‘Clean the streets of faggots’: governments in the Middle East & North Africa target LGBT people via social media

LGBT groups across the Middle East and North Africa rely on social media for networking, information, and empowerment. Now police are exploiting the platforms to arrest & detain them, often destroying their lives. 

Credit: © 2020 anonymousSarah Hegazy, Egyptian LGBTQ activist, photographed by a friend who wished to remain anonymous, at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo on September 22, 2017.

Sarah Hegazy, an Egyptian queer feminist, raised a rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo. Rania Amdouni, a Tunisian queer activist, protested deteriorating economic conditions and police brutality in Tunis. Mohamad al-Bokari, a Yemeni blogger in Saudi Arabia, declared he supported equal rights for all, including LGBT people.

The common thread in these cases is that all three were identified in social media posts, which allowed their governments to monitor their online activity and target them offline. What happened afterward ruined their lives.

In Sarah Hegazy’s now infamous photo she is hoisted on a friend’s shoulders, smiling elatedly as she waves a rainbow flag at a 2017 performance in Cairo by Mashrou’ Leila, the popular Lebanese band whose lead singer is openly gay. The photo was posted on Facebook and shared countless times, garnering thousands of hateful comments and supportive counter-messages in what became a frenzied digital debate.

Days later, the Egyptian government initiated a crackdown. Police arrested Hegazy on charges of  “joining a banned group aimed at interfering with the constitution,” along with Ahmed Alaa, who also raised the flag, and then dozens of other concertgoers. In what became a massive campaign of arrests against hundreds of people perceived as gay or transgender, Egyptian authorities created fake profiles on same-sex dating applications to entrap LGBT people, reviewed online video footage of the concert, then proceeded to round up people on the street based on their appearance.

Hegazy spoke about her post-traumatic stress after she was released on bail. She had been jailed for three months of pretrial detention, during which police tortured her with electric shocks and solitary confinement. They also incited other detainees to sexually assault and verbally abuse her. Fearing re-arrest and a prison sentence, she went into exile in Toronto, where, on June 14, 2020, she took her own life. The 30-year-old woman ended her short farewell note with the words: “To the world, you’ve been greatly cruel, but I forgive.”

Rania Amdouni was on the front line during the country-wide demonstrations in Tunisia that began in January 2021, protesting economic decline and rampant police violence. People who identified themselves as police officers took her photo at a protest, posted it on Facebook, and captioned it with her contact information and derogatory comments based on her gender expression.

Soon after, her profile was flooded with death threats, insults—including from a parliament member—and messages inciting violence against her. When police harassment extended to the street—outside restaurants she frequented and near her residence—she tried to file a complaint. At the police station, officers refused to register her complaint, then arrested her for shouting.

Tunisian security forces also targeted other LGBT activists at the protests with arrests, threats to rape and kill, and physical assault. LGBT people were smeared on social media and “outed”—their identities and personal information exposed without their consent. The offline consequences were catastrophic—people lost their jobs, were expelled from their homes, and even fled the country.

Amdouni was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine. Though released upon appeal, she reported suffering acute anxiety and depression as well as continued harassment online and in the street.

Mohamed al-Bokari traveled on foot from Yemen to Saudi Arabia after armed groups threatened to kill him due to his online activism and gender non-conformity. While living in Riyadh as an undocumented migrant, he posted a video on Twitter declaring his support for LGBT rights; this prompted homophobic outrage from the Saudi authorities and the public. Subsequently, security forces arrested him.

He was charged with promoting homosexuality online and “imitating women,” sentenced to 10 months in prison, and faced deportation to Yemen upon release.  Security officers held him in solitary confinement for weeks, subjected him to a forced anal exam, and repeatedly beat him to compel him to “confess that he is gay.” Al-Bokari is now safely resettled, with outside help, but remains isolated from his community and cannot safely return home.

Across the Middle East and North Africa region, LGBT people and groups advocating for LGBT rights have relied on digital platforms for empowerment, access to information, movement building, and networking. In contexts  in which governments prohibit LGBT groups from operating, activist organizing happens mainly online, to expose anti-LGBT violence and discrimination. In some cases, digital advocacy has contributed to reversing injustices against LGBT individuals. But governments have been paying attention, and they have a crucial advantage—the law is on their side.

Most countries in the  region have laws that criminalize same-sex relations. Even in the countries that do not—Egypt, ironically, is one of them—spurious “morality laws,” debauchery and prostitution laws are weaponized to target LGBT people.

When I was documenting the systematic torture of LGBT people in Egypt’s prisons, the targeting pattern was unmistakable: Egyptian authorities relied on digital evidence to track down, arrest, and prosecute LGBT people. People who had been detained told me that police officers, unable to find “evidence” when searching their phones at the time of arrest, downloaded same-sex dating apps on their phones and uploaded pornographic photos to justify keeping them in detention. The cases I documented suggest a policy coordinated by the Egyptian government online and offline, to persecute LGBT people. One police officer told a man I interviewed that his entrapment and arrest were part of an operation to “clean the streets of faggots.”

In recent years, government digital surveillance has gained traction as a method to quell free expression and silence opponents. Concurrently, the application of anti-LGBT laws has extended to online spaces—regardless of whether same-sex acts occur—chilling even the digital discussion of LGBT issues.

The consequences of digital surveillance and online discrimination spiked for LGBT people just as the Covid-19 pandemic and related lockdown measures closed down groups that had offered safe refuge, diminished existing communal safety nets, threatened already dire employment and health access, and forced individuals to endure often abusive environments.

In Morocco, a campaign of “outing” emerged in April 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ordinary citizens created fake accounts on same-sex dating apps and endangered users by circulating their private information, alarming vulnerable groups. LGBT people, expelled from their homes by their families during a country-wide lockdown, had nowhere to go.

Activist organizations in the region play a significant role in navigating these threats and responding to LGBT people’s needs, regularly calling upon digital platforms to remove content that incites violence and to protect users. Yet in most of the region, these organizations are also hobbled by intimidation and government interference.

In Lebanon, for example, a gender and sexuality conference, held annually since 2013, had to be moved abroad in 2019 after a religious group on Facebook called for the organizers’ arrest and the cancellation of the conference for “inciting immorality.” General Security Forces shut down the 2018 conference and indefinitely denied  non-Lebanese LGBT activists who attended the conference permission to re-enter the country. The crackdown signaled the shrinking space for LGBT activism in a country which used to be known as a port in a storm for human rights defenders from the Arabic-speaking world.

These are not isolated incidents in each country. When state-led, they often reflect government strategies to digitalize attacks against LGBT people and justify their persecution, especially under the pretext of responding to ongoing crises. It is no coincidence that oppressive governments in varied contexts across the region are threatened by online activism — because it works.

Exposing these abusive patterns highlights the urgency of decriminalizing same-sex relations and gender variance in the region. Instead of criminalizing the existence of LGBT people and targeting them online, governments should safeguard them from digital attacks and subsequent threats to their basic rights, livelihoods, and bodily autonomy.

Meanwhile, digital platforms have a responsibility to prevent online spaces from becoming a realm for state-sponsored repression. Corporations that produce these technologies need to engage meaningfully with LGBT people in the development of policies and features, including by employing them as engineers and in their policy teams, from design to implementation.

Rasha Younes

Rasha Younes is a queer feminist researcher with the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, investigating abuses against LGBT people in the Middle East and North Africa region. Her current work focuses on state-sponsored digital surveillance and entrapment of LGBT people around the region, in addition to violence against LGBT people in Iraq. On Twitter: @rasha_younes.

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