By Elia El Khazen.
In early October, the Egyptian regime arrested fifty-seven people on charges of “debauchery,” ‘inciting sexual deviancy’ and ‘joining an outlawed group’ as part of a continuing security crackdown on Egypt’s LGBTQ community, which now includes ten to fifteen years in jail for those charged as homosexuals. The raising of a rainbow flag during a concert for Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila – whose lead singer is openly gay – the preceding week in Cairo triggered a media frenzy that prompted the arrests. The local media supported these arrests by publishing numerous articles and interviews inciting hatred against groups and individuals with non-conforming gender identities and sexual orientations.
In Lebanon, two incidents that took place within the span of three months highlighted how the state security apparatus is preparing to reassert itself locally after a long political crisis that crippled its ability to respond swiftly to local political agitations. In July, members of the revolutionary socialist organization the Socialist Forum received death threats after issuing a statement of support for, and planning a rally in solidarity with, Syrian refugees following Lebanese army raids on two refugee camps in the town of Arsal in north Lebanon on June 30. Several people were killed during that raid, including a child. Hundreds of refugees were arrested on trumped-up charges of being linked to terrorist groups, and a number of detainees were killed and reported by human rights groups as victims of torture. These incidents were quickly followed by a sweeping campaign of solidarity with the Lebanese army, with pledging allegiance to being framed as a national duty.
In September, a couple engaged in a public bondage scenario were filmed by onlookers in Jounieh. The footage was uploaded onto social media outlets by a dubious facebook page called ‘Where is the state? that uses the rhetoric of the ‘failed state’ to call for more securitization and crackdowns on ‘citizens who break the law’. The page called for the arrest of this couple after revealing that one of them was a transwoman. The ISF (Internal Security Forces) acted accordingly and arrested the couple for debauchery.
How can we understand the moral panic and subsequent arrests over the waving of a rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Egypt outside of the construction of an ‘other” or, more specifically, a ‘monster’ in both Lebanon and Egypt, by counter-revolutionary regimes trying to reinforce their dominion over our bodies and our social reproduction?
There is a general consensus that ISIS has been defeated in the region (Iraq, Syria and Lebanon) and most of the known sites under its control have been ‘liberated’ – meaning crushed, bombed and decimated. As a result, there is a reversal happening among local state apparatuses, now choosing to focus on the supposed enemy within in order to assert their necessariness. The need to reproduce themselves as eternally necessary, and the need to re-assert the power they accumulated through a decade of ‘war on terror’ and decades of framing a war on drugs as a war on ‘devil worship’, has pushed security forces in Egypt and Lebanon to look for the monster within. One of their monsters of choice is the ‘sexual deviant’, a danger to established norms of gender and sexuality and, as a result, the social fabric on which social reproduction is dependent: the family and how it has traditionally reproduced itself in this part of the world has to maintain a certain allure for the youth and, therefore, ideas, symbols and practices that steer them away from it are framed as ‘corrupting minds’ through ‘Western’ concepts and ideas that are ‘alien’ to and conspiring against ‘our way of life’.
Now that the war on terror seems to be waning and that ISIS seems to be facing defeat in the region, there is a need to recreate another ‘monster’ that is pointed to periodically in order to maintain the legitimacy of hyper securitization. This is not to say that the crackdown on LGBTQ individuals is new or unprecedented in the region, but rather, that the intensity with which it is manifesting itself at this current conjuncture needs to be understood in light of what the war on terror enabled regional regimes to do, and the kinds of actions its waning might push them towards in order to maintain the privileges it afforded them.
Here, the parallels between the Egyptian and Lebanese states can help elucidate the threat posed by, one the one hand, a rainbow flag, on the other solidarity with refugees, to the reassertion of the state’s monopoly over power – discursive and material. An other or a monster is constructed as threatening established values that hold together our communities, and is the result of a combination of failed parenting, Westernized subjectivities and an imperialist plot for further command over our youth. As panic ensues, the family is told to control its youth, and the state offers to control cultural production and crackdown on debauchery and sexual deviance.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, a wave of moral panic accompanied a vicious authoritarian campaign mostly in Egypt but also in Lebanon against metal concerts and Emo gatherings branded as sites for devil worshipers. The term ‘devil worshiper’ signified at the time, and still does to a very large extent, a trifecta of ‘evil characteristics’: drug addict/blasphemer/refuser of paternal authority and traditional gender roles. This trifecta of behaviours associated with a sub-cultural group of adolescents who were reclaiming Western music and making it their own helped the newly established security apparatus create a wave of moral panic necessary to routinize crackdowns, combining the war on drugs with a campaign to save the threatened nuclear family and the religiosity of society. The answer then and now was a call for increased securitization in neighbourhoods and venues that accommodate these ‘vile’ practices while emphasizing that the forces of evil (dissidence) will not prevail over the forces of good (status quo, establishment).
The idea of the monster (which I borrow from Jaspir Puar – Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots , who in turn borrows it from Foucault), or the return of monstrosity in the war on terror discourse and its lumping together with sexual depravity/perversity (failed heterosexuals) is presented as either the product of western imperialism shaping and depraving our youth or pathologies found in perverse subjectivities that needs to be dealt with (as the case of the moral outrage surrounding BDSM and the ‘visible’ transwoman in Jounieh has shown). This trifecta of monster-terrorist-fag is countered with another one, state-resistance-people which is promoted by Hezbollah and the state, reminding one of Mussolini’s ‘God, the patria, the family’ – inspiration for founder of the Phalange party Pierre Gemayel, who translated it as “Allah, watan, a’ila,”.
