundamentally a political issues. As long as there is no discussion of queer issues in the agendas of political movements, civil society, and among decision-makers in Egypt, the Egyptian queer movement still has great political challenges.

“Without the revolution, we would not have understood ourselves, and our lives would be miserable and sad. We understood a lot about our lives and our complicated relationships with our families through the constant clash with the society and state,” says Abanoub Osama, an Egyptian queer activist.

The individual initiatives of LGBTIQ+ community in Egypt since the 1990s and before the revolution, which the Internet and the media have greatly promoted, contributed to the development of the queer movement after the revolution, because the revolution entailed stages and political efforts accumulated across classes.

The revolutionary climate in Egypt after January 25 helped many LGBTIQ+ activists, who advocate for sexual and gender diversity, to see intersections with other human rights issues such as political, economic and civil rights. This climate slowly contributed to reinforcing the efforts related to winning allies among political parties, civil society activists, feminist movements, and other groups. Several political parties and civil society organizations (CSOs)—except for a few—were not interested in including the queer agenda within their human rights agendas. This is not only included the rights of LGBTIQ+ community, but also included feminist social change agendas. Despite the participation of large numbers of women in the Egyptian revolution in 2011 and in the Sudanese revolution in 2018-19, women were clearly and systematically excluded during the political negotiations and stages of establishing a new state.

“LGBTIQ+ community in Egypt has aspirations and dreams for a wider acceptance of different sexual and gender identities as part of the social change that was expected after the revolution. That, of course, did not happen because these dreams and aspirations were greater than the movement itself. We, however, planted a seed for this change at least, and now we are slowly reaping its benefit, says Noor Sultan.

In the first years following the Egyptian revolution, and despite the Muslim Brotherhood assuming power, which some saw as a step backwards and a setback for the revolution’s values, there was widespread enthusiasm for human rights work. This enthusiasm was evident in the emergence and creation of youth political and feminist groups, not necessarily only the capital, but in different areas of the country, from the Delta to Upper Egypt. 

This enthusiasm greatly contributed to the development of the queer movement in Egypt, as it helped develop queer groups’ vision of intersectional issues, whether in its intersections with the women’s and feminist agendas or with the political oppression and marginalization, from which the ethnic and religious minorities suffer in Egypt. It also underscored the need for the movement to fight back against strangulated centralism. All this contributed to the strategic development of the queer agenda through various angles that did not exist before the Arab Spring. 

Bodies perish, but ideas never die: Sarah Hegazy

After the incident at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in September 2017, the queer movement in Egypt significantly improved mechanisms and strategies for gaining advocacy and support, as well as in the diversity of individuals and groups working on issues of sexual orientation, identity and gender expression. Since the Queen Boat incident in May 2001, the queer movement in Egypt has passed many significant turning points, most of which were characterized with fierce and continuous conflict and struggle with society and the state against injustice and marginalization. However, the turning point of Mashrou’ Leila incident was different. It contributed to raising the level of presence of many queer activists and their agenda, whether at the local or global levels. Of course,many similar incidents gained media attention and solidarity from heterosexual allies (such as Hammam al-Bahr incident in December 2014, where a court in January 2015 acquitted all the defendants, as the forensic reports concluded that there was no evidence proves that the defendants engaged in physical homosexuality.)

What made this incident unique was it represented for the first time a queer human rights and political activist was arrested. Thus, the case turned into a political event that went beyond merely a case related to the sexuality and bodies of queer and transgender people.

While this case contributed greatly and effectively to pushing the queer movement forward and increasing the number of allies and supporters, many individuals paid dearly for it by enduring the pain in prisons and the torments of exile.

The suffering of all those who were forced to leave their homelands and the death of the fighter comrade Sarah Hegazy will always be a reminder and a witness to this price. Sarah’s death will remain a proof for all those who believed that human rights issues intersect and overlap and that our struggle for liberation is not possible without gender, social, and economic freedom and justice for all without separation or exclusion. 

