How Egyptian police are hunting LGBT people on dating apps
Homosexuality is highly stigmatized in Egypt, and there have long been allegations of police hunting LGBT people online. BBC News has now seen evidence of how authorities are using dating and social networking apps to do this.
All victims’ names have been changed
Having grown up in Egypt, I am aware of the rampant homophobia that pervades all parts of society. But my friends there say that the atmosphere has become much more brutal recently, and the tactics to seek out LGBT people are more sophisticated.
There is no express law against homosexuality in Egypt, but our investigation found that the crime of “debauchery” – the sex work law – is being used to criminalize the LGBT community.
Transcripts filed in police arrest reports show how police pose online to track down — and in some cases allegedly fabricate evidence against — LGBT people who are dating online.
They reveal how police initiate text conversations with their targets.
Egypt is one of the most strategically important Western allies in the Middle East and receives billions of dollars in US and EU aid each year. Around half a million British tourists visit the country each year and the UK trains the Egyptian police through the UN.
In one text conversation between an undercover police officer and someone using the social network and dating app WhosHere, the officer appears to be pressuring the app user to meet in person — the person was later arrested.
Police: Have you ever slept with men?
Application User: Yes
Police: How about we meet?
Application user: But I live with mom and dad
Police: Come on honey, don’t be shy, we can meet in public, then we’ll go to my apartment.
There are other examples that are too obvious to publish.
It is extremely difficult for LGBT people to openly meet potential dates in Egypt, so dating apps are a popular way to do so. But simply using the apps, regardless of your sexuality, can lead to arrest under Egypt’s lewdness or incitement laws.
They are not only targeting Egyptians. In one of the transcripts, police describe identifying a foreigner called Matt on the popular gay dating app Grindr. A police informant then engaged Matt in conversation and, according to the transcript, Matt “admitted to his perversion, willingness to indulge in free debauchery and sent pictures of himself and his body.”
Matt told the BBC that he was subsequently arrested, charged with “debauchery” and eventually deported.
QUEER EGYPT UNDER ATTACK
LGBTQ people are being hunted by gangs and police in Egypt.
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In some transcripts, it appears that the police are trying to force people who are simply looking to date or make new friends to have sex for money. Egypt’s legal experts tell us that exchanging or offering money is evidence that the authorities should be given enough ammunition to take the case to court.
One such victim we found based on the transcripts was a gay man we call Laith. In April 2018, the contemporary dancer was contacted by a friend’s phone number.
“Hello how are you?” said the message. The “friend” asked to meet for a drink.
But when Laith arrived to meet him, his friend was nowhere to be found. Instead, he was met by the police, who arrested him and threw him in a vice squad cell.
One officer stubbed out a cigarette on his arm, he said, showing the scar.
“It was the only time in my life I tried to kill myself,” Laith says.
He claims police then created a fake profile for him on the WhosHere app and digitally altered his photos to make him look unmistakable. She says they then mocked a conversation on the app that appeared to be offering sex work.
She says the pictures prove she was framed because the legs in the picture don’t look like hers – one leg is bigger than the other. The BBC only had access to grainy, photocopied police files, so it cannot independently verify this detail.
Three others also coerced or forged confessions in their cases.
Laith was given a three-month prison sentence for “habitual debauchery”, reduced to one month on appeal. Laith says police tried to get him to tell her about other gay people he knew.
How we disguised the identity of the contributors
For the BBC documentary Queer Egypt Under Attack, we used innovative face-tracking 3-D masking to ensure identities were protected – the aim was to give the film a more appealing aesthetic than standard masking techniques would allow.
“[The policeman] he said, “I can make up a whole story about you if you don’t give me names.”
The Egyptian government has spoken publicly about targeting what it calls “homosexual gatherings” with online surveillance.
In 2020, Ahmed Taher, former assistant to the interior minister for cybercrime and human trafficking, told the Ahl Masr newspaper: “We have recruited police officers in the virtual world to uncover crowds of group sex parties and homosexual gatherings.”
The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office told the BBC that no British funding had been used to train Egyptian police in activities related to the allegations made during the investigation.
British MP Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told the BBC she wanted more to be done to warn LGBT travelers in countries like Egypt “where their sexuality can be weaponised against them”.
“I would urge the Egyptian government to stop any activity that targets individuals based on their sexual orientation.”
The Egyptian government did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.
The WhosHere app was referenced in almost every police transcript accessed by the BBC.
Cyber privacy experts said WhosHere has certain vulnerabilities that could allow hackers to scrape information about users — such as location — on a large scale.
They say the way WhosHere collects and stores data is likely to breach UK and EU data protection laws.
It was only after the BBC formally contacted WhosHere that the app changed its settings and removed the “same-sex search” flag, which could put people at risk of being identified.
WhosHere disputes the BBC’s findings about the vulnerabilities, saying it has a solid track record of addressing issues when they arise. And that they do not operate any specific services for the LGBT community in Egypt.
Grindr, which is also used as an app by police and criminals to track down LGBT people in Egypt, said: “We work closely with Egyptian LGBTQ activists, international human rights advocates and security-oriented technologists to best serve our users in the region.”
Criminal gangs use the same tactics as the police to find LGBT people. They are then attacked and humiliated and then blackmailed by threatening to post the videos online.
We managed to track down two people we call Laila and Jamal who were victims of a video that went viral in Egypt a few years ago. The footage shows them being forced to undress and dance while being beaten and abused. At knifepoint, they are forced to give their full names and admit that they are gay. They said the duo behind the video – Bakar and Yahia – are notorious in the community.
We have seen at least four videos in which Bakar and Yahia either appeared or could be heard blackmailing and abusing LGBT people before uploading the videos to Whatsapp, YouTube and Facebook. In one such video, an 18-year-old gay man, whom we’ll call Saeed, is forced to falsely claim to be a sex worker. I met him to hear what happened next. He said he was considering legal action, but said his lawyer advised him against it and told him his sexuality would be considered a crime rather than the assault he suffered.
Saeed is now estranged from his family. He says he was cut off when the gang sent them the video to blackmail them too.
“I was depressed after what happened and the videos were sent 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’ve heard of dozens of similar attacks – by multiple gangs. There were only a few reports of the attackers being arrested.
I was shocked to learn during the investigation that one of the gang leaders, Yahia, is gay and actively posts his sex work online.
But perhaps that gives him a criminal edge—he knows exactly how vulnerable his targets are. And arguably his own situation as a gay man with few options fuels his criminality.
We have no evidence that Yahia was involved in any of the recent attacks, and he has denied any involvement.
Any of the above issues have been banned within Egypt since 2017, when the country’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation imposed a media blackout on LGBT representation unless the coverage “acknowledged[s] the fact that their behavior is wrong’.
Advocates for the LGBT community, many of whom live in exile, are divided on whether Egypt’s problems should be highlighted in the media or dealt with behind the scenes.
But Laila, Saeed, Jamal and Laith decided to step out of the shadows and break the silence.
Additional reporting by Vanessa Bowles, Bettina Waked and Jasmine Bonshor