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Omar Sharif Jr.: 'One Day I Will Go Home'

  • Ray Furlong

Egyptian-Canadian actor Omar Sharif Jr. says he is convinced he will return to his native Egypt one day, despite receiving a torrent of abuse and death threats since coming out as a homosexual in 2012.

But amid a crackdown on sexual minorities in Egypt, the actor says it won't be anytime soon.

"I don't know, once the plane landed, if I wouldn't be arrested for inciting debauchery. I don't necessarily want to test my luck just yet, but eventually I will. I will go home," he said in an interview with RFE/RL.

Homosexuality is not technically illegal in Egypt, but has long been suppressed using debauchery, prostitution, or pornography charges.

Sharif Jr., grandson and namesake of the Hollywood screen legend who starred in films such as Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, is himself an accomplished actor who has been living in self-imposed exile since outing himself as both gay and half-Jewish in 2012.

He said the abuse for being gay has been far greater than that for having a Jewish mother, and that it took him by surprise.

"I thought it would be less newsworthy. We had such problems in Egypt: an economic crisis, a security crisis.... But when there are such big issues, sometimes people are looking for a distraction," said Sharif Jr., 32.

This was during the time of Egypt's Islamist President Muhammad Morsi.

Morsi was ousted by then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2013, but human rights groups have reported an increase in arrests and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people since then.

"Silence feels like the safest option," for many LGBT in Egypt, said Sharif Jr., adding that six months ago a number of his friends were arrested at a house party in Cairo.

"These were all from fairly educated families, some with ties to government. That did not stop them getting arrested," he noted.

They were later released, but Sharif Jr. said many people wanted to leave -- and turn to him for advice he is unable to provide.

"I feel helpless," he said. "I don't know how to help."

Nevertheless, Sharif Jr. said that change in Egypt and the wider Arab world was "inevitable."

He cited the response to an appearance he made on an Arabic satellite TV chat show for young people, which he said was "50-50, maybe even a little bit better" as proof that attitudes are changing.

"Millions tuned in live, and millions more afterwards. It was syndicated to many different news outlets," he said.

Sharif Jr. praised efforts by the United States to promote LGBT rights worldwide, in particular a decision by Hilary Clinton when she was secretary of state to task U.S. embassies with filing reports on the issue.

"If nothing else, it told countries that someone was watching, someone was listening. That might not be our voice, but if it can be our eyes and ears elevate the level of dialogue within the country around these issues, that's a great step," he said.

Sharif Jr. has been increasingly active in LGBT advocacy in recent years, and spoke to RFE/RL while in Prague for a gay-pride rally.

He said the Czech Republic could set an example to "less tolerant" societies in Eastern Europe and Russia, insisting that homophobia was a global issue.

"I moved to the U.S., which is my safe haven, and to know that there have been 15 transgender murders in America this year, to know that there was a stabbing on the New York City subway just two days ago in an apparent hate crime, it shows that homophobia is not an Arab or Islamic issue."