I write this article in fear. Fear for my country, fear for my family, and fear for myself. My parents will be shocked to read it, surely preferring I stay in the shadows and keep silent, at least for the time being.
But I can’t.
Last January, I left Egypt with a heavy heart. I traveled to America, leaving behind my family, friends, and compatriots who were in the midst of embarking on a heroic journey toward self-determination. Despite the sound of gunshots in the streets and the images of Anderson Cooper being struck repeatedly over the head on CNN, I left hopeful that I would return to find a more tolerant and equal society. While I benefited from a life of privilege being Omar Sharif’s grandson, it was always coupled with the onerous guilt that such a position might have been founded upon others’ sweat and tears.
One year since the start of the revolution, I am not as hopeful.
The troubling results of the recent parliamentary elections dealt secularists a particularly devastating blow. The vision for a freer, more equal Egypt — a vision that many young patriots gave their lives to see realized in Tahrir Square — has been hijacked. The full spectrum of equal and human rights are now wedge issues used by both the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces and the Islamist parties, when they should be regarded as universal truths.
I write this article despite the inherent risks associated because as we stand idle at what we hoped would be the pinnacle of Egyptian modern history, I worry that a fall from the top could be the most devastating. I write, with healthy respect for the dangers that may come, for fear that Egypt’s Arab Spring may be moving us backward, not forward.
And so I hesitantly confess: I am Egyptian, I am half Jewish, and I am gay.
That my mother is Jewish is no small disclosure when you are from Egypt, no matter the year. 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?
Will being Egyptian, half Jewish, and gay forever remain mutually exclusive identities? Are they identities to be hidden? While to many in Europe and North America mine might seem like trivial admissions, I am afraid this is not so in Egypt. I anticipate that I will be chastised, scorned, and most certainly threatened. From the vaunted class of Egyptian actor and personality, I might just become an Egyptian public enemy.
And yet I speak out because I am a patriot.
I am a patriot who remembers a pluralistic Egypt, where despite a lack of choice in the political sphere, society comprised a multitude of beliefs and backgrounds. I remember growing up knowing gay men and women who were quietly accepted by those around them in everyday society. The motto was simple: “Stay quiet, stay safe.” Today, too many are staying quiet as the whole of Egyptian society moves toward this monolithic entity I barely recognize.
Last month I went for an afternoon run outside my home in Cairo. It was hot, and so I removed my T-shirt. I got the strange sense someone was watching. I felt a car begin to slow behind me, and a man began to shout that I could no longer go out in the streets shirtless in the new Egypt. With reticence, I put my T-shirt on and continued to run.
Today, I write.
I write this article because there are many back home without a voice, without a face, and without an outlet. I write this article because I am not unique in Egypt and because many will suffer if a basic respect for fundamental human rights and equality is not embraced by Egypt’s new government. I write this article because as an Egyptian national newly acquainted with a land of freedom, I feel a certain privilege that I can finally express myself openly as well as artistically. I have a voice, and with it comes a responsibility to share it during this time of social and political change, no matter the risks.
I write this article as a litmus test, calling for a reaction. I challenge each of the parties elected to parliament to speak out, on the record, as to where they stand on respect for the rights of all Egyptians, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or political belief. Do religious parties speak of moderation now only to consolidate power? Show us that your true intent is not to gradually eradicate the few civil liberties and safeguards that we currently have protected by convention, if not constitution. I write this article to understand my own position in the new Egyptian paradigm. To a greater degree, though, I want to know where my newborn sister fits, my Coptic Christian friends, and the entire list of those who seek a basic guarantee of rights affirmed just to know they can live safely in Egypt. I want to know that we are not sliding downward on a slippery slope from secular(ish) society toward Islamic fundamentalist state.
I challenge foreign governments and NGOs present in Egypt today to comment and demand answers on equal and human rights from both the leaders of the revolution and the new government. I urge them to lend the Egyptian people and any future governments the support necessary to protect those at risk and strengthen our laws so that an admission like mine is not a sentence to prison, physical harm, or worse. Lend guidance in formulating a new constitution that protects the lives and liberty of all citizens, reminding them that while I know all too well that Egypt is not ready to adopt or accept equal rights for gays, it should nonetheless be included in the discussion. We learn from the entrenchment of constitutional principles in long-established Western democracies that if a group is excluded from the outset, it could be centuries before the issue is revisited.
I write this article as an open letter to my fellow Egyptian people, mailed from many miles away, commending them on how far they have come in how short a time. We must continue to run toward, not away from, the ideals that started us down this extraordinary path. 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.
I want to have a place in the new Egypt.
I write asking for my inclusion.
Omar Sharif Jr.