Puar explains how the general western understanding of the monster-terrorist is constructed around a trifecta of characteristics that try to obfuscate the actual socio-economic causes of terrorism, going beyond the simplification of bad mothering-sexual frustration-islamic fundamentalism and delving more into how the monster-terrorist-fag is actually constructed as ‘both a product of anxieties of heteronormative civilization and a marker of the noncivilized’.
The same war on terror discourses and practices were adopted by Arab regimes to aid their ongoing post-counterrevolutionary current. The adoption of the monster-terrorist discourse by Arab regimes might come as a surprise to some – how can Arab regimes, in Muslim-majority countries, use islamophobic rhetoric to further entrench their dominance and, at the same time, draw on Islam to denounce and persecute LGBTQ individuals? But this is where it becomes critical to analyze the means through which Arab regimes were able to ride out the revolutionary waves that swept the Arab world – through rendering hegemonic the notion that any protest against them is a takfiri-zionist-imperialist plot to overthrow the status-quo and, more importantly, introduce new hybrid morals, ethics and values whose sole purpose is to destroy ‘our way of life’.
This is what prompts the likes of famous Egyptian LTC Channel TV host Mohammed El Gheity to declare that ‘sexual deviants are associated with criminal behavior. It’s not just their moral behavior. They are also involved with other crimes such as drugs, murder and kidnapping as well as many other crimes.’ Or, more directly to the point, Ahmed Mosa on Sada El Balad (The Echo of the Nation) decried that ‘sexual deviance is a crime that’s as dangerous as terrorism. It’s another face of terrorism, spreading sexual deviance and debauchery in Egypt.’ This is also how Tony Oryan (a prominent activist in Lebanon associated with the right wing Free Patriotic Movement) can get away with a photoshopped picture of prominent TV host Dima Sadek raising the ISIS flag and claiming she is now part of the ‘jihad of nikah’ – a distortion of a distortion of the famous Delacroix painting, Liberty Leading the People. Oryan had photoshopped Dima Sadek into a version of the painting that depicts the waving of a Palestinian, rather than French, flag. The conflation of support for Palestinians or support for LGBT individuals with support for ISIS point to the construction terrorist assemblages that aim toImanufacture a consensus against any form of solidarity with Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the case of Lebanon, and LGBT individuals in the case of Egypt.
War on terror has come to the Arab world and has shown itself to be even more efficient here than it was in the West. While its precursor painted itself as liberationist, the Arab war on terror seeks to preserve what could have been lost had the revolutions achieved their goals, framed as chaos, sexual perversion and islamic fundamentalism. How these three goals could be achieved at the same time, under the same regime, is not questioned. This is the contradictory caricature the security apparatus is forced to put forward: a chaotic Islamic fundamentalist queer regime. Herein lies the genius of the war on terror discourse. It is a perpetual war that drives the constant conflation of what is non-normative and what is dangerous, and the framing of both as ubiquitous but clandestine, capable of striking at any moment and therefore in need of routine weeding out through crackdowns, raids, arrests and more.
To counter the enemy within, patriotism has been nurtured. Often falsely placed in opposition to sectarianism, the construction of the patriot is even more violent than the construction of the monster-terrorist. This construction starts with beauty pageant contestants (Miss Lebanon) answering questions about how best to remain a ‘cohesive nation’ in the face of looming threats, and develops with known artists and local brands pledging allegiance to the Lebanese Army; calls for the forced displacement of Syrian refugees; for expatriates to come home (i.e. to invest in the homeland, more specifically in oil) now that the country is back on its feet; patriotic tests on who stands or has stood more firmly with the Lebanese army against all attempts to destabilize it over time, and more.
In this light, docile patriots are constructed in opposition to what is considered extreme and perverse or to what Puar calls ‘those monsters who must be quarantined, whose psyches offend the norms, of the properly feminine and masculine.’ These monsters, she continues, provide’ ‘patriotism with its own pedagogies of normalization. And then we have the space of the national family, inhabited by a plurality of subjects who find their proper being in the heterosexual home of the nation: these subjects are called forth, given being even, by the very figure of the monster, and they are called upon to enact their own normalization- in the name of patriotism.’
Docile patriots are constantly asked to perform their allegiance to a nation-state continuously under attack and to an ever-shifting understanding of what that nation signifies, or as Puar characterizes it, subject to an “unchanging ontological vulnerability and precarity”. This vulnerability demands the performance of blind allegiance, bigotry and hypermasculinity under the umbrella of patriotism. In this context, contemporary patriotism cannot be fathomed outside of the War on terror, and thus cannot be understood as other than a militarist, racist and Islamophobic masculinity that reasserts itself with every terror act it feels compelled to react to.
This allegiance is not devoid of exploitation. The sacrifice the army makes on behalf of the nation is expected to be shared by the whole population. Docile patriots share a strong belief that through their identification with that sacrifice they can partake in the glory and the duty to protect the nation by rationalizing a new form of economic precarity facilitated by the constant renewal of austerity measures and hyper-privatization.
Sacrifice in this economic downturn becomes a national duty, a necessary contribution to to the collective project being built. This never ending, unachieved project is the ideal state the docile patriot longs for but knows will never be. An unachieved project is only efficient if it is constantly being challenged by reified monsters. These monster-terrorists serve as scapegoats for every socio-economic anxiety people are facing, and are constructed as constant threats by state apparatuses with an interest in renewing the current means and modes of production.
Elia El Khazen is an active member of the Lebanon-based revolutionary socialist organization The Socialist Forum. His writing has appeared in the organization’s publication Al Manshour, among other platforms.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.