An Egyptian TV host has been jailed for interviewing a gay man.

An Egyptian TV host has been jailed for interviewing a gay man. Mohamed al-Ghiety was sentenced to one year of hard labor on Monday, January 28, in a case brought by Samir Sabry, a lawyer notorious in Egypt for prosecuting high profile figures for supposedly offending public morality. Mr. Sabry has filed hundreds of similar cases in recent years.

The identity of the man, whose face was blurred during the interview, remains unknown. Following the broadcast, Egypt’s top media regulatory body, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, immediately took the privately owned LCT TV channel off air for two weeks, citing “professional violations.”

The court in Giza fined al-Ghiety around $170 for “promoting homosexuality,” and Al-Ghiety may also be placed under surveillance for an additional 12 months following his release upon serving his sentence. 

A striking aspect of this case is that, far from “promoting homosexuality,” al-Ghiety himself has regularly been accused of homophobia. Notwithstanding this, in his August 2018 interview, the man he interviewed expressed regret over his homosexuality and his previous life as a sex worker, a far cry from promoting homosexuality.

It appears that the arrest of al-Ghiety was motivated more by the fact that the interview gave a  gay person a platform to speak. The message of this is inescapable – that gay Egyptians have no place in society, and that their lives are to be suppressed and hidden. 

The prosecution of al-Ghiety comes in the context of a widespread attack on progressive values in Egypt. The verdict comes just weeks after an Egyptian woman, Amal Fathy, was sentenced to two years in prison for posting a supposedly indecent video to social media, in which she denounced sexual harassment and lamented the authorities’ failure to prevent it. 

The use of authoritarian means to impose puritanical moral standards in Egypt is an extremely worrying trend and is by no means limited to the oppression of the country’s LGBT citizens. Samir Sabry is perhaps the central figure in this regressive drive. It was also Sabry who filed the case against Egyptian actress Rania Youssef on charges of “inciting debauchery,” after she wore a partially see-through outfit at an awards ceremony during the 2018 Cairo Film Festival.

Youssef was later forced to appear on television and apologize for the dress. After her apology, Sabry dropped the charges. Youssef, however, remains under investigation by the authorities. 

“Freedom of expression has limits. Creativity has limits too. There is a huge difference between freedom of expression and immorality.”

In response to Youssef’s case, Sabry gave a chilling interview to the BBC in which he asserted: “Freedom of expression has limits. Creativity has limits too. There is a huge difference between freedom of expression and immorality. Not every work of art can be considered a creative work of art. Therefore any criticism or measures taken against it shouldn’t be considered an infringement of freedom of expression.”

Leaving aside his apparent belief that creativity can be quantified by law, the literal-mindedness displayed here epitomizes the threat to freedom represented by the views of Sabry and others. To believe in free expression is to defend the right to express precisely the views that one despises, precisely the expression that causes great offense.

Large numbers of Egyptians have managed to grasp such elementary concepts. One woman spoke to the BBC about her exasperation regarding Rania Youssef’s apology. “It’s as if we have gone back 100 years,” she said. “Egyptian movies from the 60s used to feature women in their miniskirts. No one complained at the time.” 

There is, however, troubling evidence that views such as Samir Sabry’s have support from large sections of the population, evidenced by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and other regressive forces in recent times. One man told the BBC: “There is no such thing as personal freedom, especially in Egypt and other Arab countries. We have traditions here. God has called on women to cover their heads. It’s the simplest form of decency.”

In another disturbing case in 2017, Sabry pressed charges against the singer Shyma for recording a video in which she can be seen eating a banana in a suggestive manner. For this, she was sentenced to two years in prison. In response to the case, Sabry said: “Anyone is free to do whatever they like, but they have to consider social, cultural and religious values.” By this, of course, he means that Egyptians should be forced to conform to his own reactionary interpretation of those values.

The verdict in the al-Ghiety case also comes as part of the current crackdown by Egyptian authorities on the country’s LGBT community.

The verdict in the al-Ghiety case also comes as part of the current crackdown by Egyptian authorities on the country’s LGBT community. Despite the fact that there is no explicit legal prohibition on homosexuality in Egypt, authorities routinely arrest people suspected of engaging in homosexuality on charges of so-called debauchery, immorality, or blasphemy. 

In 2017, Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation banned homosexuals from appearing on any media outlet after a rainbow flag was raised at a concert in Cairo. At the time, Mohamed al-Ghiety called on the state to take action against those who raised the flag. The legal basis for the crackdown on homosexuality in Egypt is largely based upon a 1961 law criminalizing “habitual debauchery.” The ambiguity of this phrase is utilized to charge individuals suspected of engaging in consensual homosexual conduct. 

Increasing conservatism and the assault on liberal values in Egypt and across the MENA region are no doubt alarming, as is the political regression sweeping Europe and Latin America. The response, however, should not be one of despair, but rather a call to action. The uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring, beginning in 2011, show the massive support for radical change that exists in Egypt and the wider region, particularly among young people. While that movement essentially failed in most countries, with the partial exception of Tunisia, there is no reason whatsoever to think that the regression the Arab world is currently experiencing cannot be surmounted.