Digital platforms as tools of anti-queer state repression in the Middle East
A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has uncovered, through the testimony of victims across Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq and Jordan, the invasive digital tactics employed by government authorities to police LGBTQ citizens which have occurred since the early 2000s. In light of these revelations, Twitter, Meta (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) and LGBTQ dating applications must reform their platforms to ensure the protection of queer users.
Status of same-sex legislation
Infamous for being one of the only countries to have a permanent online policing unit for LGBTQ individuals, Egypt categorises same-sex conduct as debauchery as per its 1961 Combating of Prostitution legislation. The vague implementation of debauchery as a crime has resulted in confusion regarding its interpretation. Queer scholar, Hassan El Menyawi highlights the debate surrounding whether debauchery is isolated as a male crime and whether remuneration for sex is required for the crime to be committed. Although, in this context, debauchery has been used as an umbrella term, referring to any ‘indecent’ behaviour, since the 1990s to prosecute homosexuality. Compounding this are Egypt’s various cyber laws which criminalise the use of technology to ‘infringe on any family principles or values in Egyptian society.’
Lebanon criminalises homosexuality explicitly under Article 534 of the 1943 Penal Code which dates to the French colonial mandate. Much like the Egyptian legislation, the article highlights homosexual sex as indecent and thus contrary to the order of nature. However, unlike the other Middle Eastern and North African states, Lebanon has no distinct cyber laws that explicitly criminalise online behaviour.
Regarding the prohibition of same-sex acts, Tunisia invokes Article 230 of its 1913 Penal Code which directly outlaws homosexual behaviour. Comparable to Egyptian cyber laws, Tunisia’s Telecommunications Code has been operationalised against LGBTQ people. Article 86 outlines that those who ‘offend’ or ‘disturb’ others through telecommunications networks shall be imprisoned and fined.
Finally, Iraq and Jordan similarly have no laws that unambiguously criminalise same-sex relations. The vague provisions linked once again to morality and indecency in each state’s respective penal codes are used to arrest and prosecute LGBTQ individuals.
Government’s weaponisation of digital platforms
The use of the internet and social media as tools of state repression against the LGBTQ community in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is not new. Specifically, the first known case of online entrapment in Egypt occurred in 2001. However, the increasing prevalence of digital policing in the past decade has experts commentating that it is quickly becoming the ‘cornerstone’ of LGBTQ prosecutions. Between 2013-2016, HRW found that 66 investigations, on the basis of debauchery, against LGBTQ individuals living in Egypt involved authorities monitoring digital platforms.
To understand the depth of such heightened persecution, the various nuances in government-organised tactics must be understood since each country’s anti-queer weaponisation of the internet has unique consequences for different groups within the LGBTQ community.
Entrapment refers to when a person is conned into committing a crime to secure their prosecution. In this instance, entrapment occurs when police or state authorities create fake online profiles on LGBTQ dating websites and applications to lure and deceive queer users. After initiating a conversation with an individual online, the officer arranges an in-person meeting wherein the victim is ambushed and arrested.
HRW documented twenty cases of online entrapment whereby officers impersonated LGBTQ people on platforms such as Grindr and Facebook across Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
While Tunisia similarly engages in entrapment techniques, Egypt has adopted it as its main tactic to police LGBTQ citizens. Since 2015 the online entrapment of queer individuals has been systematically coordinated by the General Directorate for Protecting Public Morality.
The heightened surveillance of online dating websites and applications, as opposed to physical policing, is due to the ability of Egyptian authorities to prosecute under cyber laws that criminalise any online behaviour that threatens ‘family values’. When applied in tandem, victims are prosecuted on the basis of debaucherous activity online.
Officers cultivate online relationships with queer individuals, mostly men, by sending sexual messages and exchanging explicit photographs. The length of this process varies between victims, with the process of entrapment potentially lasting months.
An Egyptian gay man spoke about his experience at a café in 2021 where he was met with five police officers rather than the man he believed he had been chatting to on Grindr. The officers then threatened to hang him if he did not hand over his phone.
The contents of these online conversations are then often used as evidence in the prosecution of the victim. Given their growing dexterity in entrapment, the Morality Police has been labelled the ‘most sophisticated’ branch of the Egyptian police force. Consequently, Egyptian queer people find themselves most under siege online in the Middle Eastern region. One non-binary person in Egypt noted that after recognising most ‘state-led entrapment happens through Grindr,’ they refuse to go out or use dating apps.
Reliance on digital evidence
Frequently after being entrapped, arrested queer individuals have their phones forcefully seized and illegally searched to collate further ‘proof’ of their homosexuality. However, digital evidence is also relied upon in instances where LGBTQ people have been arbitrarily arrested after being visually profiled as queer by authorities.
