Egypt's 'Morality Police' get on Grindr to trap LGBT community ahead of new homophobic law

Egypt's 'Morality Police' get on Grindr to trap LGBT community ahead of new homophobic law
In-depth: The proposed bill is expected to be discussed in parliament amid fear and paranoia in Egypt's LGBT community.
8 min read
27 November, 2017
Egypt's crackdown intensified after the rainbow flag was waved at a Mashrou Leila gig [AFP]
Same-sex sexual activity could be explicitly criminalised for the first time in Egypt's modern history, if a draft law proposed by MP Riyad Abdel Sattar is approved by the country's parliament.

The bill, signed by 67 members of parliament by the end of October, consists of five main articles penalising acts of homosexuality, "incitement of homosexual relations", promotion or advertising of "homosexual parties or gatherings", and carrying symbols or signs of the LGBT community.

Gay people and their allies convicted of these offences would be sentenced to one to three years in jail. Repeat offenders would be imprisoned for five years. Violators would be monitored following their imprisonment for an equal period - which effectively doubles the sentence.

International human rights organisations have slammed the suggested legislation. In a statement, Amnesty's North Africa campaigns director, Najia Bounaim, said the bill was "another nail in the coffin for sexual rights in Egypt" and should be scrapped.

The suggested law was received with alarm by the country's gay and transgender community.

"Never before we had in Egypt a law directly criminalising homosexuality. This gives ample power to authorities to charge and prosecute gay people," said Noor, the coordinator of the Alliance of Queer Egyptian Organisations (AQEO). "It's very dangerous and worrying."
The invisibility that we gay women once enjoyed before is no longer there

What was the immediate reaction of LGBT people in Egypt?

"Panic," said 22-year-old Mariam. 

She is particularly concerned by the draft's definition of homosexuality as any sexual relationship between two people of the same gender, implying women - not just men - will be targeted by the law. "The invisibility that we gay women once enjoyed before is no longer there," Mariam added.

Omnia, 24, added: "If this bill passes, it's going to be horrible."

The bill is the latest step in a mass crackdown on LGBT people in Egypt that followed the raising of rainbow flags - symbolising diversity of sexualities - at a September 22 concert in Cairo featuring Mashrou Leila, a Lebanese band whose lead singer is openly gay.

Seven among the audience were reportedly arrested the next day and detained on charges of "promoting sexual deviancy" and "inciting immorality".

In the following days and weeks, the Egyptian government intensified its anti-LGBT campaign, with authorities rounding up dozens of individuals suspected of being gay or supporting gay rights, mostly unrelated to the rainbow flag display at the concert.

Photos of the flag-waving posted on social media generated outrage among conservative Egyptians. Reports of the crackdown outraged liberal Egyptians.

Mashrou Leila 'heartbroken' by Egypt's anti-gay crackdown following concert

"This government is failing on every level, and enjoying less and less popularity these days," Omnia argued. "[President] Sisi used the rainbow flag incident as a chance to get public approval by stepping in as a 'protector' of the country's morality."

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) has been monitoring the arrests across the country. At least 75 people have been detained since the concert, they report. It is the largest crackdown on Egypt's gay community since police raided the Queen Boat, a floating disco on the Nile, when 52 men were detained.

Several of those arrested have been quickly handed prison sentences ranging from six months to six years. Others have yet to stand trial. Reports have emerged of a variety of abuses suffered while in custody, including forced anal examinations that amount to torture.

Two activists, Sarah Hegazy and Ahmed Alaa, were detained on 1 October, and were interrogated for 15 days by the Supreme State Security Prosecution over their involvement in the flag-waving.

They were both charged with "joining a group formed contrary to the law" and "propagating that group's idea", while Hegazy faced an extra charge of "spreading debauchery". State security prosecutors have extended their pre-trial detention every 15 days. They remain in jail.

"Sarah and Ahmed have received death threats from some of their inmates. Both have been treated harshly, beaten and sexually harassed by other detainees after police officers informed them of the reason for their arrest," said Noor, the AQEO coordinator. Since the two were transferred from al-Sayeda Zeinab Police Station to another detention facility, their conditions have improved a little - but the rest of the detainees are held in different prisons and police stations and routinely face violence and ill-treatment.

Mariam emphasised that a media buzz has inflamed the local climate and incited the general public against LGBT people since Mashrou Leila's concert. Several TV stations covered the flag-waving, repeating hate speech and discrimination, fuelling anger by reviewing reactions to the waving of the flag on social networks, and calling on security services to "act".

