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HomeNewsEgyptian Police Target LGBTQ Community through Dating Apps

Egyptian Police Target LGBTQ Community through Dating Apps

Egyptian Police Target LGBTQ Community through Dating Apps

The WhosHere app was mentioned in nearly every police transcript that the BBC obtained.

Homosexuality is highly stigmatized in Egypt, and there have long been allegations that police are looking for LGBT people online.

BBC News has seen evidence of the authorities using dating and social apps to accomplish this.

The names of all victims have been changed.

Growing up in Egypt, I am aware of the pervasive homophobia that pervades every aspect of the country’s society.

Friends there, however, tell me that the atmosphere has recently become far more brutal, and the tactics used to track down LGBT people have become far more sophisticated.

Although there is no explicit law in Egypt prohibiting homosexuality, our investigation discovered that the crime of “debauchery” – a sex work law – is being used to criminalize the LGBT community.

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Transcripts submitted with police arrest reports show officers posing online to seek out – and allegedly fabricate evidence against – LGBT people looking for dates online.

Egyptian Police Target LGBTQ Community through Dating Apps. They reveal how the cops initiate text messages with their targets.

Egypt is one of the most strategic Western allies in the Middle East, receiving billions of dollars in US and EU aid each year. Every year, approximately 500,000 British tourists visit the country, and the UK trains Egyptian police forces through the UN.

In one text message exchange between an undercover cop and a user of the social networking and dating app WhosHere, the officer appears to be pressuring the app user to meet up in person; the app user was later arrested.

Police: Have you ever slept with a man?

Yes, I use the app.

Police: How about we get together?

However, I live with my parents.

Police: Don’t be shy, dear; we can meet in public and then go to my flat.

There are additional examples that are too explicit to publish.

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Because it is extremely difficult for LGBT people in Egypt to meet potential dates openly in public, dating apps are a popular way for them to do so. However, simply using the apps – regardless of your sexual orientation – can result in arrest under Egypt’s incitement of debauchery or public morality laws.

Not only Egyptians are being persecuted. In one transcript, cops describe finding a foreigner, whom we’ll call Matt, on the popular gay dating app Grindr. A police informant then approached Matt and he “admitted his perversion, his willingness to engage in debauchery for free, and sent pictures of himself and his body,” according to the transcript.

Matt told the BBC that he was later arrested, charged with “debauchery,” and deported.

In some of the transcripts, the cops appear to be pressuring people who appear to be looking for dates or new friendships into agreeing to sex for money. Legal experts in Egypt tell us that proving an exchange of money, or an offer to exchange money, can provide the authorities with the ammunition they need to take a case to court.

One such victim, identified through the transcripts, was a gay man named Laith. The contemporary dancer was contacted in April 2018 via a friend’s phone number.

“Hello, how are you?” said the message. The “friend” requested that we meet for a drink.

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When Laith arrived to meet him, his friend was nowhere to be found. Instead, he was met by police, who arrested him and threw him into a vice squad cell.

He showed me the scar from a police officer who stubbed a cigarette out on his arm.

“It was the only time in my life that I attempted suicide,” Laith says.

Laith claims that after that, police created a fake profile for him on the WhosHere app and digitally altered his photos to make them appear explicit. He claims they then staged a conversation on the app in which he appeared to be offering sex work.

He claims the photographs prove he was framed because the legs in the photographs do not resemble his own – one of his legs is larger than the other. Because the BBC has only had access to grainy photocopies of police case files, it cannot independently confirm this detail.

Three other people told us that the police forced or falsified confessions in their cases as well.

Laith was sentenced to three months in prison for “habitual debauchery,” which was reduced to one month on appeal. Laith claims that the police also tried to persuade him to inform other gay people he knew.

“‘I can make up a whole story about you if you don’t give me names,’ said the cop.”

The Egyptian government has spoken publicly about its use of online surveillance to target what it described as “homosexual gatherings”.

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“We recruited police in the virtual world to uncover the masses of group sex parties, homosexual gatherings,” Ahmed Taher, former assistant to the Minister of Interior for Internet Crimes and Human Trafficking, told the newspaper Ahl Masr in 2020.

According to the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, no UK funding has gone towards training Egyptian police in activities related to the investigation’s claims.

UK MP Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told the BBC that she wanted more to be done to warn LGBT travelers about the risks in countries such as Egypt, “where their sexuality might be weaponized against them”.

“I would urge the Egyptian government to stop all activities that target people based on their sexual orientation.”

The Egyptian government did not respond to a request for comment from the BBC.

The WhosHere app was mentioned in nearly every police transcript that the BBC obtained.

According to cyber privacy experts, WhosHere appears to have specific vulnerabilities that allow hackers to scrape information about its users – such as location – on a large scale.

They also claim that the way WhosHere collects and stores data violates privacy laws in the UK and the EU.

The app changed its settings after the BBC formally approached WhosHere, removing the “seeking same-sex” option, which could put people at risk of identification.

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WhosHere disputes the BBC’s findings about vulnerabilities, claiming that they have a strong track record of dealing with issues when they arise. Furthermore, they do not provide any specific services to Egypt’s LGBT community.

“We work extensively with Egyptian LGBTQ activists, international human rights advocates, and safety-focused technologists to best serve our users in Egypt,” said Grindr, which is also used by police and criminals to find LGBT people.

To find LGBT people, criminal gangs use the same tactics as the police. They then assault and humiliate them, threatening to post the videos online as a form of extortion.

I was able to locate two people, whom we will refer to as Laila and Jamal, who were victims of a video that went viral in Egypt a few years ago.

They are forced to strip and dance while being beaten and abused, according to the video. They are forced to give their full names and admit they are gay at the point of a knife.

Also they told me that the video’s creators, Bakar and Yahia, are well-known in the community.

We saw at least four videos in which Bakar and Yahia could be seen or heard extorting and abusing LGBT people before uploading them to Whatsapp, YouTube, and Facebook.

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In one of these videos, an 18-year-old gay man named Saeed is forced to falsely identify himself as a sex worker.

I met with him to find out what happened next. He told me that he considered going to court, but that his lawyer advised him not to because his sexuality would be perceived as more of a crime than the attack he had suffered.

Saeed has become estranged from his family. He claims they cut him off after the gang sent them the video in an attempt to blackmail them as well.

“I have been suffering from depression after what happened, with the videos circulating to all my friends in Egypt. I don’t leave the house, and I don’t have a phone.

“No one knew anything about me before.”

We’ve been told about dozens of similar attacks carried out by various gangs. There have been few reports of attackers being apprehended.

During my investigation, I discovered that one of the gang leaders, Yahia, is gay and actively posts online about his sex work.

But it could give him a criminal advantage because he knows how vulnerable his targets are. And, arguably, his situation as a gay man with few options fuels his criminality.

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We have no evidence that Yahia was involved in recent attacks, and he has denied any involvement.

Covering any of these issues inside Egypt itself has been banned since 2017 when the country’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation imposed a media blackout on LGBT representation except if the coverage “acknowledge[s] the fact that their conduct is inappropriate”.

LGBT community advocates, many of whom live in exile, disagree on whether Egypt’s problems should be highlighted in the media or addressed behind the scenes.

Laila, Saeed, Jamal, and Laith, on the other hand, have chosen to emerge from the shadows and break the silence.

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