"How can I survive in a society based on hate?"

In 2017, Sarah Hegazy was arrested in Cairo for displaying a rainbow flag, the symbol for homosexuality and queerness, at a concert. The activist recently took her own life in Canada. By Christopher Resch

By Christopher Resch

Seldom in Egypt’s recent history has a death sent greater shockwaves through the exile community as this one. On 14 June, Sarah Hegazy departed willingly from this life, as a final act of self-determination in a struggle against a murderous world. Her fight was not to be won.

Sarah Hegazy, 30 years old, was an Egyptian LGBTIQ activist. She became known as the woman who waved the rainbow flag during a concert given in Cairo in 2017 by Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila.

It was reportedly the first time in Egypt that this queer symbol had been openly displayed in public. But this cannot be the reason for her subsequent incarceration, as homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt.

Why, then, was she thrown into prison, why was she tortured with electric shocks, and why were other imprisoned women encouraged to sexually humiliate her? Why else was she compelled to leave her homeland while suffering severe post-traumatic stress disorder and move to Canada?

As we commemorate #Pride, heartshattering to learn the beautiful soul Sarah Hegazi has left us.

Sarah had been detained, assaulted, fired from her job, made to live in exile--all because Egyptian authorities accused her of raising the rainbow flag at a @mashrou3leila concert. pic.twitter.com/18px2meU9M

— Mai El-Sadany (@maitelsadany) June 14, 2020

Messages of hate and rejection

In the days following the fateful concert, the social media were full of photos. Sarah Hegazy and Ahmed Alaa, who was just 21 at the time, posted the images themselves. In addition to encouragement and support, they were both inundated with messages of hate and rejection.

Those in the media, especially notorious Egyptian talk show hosts, seized on "the story" and whipped up public hysteria. Homosexuals in Egypt have long been exposed to hostility, the most notorious case being the arrest of the "Cairo 52" from the Queen Boat in 2001.Yet, according to the queer community in Egypt, the weeks following Hegazy’s arrest were like nothing that had ever happened before. The authorities monitored dating apps to identify potential homosexuals, stormed flats and homes, closed LGBTIQ friendly cafes and imposed prison sentences on those detained for up to six years.

It was no surprise, then, that Sarah Hegazy no longer wished to live in this deeply toxic environment and decided to emigrate to Toronto. "I was afraid of everyone," she wrote in the online journal Mada Masr in 2018, a year after her arrest.

"To the world – you were awfully cruel, but I forgive you"

She did not find happiness in Canada. Her mother died shortly after she left Egypt. She began to stutter and could no longer look anyone in the eye, she wrote. There had already been two suicide attempts. She undertook the third on a Sunday in mid-June, 2020. Sarah Hegazy left behind a farewell letter, which she wrote by hand in Arabic. "To the world – you were awfully cruel, but I forgive you."

RIP Sara Hegazy

I didn’t know Sara personally, but she was the one that raised the pride flag @ Mashrou Leila’s gig in Egypt. She sought asylum after facing police brutality & sexual assault.

She’s always fought for everyone. She didn’t deserve this. Fuck homophobia. pic.twitter.com/dvsKqHsXN4

— نوح (@sabbathi_) June 14, 2020

Egyptian society, however, is not so merciful. Although in light of this sad occurrence there have been many commentaries filled with solidarity, love, and unity, these have been repeatedly countered by other voices claiming that the tragic outcome was clearly the will of God. It is probable that many authorities in Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s state apparatus are laughing in their sleeves. This wouldn’t be the first example of such cynicism.

In many respects, Sarah Hegazy did not lead a life that the regime deems desirable. In an interview with the Deutsche Welle (DW), she summarised her situation: "How can I survive in a society that is based on the hatred of everyone who is not male, heterosexual, Sunni, or a supporter of the regime? All others are suppressed." 

She was also a member of socialist parties in both Egypt and Canada. Her coming out as a lesbian only augmented the societal rage, she explained to DW. "I revealed myself in a society that hates everything that deviates from the norm."

Mental illness is the result of structural violence

Many Sisi supporters and the few official bodies that have issued statements stress that suicide is not compatible with Islam. In fact, this is the viewpoint of most Islamic legal scholars, and it also corresponds to the Christian position. Yet, the explanation that arrest, prison, torture, and public hostility could have led to her being mentally ill is just too simple.


Hamed Sinno, the homosexual singer in the band Mashrou’ Leila, offered an emotional statement on Facebook in response to this interpretation. "To pathologise mental illnesses does not explain why many of us are afflicted by them, while others are not. Mental illness is the result of structural violence." Furthermore: "Minorities suffer more frequently from diabetes, heart illnesses, respiratory failure, and cancer. This is what trauma and hatred does to our bodies."

All-pervasive anxiety became the most powerful force in her life, said Sarah Hegazy one year after her imprisonment. Just two years later, this anxiety and terror would triumph. The attacks launched on her by state and society were too brutal to bear.

That the regime reacts towards its citizens as it did in the case of Sarah Hegazy might be interpreted as a sign of weakness and decay. Yet, the fact that this regime is supported by society stifles any grounds for hope.

Christopher Resch

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by John Bergeron