In Egypt, expressing your sexuality online makes you a target for human rights abuse. That has to stop.

NOTE: If you are in Egypt and you need help to improve the digital security of your electronic devices, communication channels, or social media accounts, contact Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline at [email protected]. We can help you in Arabic.

The Egyptian government is intensifying its crackdown on the LGBTQI community after a concert in September outside Cairo that featured the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is one of the Middle East’s only openly gay performers. When members of the audience waved rainbow flags at the concert and posted the photos on social media, it drew widespread criticism from Egyptian politicians and pro-government media. Primetime TV host Ahmed Moussa went so far as to tell his viewers, “Homosexuality is a crime that’s as terrible as terrorism.”

It’s not technically illegal to be gay in Egypt, but those suspected of being homosexual are routinely arrested and charged with crimes like “debauchery,” “immorality,” and “blasphemy.” They are also increasingly targeted on the internet for government censorship, surveillance, and sophisticated online attacks that are aimed at exposing their identities. These attacks includes efforts to trap people who use LGBTQI dating apps or engage in activism on platforms like Facebook.

In a recent case for Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline, for example, a network of Egyptian LGBTQI advocacy organizations contacted us to ask for help removing a fake Facebook page publishing content in their name. The page put their community at risk of surveillance, manipulation, and arrest.

We spoke with Omar,* who explained what is happening in Egypt as follows:

‘’Why is the government disturbed by what we do in our bedrooms?!’’

‘’I don’t even know what to say… There are no words that could describe our situation in here. The government refuses everything that is different from its own tendencies or ideas and considers it dangerous. That is why,  the most vulnerable categories that face risks of being arrested are homosexuals and those who have different ideas about religion.

The government tends to pursue these communities as it targets their places of gathering. This is often done through the internet and also by the presence of some members of the secret security in places where homosexuals are located, claiming that they are homosexual as well.’’

These online attacks are leading to severe human rights abuse. Immediately following the concert last month, authorities arrested six men for “promoting sexual deviancy” on social media. As is standard practice in Egypt when you face charges related to homosexuality, these men were subjected to anal examinations, which Amnesty International identifies as a form of torture. Egyptian authorities have gone on to arrest at least 70 individuals since the concert.

The attacks are chilling free expression, a fundamental human right. Members of the LGBTQI community are reportedly shutting down their social media accounts, fearing they could be used by the authorities to target them. Egyptian police are conducting raids of homes and gathering places, in some cases demanding access to individuals’ phones — with photos, contact lists, and social media accounts — to gather evidence about their associations.

Karim* explains how these actions are impacting his life and community:

‘’Being gay in Egypt is considered a sin. It is a shame to you and your family and you should be jailed for this. I have never tried to show a sign of belonging to the LGBT community and now attending a concert apparently is becoming a sign of belonging. I have never felt safe in here and I never will as long as the government has the ‘right’ to stop me and look into my personal mobile phone by force. These violations are now a daily struggle and my life will never be the same…I feel watched and I’m no longer active on social media. There is no such thing called freedom of expression in Egypt.’’

LGBTQI individuals are facing attacks aimed at revealing their location and other personal information, as well as impersonation and smear campaigns. Egyptian police have reportedly used the dating app Grindr to get within “a few hundred metres” of their targets. These actions implicate the human rights to free association and assembly.

The legal context: from bad to worse

Sadly, all of this is taking place in an environment of increasing repression. The status of free expression in Egypt is already dire, as authorities have blocked more than 400 websites — including international media outlets and providers of tools that can be used to circumvent blocks — since April of this year. We’re seeing this kind of censorship across the MENA region.

Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation has banned the promotion of LGBTQI issues and support for the community by media outlets, allowing homosexual people to appear in the media only for purpose of showing “repentance” or declaring homosexuality “non-acceptable behavior.”

That’s not all. Now the Egyptian parliament is considering a new law to criminalize homosexuality, carrying a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. Under the proposed law, those who simply call for acceptance of homosexuality — even if they are not a member of the LGBTQI community — could be jailed for between one and three years, and any media representative who “promotes” pro-LGBTQI events through any means of communication could be jailed for at least three years.

Yet, as we have noted, Egypt has committed to upholding freedom of expression, and has signed several international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR). Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 9 of the ACHPR explicitly affirm the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of information. As has been observed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Article 19(2) of the ICCPR protects both the form of expression adopted by an individual and the means they have used for its dissemination – this necessarily includes “electronic and internet-based modes of expression.” Egypt is up for review of its human rights record under the United Nations Human Rights Council’s “Universal Periodic Review” process in November 2019, and Access Now and other civil society organizations are building the evidence base to help hold Egypt to account.

Human rights organizations are standing with the people of Egypt targeted for their expression.

Keeping people safe during the crackdown: dating apps step up

LGBTQI dating apps like Grindr, Hornet, and Scruff are responding to the attacks with updates that help users stay safe in Egypt and other places where homosexuals are being persecuted. A new release from Grindr allows people in Middle Eastern, Gulf, and North African areas to change the Grindr thumbnail icon on their device and set a passcode to protect the app’s content. Hornet and Grindr have also added additional safety tips in Arabic for people in Egypt. They are encouraging people to take extra steps to confirm a person’s identity before arranging a meeting, to meet in public spaces, and to let trusted contacts know where they will be. Hornet says that it is working on adding more protections to keep people safe.

What you can do to help

If you’re outside Egypt, it’s easy to feel helpless about the situation. But there are things you can do to help protect people whose fundamental rights are under attack.

  • Share the Digital Security Helpline website in your network, and with your contacts in Egypt. We’re standing ready to help individuals and organizations impacted by the crackdown.
  • If you can do so safely, show your solidarity with Egyptian LGBT activists by speaking out in defense of human rights for everyone, and help to amplify their voices by using movement hashtags, such as المثلية_مش_مرض #(#homosexuality_is_not an_illness)  andالحرية_لمعتقلي_العلم #    (#FreedomToTheFlagRaisers).
  • If you are comfortable, sign this petition from our friends at All Out, calling on Egyptian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release everyone who has been detained and to end the attack on the LGBTQI community.

If you are inside Egypt, it is critically important that you DO NOT jeopardize your own safety in your human rights activism. Please contact our helpline directly for advice — we can assist you in Arabic.

* Omar and Karim’s names have been changed at their request to protect their identities.