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LGBTQ rights in Egypt: Queer community battles crackdown

March 30, 2023

Recent reports suggest that LGBTQ people in Egypt are increasingly being targeted digitally. But activists and observers say that the crackdown is, in fact, systemic.

A lesbian couple at the beach, hugging gently
Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt; however, discrimination is rife.Image: Shotshop/picture alliance

Human rights organizations and news agencies have recently reported that members of the Egyptian queer community are being increasingly targeted by the police via fake Facebook accounts or fake profiles on dating apps. 

"The authorities in Egypt … have integrated technology into their policing of LGBT people," said Rasha Younes, senior LGBTQ rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a  report on the group's website.

LGBT, LGBTQ or LGTBQ+ is an acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual and more.

"While digital platforms have enabled LGBT people to express themselves and amplify their voices, they have also become tools for state-sponsored repression," Younes concluded.

However, the London-based Egyptian neuroscientist Ahmed El Hady, who is deeply involved with the Egyptian queer community and who describes himself as "proudly gay" on Twitter, doesn't confirm any increased digital crackdown. "Arrests are systemic and happen all the time on a small scale," he told DW. 

This observation was confirmed by Lobna Darwish, a gender rights researcher at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). "In the past 10 years, people have been systematically arrested through entrapment on gay dating websites," she told DW, adding that "over this period, the numbers have remained more or less the same." 

"In 2022, we provided legal aid and documented 19 cases that involved 43 defendants who were arrested based on their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity by the vice police, a department that is specialized in combatting illegal sex work, and later accused of charges including habitual practice of debauchery," Darwish told DW. 

However, the majority of these people were arrested after having used one of the commonly used dating apps such as Grindr, Tinder or WhosHere. 

Egyptian men who have been accused of having gay sex cover their faces as they walk into a Cairo court 18 July 2000
Queer Egyptians have been systematically targeted and put on trial in the past decade, observers say.Image: ANDREW BLACK/AFP/Getty Images

Cash and condoms as evidence

There is no doubt that it has become common practice for the police to create fake accounts on these apps. "The police talk to people and flirt with them for days or weeks until they agree to go on a date," Darwish explained. "Ahead of the first meeting, the police person asks them to bring, for example, some condoms," she added. 

People then get arrested during the encounter, and the condoms are used as evidence for sex work. Then, they are mostly accused of habitual debauchery according to law No. 10/1961, which is known as the law combatting prostitution, or anti-prostitution law. Other common accusations are immorality or blasphemy. 

But even having cash is enough. "Any cash, not even large amounts, is used against them as evidence of sex work," Darwish said. 

Homosexuality is not officially illegal in Egypt, but discrimination is rife.

In 2022, Egypt's Ministry of Education issued a new directive to combat homosexuality and associated ideas in media outlets and started promoting anti-LGBTQ awareness campaigns in schools. And, according to a 2019 survey by the independent Washington-based Pew Research Center, the majority of Egyptians believe that homosexuality should not be accepted by society. 

A relief of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, priests and overseers at the palace of Pharaoh Neuserre, who are seen as if close to kissing
In Egypt, homosexuality is not forbidden, but society is widely against open support for queer people.Image: Herve Champollion/akg-images/picture-alliance

A decade of crackdown

While activists haven't observed any recent increase of digital targeting, they do confirm that discriminatory actions against members of the LGBTQ community have multiplied since Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi came to power in a military coup in 2013. This followed a short period of relative calm under the Muslim Brotherhood's democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi, who was removed after only a year in office.

Ahmed El Hady told DW that the government seemed to want to avoid "a large crackdown" and that "el-Sissi wants to avoid international attention like in the aftermath of the Mashrou' Leila concert in September 2017."

During the concert in Cairo by the enormously popular Lebanese band, which quit last September after ongoing harassment over their songs and discrimination against the queer lead singer Hamed Sinno, some activists waved rainbow flags in support of the queer community in Egypt. Rainbow flags are widely known as a symbol of the LGBTQ community.

However, following the concert, photos and videos of the flag-waving activists went viral on social media. The Egyptian vice police then arrested seven people, who were given jail sentences of varying lengths for public indecency and inciting immorality.

One of those detained, the Egyptian lesbian activist Sarah Hegazi, later turned into a tragic symbol.

Hegazi was allegedly tortured and sexually molested by other female prisoners on police orders. The 30-year-old committed suicide due to severe depression stirred by trauma some three years after she was granted political asylum in Canada. 

A participant holds up a silhouette picture depicting the late Egyptian LGBTQI activist Sarah Hegazi coloured with the rainbow flag during Cyprus' first intercommunal pride parade in 2022
Sarah Hegazi is seen on a placard here during Cyprus' first pride parade in 2022 Image: CHRISTINA ASSI/AFP/Getty Images

Warnings not useful for all

As a result of the recent warnings, the US-based dating app Grindr has installed a warning in English and Arabic for its users. "We have been alerted that Egyptian police is [sic] actively making arrests of gay, bi, and trans people on digital platforms. They are using fake accounts and have also taken over accounts from real community members who have already been arrested and had their phones taken. Please take extra caution […]," the warning reads.

But for the Berlin-based Egyptian activist Nora Noralla, the executive director at Cairo 52, a Cairo-based legal research institute that defends members of the queer community pro bono, this is nothing but show. "It is neither the first time they have put this up, nor are they the only ones," Noralla told DW.

She would much prefer that Grindr, as well as other apps, verified users and forbad police forces to set up profiles. "With such a warning, they merely create the illusion of corporate responsibility," she said. 

Activist Ahmed El Hady also agrees that Grindr could do more to protect its users, "but at the end of the day, they cannot fight the government actively," he told DW.

"If Grindr is infiltrated by the state, they might need to cease operating in Egypt," El Hady said. He also knows of cases where even having this app installed on a phone was enough to attract an interrogation by police. 

Proof of trust for LGBTQ

Both activists highlight that the queer community has established workarounds to increase the safety of its members. However, for those who are new to the community, these workarounds possibly remain out of reach, at least in the beginning. 

"When you meet someone new on an app, you usually check their other social media accounts," El Hady told DW. Once the identity of the new contact is confirmed in this way, communications are no longer carried out via the app's messaging platforms but "via encrypted apps like Signal."

First meetings normally only happen after other members of the community have additionally confirmed the person's identity. "We meet at safe houses of friends or members of the community, and never use the same location twice," he said. 

Nora Noralla, for her part, sees that the "community is growing despite the arrests."

"Sadly, the environment is not the best, but we are far from crumbling," she says. 

DW reached out to Grindr and the Egyptian public prosecution authorities but hadn't received a reply at the time of the publication.

Edited by: Timothy Jones

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Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa