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Egypt's LGBT Crackdown

May 26, 2018
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Last September, at a music festival in Cairo, a group of concertgoers raised a rainbow flag in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. Some of the young Egyptians there described it as a beautiful moment in a socially conservative country. But as NPR's Jane Arraf reports from Cairo, it led to a crackdown against the LGBT community there in Egypt. And a warning, this report contains an offensive term.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Ahmed Alaa sits in the back room of a downtown coffee shop. He wears a black hoodie under a denim vest and sneakers. He looks younger than the 22-year-old that he is. It's March when we meet. Hunched over on a sofa as he smokes cigarettes and talks, he seems particularly vulnerable. But his face lights up as he tells me about holding the rainbow flag.

AHMED ALAA: It's a great moment of feeling free, for helping people to practice their rights. It's make me happy. It's make me feeling I'm a human. I can speak. I can share my opinion in the public. It's my best moment of my life.

ARRAF: He posted a picture on Facebook with the flag, and others did, too. Alaa is a law student. He says he thinks it's everyone's duty to stand with the oppressed. He switches to Arabic as he tells us what happened the next morning.

ALAA: (Through interpreter) I woke up and saw all these threats on Facebook. I was shocked at the number of comments threatening to kill me and drag my body through the street.

ARRAF: His university publicly condemned him. His sister was bullied. His father was shunned in his home village. His best friend was detained. And then Alaa was arrested. Homosexuality isn't illegal in Egypt, but there are other laws for prosecution under what the government terms debauchery.

According to human rights groups, Alaa was among more than 100 people arrested after the concert by the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila. The most serious charges were leveled against Alaa and a young Egyptian woman, Sarah (ph) Hegazy. Alaa was placed in solitary confinement to protect him from other prisoners, many of them ISIS.

ALAA: (Through interpreter) The prison was four floors. The four floors would chant my name, the faggot from the Mashrou' Leila concert. People would start shouting threats.

ARRAF: Alaa was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, the son of an Egyptian engineer. He memorized the Quran as a child. In prison, he pretended he'd been high on drugs when he grabbed the flag and didn't know what he was doing. He started leading prayers to convince other prisoners he was one of them. He and Hegazy were released on bail after spending three months in jail waiting for a trial that could land them up to 15 years in prison.

But he says his life and his family's life has already been ruined. In Cairo, he moved from house to house. He was afraid to take cabs. He was in danger of being expelled from university. It's a heartbreaking contrast to his hopes seven years ago, when Egypt's longtime dictator was toppled.

ALAA: After the Egyptian revolution most of the people have their own dreams about the country, about the future. Now we can't just talk. We can't say anything about the public situation because of fear here from the country or from the police.

ARRAF: Do you have a dream?

ALAA: Now I want to die.

ARRAF: You want to die.

ALAA: Because I can't live like anybody. Every step, every place I go, this is Ahmed Alaa, the guy who raised the rainbow flag at the Mashrou' Leila concert. Most of my friends - I hurt them just because I'm Ahmed Alaa.

ARRAF: Alaa had a lawyer and friends who kept an eye on him. But a few days after we talked, he took an overdose of sedatives. He says he was trying to kill himself. And a few weeks later, he found a way out of the country. I reached him in Canada, where he's seeking asylum.

ALAA: (Phone ringing) Jane, how are you? I'm fine. I'm fine. Thank you. Thank you.

ARRAF: He says the main thing is he feels safe. It was the first day of Ramadan, the month where a lot of Muslims fast during daylight. Even if you're not religious, family and friends get together for the evening meal. He says he's found a group in Canada.

ALAA: So I will go there with some friends from Egypt and LGBTQ. We all will eat together today. I miss my friends and my family and my brother and my sister and my small brother. Not Cairo - not the place, but the people.

ARRAF: For now, Alaa has escaped the prospect of prison. But he's given up his home country to do it. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.