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Egypt: Despite new apps, LGBTQ+ users struggle to find safe virtual spaces

By Abir Sorour
Posted on Thursday, 22 April 2021 18:40

The icon for the social media app Clubhouse is seen on a smartphone screen on 9 February 2021. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)/

While the Egyptian government continues to infiltrate and track so-called dissidents across the country, through monitoring their social media usage and apps, another segment of Egypt's society is seeking a virtual safe space to just simply socialise with other like-minded people. Could the new Clubhouse app be the answer?

When *Amir read about Clubhouse — an invite-only, audio-based app — he was excited to be part of the new experience. He had heard about it becoming popular among activists and minorities in autocratic countries with restrictions on free speech.

Audio apps are proving increasingly popular with Facebook  and Reddit announcing their own versions this week.

In February, Amir — a gay 35-year-old man living in Egypt — was invited by a friend to a virtual room with around 80 other members on Clubhouse. When the discussion touched on same-sex relationships, “one of the users lashed out and started a homophobic monologue,” he says.

Amir had signed in using the initials of his first name and his full last name. Later, a screenshot of his profile photo was sent to his boss who, he says, is quite conservative. “If the supervisor hadn’t seen the whole thing as a joke, I might’ve been involved in a major scandal, or even something worse,” he says.

After that scare, Amir deleted his profile and headed, incognito, back to other apps frequented by LGBTQ+ Egyptians, like Reddit, Tumblr, and Grindr.

Societal discrimination and persistent harassment

Homosexuality is not explicitly illegal in Egypt’s legal code. However, laws against ‘debauchery’ are routinely used to arrest and charge LGBTQ+ people. The government, judges and prosecutors, as well as state-affiliated media, justify legal persecution of community members as a moral and religious obligation to ‘defend’ the Egyptian society.

In 2015, the Minister of Interior was given the right to deport foreign LGBTQ+ people or deny them entry to the country citing “the public interest, religious and social values, and preventing the spread of vice among society,” in a court verdict reported by state media.

Finding refuge online

Many Egyptian LGBTQ+ people have taken refuge in various online ‘safe’ spaces such as forums and dating apps, that emerged in the mid to late 2000s.

However, according to activists, police agents regularly go undercover and entrap LGBTQ+ people through dating apps, tracking of their phones and arresting them when they post videos of themselves.

No application is ever safe in Egypt because you can get arrested and have your devices searched if a lower ranking police officer feels like it, and you can’t do anything about it. *Nagaat, 28-year-old lesbian

Amnesty International documented cases of police agents using dating apps in 2017 to arrest Egyptian gay men on charges of ‘debauchery’ and prostitution. State-affiliated newspaper Youm 7 reported further incidents involving police entrapment in 2015 and 2017.

In response, apps — like Grindr and Hornet– have provided users in the MENA region with extra safety tips on risks and signs of police infiltration.

“There’s no recourse for justice for victims of these tactics,” says Hussein Baoumi, an Egypt and Libya researcher at Amnesty International, “instead, prosecutors and judges have sided with the police services.”

Continued fears of infiltration

Unlike the ‘first wave’ of LGBTQ+ online spaces, apps like Clubhouse were thought to be safer because they are invite only. But in February this year, government-owned newspaper Al-Akhbar stated that Clubhouse users “target the conservative nature of the Arabic and Islamic world …. by calling for moral deviance, propagating homosexuality.”

“Egyptian security services have shown time and time again that they have no respect for the right to privacy by how much they are willing to use social media to monitor […] members of the LGBTQ+ community,” says Baoumi. “It’s very possible that we’ll see security forces using Clubhouse to monitor LGBTQ+ or entrap them.”

This February, responding to security concerns raised by The Internet Observatory — a policy centre at Stanford University (US) — Clubhouse said: “We have identified a few areas where we can further strengthen our data protection,” adding that it would “hire an external data security firm to review and validate these changes.”

Clubhouse did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

“No application is ever safe in Egypt…”

*Nagaat, a 28-year-old Egyptian lesbian, says: “No application is ever safe in Egypt because you can get arrested and have your devices searched if a lower ranking police officer feels like it, and you can’t do anything about it.”

After meeting a man through Reddit, Ashraf* — a 37-year-old engineer — was beaten and mugged by a group of men who showed up for the date. Ashraf says he was threatened with rape, public outing and then intimidated into giving money to them.

“They took me to the nearest ATM to cash out EGP4000 [$260],” he says. “I would have liked to resist and fight them, but I can’t bear a scandal or any interference from the police.”

Finding a voice and an ear

I use [social media] to ask about friendly therapists, for advice, or to recommend a book, or share a meme. *Soad 26-year-old trans woman

Many of those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community are simply looking for a safe place to socialise and be at ease; a difficult feat in a country known for its religious (Muslim and Christian) conservatism.

*Soad, 26, a trans woman from Minya, says she deletes her social media applications every time she leaves home. “I’m worried about the reaction of my landlady, my employer, and my surroundings should they find out that I’m trans,” she says.

Despite the potential dangers, she uses Reddit and other social networks to find safe, alternative ways to communicate with like-minded individuals in Egypt and across the Arab world.

“Discussions about transition are still complicated in Egypt, so I had to find an alternative,” she says.

“It’s not all about hooking up,” Soad says. “I use [social media] to ask about friendly therapists, for advice, or to recommend a book, or share a meme.”

*Names changed for safety reasons

This story was produced by The Africa Report. It was written as part of a media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation supported by the Swedish Postcode Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher. 

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