How a dating app is changing romance for Egypt’s conservative millennials

The idea behind Harmonica is to approach dating in line with local cultural norms.

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Two years ago, 29-year-old Sameh Saleh, a technology entrepreneur from Cairo, realised that a close relative of his, Amira, was suffering. Slightly younger than him, she was on the lookout for a husband, but despite spending two years searching for a suitor, she’d had no luck. Good-looking from a respectable family, and a qualified medical doctor, she should have had no problem finding a fiancé. Her father has met with around 40 young men over the years who have visited Amira’s family home to discuss marrying her, but so far, nothing has come of it. “I just didn’t click with any of them,” she says. “I never have enough time to get to know them.” Under her father’s strict rules, she is able to have no more than two meetings with a potential suitor, all in the company of her family, and asked to make a decision shortly after. “It’s too much pressure,” she says.

In Egypt, where life revolves around marriage, premarital sex remains fiercely taboo and aʿnas, the word for an unmarried woman, is a malicious insult – it’s the reason why, for this story, Amira is using a fake name. Yet, despite this, Saleh noticed many of his friends and relatives unable to tie the knot in recent years. “It’s become the biggest struggle in Egypt,” he says. An economic downturn since the Arab Spring in 2011 has left people fighting to maintain living standards, let alone start a new family. After seeing what this was doing to his loved ones, Saleh decided in 2015 that he would find a way to help.

In October, he launched the fruit of his labours: Harmonica, Egypt’s first mobile-dating application. Hot on the heels of global dating apps like Tinder and Bumble, Saleh is trying to bring the idea of phone-based relationships to a more conservative crowd. Although other dating sites have been targeted at the Middle East – Matchmallow, LoveHabibi, and the many Muslim dating sites – it is hard to think of a Tinder equivalent. Saleh thinks that, with 141 million smartphone users, of whom 72 percent are under 34, the region’s potential has been overlooked.

Since first appearing in 2004, apps that provide a simple platform for potential couples to meet have become a mainstay of Western dating culture. According to mobile-dating expert, Julie Spira, their impact has been “quite simply, enormous,” particularly among millenials. In 2016, a Pew survey found that more than a third of young Americans now look for love through their phone. Last September, Tinder was the highest grossing app on iTunes. These days, young people are more inclined to use their mobiles phones “for all lifestyle issues,” says Spira, “whether it's an airline ticket, booking a hair appointment, or scheduling a date.”

But while millennials in the Middle East have proved just as receptive to all things social media as their Western counterparts, dating apps have proved to be the exception. A 2016 study found that while Badoo and Tinder dominate the Spanish and English-speaking worlds respectively, countries in the Middle East tended to use localised apps, if at all.  “We would use Booking.com and we would use Uber,” says Saleh, referring to other popular mobile apps, “but some startups cannot penetrate the market without understanding the social aspect.” In his opinion, dating apps have struggled to shake their image in the Middle East as “hook-up apps.” In a country where Saleh says “20 or 30 percent of guys in university have never even spoken to a girl in that way before,” he believes a serious rethink is in order to make mobile dating work here.

The idea behind Harmonica is to approach dating in line with local cultural norms. For example, explains Saleh, “During the initial match, users don’t see much,” referring to the first phase of Harmonica’s match-making. In stark contrast to applications like Tinder – which Saleh likes to call a “meat market” – female users have the option to hide their photos until they’ve approved another user to view them.

Hramonica also differs from other apps, due to its strong focus on monogamy. Unlike most dating applications, where users are encouraged to “swipe” through dozens of potential matches, Harmonica’s users are given two or three matches a day at most, all selected by the app’s algorithm based on a mandatory 30-question survey, and users can only pick one with whom to chat. They’re then given a seven-day period in which they can talk through the app’s messaging service, before choosing to progress with their partner further or return to the matching stage. “We call it ‘the journey,’” says Saleh.

Harmonica doesn’t expect users to go on this journey alone. Instead, Saleh has tried to create an experience more in line with Egyptian cultural norms. “In the West, there’s a guy and a girl, that's it,” he says. “In Egypt, it's totally on the other end of the spectrum. The family will be involved from day one.” In an attempt to replicate this, he’s employed a small team of dating counsellors, on call to give advice to their premium customers every step of the way. The app also allows users to nominate a “chaperone” for “girls who don't feel safe talking to a guy in private,” explains Saleh. “We're adding this feature so they can send their conversation to one of their family members or one of their friends that they choose. It's up to them, it's not mandated or anything, and it just gives the app a more conservative side for those who choose.”

Harmonica isn’t the first app to provide mobile dating to a more conservative crowd. Outside of Egypt, a handful of apps already offer a similar service, such as Matchmallows and Salaam Swipe, based in Canada and the UK respectively. One entrepreneur who predates Saleh is Shahzad Younas, a 33-year-old from Manchester who launched Muzmatch two years ago as a way for young Muslim couples the world over to meet. Younas reckons that his app has paired up 7,000 married couples around the world, including one couple in Uganda; unknown to them, they were the only two in the country to have signed up to it.

But despite their best efforts, entrepreneurs behind these sorts of apps often find opposition from the most pious observers, as Younas has discovered through his experiences with Muzmatch. “Some people always say: ‘Oh, it’s totally un-Islamic,’” he says, “‘this app is too modern; it’s haram [forbidden].’ But if you look at the real social problem, it’s that nobody is helping the youth find partners in a permissible way that works for them. You could argue it isn’t permitted but at the end of the day the greater problem is being caused when young people find it hard to get married.”

In the run-up to the launch, Saleh was slightly worried how people would react in Egypt, but in fact, the response was overwhelming. “Within a week of launching the Facebook page, we went viral,” he says, “20,000 users downloaded the app in that week alone.” Harmonica’s server, designed to accommodate just 10,000 users in total, crashed under the flood of downloads.

Since then, Harmonica has been used over one million times by its users, and has become one of the most popular new apps in the country. Dedicated users even began sharing Harmonica memes, and Saleh has appeared on multiple talk-shows to explain his start-up and vision for the future. “Dating apps were never a thing here,” he says, “so this is all new to them. They all want to know how we’ll change the marriage scene in Egypt.” Already he’s received messages from at least two couples who’ve got engaged after meeting on the app.

And, of course, Amira was one of the first to sign up. She’s spoken to a few other users since then, but she’s yet to meet somebody she’s really keen on. “There were a couple of guys she thought were good candidates,” says Saleh, “but she’s not met up with anybody yet.” Finally able to take things at her own pace, he says, Amira is taking her time.

Edmund Bower is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. Follow him @edmund_bower.