Conflict & Justice

Seeking a place in 'new Egypt'


Actor Omar Sharif, Jr., attends a Hollywood event on March 7, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.


Frederick M. Brown

When Egypt's parliament voted Saturday to retain much of the responsibility for writing the country's new constitution, liberals found another reason to worry that the Islamist-dominated legislature is building a system with little concern for liberal rights and social equality.

"What happened today lessens the chance for a wide representation of the country,” said liberal MP Amr Hamzawy of the vote, which allotted half the seats on the 100-member constitutional panel to parliamentarians representing very few women, young people or Christians.

So what about the gays and the Jews?

Egyptian-American Omar Sharif Jr. announced in The Advocate that he is both gay and Jewish, challenging the new government to make room for minorities and alternative lifestyles, a "litmus test" for the parties in parliament to state their intentions.

Sharif knows it's a tall order.

"That my mother is Jewish is no small disclosure when you are from Egypt, no matter the year." wrote Sharif, the grandson of the legendary Egyptian actor with whom he shares a name. "And being openly gay has always meant asking for trouble, but perhaps especially during this time of political and social upheaval. With the victories of several Islamist parties in recent elections, a conversation needs to be had and certain questions need to be raised. I ask myself: Am I welcome in the new Egypt?"

More from GlobalPost: LGBT rights window closing in Egypt

Sharif now lives in Los Angeles, having departed Egypt in January 2011 with the movement to overthrow Mubarak already occupying the streets. His challenge to parliament comes at a time when Egypt's progressives are disheartened and lacking the momentum to bring about a "second revolution."

Unfortunately for Sharif, his religious/ethnic and sexual identities remain two big strikes against him in the eyes of many Egyptians.

As GlobalPost has reported in recent months, Egypt's LGBTs sensed a window of opportunity for social equality in the early days of the revolution but have seen their hopes dashed and have returned to hiding their identities. A large percentage of Egyptians are bitterly anti-Semitic, exacerbated by decades of poor relations with Israel, and the Jewish population of Egypt has dwindled to about 100 people.

Egyptian women who helped mobilize the country to push for regime change now routinely feel themselves pushed away from leadership roles and subjected to misogynous abuses. Coptic Christians have never felt truly safe in Egypt, enduring religious persecution and violence. 

More from GlobalPost: State of Fear: Egypt's Copts in peril

The Brookings Doha Center - Stanford Project on Arab Transitions issued a report in early March urging social progressives in Egypt to push the constitutional panel to guarantee "equality of citizenship" and to include human rights protection mechanisms.

The report's author, Simon Fraser University professor Tamir Moustafa, also argues that liberal voices must work to limit the authority of religious institutions — with a careful eye toward women's rights — while explicitly defining the military as the defender of the country and nothing more.

But Moustafa is not optimistic so far.

"Egypt’s transition is shaping up to be a case study in how not to initiate a constitution-writing process," he wrote. "If Egypt is to emerge with a stable constitutional order that protects basic rights, it will be in spite of the mismanaged transition dictated by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)."

Sharif calls the new government to rise above the faulty process and embrace inclusive ideals so that he can return safely to his homeland:

"After all of this, if we pursue a national agenda that does not respect basic human rights, we are no better than the architects of tyranny, contempt, and oppression toppled throughout the Arab Spring."