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Trapped by app: Egypt’s sex chatting morality police

As parliament considers explicitly outlawing homosexuality, rights experts say crackdown becoming increasingly vicious
Defendants react behind the bars at a court in Cairo following the acquittal on 12 January 2015 of 26 male men accused of "debauchery" (AFP)

CAIRO – Egyptian police aren’t generally associated with technological sophistication or expertise; a history of brutality scandals has given them a reputation for violence and bungling. But a special unit within Egypt’s security services has been conducting increasingly elaborate entrapment operations against the country’s gay community.

Egypt, unlike Saudi Arabia, does not have an official religious police force. But the “police combatting crimes against public decency”, better known as the morality police, a special unit under the Ministry of Interior, are fast becoming as feared among homosexual men in Egypt.

Researchers say Egypt’s morality police have become “true experts” in entrapping homosexual men using advanced electronic surveillance tactics that may be technically illegal under Egyptian law.

“They are so sophisticated in how they operate – they may be the most sophisticated section of the Egyptian police today,” said Dalia Abd Elhameed, a researcher working on state repression of homosexuals in Egypt and the head of the gender programme at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a human rights group.

Egypt’s crackdown on LGBT communities has received international attention following a wave of arrests that took place after a rainbow flag was waved at a concert headlined by the popular Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila in Cairo last month.  

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But the tactics used by the morality police, described in official police documents seen by Middle East Eye, reveal the extent of the repression and surveillance in use against homosexual communities that goes back far beyond the recent arrests.

Morality police officers pose as gay men on message boards, websites, and dating applications and cultivate relationships with the men that can last months in order to entrap and then arrest targets. The police officers frequently send sexual messages and exchange explicit photographs.  

In one case, the details of which MEE obtained from copies of official police reports, morality police agents described how they entrapped an Egyptian man named Mohamed F in an operation last year.

“While examining the sexual pervert website MatchUp, we came across one pervert using the name Nero,” the police record says, using a derogatory term common in the police reports to describe a homosexual or transgender person.

The officers describe how they arranged to meet Mohamed F. behind the Ritz hotel next to Tahrir Square in Cairo, before staking out positions around the meeting point and arresting him

“We contacted him using the site’s chat feature and he agreed to avail himself to us sexually, in the passive position, in exchange for 500 Egyptian pounds,” the report continues.

The officers describe how they arranged to meet Mohamed F behind the Ritz hotel next to Tahrir Square in Cairo, before staking out positions around the meeting point and arresting him.

Pages of sexually explicit chat and photographs exchanged between the morality police and Mohamed F were attached to the police report as evidence.

Police reports from similar cases contain copies of endless sex chat between morality police agents and dating application users, including nude photos, which are then presented as evidence against the targeted men.

“It’s very provocative to think that Egyptian police officers are using tax money for sexting,” Abd Elhameed told MEE, “but in official reports they are completely unapologetic about it: they state plainly that they engage in using these tactics.”

Fake accents

Morality policy officers frequently use English or adopt Gulf Arabic accents when writing to targets in order to allay potential resistance or fear of police surveillance.

In police reports from another case seen by MEE, a morality police officer asked a targeted man to buy condoms on the way to meeting the officer. The condoms were then presented as evidence against the man.

During the entrapment process, morality police agents often use persuasion to make an eventual prosecution easier. Some operations include consistent contact, messaging, and photo exchanges between morality police agents and targets that can last as long as two months.

One of the offending flags, flown at a concert by Lebanese group Mashrou Leila (screengrab)

In an operation conducted in July of last year, a morality police agent contacted a man on the dating application Hornet, greeting him using the chat feature using a faked Gulf accent. The officer talked explicitly with the man for a week before organising a meeting.

“Send me a picture of your ass,” one message written by the police officer read.

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As the chat continued, the morality police agent repeatedly asked the man if he would accept money in exchange for anal sex.

“I’m not a business,” the man responded but after repeated insistence on the part of the officer, posing as a wealthy man, the man eventually agreed to accepting $50.

Evidence of an exchange of money makes a conviction more reliable in court, according to rights groups and researchers.

Springing traps

Following the rainbow flag incident last month, more than 70 people – including at least one woman - were arrested by the Egyptian security services and more than 20 were handed jail sentences, ranging from six months to six years in a crackdown widely reported as a response to outcry in the pro-government Egyptian media about the flag waving.

However researchers who study the state’s repression of homosexuals say the morality police simply seized on the flag incident to conclude a swathe of existing surveillance operations.

“They have been pouring enormous resources into this for a long time now and that’s the reason they were able to make 60 arrests in a single week following the flag incident,” said Amr Abdul Rahman, head of the EIPR’s civil liberties programme. 

'The way they build these fake online identities then trick the men into thinking they are real people, their use of different languages and accents, and the way they extend the chats over long periods to overcome suspicion from the targeted men is shocking... They are becoming both more sophisticated and more vicious'

- Dalia Abd Elhameed, rights researcher

“The morality police had so many entrapment investigations already in progress that when they moved on them all simultaneously, this was the result,” he told MEE.

