Analysis

Tunisia's Openness Put to the Test With Gay Presidential Candidate

Post-Arab Spring Tunisia is a symbol of Middle East optimism. But is it ready for the candidacy of Mounir Baatour?

A man carried on shoulders waves the rainbow flag during the celebration of the National Women’s Day in avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, on August 13, 2018
Chedly Ben Ibrahim / NurPhoto /

Nothing like this has ever happened in an Arab country. Mounir Baatour, An openly gay 48-year-old man, announced that he intends to run for president of Tunisia in the November 10 elections. Baatour, who is head of Tunisia’s Liberal Party and a founding member of the country’s LGBT rights organization, knows full well what he faces, and is not afraid. “My goal is to liberate Tunisia from the old parties and the traditional leadership that have brought troubles to Tunisia,” he told the Raseef 22 website.

Baatour’s party platform says specifically that if elected, he will give the LGBT community equal rights, and that he himself is not running as a gay person but as a regular Tunisian citizen. The vilification began not long after. “Are there no men left in Tunisia that we need a gay person as president?” said one post on social media. “Destroy them before they multiply," said yet another. A third added, "It’s a shame and an insult to Tunisia and its heritage."

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Not only do Tunisia's social networks stand against Baatour, but its law does as well — the country prohibits gay sex. In 2013, Baatour was imprisoned for three months for that particular offense. But he persists. “I accept criticism warmly and I intended to change the public’s minds,” he declared. He aims his barbs against the religious movements and especially against the Ennahda party, a scion of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Baatour believes is responsible for religious extremism in the country.

Mounir Baatour.
Twitter

Baatour also has an unusual stance on Israel. Two years ago, he came out in support of fully normalizing relations with Israel, and said he would be happy to visit Israel the moment it became possible. But he has recently changed his tune somewhat, saying that he is prepared to normalize ties if Israel recognizes the rights of the Palestinian people, and in keeping with a peace agreement mediated by Tunisia. It is hard to tell which position will hurt Baatour’s electoral chances more, his stance on gay rights or his support for normalization with Israel, but he is on the short list of five likely candidates for the presidency, which in itself is no small feat.

Tunisia is in the throes of a political struggle in which the ailing current president, Beji Caid Essebsi, recently marked his 93rd birthday, and it seems will not be able to continue to work. Another candidate is former president Mohammed Moncef Marzouki, who is known for his close ties to the religious Ennahda party, while Baatour is pursuing Tunisia's younger generation, who are despairing and frustrated as they watch their economic hopes collapse six years after the revolution that sparked the Arab Spring's wave of protests in Arab countries.

Tunisia is still a symbol of optimism for the success of these revolutions; it managed to establish a democratic government and formulate an advanced constitution that grants broad civil rights to women and men alike. It may be that only in a country like this that a gay candidate could dare to declare his candidacy.

There have been gay candidates for elected positions in other Arab countries, but none of them publicly stated their sexual preference, and they certainly did not head a party whose purpose is to change the status of the gay community.

Not far from Tunisia, in Egypt, the gay community continues to be persecuted by the police, its activists are arrested and prosecuted, and attorneys who offer their services to gay detainees have to deal with harassment from the public and the authorities alike. One of these attorneys, Mohammad Fatuh of Alexandria, said that police asked him in court: “How can you defend these people?” His own mother told him that he “protects people who anger God.” And when he appeared in court to defend a gay detainee, the judge cursed him and verbally attacked him with rude sexual innuendos.

“Judges and prosecutors are not aware of the problems of the LGBT community," explained another lawyer, Ali Al-Hilawi, "especially transgender men and women who are terrified of a situation in which they will be sent to a prison that does not suite their new gender identity.” He added that transgender prisoners face another issue: “[They] are receiving hormonal injections that must be taken continuously, and any interruption could endanger their lives. But no one listens.”

Human rights activists consider it important to publicize these incidences of harassment in Western media, because they believe that this is the only way to influence the government’s conduct and create at least a legislative change. One positive development is increasing condemnation of sexual harassment in Arab countries in recent years, which has entered the public consciousness because, among other reasons, it is now on the agenda in Western countries.

This is not yet a revolution; far from it. But when Cairo University decided last week to dismiss Yassin Lashin, a lecturer in the communications department, following his conviction of sexual harassment and sexual blackmail, the university at least partially opened up the possibility for female students to report these incidents, a channel that until then then had been closed off out of fear that lecturers would harass the accusers.

More men are publishing articles condemning sexual harassment and pointedly criticizing the “male nature” that seeks control as compensation for the oppression men suffer from their parents or bosses. “A man is a partner to sexual harassment from the moment he sows in the minds of his sons the idea that a woman is inferior to him,” wrote Emad Adhem, a political and social scientist from Egypt. These ideas are encouraging, but their practice still lags far behind.