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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.

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 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.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game