Beirut — Amid an anti-gay crackdown in Egypt since a rainbow flag was hoisted at a Cairo concert, gay dating apps are sending users tips on how to protect themselves from entrapment.
The flag was raised last month at a concert headlined by Mashrou' Leila, a Lebanese rock band whose singer is openly gay.
It was a rare public show of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in the conservative Muslim country, and was met with a swift zero-tolerance response.
Since then nearly 70 people have been arrested, and more than 20 have been handed sentences ranging from six months to six years, according to Dalia Abdel Hameed of the rights group Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
U.S.-based gay dating apps, like Grindr and Hornet, used by millions globally, have provided Egyptian users with extra safety tips in Arabic.
"It will make people take more precautions ... we know that the police are under pressure to arrest people and they are going about doing that through all the avenues that they have," Jack Harrison-Quintana, a director at Grindr, said by phone from the United States.
Some of Grindr's tips include letting people know where you are going before meeting someone, checking if you have mutual friends and trying to meet virtually first through video so you know who you're meeting.
While homosexuality is not outlawed in Egypt, discrimination is rife. Gay men are frequently arrested and typically charged with debauchery, immorality or blasphemy.
Egyptian authorities do not deny going after the LGBT community. Police, state-aligned media, and the religious establishment see it as a public duty to combat the spread of homosexuality.
"Significant percentages of gay men in the Middle East find online as a safer way to connect," Sean Howell, president of Hornet, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from New York.
Hornet's additional safety information is not meant to "create fear", he said.
"We are being cautious. We have not received many reports from users that make us think that the security online is worse than before," said Howell.
The dating apps have sent these kinds of warnings before in various countries, such as Russia where a law against the promotion of homosexuality has been used to stop gay pride marches and detain gay rights activists.
"We always send out messages like this to users who are in places where there is an elevated level of risk", said Harrison-Quintana at Grindr.
EIPR and Amnesty International said most of the arrests were unrelated to the concert - some people were arrested in public spaces and others were "entrapped" via dating apps.
"The government is taking the flag incident as an excuse to issue a larger crackdown on the community," said Abdel Hameed.
- Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Ros Russell