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'No one can do the job better than I'

July 7, 2019

Gay rights activist Mounir Baatour wants to become president in Tunisia — and is putting the fight for LGBT rights at the center of his election campaign. He doesn't have much a chance, but he's determined to fight.

Mounir Baatour
Image: AFP/Getty Images/F. Belaid

There's still quite a bit of time before Tunisia's presidential election in November, but a number of people have already declared their candidacy for the highest office in the land. Among them is Mounir Baatour, chairman of Shams, an organization that fights for the rights of homosexual and transgender citizens.

Baatour has been fighting for LGBT rights for years, and now he wants to do so from the top. "After so many years fighting for minority rights, I realized that no one can do the job better than I," he said as he announced his candidacy last week.

A lawyer by profession, Baatour said he already has the 100,000 signatures required to get on the ballot. Still, his chances of winning are slim. A survey conducted by the polling institute Arab Barometer shows that only 7% of Tunisians condone homosexuality.

Read more: Refugee centers in Tunisia 'out of the question,' says president

Changing perceptions

Baatour said he wants to change perceptions by running for the presidency. He told DW that no other candidate has staked out the issues he has addressed. Individual and civil rights are of less concern to them, he said.

Baatour, on the other hand, has these rights the cornerstone of his campaign. "I am calling for the repeal of Article 230, which outlaws homosexuality, from the Tunisian criminal code. The Tunisian people should decide whether they want to bring criminal charges against homosexuals and put them in jail, or if they want to get rid of the law," he said.

Tunisian homosexuals have suffered under the weight of the law. In December, for instance, a young man near the western city of Monastir was brutally beaten by a group of men. The victim pressed charges, but when the judge learned he was a homosexual he let one of the perpetrators go and released the others on bail. The victim, however, was subjected to a long lecture from the judge.

Another young man had it much worse. He went online to arrange a meeting with another homosexual man, but when he arrived at the meeting place he was beaten and sodomized by two men. During the court trial that followed, the victim was subjected to a rectal exam to determine whether he had previously engaged in homosexual activity.

The court found that he had done so, and he was sentenced to six months in prison. The attackers were both acquitted. Homosexuality is punishable with up to three years prison in Tunisia.

Fighting for gender equality

Cases like these motivated Baatour to embark on his candidacy. He told DW that simply by running, he is shining a light on the problems that homosexuals face. He also said he will fight for gender equality in the North African country, pointing out that its laws lag behind Western countries.

"In Tunisia, women inherit half of what men are entitled to. I want to change that. I am calling for absolute gender equality, just as it's written in the Tunisian constitution. Gender inequality is unconstitutional," he said.

The situation became increasingly difficult for homosexuals after the Arab Spring protests. Under authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced to flee the country in January 2011, homosexuals were of little concern to the government. Ben Ali was far more intent on fighting sex tourism.

After the revolution, and with the rise of Islamist and moderate Islamic parties — including the Muslim democratic Ennahda party, which was in government in 2014 — the pressure began to mount.

Most conservative Muslims felt that homosexuality was incompatible with the values of Islam. This resulted in the passage of stricter laws regarding homosexuality. At the same time, that pressure led to the formation of the country's first homosexual rights groups.

Those groups were not only intent on changing or repealing laws targeting them; they also wanted to change the mentality of their fellow countrymen and women.

But Baatour wants to do something more with his candidacy: He wants to spark a fundamental debate about the idea of democracy itself. He believes many people have the wrong concept of what democracy means.

"Democracy doesn't mean that the majority dictates the rules to the minority. More importantly, it is about the responsibility of protecting the rights of minorities," he said. For that reason, he will also fight for religious equality for the abolition of the death penalty.

Economic tensions in Tunisia

Easing economic pressure

Rights are one thing, said Baatour, but many Tunisians also have a lot of other problems. They are under enormous economic pressure, with unemployment, high public debt and a stagnating economy plaguing the state as well as individuals. And Baatour intends to tackle that problem, too.

He's convinced that education, health care, security and defense are the responsibility of government, but, he thinks "everything else falls to the private sector." That's why his party wants to place only the most essential limits on private business. "That could spur dynamism in the Tunisian economy, create jobs and ease pressure on citizens."

Baatour has acknowledged he will only convince a small portion of Tunisians of the merit of his ideas. "But I'm sticking with my candidacy. And I will stand up for my values until the very end."

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Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East