The Sudanese Revolution: Repeated revolutionary upheavals till victory

On January 31, 2011, in response to the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, the Sudanese masses marched in the streets of Khartoum, calling for political and social change. However, this movement was quickly suppressed by the regime, and many of the subsequent upheavals were also suppressed in the following years. The previous regime in Sudan contributed to the continuous dispersion of the revolutionary agenda, whether at the level of political parties or civil society. The repeated arrests and harassment of political and human rights activists, the infiltration of political parties, the shrinking of space for CSOs, and the drying up of their resources, weakened the Sudanese revolutionary movement at the beginning of the Arab Spring revolutions and in the following years.

In December 2018, when the Sudanese uprising began sweeping the streets of cities and villages across the country, there was a collective determination that this time would not be like before, but it will be a comprehensive revolution that would achieve victory.

Sit-ins and demonstrations took place throughout the country and pure blood was unlawfully shed. Great efforts were exerted for political change that culminated in July 2019 with the overthrow of the previous regime and the completion of the Sudanese revolution. In spite of many inadequacies, a civilian government took charge of managing the country’s affairs for a transitional period of 39 months.

The queer agenda after the Sudanese Revolution: Steps toward building a new Sudan

LGBTIQ+ activists in Sudan had an insightful vision regarding the social change in Sudan and its intersection with the queer agenda. This vision preceded the Sudanese revolution and included a vision of legal reform and social acceptance—small and gradual, but clear and conscious steps. Based on the historical links between the queer groups in both Egypt and Sudan, the queer movement in the latter benefited greatly from the Egyptian experience in shaping the political life during and after the Sudanese revolution, an experience that was both a model for its successes and a warning for its mistakes.

 “The strength of the queer movement after the Sudanese revolution was greater than before, and its growth was better. We as queer activists were ready for a revolution to take place, and we knew what we wanted. I participated in the revolution first as a Sudanese citizen who suffers from the deteriorating economic situation, and second as a woman and a queer at the same time. The intersection of our issues was quite clear to us,” says Samah Adam, a Sudanese queer activist.

Years before the Sudanese revolution, a queer organization in Sudan conducted a questionnaire to find out the strategic demands of the movement over the next five years—an indication of the level of organization of the relatively smaller Sudanese queer movement.

Since the first marches that took place in the Sudanese capital, there was a clear and significant presence of LGBTIQ+ people and their allies. Many have written about their presence in the demonstrations and during the sit-in, and documented this in social media. The sit-in experience was a good visualization of democracy and freedom, as it depicted in the imagination of many people that Sudan.

Since the political discourses during demonstration were comprehensive, they did not marginalize groups that have historically been completely marginalized, such as women, for example. Therefore, this holistic discourse gave hope to LGBTIQ+ people in Sudan that this revolution would be for everyone without discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion or gender. It has encouraged many of them to be more visible.

“During the sit-in we wore rainbow bracelets…we were afraid that this presence would be exploited politically, but we decided that the representation of the community is important… a rainbow umbrella was in the middle of the sit-in… We gathered there and had a clear representation,” says Samah Adam.

There was a clear interest among members of the queer community in Sudan to document their presence and experiences during the revolution. One of the civil society organizations that documented women’s experiences in the revolution documented this presence in the sit-in through a report and a booklet published in March of last year entitled “Her Struggle.”.

Political or social change

The marches and demonstrations since the outbreak of the Sudanese revolution had clear political demands, such as the overthrow of the regime and the declaration of the forces of freedom and change. Despite the remarkable presence of a number of human rights and feminist initiativessuch as the Meydanik Movement, the NOON Movement, the No to Women’s Oppression Initiative, Mansam—and the women of Wadi Howar and the parades of Atbara train and other gatherings where women were visible, it was clear that this revolutionary tide did not bring a clear vision and a real desire for social change and dismantling of stereotypical gender roles.

