The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She raised the pride flag in Egypt. The price was torture, exile and her life.


“The sky is sweeter than the earth! And I want the sky, not the earth,” 30-year-old queer Egyptian Sarah Hegazi wrote Saturday, in her final Instagram post, from exile in Canada.

These were among her last words. Hegazi took her own life later that day in Toronto, where she sought asylum in 2018 after her arrest — and alleged torture and sexual assault — for raising a rainbow pride flag at a concert in Cairo.

“To my siblings — I tried to find redemption and failed, forgive me,” Hegazi said in a handwritten note found after her death. “To my friends — the experience was harsh and I am too weak to resist it, forgive me.

“To the world — you were cruel to a great extent, but I forgive.”

Hegazi’s death, preceded by two suicide attempts, has reverberated across the Middle East and beyond.

The young software developer was yet another victim of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s well-documented crackdown on free expression: Human rights groups say Sissi’s abuse is the worst repression in decades and has ensnared tens of thousands of Egyptians in prison, disappeared hundreds more and forced countless independent thinkers, such as Hegazi, into exile.

As coronavirus spreads in Egypt, Sissi sees opportunity to tighten his grip

Her story is also part of a broader pattern of violence inflicted on the bodies and minds of LGBTQ people around the world. “We are born into trauma, and we carry it with us wherever we go,” Lebanese musician and LGBTQ rights activist Hamed Sinno wrote Monday on Facebook. “… That is what trauma does to the body. That is what hate does to the body.”

A guide to how gender-neutral language is developing around the world

Sinno is the lead singer for the Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila, whose concert Hegazi was attending on the night in 2017 when she was photographed raising the pride flag. On Monday, he sang a mournful tune on Instagram dedicated to Hegazi using the words of her last post.

“To my young lgbtq+ following, you are god’s creation, as much as anyone else is,” he wrote in the Facebook message. “You are perfect. You are beautiful. You are loved. You deserve better.”

Mashrou’ Leila has long garnered controversy, and bans, throughout the Middle East, where laws criminalizing “debauchery” or “sexual deviance” are used to arrest and repress LGBTQ people. Openly identifying oneself as anything other than heterosexual is socially taboo in conservative communities. Arab queer activists have carved their own spaces and made significant gains in recent years — but those are often one step forward, two steps back.

Beirut’s fearless drag queens defy Middle Eastern conservatism

“Egypt has failed Sarah and all the LGBT community,” Rasha Younes, a researcher with the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, told Middle East Eye. “They alienated her; they forced her out of her country; they are responsible for her suffering.”

In Egypt, as Hegazi argued in a 2018 article, Sissi has seized on anti-LGBTQ sentiment to his political benefit: In an effort to cement his power after ousting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party from government in 2013, the former general has sought to project himself as the protector of Egypt’s conservative mores — crackdowns on queer communities included.

Last year, a local rights group recorded the arrest of 92 LGBTQ people, 69 percent of whom security officials profiled and detained randomly on the street, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Islamists and the state compete in extremism, ignorance and hate, just as they do in violence and harm,” Hegazi wrote of her ordeal in 2018 for the website Mada Masr, Egypt’s last independent news outlet. “Islamists punish those who differ from them with death, and the ruling regime punishes those who differ from it with prison.”

Egypt arrests journalist during interview in latest attack on independent media

A concert in Cairo in 2017 swiftly descended into Egypt’s biggest LGBTQ crackdown in years.

Amid the music and dancing, Hegazi and another Egyptian, Ahmed Alaa, were both photographed raising rainbow flags, long associated with gay rights.

“I was declaring myself in a society that hates all that is different from the norm,” Hegazi later told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Alaa told NPR it was “the best moment” of his life.

Egyptian media figures had a different message. “This debauchery, this shame, this crime,” television host Ahmed Moussa told his viewers after the photos spread on social media.

Days later, Hegazi was detained by armed security forces, according to her account in Mada Masr. She and Alaa were among some 100 people arrested in the resulting crackdown, Dalia Abdel Hameed, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told NPR.

“As I was being arrested from my home, in front of my family, an officer asked me about my religion, about why I had taken off the veil, and whether or not I was a virgin,” Hegazi wrote in her article.

Once she was in police custody, she said, the violence began. Hegazi said she was electrocuted, verbally and sexually assaulted, and held in solitary confinement, among other forms of torture during her imprisonment. “I lost the ability to make eye contact with people,” she wrote.

She said her interrogator at times compared homosexuality to communism and demanded evidence from the World Health Organization that her sexual orientation was not a disease.

Hegazi was released after three months, following international pressure. But her suffering was far from over. She battled depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She lost her job and family ties. Fearing another arrest, she fled to Canada, where she, and later Alaa, was granted asylum. But respite never followed. Soon after she left Egypt, her mother died of cancer back home. And the trauma of her arrest and detention stayed with her.

“I have not forgotten the injustice which dug a black hole into the soul and left it bleeding — a hole which the doctors have not yet been able to heal,” she wrote in 2018.

Sinno reflected on this shared pain in his Facebook post.

“We spend the first part of our lives demanding air in our homelands, and then we leave to countries where we are promised air, only to find out we were robbed of lungs,” he wrote. “Continuing to not address the structural inequality that produces this much suffering is a crime.”

“I apologize if I gave anyone hope that they’ll one day see us as human,” he continued. “The truth is, they’ve always known we’re human. That’s why they pretend to be doing god’s bidding when they kill us.”