Ahmed Alaa describes raising a rainbow flag at a crowded concert in Cairo last September as “the best moment” of his life. In photos from the event, he looks ecstatic as he waves the flag in the spotlights of the outdoor stage hosting the Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila.
He posted the photos on Facebook, and others did too. The next morning, he woke up to death threats.
A few days later, he was arrested in Egypt’s biggest crackdown on the LGBT community in years. He says his sexuality is a private matter, but his hands on the rainbow flag — a symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride — became evidence of what the Egyptian government considers dangerously deviant behavior.
“I was shocked at the number of comments threatening to kill me and drag me in the street,” Alaa told NPR in Cairo in March, after he was out on bail.
Alaa is 22. Wearing a black hoodie and a denim vest over his slight frame, he looks even younger. Hunched over on a sofa in the back room of a coffee shop, lighting cigarettes, he seemed almost haunted. But his face lit up as he described raising the flag.
“It was a great moment for feeling free, for helping people to practice their rights,” said Alaa, a law student. “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.”
A brutal awakening
The lead singer of Mashrou’ Leila is gay, a sexual orientation generally accepted in his native Lebanon but not in many other parts of the Arab world. The band’s September concert was believed to be the first time the rainbow flag was raised in public in Cairo.
For Alaa, after the euphoria of the concert came the brutal awakening.
Alaa’s university publicly condemned him. His sister was bullied at college and his father, a land realtor, was shunned in his home village. His best friend was detained. And then Alaa was arrested.
“The law is ambiguous enough to allow the judges to punish people for their sexual orientations and sexual practices, and sometimes even for their perceived orientations,” says Dalia Abdel Hameed, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights organization. “The worst wave of the crackdown happened after the Mashrou’ Leila concert.”
Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Egypt, but in a country where some officials have equated homosexuality with terrorism, there are other laws for prosecution, including those governing “habitual debauchery.” Human rights groups say the law has been used extensively since President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi took power five years ago.
Abdel Hameed says more than 100 people are believed to have been arrested after the Mashrou’ Leila concert and charged with misdemeanors. She says dozens, some of them entrapped through social networking apps, were given sentences ranging from six months to six years in prison.
But the most serious charges — criminal charges — were leveled against Alaa and an Egyptian woman, Sarah Hegazy, who was also at the concert. Abdel Hameed said she believed this marked the first time a state security court was used to prosecute homosexuality cases.
Alaa says he was charged with belonging to an illegal organization that aimed to disturb public peace, disseminating the group’s ideas, “inciting fornication and immorality” and communicating and receiving funds from foreign entities. Hegazy faced similar charges.
After his arrest, Alaa says he was placed in solitary confinement to protect him from other prisoners — many of them ISIS. With the cells full of smuggled cellphones, he says everyone knew who he was.
“The prison was four floors,” he says. “The four floors would chant my name, ‘the faggot from the Mashrou’ Leila concert.’ People would start shouting threats.”
Dashed hopes and opportunities
Alaa was born and raised in Saudi Arabia and had memorized the Quran as a child. In prison, he pretended he had been high on drugs when he grabbed the rainbow flag and didn’t know what he was doing. He grew his beard and started leading prayers to convince other prisoners he was one of them.
When ISIS attacked churches and killed policemen in Giza province in October, he pretended to join in the prisoners’ celebrations inside the jail.
Alaa says his time in prison was terrifying, but he wasn’t beaten or tortured. He says because of the international attention his case received, he was not subjected to an anal exam during an interrogation aimed at determining whether he had sex with another man — an unscientific practice used in Egyptian and other prisons and deemed by the U.N. as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”
“Egypt at that moment cared about its image, so luckily, they kept me away from all these procedures,” Alaa said. “They did it to many others before me.”
After three months in jail, both Alaa and Hegazy were released on bail to await the date of a trial that could land them up to another 15 years in prison.
Alaa said his and his family’s lives had already been ruined. In Cairo, he moved from house to house. He was afraid to take taxis in case a driver recognized him and beat him up. He never went back to university after his arrest, and expected to be expelled.
“I don’t know how I can ever have a job, because when you apply for a job in Egypt, you have to provide your criminal record and this will be my stigma forever,” he told NPR in March. “There are things like university and work that seem impossible at the moment.”