Traditional social roles were back in force, days after women and LGBTIQ+ people participated in the revolution, as patriarchal voices were calling for revolutionary women (“Kundakat“) not to sleep in sit-ins. During Ramadan, preparing food was the responsibility of women, not men. Sexual violence and rape that took place after the dispersal of the sit-in, documented by many organizations that later provided psychological support to the survivors, was a clear and explicit recognition that the revolution is still quite far from making a real achievement regarding issues of individual freedom and gender equality. 

The queer movement in Sudan: Advocacy discourses and strategies

In 2019, the queer movement began to organize itself under the umbrella of the Sudan SOGI Coalition that deals with issues of sexual orientation, identity and gender expression, as the climate of general openness contributed to pushing forward the agenda and discourses of national, regional and international advocacy. Some LGBTIQ+ activists in Sudan arranged a side event during the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) as a clear example of the evolution of advocacy strategies for the movement. In addition, the legal reform package that reformed Article 148 or the so-called “sodomy laws” in the Sudanese criminal law and the abolition of the death penalty represented steps forward. 

Statements of the Sudanese Minister of Health, in which he directly referred to the need to work on non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, were heralds for radical changes in the official state discourses on issues of sexual orientation, identity, and gender expression.

Despite this relative openness, I would be very naive if I said that Sudanese society, represented by large segments of people and the state bodies, was ready to deal with kindness, respect and acceptance towards LGBTIQ+ people and their issues. However there was a clear vision and advocacy strategies that included creating communication and building partnerships and alliances with large sectors of politicians, human rights defenders and representatives of civil society in Sudan to include the queer agenda within the human rights agenda in the country. 

“We had discussions during the sit-in with human rights activists, political allies, lawyers, and others. It was clear that they had the capabilities to shape the next post-revolution political life. There was a disturbing expression that started to spread among revolutionary groups,” says Hamada, a Sudanese non-binary queer activist.”Others would say ‘people did not demonstrate for someone like that… martyrs did not die for someone like that,’ a clear indication that LGBTIQ+ rights were not a priority at the time.”.

Learned lessons: The ongoing revolution

As a queer movement in Egypt and Sudan, and 10 years after the Arab Spring, we learned from the feminist and human rights movement in general, and the discourse of advocacy and the intersection of various issues. We benefited greatly from the development of the feminist discourse, which became more radical after the revolutions. We also learned that our tools to achieve social justice must be comprehensive and strict in respect to all kinds of violations, regardless of their perpetrators. 

We learned, as a queer movement, the importance of not being silent and ignoring psychological and sexual violence among political activists, human rights activists, and queer and transgender activists. We worked hard towards developing mechanisms and tools for transparency and accountability in the queer movement, and listening to the needs of community members instead of setting the agenda in an extravagant manner.

The queer movement in the region in general has always been a pioneer in leading progressive discourse on sexuality and body dignity and has a positive view of sexuality, while traditional human rights groups have always shy away from talking about issues such as reproductive rights, circumcision, or women’s economic empowerment without being inclusive of the issues of queer or transgender women. After the Egyptian and Sudanese revolutions, I can say that the queer movement has made a great contribution to pushing traditional human rights groups to review their discourse and action plans. This is what we gained as a queer movement ten years after the Arab Spring revolutions.

Perhaps as queer and transgender individuals, we will not say that the Egyptian and Sudanese revolutions achieved the desired and hoped-for political success. But at the level of the queer movement in these countries, we have accomplished a lot and made significant strides in advocacy efforts related to defending the issues of sexual orientation, identity, and gender expression.

As my friend Abanoub says, “The revolution has not succeeded politically, but it has succeeded individually in the minds and hearts of each one of us. We have succeeded as individuals in acquiring a lot of successful knowledge and life experiences, as the revolution was not only just a revolutionary movement in January 2011, but it is a continuous process. As long as people speak and get arrested, and as long as the regime maintains its dictatorial control and rigs elections and facts, the revolution will continue.