Aside from blithely reducing the fate of actual people to a matter of casual “interest,” Lilla’s premise displays shockingly little interest or familiarity with the ways in which dictators use their most vulnerable populations — LGBT people, women, ethnic/religious minorities — to advance larger state projects. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have both used the spectacular persecution of gay men and trans women as a ploy to legitimize and strengthen the expansion of authoritarian state power to excise from Egyptian society a convenient symbol of British colonial contamination. In fact, President Sisi’s mass arrests of LGBT people and infiltration of gay chat rooms are quite clearly the leading edge of a government effort to shut down freedom of expression and sites of resistance to authoritarian rule in Egypt — fueled by the proliferation of internet chat rooms and web sites that lie beyond the regime’s easy control. The persecution of LGBT rights has played a key role in crushing efforts to bring about liberal, democratic reform in Egypt. The Egyptian case quite clearly illustrates the essential connection between identity politics and authoritarian governance. Thus, I read in shocked disbelief Lilla’s coy condemnation of media coverage of human rights violations suffered by transgender people in Egypt as a mere “identity drama” that “contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own.” This statement is not only blatantly inaccurate, it displays an incapacity or worse, an unwillingness, to conceptualize power in complex ways.
Katherine Franke, in the Los Angeles Review of Books