Seven years ago, when Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled after three decades in power, he had high hopes for his future.
“After the Egyptian revolution, most of the people have their own dreams about the country and the future,” Alaa said. “Now we can’t even talk, we can’t say anything about the public situation because of fear … fear of the government, fear of the police.”
As for his dreams, he said matter-of-factly, “Now I want to die. I don’t have a life. I can’t live like everyone else. Every step, every place I go — ‘this is Ahmed Alaa, the guy who raised the rainbow flag at the Mashrou’ Leila concert.’ I hurt most of my friends. They’re stigmatized because of me. Just because I’m Ahmed Alaa.”
He was still afraid — especially that former prisoners might track him down and kill him, once they realized he believes in LGBT rights.
Alaa’s lawyer and friends kept an eye on him. But a few days after he spoke with NPR, he took an overdose of sedatives. He says he was trying to kill himself.
“For them, I was a criminal”
Hegazy, 28, is the eldest of four children in a conservative, middle-class family. After her father, a science professor, died, she helped her mother care for her younger siblings. She was working as an IT specialist with an Egyptian firm when she was arrested, and says after her arrest, her boss was ordered by state security to fire her.
“Anything that involves national security, they make sure to destroy the person’s life,” said Hegazy, speaking in Cairo in March. A slender young woman in jeans with short, dark hair, Hegazy gave similar reasons to Alaa for raising the rainbow flag at the Mashrou’ Leila concert last September.
“It was an act of support and solidarity — not only with the [Mashrou’ Leila] vocalist but for everyone who is oppressed,” she said. “We were proud to hold the flag. We wouldn’t have imagined the reaction of society and the Egyptian state. For them, I was a criminal — someone who was seeking to destroy the moral structure of society.”
Hegazy said she does not want to discuss her own sexuality. She said she was arrested at home a week after the concert. According to her lawyer, she faced some of the same charges as Alaa — joining an illegal group and promoting its ideas, and additional charges of “promoting sexual deviancy and debauchery.” At the police station, authorities asked whether she was a virgin and why she no longer wore a head scarf. Hegazy said they incited other female detainees to grope her.
Hegazy spent three months in a women’s prison, awaiting trial. She said the other prisoners included sex workers and a woman who was thrown in jail because she couldn’t pay a $3 debt. After nine days in solitary confinement, Hegazy was put in a cell with two other women who were ordered not to talk to her. She was not allowed to join other prisoners for exercise outdoors.
“I left this experience after three months with a very intense, serious case of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Hegazy told NPR. “Prison killed me. It destroyed me.”
She looked down at the table in a downtown Cairo coffee shop, rarely making eye contact. The only time she smiled was when posing for a photo.
She had just been released from a psychiatric hospital, where she was diagnosed with severe depression. She said she also experienced hallucinations, imagining “people who are nice, who discuss things and don’t attack me” in the room with her.
She laughed bitterly when asked what she wanted to do.
“It’s a dark future, of course,” she says. “All I dream of is to be able to leave Egypt. If I found out I was banned from traveling, I won’t let them imprison me.”
She said she once tried to kill herself with an overdose and was prepared to try it again.
Escape to Canada
Within a few weeks, though, both Alaa and Hegazy separately found their way to Canada, where they are now seeking asylum.
Abdel Hameed, the activist, says with each crackdown on the LGBT community, she sees dozens of people leave the country. It has become harder to seek asylum in Europe, and Canada is currently among the most welcoming of countries.
While there has been pressure on the Egyptian government regarding Alaa and Hegazy, many more are jailed after being entrapped whose names are unknown. She says they include people who are simply signing onto social networking apps to explore their sexual orientation.
“We can’t, for example, publish their names and say we are demanding their freedom,” she says. “There are people who are exploring and they are being entrapped through this and in many cases we can’t even reach them.”
Alaa, who had removed his earring and dyed his hair from blue back to its natural black, escaped Egypt through Saudi Arabia. By phone from Canada, he says he is fine. Lonely, but fine.
“The important thing is I feel safe,” he tells NPR from Toronto. “I miss my friends and my family and my brothers and my sister. Not Cairo, not the place, but the people.”
He says he still considers raising the flag a great moment.