ifa: This workshop brings together CCP alumni and organisations working on the topics of digital inclusion and digital security. What does digital security mean to you personally?
Omar: It's hard to tell because there's no such thing as digital security, neither in Egypt nor in any other country around the world. Whether governments or companies — they both know what we buy, where we are, what we talk about. Digital security should entail allowing us to decide what information we share with others and what not. In Egypt, we are targeted by the government itself. The regime has no interest in making the Internet a safe space.
ifa: In August 2018, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi approved a so-called cybercrime law, which comprehensively regulates Internet activities and basically legalised censorship. What are the biggest security threats that human rights activists face online?
Omar: The law granted the government more authority for online surveillance, often leading to arrests and imprisonment whenever someone says something that the regime dislikes. That could be a critical post on Facebook, a picture of a rainbow flag or anything else that threatens 'society's values' or 'national security'. Already marginalised people such as LGBT1 people are even more prone to these threats. For example, if someone hacks your computer and gains access to sensitive data such as your sexual orientation, that information will be given to journalists or to police officers, and they'll start blackmailing you. If they use that information to out you publicly, your life will be ruined. You might go to prison, lose your job, and your family will probably stop speaking to you. It happened to many of my friends. Security forces also started to create fake profiles on dating apps like Grindr to target LGBT people and arrest them.
ifa: After a concert in Cairo in September 2017 by the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila – whose lead singer is openly gay – around 75 people were arrested because some activists waved rainbow flags. How was this crackdown justified?
Omar: People were arrested and charged for 'promoting debauchery and prostitution' and 'inciting immorality', based on law no. 10 from 1961. Technically, homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, but the regime uses vague laws to prosecute people anyway. For example, if you are checked by the police and are carrying a condom or over 200 Egyptian pounds in cash – which is not more than ten euros – this can be used as evidence in court. They will claim that you got the money from sex work.
'Losing data is better than prison'
ifa: In 2017, you participated in ifa's CrossCulture Programme, working with the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany (LSVD). What was the most impressive moment during your fellowship?
Omar: I still remember the day when I first saw the rainbow flag waving in front of the historical city hall in Cologne. It was in September 2017, shortly after my arrival in Germany and after the Mashrou' Leila concert in Cairo. I thought about those friends in Egypt that had been arrested just because they had waved a similar flag.
ifa: You work for an organisation that aims at empowering the LGBT community in Egypt and promoting their online security and personal safety. What are your top four digital security recommendations?
Omar: In my workshops, I usually recommend using a virtual private network (VPN) to hide your IP address and location from the government. End-to-end encrypted instant messaging services like Signal are useful as well; and of course, strong passwords and tools like the password manager KeePass. All these programmes are available for free. I further suggest installing emergency programmes because, since al-Sisi declared a nation-wide state of emergency in 2017, security forces can check people's mobile phones whenever they want. They usually force people to open their Facebook account or they confiscate their devices on the spot. The emergency app deletes and formats your data immediately. Of course, you'll lose all of your data, but that's better than spending ten years in prison. I also recommend a programme that stores photos in a folder with a name that is less obvious than 'gallery' or 'pictures'. It encrypts the photos and stores them in a fake folder such as 'settings'.
ifa: How do you reach the community and encourage people to attend these workshops?
Omar: Over the years, we have developed a kind of procedure for selecting and targeting relevant members of the LGBT community. We try to identify influencers or go-to persons that people trust. If we don't know them personally, we contact these people via Signal, then we train them in digital security and safety. In exchange, they promise to share their knowledge and teach other LGBT people what they've learned.
ifa: In 2019, al-Sisi ratified a law that regulates the activities of civil society organisations (CSOs). Even if it replaced the controversial 2017 NGO law, it still grants the authorities wide powers to dissolve NGOs or to prosecute them under very vague charges. How does your organisation deal with these restrictions?
Omar: Any national or foreign NGO in Egypt concerned with LGBT rights is illegal because they threaten 'public morals'. Our organisation is run by people based in a foreign country. The data is stored abroad, our identity is hidden from the government, so they don't know who is behind the organisation. Normally we announce our workshops under fake names, but it is still difficult to find host institutions for our events. To put it simply, the law you mentioned inhibits the work of any NGO in Egypt. For example, if I receive funding from Egyptians or foreigners, even 100 Egyptian pounds, I am obliged to report it to the Ministry of Social Solidarity. They have 60 days to approve this funding; if they don't reply within 60 days, that counts as a refusal. It's ridiculous.
'Online security is a constant process'
ifa: What other obstacles do you face in your work?
Omar: One of the main challenges is to keep people alert and careful about their digital security. They will be cautious after a training course or major incident like the arrests that followed the Mashrou' Leila concert. But two or three months later, they will get lazy again. People need to understand that online security is a constant process and that they always have to protect themselves. Everyone needs to be aware of the risks it is the responsibility of every individual.
ifa: Did you as a political and LGBT activist suffer any attacks personally?
Omar: I was harassed several times because of my political activism, but they didn't find out that I am gay. I was forced to visit the Egyptian Intelligence service many times. They put some pressure on me, but I didn't suffer any physical attacks. Now that I'm in Germany, I feel safe. But I still don't share anything revealing on Facebook. I hate it, but at least I don't lead a double life like many LGBT people in Egypt do. They have two Facebook accounts, two mobile phones, two identities. Only very few live openly as LGBT. Some are protected by big families; some don't think they have anything to lose so they live the life they want, ready to pay a high price. And then there are those who have been outed by the government or by others, and their life is ruined. My friends, at least some of them, know that I am gay. They wouldn't reveal anything on the Internet. There is a silent trust that unites the LGBT community online.
Interview by Juliane Pfordte
About CrossCulture Programme and 'Gender & Diversity'
On June 28, 1969, transsexuals and homosexuals resisted a police raid at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City. A milestone in the LGBTIQ movement, which is celebrated worldwide with Christopher Street Day. But even 51 years after the so-called Stonewall Riots, the rights of sexual minorities worldwide are being restricted and LGBTIQ persons often face social stigmatization in their countries. ifa's CrossCulture Programme provides a platform for LGBTIQ actors to engage in a global exchange together. In 2019, a first workshop on the topic of 'Gender & Diversity' was implemented for alumni of the programme. In the series 'Gender & Diversity' three interviews of alumni involved in the LGBTIQ movement are published.
1 LGBT, LGBTI+ or LGBTQIA – there are as many different ways of labeling the queer community worldwide as there are identities within it. LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, but the more the community and the understanding of its diversity developed the more complex it became to put a label on it. The CCP team wants to give room to the different ways the authors choose to address it. Therefore, you will find different versions of the acronym. The CCP team itself decided to use 'LGBTIQ' which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual and queer or questioning.