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A fan of Lebanese alternative rock band Mashrou' Leila holds a rainbow flag during an Aug. 12 concert at the Ehdeniyat International Festival in Ehden town, Lebanon. Photo by Jamal Saidi/Reuters

There has been a surge in arrests of LGBTQ people in Egypt. Here’s why

Since last month, Egyptian police have arrested at least 54 people in what’s considered to be the widest ever crackdown of LGBTQ citizens in that country, according to an organization that advocates for civil liberties in Egypt.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said the crackdown is in response to the raising of rainbow flags in the audience of a September 22 concert by popular Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila. The band’s lead singer is gay.

Images of the flags were spread across social media in the days that followed.

Egyptian police have responded with a series of arrests since that concert, the rights group said. They have since convicted 10 people to between one and six years in prison for “debauchery.” The Supreme Council for Media Regulation, a media regulatory body, has also prohibited the promotion of what it calls “homosexual slogans.”

“Egypt should immediately halt this vicious crackdown on a vulnerable group simply for waving a flag,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa director said in a statement Friday condemning the crackdown. “Repression will not turn gay people straight – it will only perpetuate fear and abuse,” she said.

Unlike some other countries in the region, homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt. Instead those suspected are often charged with “debauchery” or “promoting sexual deviancy.”

Human Rights Watch said at least six detained individuals were also given forced anal examinations.

Najia Bounaim, the North Africa campaigns director at Amnesty International, said the examinations as “tantamount to torture” and something that “cannot be justified under any circumstances.”

Amnesty International says it hasn’t seen any international response to these events.

Egyptian media, which is dominated by pro-government channels, condemned the rainbow flags. “Homosexuality is a crime that’s as terrible as terrorism”, prime-time TV host Ahmed Moussa said. Poet Mohsen al-Balasy was kicked off al-Mehwar TV after publicly defending LGBTQ people.

The number of arrests has surpassed the Queen Boat incident in 2001, which was once the largest crackdown of LGBTQ citizens in the country. Then, under Egypt’s ex-President Hosni Mubarak, police raided a floating nightclub called the Queen Boat, arresting 52 people. They were charged with “habitual debauchery” and “obscene behavior.”

In the months following the 2011 Tahrir Square protests, LGBTQ advocates had hoped the country would become more accepting of gay rights, but the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military put a damper on those ambitions, PRI reported. And since the 2013 coup that established a new government under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a crackdown on members of the LGBTQ community has renewed.

Three years ago, 26 men were arrested in another police raid of a Cairo bathhouse. The raid was aired in a TV special that framed the police action as an effort to combat the “spreading of AIDS in Egypt.”

After an outpouring of support on social media, the men were found innocent.

Homosexuality is widely unpopular in Egypt, a predominantly Muslim country. According to a 2013 Pew Research poll, 95 percent of Egyptians said society should reject homosexuality.

Lawmakers in Egypt’s Parliament are currently debating criminalizing homosexuality with punishment of up to 15 years in prison, The Guardian reported. It’s not clear when or whether such legislation will reach a vote.

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