We see the systematic state media campaign directed against the flag-waving as an attempt to divert public attention from the grievances committed by oppressive authorities against society

The media's stirring of outrage has been condemned by leftists groups.

"We oppose all rejection, defamation and stigma that gay people are exposed to," said the Revolutionary Socialists movement on September 26. "We see the systematic state media campaign directed against the flag-waving as an attempt to divert public attention from the grievances committed by oppressive authorities against society." 

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In the concert's aftermath, scores of people were arrested through online entrapment, especially using gay dating apps such as Grindr, in which officers from the "morality police" lured other men into meeting. Others were tracked through surveillance on Facebook, caught from cafes known to have a gay-friendly clientele, or were taken away after their homes were raided.

Some were randomly stopped in the street; their phones checked for any LGBT-related content, or songs by Mashrou Leila.

"Although authorities were going after gays before, LGBT people are getting more paranoid right now," Mariam stressed. "I know of people who have moved houses, others who are hiding, many have stopped going to cafes where they used to hang out."

She also said that many have re-adapted their ways to communicate, taking digital security steps like leaving their passwords to access social networks with a trusted friend or relative in case of their arrest, not to allow anyone else to enter their accounts, and giving a relative's phone number to a trusted friend in order to alert their families if they are detained.

"LGBT people are turning even more secretive," said Omnia. "They are communicating by Signal [an encrypted app] more than WhatsApp."

Noor agreed. "This security clampdown has thrown homosexuals into panic. People I know have disappeared, changed their SIM cards, shut their social media accounts and deleted dating applications."

The AQEO queer alliance, she continued, was set up in response to the recent crackdown, as Egyptian LGBT associations felt they could no longer operate alone, being too exposed to persecution in the current environment. Many organisations had to close their websites and Facebook pages to prevent activists and followers from being monitored or threatened due to content shared or discussed online.

"As AQEO, we've taken a low profile. We mobilise through activists and lawyers on the ground, we do international advocacy, but we're not public about our activities," the coordinator explained.

UN condemns anti-LBGT cackdown in Egypt, Azerbaijan and Indonesia

While homosexuality has not yet been expressly banned in Egypt, there is discrimination, particularly against gay men and transgender individuals who are arrested and typically charged with "debauchery" in accordance with the anti-prostitution and debauchery law 10/1961.

Like any LGBT person here, I lead a double life, I'm heterosexual with my family and lesbian with most of my friends

The LGBT community has been largely targeted amid a wider suppression of freedoms since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

EIPR recorded the arrest of 232 people, who are either LGBT or are perceived to be, between the last quarter of 2013 and March of 2017

"Being gay, you live in a closet and act as much straight as you can," Mariam said, hiding a rainbow bracelet around her wrist. It took her a few years to come out to her friends. Her mother suspects she is gay but prefers to be in denial.

It's a similar situation for Omnia. "Like any LGBT person here, I lead a double life, I'm heterosexual with my family and lesbian with most of my friends," she said. "Some workmates believe I'm gay or bisexual since I attended Mashrou Leila's concert."

She said how hard it had been to accept her own sexuality, visiting three psychiatrists and finding nobody to turn to for support at that time.

"I want my family to find out I'm lesbian so they will kick me out of my home," the young Egyptian continued. "Then I will have a good reason to leave."

The draft law would explicitly make homosexuality illegal. It would okay severe punitive measures against gay and transgender people and further restrict space for the LGBT community in Egyptian society.

The draft is set to be reviewed and discussed by the parliament and, if voted for, it will be sent to the president for his signing into law.  

The proposer of the bill, Riyad Abdel Sattar, is a representative from the Free Egyptians Party which has 65 MPs, the largest number of party representatives in the Egyptian parliament. That, in turn, indicates the likelihood of the bill's passage into law.

Besides being unprecedented, the proposed draft is unconstitutional, say analysts, and violates international conventions ratified by the Egyptian state.

If the new bill is passed, gay and transgender Egyptians will find themselves at a critical crossroads: to stay and hide, or to leave.

"I know some who are seeking asylum already. Others don't want to leave," observed Mariam. "I don't know how I'm going to resist this law; today you can't protest or even make a statement on Facebook, or you’ll be jailed."

Not many will resist the law, predicted Omnia. "Most LGBT members will try to leave altogether. People are too scared, I don’t think anyone will defy this law."