Last June, Canada’s police force came out with a press release that shocked the LGBT community in general and the Arab world in particular: Sarah Hegazi, the Egyptian lesbian activist who made headlines in 2017 after being arrested for flying a rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo, had committed suicide in Toronto.
Three years after being arrested, tortured and leaving Egypt for Canada, she put an end to her life. She described the last years of her life as a cruel experience and apologized for being “too weak to resist.” Not only did her tragic story not put an end to the persecution of LGBTQ people in Egypt, new data shows that there are currently more indictments than ever against members of the community. The prosecution is based on popular social media apps.
Although Egypt has no specific law banning homosexuality, as explained by Asfaneh Rigot in a recent Slate article, Egyptian authorities have long been waging a legal campaign against members of the LGBT community. The watershed moment came with Abdel-Fatah Sissi rise to power. Whereas prior to 2014, the year he came to power, there were on average 14 arrests of homosexuals a year, between 2014 and 2017 there were no fewer than 66 arrests per year. Since then, the numbers have been climbing at a concerning pace.
In 2019, 92 members of the community were arrested, all of them given prison terms and fines. Even though the coronavirus pandemic has brought to a halt many aspects of life, with no figures available on the numbers arrested this year, there is still a chance this year’s figures will be even higher. In the absence of any real legislation, the persecution is being conducted by Egyptian authorities with the help of technology-related laws.
Thus, in addition to a 1961 law prohibiting prostitution against the community, Egyptian authorities have also started using internet protection laws passed in 1993. For example, this included laws against the “misuse of technology”, or against “violating family or Egyptian values.”
These very broad readings of the law help the police deploy them against the community. In 2018, the community’s situation deteriorated even more when the jurisdiction over “cyber crimes” passed to courts dealing with economic issues, which are allowed to impose more severe prison terms and fines on those found guilty.
One of the more famous cases that reached this court took place last July, when two women who had posted content on Tik Tok that the government was displeased with were given sentences of three years in prison and fines of $18,000. One of the women was only 17 years old. The authorities, critics say, are exploiting the wording of the law – which “forbids use of technology in order to violate Egyptian family values” – in order to locate and prosecute those deemed a social or political threat.
At least nine women are now under arrest for violating the so-called family values clause of Egypt’s cyber crime law - all of them for things they’ve done on Tik Tok; all are held until the completion of their trial.
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But it's not just family values that makes the cyber crime law a threat to Egypt’s LGBTQs. The law has an additional clause which bans the distribution of materials that pose a threat to “public morality.” Breaking this clause carries a minimum sentence of two years and a maximum one of five years in prison. And it's not even just LGBTQs that are paying the price: This February the blogger Anas Hassan was sentenced to three years in prison for running a Facebook page dedicated to atheism in Egypt. His lawyers said the cyber laws “are currently the basis for the persecution of bloggers based solely on the content they posed and the claim that they somehow stand in tension with the values endorsed by the regime.”
Egypt’s prosecution, in wake of the Tik Tok arrests, issued a ruling which sheds light on the way they view their role as prosecutors in enforcing the cyber laws in Egypt. The prosecution, it seems, views its role as “detering and defending” what they see as “abuse at the hands of evil forces that want to destroy our society, destroy our values and principles, and steal our purity and push our youths to the brink of destruction.” What are these alleged values? The cyber law leaves this question to the special courts.
According to numerous testimonies that appeared in a special report published by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, policemen pose as homosexuals on Grindr in order to entrap LGBT community members and arrest them. The detainees are brought before a judge, with correspondence on various platforms used as evidence against them.
A 2018 report by the Article 19 human rights group, which tries to give voice to oppressed groups in the Arab world, exposed the technological methods used by Egyptian authorities, including use of various apps, locating a suspect through the geographical location from which photos are sent, or the illegal hacking of the phones of people under investigation.
According to the NGO, in 57 percent of the convictions against members of the LGBTQ community in Egypt, authorities used data extracted from websites, apps and social media platforms to build their case. The data is collected and submitted to the economic affairs court as proof that cyber laws have been violated, which paves the way for a conviction which can carry with it a sentence of up to ten years in prison.
Since the two aforementioned clauses were added in 2018 to the law - the family values clause and the public morality clause, articles 24 and 25, respectively - legal persecution of LGBTQs has been on the rise. However, it is important to remember that persecution is not new. Already in 2014, rumors began to spread through the community that the regime was using geolocation to track members. The report by Article 19 says that the pride flag incident was the watershed moment in the Egyptian authorities' shift to a crack down on the community using cyber law and technological surveillance, if not outright entrapment through dating apps.
At the time of the event, some 11 men were arrested and all were sentenced to anywhere between three and 12 years in prison. This was the first time convictions were made based on the Grindr app, and in all cases the men were entrapped by Egyptian authorities who had used it to dupe them into a meeting. The Grindr conversations were used as evidence against them.
Despite the potential risks, many in Egypt are defiant and still use Grindr and other apps like it. However, they do take steps to protect themselves, for example using a so-called VPN to mask their real identity and location. However, many times, even such precautions fail, with the Egyptian authorities using them against them: For example using photos sent via the apps to prove they belong to the person standing trial.
The recent arrests drove many people, mainly human rights activists outside Egypt, to demand that tech companies take responsibility for what is being done with data their apps and platforms collect. They demanded that these companies protect the communities that use their products, “not only to protect homosexuals in Egypt, but to prevent other benighted regimes from exploiting laws that were intended to combat cyber crimes in order to persecute the LGBT community,” said a petition in Egypt that has already been signed by tens of thousands of people.
Only last week there was a story in an Egyptian website about the petition. It claimed that in Dubai, a conservative and religious state, foreign technologies like these apps are permitted and help create a so-called extra-territorial space in which conduct deemed immoral by religious authorities becomes partially permissible. Egypt, for its part, is using the same technology in order to create a space for persecuting gay people. Will the world stand up to this misuse of technology? For LGBTQ people in Egypt, betting on that would be risky.