How a Social Network Is Confronting Official Homophobia in Egypt

When I traveled to Cairo, I went quietly.

Over the last two months, Egyptian authorities have targeted LGBTQ people in a wave of arrests and violence.

While it isn’t the first time the government has gone after gay and transgender communities, this most recent effort is, according to human rights activists I work with, unprecedented.

Egypt is rich in history and is home to a 100 million people with large gay population. I was worried about the safety of our users in Egypt. I needed to go and try to better understand the reality on the ground.

During my short trip, I arrived incognito as much as possible to meet with human rights activists, NGOs and lawyers, as well as leaders within the LGBTQ activist community.

Many met with me on the on the understanding that they would need to remain anonymous. I was told some of them are on the government’s “wanted list” – yet another marker of an increasingly repressive environment for the gay community and its allies.

The human rights activists with whom I met explained that – with an Egyptian presidential election on the horizon – the relatively moderate government is seeking to shore up support and appease the country’s conservative institutions and religious leaders.

This, in many ways, is to also distract from the true everyday political troubles in Egypt, from security to high inflation. The war on gays is a classic wag-the-dog to scapegoat a minority group.

After fans at a popular concert in Cairo this past September were photographed waving rainbow flags in solidarity with the band Mashrou’ Leila’s openly gay singer, Hamed Sinno, many were arrested and various Egyptian TV personalities and conservative factions called for a crackdown.

It’s worth noting that homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt. Rather, authorities have historically abused a law prohibiting debauchery to specifically target the gay population.

Through my conversations with activists and lawyers who have read their case files, the charges being levied against LGBTQ citizens and allies are diverse. In an unbalanced prosecution, some members of the LGBTQ community are facing contrived terrorism charges and 20 years in prison simply for being public about who they are.

Entrapment and coercion are common elements of LGBTQ arrests in Egypt. These types of arrests typically take place at cafés, where predominantly lower-income gay people go to meet. Many don’t know their rights, and because they are forced to be closeted, are unlikely to ask their families for help after being arrested.

Furthermore, the press is used to further attack these arrested gay men by publishing their names and addresses. In many cases, the evidence used against these citizens could be something as commonplace as possession of a condom—seen as proof of gay sexual behavior, even though in Egypt you can buy a condom at any pharmacy.

In a small number of cases, police have created elaborate stories and fake identities on dating applications, masquerading as gay men to entrap users. There are only a few cases in which an installation of the Hornet app has been used as evidence.

Nevertheless, even a single case is deeply disturbing and a precedent attacking a safe space we have created online for gay people to meet, learn about health tips and allow self-expression.

Hornet has a significant number of members in Egypt and is, above all, concerned for their safety and well-being. To that end, we reached out to our users online in Egypt, and I arranged face-to-face meetings with nine gay Muslim leaders and one Coptic leader to discuss the efficacy of our safety measures.

Since launch, Hornet has continued to evaluate and implement security measures across the globe tailored to specific regional socio-political contexts. While it could be detrimental to share the specifics of some of those measures, I can share with you that we've used SLL encryption, which is the same go-to security protocol you are familiar with from online banking.

Additional measures we’re continuing to implement include security warning alerts and safety tips, as well as increased outreach in Arabic. Adhering to Hornet’s safety tips could help protect users from entrapment. These tips include verifying social profiles and spending more time communicating with connections before meeting in-person.

Before I traveled to Cairo, I kept asking myself, “Should Hornet be in Egypt?”

Today, I can confidently say we should and must stay in Egypt. I posed this question to everyone I met in Egypt. LGBTQ Egyptian leaders insisted that ending the availability of our app and social network in Cairo would serve only as a punitive measure against an already oppressed group. Hornet provides one of the only viable spaces for this community to be open and out.

Hornet is working with local NGOs, lawyers, foreign ministries and international press outlets to apply pressure to the Egyptian government to establish a safe environment for the LGBTQ community in Egypt.

Consumers, tourists and private businesses are also weary of visiting a country which attacks its LGBTQ citizens. In addition, we are enlisting the help of global security experts and those on the ground to amplify our security measures and safety precautions for Hornet users in Egypt.

While we celebrate certain advancements in the fight for LGBTQ rights around the world, we must never become complacent. Currently there are millions at risk of torture, imprisonment and death simply being who they are. Queer people across the world must stay vigilant and aware so that we can protect ourselves and others.

I left Egypt much the way I arrived and much the way so many LGBTQ Egyptians are being forced to live – quietly. But I left determined.

Until we are all free to live and love openly, I, alongside everyone at Hornet, will stand in solidarity with our users. We will not give up the fight.

Sean Howell is president and co-founder of the gay social network Hornet.