Lebanese authorities are known to haphazardly stop people at checkpoints and search their phones for queer-orientated apps and content to justify the arrest and/or assault of citizens.
HRW reported that in 45 cases of unlawful arrest of LGBTQ individuals, victims were held in pretrial detention while authorities searched for incriminating material on their devices.
It is common practice across Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia for courts to rely on digital evidence, such as selfies, chats and the presence of same-sex applications, to support anti-queer charges. Victims have testified that even the most trivial things have resulted in their convictions such as photos with them of long hair, makeup or with individuals of the same sex were weaponised as indicators of immorality and indecency.
For the individuals interviewed by HRW, the search for incriminating content ranged from 45 days to five months. During their time in custody, LBGTQ victims experienced sexual and other physical violence, solitary confinement, denial of food, water, medical services and in some cases legal representation. Of those held, transgender women particularly experienced disproportionate degradation while being confined in men’s cells. One detainee held in Egypt’s Nasr City police station recalls being repeatedly raped.
Alarmingly, if no digital information could be found that could support a prosecution, authorities would download same-sex dating apps onto their phones and fabricate a profile and chat logs.
One Egyptian victim of such fraudulent tactics told HRW that officers downloaded Grindr on his phone and denied him access to a lawyer. Later he was charged with inciting debauchery, based on uploaded chats manufactured by officers, and detained for two months. Such relentless persecution has exacerbated the already repressive and anxiety-inducing climate for the Middle Eastern queer community.
Trauma and the future of queer activism
Many of the victims interviewed by HRW noted that they would not report a crime to the authorities given the continuing repercussions of their previous experiences. Online targeting does not remain purely digital as victims of online policing are often subjected to physical violence at the hands of authorities.
All queer interviewees reported persistent fear, post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and experiences of isolation well after being digitally targeted. Provided they could acquire the means to do so, some left their home countries out of fear of further persecution.
The invasiveness of digital targeting techniques has also meant that victims are less inclined to express their queerness let alone participate in outward activism. One Jordanian gay man stated that after being targeted online he stopped communicating with fellow activists, resulting in the erosion of solidarity networks. The ubiquity of state repression against LBGTQ communities paints a bleak future for queer activism in the MENA region.
Online moderation reform
While HRW recommends that the governments of Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq and Jordan cease to criminalise same-sex relations and abide by their international obligations, more achievable and tangible action can come from their recommendations surrounding digital platform reform.
Twitter and Meta (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) can assuage online anti-queer activity and significantly improve the status of queer people’s digital rights in the Middle East.
Victims of digital targeting, specifically doxxing and general online harassment, noted how their attempts to report such abuse to the digital platform came to no avail. In all cases of reporting documented by the HRW’s interviewees, the platforms did not remove the hateful content, claiming it did not violate company guidelines or standards.
Issues with anti-queer content regulation were recently exposed in the case of the Arabic Fetrah campaign which circulated in mid-2022. The official account of the anti-LGBTQ movement which opposed the promotion of homosexuality and its symbols was only suspended on Meta initially with Twitter taking six months to remove its content.
As a result, it is imperative that Twitter and Meta develop and implement victim-centred policies to drive the production of a safe online space for LGBTQ communities in the Middle East. This requires the employment of Middle Eastern LGBTQ people as engineers and policy officers to ensure the complexity of how digital information is weaponised is understood and counteracted appropriately.
Helem, the first queer non-governmental organisation in the Arab world, works to mitigate anti-LGBTQ online abuse by monitoring digital platforms and state-led queer policing. Their digital rights campaign calls for the incorporation of an Arabic Queer Hate Speech Lexicon which is a frequently revised annual document presented in both Arabic and English. The Lexicon collates hate speech terms in various Arabic dialects which are then integrated into the moderation algorithms of social media platforms.
Ensuring that digital platforms used by the Middle Eastern queer community exhibit proficiency in linguistic diversity and a commitment to digital rights protection is the most actionable reform to combat the weaponisation of social media.
Despite engaging in the online policing of queer citizens for two decades, the governments of Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq and Jordan are becoming increasingly dexterous at monitoring, entrapping and apprehending LGBTQ people, especially gay men and transgender women. Prosecution is pursued relentlessly rendering online platforms unsafe and unwelcoming for the queer community. To combat this violation of privacy, leading social media organisations can implement stricter moderation guidelines and reporting processes that are informed by victims of state-led digital targeting.
Dominique-Dee Jones is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts in History and International Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has interned for the Australian Institute of International Affairs, and is interested in undertaking further study in the history of Eurasian foreign relations.