Ahmed Youssef / EPA
Eighteen days of popular protest culminated in the downfall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011.
CAIRO, Egypt -- Maha remembers going to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011. The 27-year-old office worker only wanted to look around the Cairo intersection filled with thousands of protesters. But seeing Egypt's revolution unfold before her, she left to get friends and quickly returned. Without planning to, Maha became one of the highly visible gay men and women who took to the streets shouting for change.
"We don't get freedom anywhere. No voice, nothing," said Maha, who declined to give her surname "So, the first chance at revolution, we fought."
Nearly two years after the ouster of former leader Hosni Mubarak, Maha sits smoking a shisha with her friend Noor at a back-street cafe in downtown Cairo. Together, the women have made this location a "safe place" for gays, somewhere they can come and be themselves.
Unlike in other major cities around the world, there is no flag or signage to indicate this is a "gay" cafe. People know about it through word-of-mouth and the online forum, "Bedayaa." They talk about the time since the revolution with a weariness that contrasts with the excitement they initially felt.
Many of Egypt's gays and lesbians thought sexual freedom was on the horizon. "There was a moment of hope but the last few years has killed it," Maha says, adding: "Nothing much has changed, it is very hard." She is interrupted by Noor: "I think it is getting worse," she says.
The women remember sitting with gay male friends at another cafe three months after the revolution, when locals complained about it and called nearby military police, who then found make-up in the bag of one of the boys. They were all taken away for questioning for "making a mess" in the area.
Egypt has no specific laws banning homosexuality although there are plenty of ways to charge someone suspected of engaging in homosexual acts. Police will often charge gay people with "debauchery" or breaking the country's law of public morals. The election of an Islamist president in Egypt, and the passing last month of a new constitution, has also increased fears among the country's gay men and women that anti-gay legislation could soon be introduced. "We think in two or three months they will put a law to discriminate," Maha says.
Many others fear a government crackdown is only a matter of time. The most notorious pre-revolution attack on gay men took place in 2001, when Cairo police raided a Nile boat, arresting dozens of gay men. Along with others taken from the streets, they became known as the "Cairo 52." But now, the Muslim Brotherhood is not just a power to be appeased - it is the dominant power in Egypt's new government.
The natural instinct for most gay Egyptians is to try not to draw attention to themselves but taking part in the revolution has brought greater visibility -- at a cost. Alongside other minorities the gay community has been criticized for its role in the uprising.
Adel Ramadan, a legal officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, describes the derogatory language used to attack the groups that took to the streets. "After the fall of Mubarak, the criticism of those groups has always contained a sexual element. Whether it's the women who are participating are called prostitutes or 'loose' women, or men are called homosexuals."
The former Egyptian president faces charges of corruption and complicity in deaths of protesters.
Maha believes this kind of rhetoric has led to an increase in verbal abuse. She thinks some people feel emboldened to shout and call names, knowing the authorities will be on their side. A popular term with some members of the Muslim Brotherhood is "shewaz," a derogatory term for homosexuals that loosely translates as "perverts."
While gay advocacy organizations are active in other predominantly Muslim countries such as Lebanon, Egypt's support groups are not well organized and struggle to be heard. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights is a human rights group that will talk about gays but this cause is not a priority for them. Another group that works with them asked that it not be named for fear of reprisals.
Despite their fears, gay life continues in Cairo. Men still meet on one of the city's bridges, and the Internet and social media help bring people together. Kholoud Bidak is an activist who is thinking of setting up an online forum. She was also in Tahrir Square in January 2011 and was stunned at the number of gay men and women at the heart of the protests. She has been disappointed in the two years that followed, but believes the gay community has at least gained recognition from human rights groups, which were previously uninterested. "They are finally starting to acknowledge LGBTs, 'oh, they were in the revolution since day one very, very effectively.' I thought that is very positive."
She remains scared by the anti-gay rhetoric from some politicians and clerics but tries to stay upbeat. "There is some hope," she says. "How? I don't know."