Egypt, the LGBT app Grindr warns against fake profiles run by the police

For some, in Egypt, getting to know a person online and agreeing to meet them in a coffee shop can lead to months, if not years, in prison. As reported by the international organization Human Rights Watchfor some years now, the egyptian authorities have started using social media and dating platforms, such as the LGBT dating app Grindr, to locate and arrest queer people. “For at least a year Grindr has been sending a notification warning about the risks users run when using the app. In recent months, however, the warning has become more terrifying and detailed: illustrates the techniques used by the country’s authorities to track us down” he tells Sky TG24 Wessam, a young non-binary person, whose real name cannot be used for security reasons. “Police steal photos of other users to create fake profiles they can use to chat with queer people on the platform. They talk a bit and then organize a meeting: it is a trap to arrest them”.

An established practice

In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch found the presence of a precise scheme followed by the Egyptian authorities which they would exploit profiling through social platforms. “The arrestees said police officers, unable to find information while searching their phones at the time of arrest, downloaded LGBT dating apps to their phones and uploaded pornographic photos to justify their detention.” According to the organization, it would be a “policy coordinated by the Egyptian government, both online and offline, to persecute people from the LGBT community”. This is what he also confirms Afsaneh Rigotwho has been analyzing the situation in the Middle East and North Africa for years: “We are witnessing a situation in which digital evidence becomes the main ingredient in these discriminatory persecutions. Digital evidence – above all [sui] people’s cell phones – they are now the crime scene”. “We are all scared that the police will stop us on the street and ask us to show our phones,” says Wessam. A message, a photo, an application, anything can be taken as an excuse to be taken to jail. “It could happen that a police officer contacts me on Grindr and, posing as a real user, asks me to meet. I would probably be taken to prison to be tortured or raped. I know they do this to force you to sign a document admitting that you are homosexual, prostitute yourself, and conspire to pressure others into immoral acts that go against the tenets of Egyptian society. Sometimes even the lawyers who are assigned to defend you are actually trying to deceive you.”

Same-sex relationships are not illegal in Egypt

There is no law in the country that explicitly criminalizes same-sex relationships. Despite this, in the Egyptian legal system there are various rules that punish acts of “public indecency”, “incitement to debauchery” and the possession or distribution of material intended to violate the “public morals”. He does not come never explained which acts amount to “public indecency” or “debauchery”. These standards are often used for justify discriminatory and disproportionate acts against members of the LGBT community.

Moreover, the arrests and arbitrary detentions are not only the result of a studied activity of the forces of order. “There are people who do it like this, for fun”explains Mina, an activist of a major organization that fights for the rights of queer people in Egypt (Again, the real name of Mina and the organization cannot be disclosed for security reasons). A reality also confirmed by Wessam. “There are gang who have arranged to contact you on Grindr, ask you for a date and then rob you. Sometimes they force people to strip and film them and then blackmail them. In this way, no one will file a complaint: doing so would mean being arrested for being homosexual”.

More than 25 people arrested in one night

“On New Year’s Eve, more than 25 people were arrested near Giza and are now still in jail without formal charges being filed,” Mina said. “At the same time 3 others were arrested in a town three hours from Cairo. One of them panicked and, according to the official version, jumped out of the window and died. It seemed strange to us, in Ras El-Bar the buildings generally have only three floors. We asked the family and he told us that on his body he had several bruises as if he had been beaten”.

Up to now, the cases that Mina’s association is following are more than 50. None of the people imprisoned has been formally charged or convicted. “When someone is taken to police stations, he should be there for four days and if there is no reason to detain him, he should be released. Very often the authorities argue that they need more time to gather evidence and therefore extend the detention for another 15 days. Renewals roll forward 15 days in 15 days, up to 2 years”.

Prisoners in contact with the organization tell of being in terrible conditions: tiny and overcrowded cells, constant harassment by the authorities. “Many trans people are raped. To get evidence, police have forensic doctors perform anal tests: yet another form of abuse”.

“We don’t know what to do”

According to Mina, discrimination against the LGBT community in Egypt is intensifying.“We’ve never experienced anything like this before: cops with real profiles, very detailed, engaging in long conversations with people… It’s a dangerous trap. We don’t quite know how to handle the situation, that’s why we asked Grindr to push notification on users’ app. I know it caused panic but that’s all we could do.

In my small way I try to inform people through social media: don’t panic if someone stops you on the street, say no if someone asks to show the contents of the phone because they don’t have the right. We must be prepared, we must be brave”.