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Tunisia has its first openly gay candidate for president

Mounir Baatour, a gay lawyer and LGBTQ activist, is running for president of the North African nation, despite the fact that homosexuality is still considered a crime there.
LGBT activist Mounir Baatour holds a rainbow flag after submitting his candidacy for the upcoming early presidential elections in Tunis, Tunisia on Aug. 8, 2019.
LGBT activist Mounir Baatour holds a rainbow flag after submitting his candidacy for the upcoming early presidential elections in Tunis, Tunisia on Aug. 8, 2019.Hassene Dridi / AP

Just months after a Tunisian presidential commission recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality, the North African nation has its first openly gay candidate for president: Mounir Baatour.

Baatour, 48, is a lawyer and president of both the Tunisian Liberal Party and Association Shams, Tunisia’s main LGBTQ rights organization. Baatour’s candidacy is noteworthy because in Tunisia homosexuality is still a crime that is punishable by up to three years in prison. Baatour himself was jailed in 2013 for an accusation of “homosexuality,” and he said prison was “very hard, and the psychological impact is very sad, and after that I was in depression for one year.”

Baatour said he expected to make the ballot for the September 15 election, which was moved up because President Beji Caid El Sebsi died unexpectedly in July. Baatour vowed to go to court to challenge any effort to bar his candidacy, though he said he collected double the number of signatures required to run.

In June, the Committee on Individual Freedoms and Equality, known by its French acronym COLIBE, released a report that recommended an overhaul of Tunisia’s penal code — including ending the country’s criminalization of homosexuality. It also recommended abolishing the death penalty, giving women more rights and dismantling patrilineal citizenship and inheritance.

“The state and society have nothing to do with the sexual life amongst adults … sexual orientations and choices of individuals are essential to private life,” the COLIBE report states. “Therefore the commission recommends canceling [the criminalization of homosexuality], since it violates the self-evident private life, and because it has brought criticism to the Republic of Tunisia from international human rights bodies.”

If elected, Baatour hopes to enact the recommendations in the COLIBE report.

“I am absolutely in favor of the COLIBE report, I will adopt it in my program, and I will do all my best to execute the report,” Baatour said. “The main idea of my candidacy is to fight more for more freedom in Tunisia, more individual rights, and to stop the persecution against LGBT community engaged by the government against all homosexuals in my country.”

Since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution ushered a new period of democracy into the country, the government has actually ramped up its persecution of the LGBTQ community due in part, according to Baatour, to an increase in police recruiting Islamist people to join the force.

“I think because the Islamists were in the older coalition after the revolution, and I think in the police there is a lot of recruitment of Islamist persons,” Baatour said.

Baatour’s run is another historic moment for Tunisia. In 2011, Tunisians took to the streets in massive protests that resulted in the resignation of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who eventually fled in exile to Saudi Arabia. The Tunisian uprising inspired similar movements in Yemen, Libya, and Egypt that also deposed presidents, while an uprising in Syria morphed into the civil war that continues to this day.

Fred Karger, who in his 2012 Republican primary run became the first openly gay American to run for president, congratulated Baatour on Twitter. "He's very, very courageous for doing what he's doing in the Arab World, as the first not just in Tunisia but the first in Africa and the Muslim world. He seems to be a very qualified candidate," Karger said.

"It's such an important thing to do for so many people around the world," Karger said, "to see someone to be out and proud and doing what he's doing."

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