The morality police were founded as a special police unit in the early 2000s but in the past few years, following a military coup in 2013 that brought President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power, their remit has grown considerably.

Between 2003 and 2013 Egypt’s morality police made around 100 arrests on charges of “insulting public decency” or “habitual debauchery”. Between 2013 and March 2017, when surveillance operations stepped up, they made 232 arrests according to EIPR’s research into restrictions on LGBT rights in Egypt.

Following the flag incident the morality police made a year’s worth of arrests in a single week.

Egyptian men, accused of having gay sex, cover their faces as they leave prison to the state security court in Cairo 15 August 2001 (AFP)
According to Abd Elhameed, the morality police are becoming increasingly repressive.

“The way they build these fake online identities then trick the men into thinking they are real people, their use of different languages and accents, and the way they extend the chats over long periods to overcome suspicion from the targeted men is shocking,” she said.

Abd Elhameed cites a recent case in which the morality police provided a photograph of a Saudi Arabian passport with a morality police agent’s hands on the passport pages in order to convince the man the officer was a Saudi tourist.

“They are becoming both more sophisticated and more vicious,” she said.

Unconstitutional convictions

Despite the extent of the morality police’s operations, homosexuality is not explicitly forbidden in Egyptian law, and legal experts say the basis of the crackdown is shaky even by Egyptian judicial standards.

Research by the Egyptian legal consultancy United Group for Law concludes that Article 9 of Law 10/1961, the statute used against Egypt’s homosexuals, is unconstitutional. Egyptian legislation never references nor defines the term “homosexuality”. Instead, homosexuals are pursued under anti-prostitution legislation for the unspecified crime of “debauchery”.

Egyptian courts interpret “debauchery” to mean sex between men despite the fact that the term is ambiguous and does not refer to this explicitly. 

This terminology is part of the reason the morality police are particularly concerned with the act of sexual penetration, which some Egyptian medical professionals believe they can detect in invasive forensic examinations, according to researchers.

'This crackdown is coming directly from the Ministry of Interior and the judiciary – it’s built into the institutional system'

- Mohamed Zaree, Egypt director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

Once arrested, homosexuals in Egypt are frequently subjected to forced anal examinations which the authorities claim are designed to determine their sexual orientation. Rights groups say such examinations are “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, which can constitute a form of torture.”

Forced anal examinations have recently been outlawed in Lebanon and Tunisia.

The Egyptian parliament is currently considering a new law that would expressly prohibit homosexuality in order to mend any potential weaknesses in the law and would make life even harder for Egypt’s homosexuals.

The impetus for the crackdown is coming not just from the morality police but from the top levels of the Egyptian government, according to Mohamed Zaree, Egypt director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

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“This crackdown is coming directly from the Ministry of Interior and the judiciary – it’s built into the institutional system,” he told MEE.

Zaree stressed that Western governments which have security cooperation agreements with Egypt have provided technology training that security forces use against a wide range of groups, including LGBT communities.

“The state is taking technology it obtained from Western democracies and using it, instead of cracking down on militant groups, to pursue LGBT Egyptians who are visible, easy targets for the police and who are not harming anyone.”

Vulnerable communities

Members of Egypt’s LGBT communities are vulnerable both to overt state repression and social prejudice, say rights groups and members of the community.

On 23 October, in response to the recent wave of arrests, US-based dating applications Grindr and Hornet have issued warnings to Egyptian users in Arabic about state surveillance.

Researchers say that while gay communities in Egypt are not unaware of the possibility of police entrapment, there will always be ways the morality police can reach and deceive the less cautious.

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“LGBT-focused dating apps have become important tools to connect individuals and a community that are otherwise much targeted for their identities,” said Afsaneh Rigot, an internet security and rights expert at Article 19, a London-based human rights group.

“Even in the case of Egypt where a sophisticated and systematic use of these apps by the Egyptian police to target and entrap users has happened, LGBT users will continue to use them due to these platforms’ unique ability to connect,” she told MEE.

Some potential users of dating apps and websites in Egypt may still be unaware of the risk of entrapment.

“Users of these apps and websites are not in any way, shape, or form organised as an entity,” said Zizi, an Egyptian researcher with knowledge of LGBT communities in Egypt who writes under a pseudonym.

“There is no sharing of resources or history or experiences to give people an idea of what they’re up against – instead there are unconnected cliques of people divided by geography, background, and class,” he told MEE.

Those from marginalised groups are often at particular risk of police entrapment, he said.

Transgender individuals have been arrested in large numbers in recent years, many of whom come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

“This kind of religious and state condemnation and repression of same-sex behaviour has been used to reaffirm that a sexual act is enough to undermine someone’s humanity and moral and ethical being,” Zizi said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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