Will the "New Middle East" Be a Welcoming Place for Gays and Lesbians?

Hossein Alizadeh

Read the article at Trustlaw.com, Thomson Reuters

Karim is a 27-year-old medical professional who until recently was doing everything possible to remain under the radar of former President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali's secret service, while trying his best to help other gay men in Tunisia. This included organizing support groups, teaching about sexually transmitted diseases, and arranging counseling—all while avoiding politics.

The popular uprising in late December changed all of this. He began posting images of demonstrations and victims of government crackdowns on Facebook and toward the end, even caricatures of the dictator himself. Karim is one of many gay Tunisians who overcame his fear and joined millions at the barricades to overthrow a corrupt and dictatorial regime.

Like all other citizens, Arab lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals suffered through decades of injustice and oppression from despotic rulers and their regimes. In the headiness of the current moment, there is an expectation that the "new wave of freedom" will benefit LGBT people. But will they equally enjoy the fruits of this struggle? Is it time for LGBT Arabs to step out of the closet and demand basic human rights?

The deep-seated homophobia in the region results from a complex interplay of religion, culture, and a colonial history, which goes beyond particular forms of governance. The secular dictators who are being swept out, often reinforced existing homophobic laws and practices to appease conservative religious and social forces in order to maintain power. In the absence of long-term strategies or the resources with which to seize the moment, LGBT people are not guaranteed to see a dramatic improvement in their lives as a result of the demise of these despots.

In Tunisia, the secular police-state has suddenly vanished and new forces have stepped into the vacuum. This includes formerly-banned political parties and social movements, like the powerful Islamic En Nahdha Party whose commitment to human rights remains to be seen. There are also new, informal groups of "concerned citizens" who, without clear ideological or political affiliation, gather to "protect traditional values." There have already been reports of attacks by vigilantes against sex workers and men suspected of being gay. Both groups are accused of siding with the deposed secular regime and transgressing Islamic values. This is worrisome for an LGBT population made invisible under the old regime and with hopes for the future.

The situation in Egypt too is sobering. While the army has suspended the constitution and is planning a transition to "civilian rule," the most influential social and political movement in the country, the Islamic Brotherhood, has already broken its promise not to seek power in the post-Mubarak era. It is preparing to run in the upcoming election. One of the group's leaders has already told the press that it wished that Egypt "had a brave president like President Ahmadinejad."

In Bahrain, the unrepresented and underserved Shiite majority is demanding change after two centuries of rule by the Sunni monarchy. Although the secular kingdom stood out within the Persian Gulf for its relatively liberal social atmosphere, as recently as February 2011, two-hundred people were arrested for attending what has been dubbed a "gay" party.

Such intolerance may intensify given that the leader of the political opposition is a Shiite Ayatollah with close ties to conservative clerics in Iraq and Lebanon. So far, the demands of the opposition have been limited to calls for political freedom, equitable distribution of resources, and better representation for the Shiite majority -- all good things that accord with human rights principles.

However, there is nothing stopping this powerful religious establishment from calling for the implementation of Sharia law that could target marginalized groups, including the LGBT community.

For millions in the region, homosexuality remains a dark and mysterious secret--abnormal behavior violating Islamic values and promoted by a morally decadent and imperialist west. It will require years of work to challenge public misconceptions and raise awareness about sexual orientation and gender identity in terms that are understandable and palatable to the public, especially among the leaders of the region's powerful religious communities.

As the struggle in Bahrain continues and the public in Egypt and Tunisia celebrate their triumph, for the LGBT communities of these countries, the long journey to the full enjoyment of their human rights has, in many ways, just begun.