LGBT rights return as thorny subject for Tunisian election candidates

For the first time, Tunisia saw an openly gay presidential contender, but his candidacy drew concerns even from the LGBT community.
Saturday 07/09/2019
A rainbow flag and a Tunisian national flag hang in the background as activists light candles during an LGBT event in Tunis. (AFP)
Light at the end of the tunnel. A rainbow flag and a Tunisian national flag hang in the background as activists light candles during an LGBT event in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights have become a major source of political controversy in Tunisia since the 2011 uprising, bringing democratic aspirations into conflict with the country’s conservative norms.

The issue was controversially tackled in the run-up to 2014 elections, when some politicians, including the late President Beji Caid Essebsi, spoke openly against the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Five years later, conservative candidates are again speaking up against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, using the issue to shore up support with their conservative electoral base.

Constitutional law expert and presidential candidate Kais Saied, whose legal interpretation is generally conservative and often clashes with progressive modernist trends in the country, stirred controversy by accusing the LGBT community of “receiving funds from abroad to corrupt the Islamic nation.”

Many accused Saied of using homophobia to appeal to deep-seated prejudices as he attempted to gain popularity ahead of elections.

“I don’t understand from what angle Kais Saied is trying to tackle the LGBT rights issue,” said Ali Bousselmi, president of the LGBT rights organisation Mawjoudin. “His statements are absolutely homophobic.”

“When we speak about funding, the LGBT rights organisations are in favour of tracking the flow of money. In this regard, we have been respecting the regulations of the Central Bank and submitting audit reports on a regular basis.”

Questions regarding how civil society organisations and political parties are funded are legitimate, Bousselmi said.

“We are aware that some political parties and Islamist organisations in Tunisia have been receiving funds from abroad to support terrorism. So, if we want to talk about ‘corrupting the nation,’ we need to pinpoint the real phenomena that have been posing a threat to the country and its people.”

Apart from Saied, other political figures, including leftists, have broached the subject of LGBT rights.

Leftist parliamentarian Ziad Lakhdar said in April that the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tunisia “remains a complex issue but not a priority.” Tunisian activists, however, say LGBT rights are an important priority because of the violence and discrimination minorities often face.

The subject gained attention after Mounir Baatour, co-founder of Shams, an LGBT rights group, threw his hat in the ring for the presidential elections in Tunisia.

“I wanted to raise the issue of homosexuality and trigger a public debate,” said Baatour, whose presidential bid was rejected by Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections. “We need to take homosexuality out of the societal taboo and push the agenda of LGBT rights to the fore.”

In Tunisia, homosexuality is a criminal offence, punishable by up to three years in prison. Following the 2011 uprising, LGBT rights activists say, homosexuality was prosecuted at a higher rate than before, a trend they blamed largely on the Islamist Ennahda Movement leading the government’s coalition from 2011-14 and being part of the ruling coalition since 2014.

Convictions for same-sex relations in Tunisia rose 60% to 127 in 2018, Shams said.

Baatour argued that, to change the status quo, there must be “a political will to amend legislation.” In particular, he said Tunisia must scrap discriminatory laws, mainly Article 230 of the Penal code, which criminalises homosexuality.

“I believe my candidacy has triggered a debate in the media and such debates,” Baatour said, “will reduce homophobia.”

Baatour’s bid drew significant criticism in Tunisia, even from the LGBT community, with some activists saying his candidacy harmed their cause.

“The issue here is that of whether someone is qualified for the presidency or not,” Bousselmi said. “What is really important beyond politics is that whether the next president would be able to effectively serve the country and adequately defend individual and collective rights.”

The candidacy of Baatour, he said, has merely created a “buzz” that swiftly faded. It also disassociated LGBT rights from a broader conversation about human rights.

“LGBT rights in Tunisia should be tackled within the context of universal human rights and steer away from politics,” Bousselmi said. “In our country, we have seen that anything that is used in politics, including religion, could eventually backfire creating a tense environment.”

Bousselmi also noted that Baatour’s seemingly “conciliatory” attitude towards Israel has lost him support.

Still, he noted, LGBT members in Tunisia “have every right” to express their political views.

“The political landscape remains quite divided, adding to the uncertainty in the country,” Bousselmi said. “This means, at least for the moment, that there’s no distinct candidate that the LGBT community would support or vote for, especially if we bear in mind the unfulfilled promises and double discourse of some politicians.”

As Tunisia’s presidential and legislative elections near, controversy over LGBT rights is expected to grow, pitting the religious crowd against a growing wave of progressive voices.

Islamists, in particular, are likely to push back against LGBT rights to defend what they view as traditional moral codes, winning them popularity in neighbourhoods and rural areas that are more socially conservative.