Egypt may be the worst place in the world to be gay right now—and technology is a primary reason.
As first reported in Buzzfeed, the government of Egypt has admitted—boasted, really—that it is monitoring Facebook, Twitter, and Skype for any signs of homosexual activity. There are rumors that the hookup site Grindr is being watched as well—prompting Grindr to issue pop-up warnings in English and Arabic to users logging in from Egypt.
The consequences can be devastating. Last month, six gay men were sentenced to two years of hard labor when their apartment was raided. Authorities located it based on a Facebook page.
Those same six men were also among the eight arrested when a video of a gay “wedding” went viral (defendants deny the ceremony was real). As in Iran—where women dancing to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” were sentenced to 91 lashes—the consequences of a viral video can often be severe.
According to Human Rights First, Egyptian police have arrested over eighty people for the “crime” of being LGBT in the last year alone.
Appropriately enough, the response to Egypt’s digital crackdown has, itself, taken place largely on social media, which LGBT people and allies are using to bring attention to the crackdown. The hashtag #stopjailinggays (#ضد_حبس_المثليين), for example, was the center of a two-day “Twitter storm” on Sept. 24-25. And activists have used the semi-anonymity of social media to lash out against the government.
Next up: On Oct. 18, Egyptian activists connected to the “Solidarity with Egypt LGBT” Facebook page are calling for IRL protests in front of Egyptian embassies around the world.
Interestingly, activists are also targeting the providers of the surveillance technology being used to spy on them: SEE (Systems Engineering of Egypt) and the manufacturer of the systems it allegedly resells, the US-based Blue Coat Systems.
Here’s where it gets complicated. In response to the protest action, and an expose in Buzzfeed, Blue Coat issued a statement disclaiming responsibility. “See Egypt is a Blue Coat reseller,” the statement admitted, “but is not otherwise affiliated with Blue Coat. See Egypt has assured us that they have not bid or resold Blue Coat products to the Egyptian government for any social network monitoring operation.”
Read between the lines, and it’s easier to connect the dots. Blue Coat makes nasty anti-privacy software. Small-time resellers like SEE hand it to bad guys. Blue Coat denies responsibility.
Blue Coat’s statement also says that, “We require our resellers to adhere to the same legal requirements and ethical standards to which we hold ourselves.” Well, if that’s the case, why continue to license SEE as a reseller? If they’re in breach of Blue Coat’s “ethical standards,” then why hasn’t Blue Coat dropped them?
Maybe because Blue Coat itself is a little shady. The company was included in Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 list of “corporate enemies of the Internet.” Their systems have been used in Syria to spy on dissidents. And even if SEE has exaggerated the capabilities of Blue Coat’s tools (security experts say they have), repressive regimes seem to be a Blue Coat customer base.
In this regard, Egyptian activists’ choice to target Blue Coat makes a lot of sense. As sinister and well-resourced as it is, it may be the weakest link in the chain.
It’s also hard not to see, in this campaign, an echo of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS protesters have singled out Caterpillar, which sells bulldozers and other equipment used to build Israeli settlements, with some success: Caterpillar is arguably the corporate face of the Israeli occupation, despite the rather tenuous connection to it. Likewise, Blue Coat could become the corporate face of the Egyptian anti-LGBT crackdown—or perhaps of privacy and human rights defenders worldwide.
Notice, too, the recurring pattern of crackdowns like this. The military-led government has been cracking down on everyone: the Muslim Brotherhood, liberal student activists, but also human rights defenders. Here, as in Russia, LGBT=human rights=anti-authoritarian=threat.
And, as in countless other countries (Uganda, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria), LGBT people are a convenient scapegoat. Focus on the gays—not on the economy, the erosion of civil society, or the lack of democracy. Drawing on conservative religious sentiments—in Egypt, it’s Muslim values; elsewhere, Christian or Hindu—authoritarian regimes use LGBT people to “wag the dog” away from substantive issues and toward fictive ones. And they get to look pious in the process.
Sound familiar? It should. The same strategy was used by Republicans in 2004.
Egypt’s rulers have been particularly odious, however. Well before the current crisis, the Mubarak government’s “Vice Squads” (that is literally what they are called) had squelched gay life in Cairo, most notably in the 2001 “Queen Boat” case, in which fifty partiers at a floating disco were depicted, according to a Human Rights Watch report as “participating in a blasphemous conspiracy.” In Human Rights Watch’s words, state-sponsored media depicted gays as “a menace to public safety, the code of a cult eroding moral values, a subversive network threatening state security.”
So in a sense, the current wave of persecution is nothing new.
It is, however, more than a little ironic. Egypt actually has no law banning homosexual conduct—gays are generally charged with “debauchery,” (fujur) which is so vague as to make convictions exceedingly easy to obtain. American attention is often focused on legal regimes—Denmark good, Uganda bad—but the written law is only a small part of the story.
Egypt’s crackdown is also ironic because the United States has ambivalently supported the current regime, and unabashedly supported Mubarak for years. Unlike, say, Russia, where anti-gay equals anti-American, Egypt’s regime would be hard-pressed to condemn the American interlopers.
None of this matters, of course, to Egypt’s LGBT population, which is persecuted by state, religion, and family alike. The crackdown against gays, and also against sex workers and, wait for it, atheists has given the old/new regime some much-needed credibility. It shows no sign of abating.
Then again, this is the same Egypt in which pro-democracy activists using social media drove thousands of people to Tahrir Square in 2011. The regime has now turned that technology against them. Can activists take it back?