In Egypt, homosexuality is heavily stigmatized, and police have long been accused of hunting LGBTQ+ people online. BBC News has found evidence of officers using social and dating apps for this purpose, reports Ahmed Shihab-Eldin.
All the names of the victims have been changed.
Growing up in Egypt, I am aware of the rampant homophobia that permeates all aspects of Egyptian society. But my friends there tell me that the atmosphere has become more brutal lately, and that the tactics to go after LGBTQ+ people are more sophisticated.
Egypt has no explicit law against homosexuality, but our investigation revealed that the “abandum” – a sex work law – criminalizes the LGBTQ+ community.
Transcripts provided in police arrest reports show how officers impersonate Internet users to track down LGBTQ+ people seeking online dates — and in some cases fabricate evidence against them.
They reveal how police officers initiate text conversations with their targets.
Egypt is one of the most important Western allies in the Middle East and receives billions of dollars in support from the United States and the European Union each year. Around half a million British tourists visit the country each year and the UK trains the police through the United Nations.
A text conversation between an undercover cop and a user of the social networking and dating app WhosHere shows police pressuring the app user to meet in person — and the man was arrested.
Police: Have you ever slept with men?
Application User: Yes
Police: How shall we meet?
Application User: But I live with mom and dad
Police: Come on dear, don’t be shy, we can meet in public and then go to my apartment.
There are other examples, but they are too obvious to publish.
It is very difficult for LGBTQ+ people to openly meet potential partners in Egypt, so dating apps are a popular way to do so. But using the app — regardless of your sexuality — can lead to arrest under Egypt’s laws for abuse or inciting public decency.
Egyptians were not the only targets. In a transcript, police describe identifying a stranger we’ll call Matt on the popular gay dating app Grindr. A police informant later engaged Matt in conversation, and – according to the transcript – Matt “admitted to his perversion, wanting to engage in wanton abuse, and sending pictures of himself and his body”.
Matt told the BBC he was later arrested, charged with “fraud” and eventually deported.
In some transcripts, police appear to be trying to pressure people who appear to be looking for dates or new friendships to agree to sex for money. Egyptian legal experts told us that proving that a money exchange or money exchange took place could give authorities the ammunition they need to prosecute in court.
One of these victims was a gay man we identified through the transcripts, whom we call Laith. In April 2018, the contemporary dancer got a call from a friend’s phone number.
“Hello, how are you?” Read the message. A “friend” asked to meet for a drink.
But when Leith came to meet him, his friend was nowhere to be found. The police officers who arrested him welcomed him and pushed him into the cell where the subcommittee was.
A policeman stubbed out a cigarette on his arm and pointed to the scar, he told me.
“This is the only time I’ve ever tried to kill myself in my life,” Laith says.
She then claims she created a fake profile for herself on the Wooshear app and digitally altered her photos to make her appear more transparent. He says they then faked a conversation on the app.
He claims that the framed photos are proof that his feet are bigger than the other because the legs in the photo don’t look like his. The BBC only had access to a pixelated photocopy of the police records, so could not independently verify this detail.
Three more people told us police also coerced or falsified confessions as part of their case.
Lyth was jailed for three months for “habitual abuse”, a sentence reduced by one month on appeal. Laith says he also tried to report other gay men he knew to the police.
“[Le policier] He told him: “If you don’t give me names, I can make up a whole story about you”.
The Egyptian government has spoken publicly about its use of online surveillance of what it describes as “homosexual gatherings”.
In 2020, Ahmad Tahar, a former assistant to the interior minister for cybercrime and human trafficking, told Ahl Masr newspaper: “We deployed police officers in the virtual world to detect masses of sex parties, gay gatherings.”
The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office told the BBC that no UK funding was used to train Egyptian police in operations related to the allegations made at the inquiry.
British MP Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told the BBC that she wanted more to be done to warn LGBTQ+ travelers of the risks in countries such as Egypt, where “their sexuality could be used as a weapon against them”.
“I call on the Egyptian government to stop all measures targeting individuals based on their sexual orientation.”
The Egyptian government did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.
The WhosHere app is referenced in every police transcript the BBC can access.
Cyber-privacy experts told us that WhosHere appears to have specific vulnerabilities that could allow hackers to collect large amounts of information about its users, including their location.
According to them, the way WhosHere collects and stores data violates existing privacy laws in the UK and EU.
It was only after an official approach to BBC WhoseShare that the app changed its settings, removing the “same-sex search” option, which could pose an identification risk.
Who disputes the BBC’s conclusions about vulnerabilities and says it has a history of addressing issues when they arise. They do not run any specific services for the LGBTQ+ community in Egypt.
Grindr is also used as an app by police and criminals to locate LGBTQ+ people in Egypt: “We work with Egyptian LGBTQ activists, international human rights defenders, and security-oriented technologists to better serve our users in the region.”
Criminal gangs use the same tactics as the police to track down LGBTQ+ people. They attack and then humiliate them and extort money by threatening to post the videos online.
For the BBC queer documentary Egypt Under Attack, we used an innovative 3D masking system with face tracking to ensure identities were protected. The aim was to give the film an exotic aesthetic rather than the usual disguise technique.
I was able to find two people we’ll call Laila and Jamal who were victims of a video that went viral in Egypt a few years ago. The video shows them being forced to strip and dance and being beaten and tortured. At knifepoint, they are forced to give their full names and admit they are gay. They told me that the two men behind the video – Bakkar and Yehia – are well-known in the community.
We have seen at least four videos in which Bakar and Yehia appear or threaten LGBTQ+ people before uploading them to Whatsapp, Youtube and Facebook. In one of these videos, an 18-year-old gay man we’ll call Saeed is coerced into falsely claiming to be a sex worker. I met him to find out what happened next. He told me he had considered taking legal action, but his lawyer had advised him against it, saying it would be considered a more serious crime than sexual harassment.
Saeed is now separated from his family. He says they cut him off when the gang sent him a video in an attempt to intimidate them too.
“I am suffering from depression from what happened, these videos are spreading to all my friends in Egypt, I don’t go out and I don’t have a phone.
“Before, nobody knew anything about me.”
We’re told there are dozens of similar attacks – many carried out by gangs. There are few reports that the attackers have been arrested.
During the investigation, I was shocked to learn that the gang leader, Yahya, is gay and actively posts about his own sex work online. His own status as a gay man with few prospects no doubt fueled his guilt.
We have no evidence that Yahya was involved in the recent attacks, and he has denied any involvement.
Coverage of these issues has been banned within Egypt since 2017, when the country’s Supreme Media Regulatory Council imposed a media blackout on LGBTQ+ portrayals unless the coverage “acknowledges the fact that their behavior is inappropriate”.
LGBTQ+ community advocates, many of them exiled, are divided over whether issues in Egypt should be highlighted in the media or talked about behind the scenes.
But Laila, Saeed, Jamal and Laith choose to come out of the shadows and break the silence.
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