Openly gay Tunisian lawyer Mounir Baatour, who has voiced pro-Israel sentiments, announced on June 25 that he plans to run for president in the country’s November election.
It is the first reported case of a gay Tunisian seeking to win the presidency of the Muslim-majority north African country.
According to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which translated the debate on Tunisian TV, “Following an incident in which Tunisian MP Ammar Amroussia ripped up an Israeli flag in a parliamentary session, in a push for legislation criminalizing ties with Israel, a Tunisian TV channel held a debate on the issue of normalization of ties between the two countries. Mounir Baatour, head of the Liberal Tunisian Party, defended his party against MP Amroussia’s accusations that they were a ‘fifth column’ within Tunisia, ‘mercenaries fighting alongside the enemies.’”
Baatour sharply criticized the anti-Israel Amroussia during the debate about his pro-boycott Israel views, asking him: “How come you do not cut ties with Iran, which has been occupying three UAE islands since 1971? I’m talking about the islands of Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa. Why don’t you boycott Turkey, which occupies the Sanjak of Alexandretta? The Sanjak of Alexandretta is larger than Palestine.”
The dramatic exchanges continued with Amroussia stating: “Brother, a so-called ‘Tunisian’ living in the Zionist entity… Why don’t you say ‘the Zionist entity’?”
Baatour fired back: “It’s called ‘Israel,’” with Amroussia asking: “Is this antisemitism?”
Baatour’s rejoinder: “Exactly. It is antisemitism.”
Baatour explained that “we are calling for normal economic relations with all countries. We believe that enmity toward Israel and love of the Palestinian cause are not Tunisia’s real problems today. Tunisia’s problems are social and economic.”
Regarding the MP’s ripping up the Israeli flag, Baatour said “I consider this to be a pointless gesture. Whether or not you tear up the flag of the Zionist entity… By the way, it is called the State of Israel, not the Zionist entity. The State of Israel exists, it is a member in the United Nations and in all the international organizations, and its flag flies everywhere. So whether or not you tear it up is immaterial to Israel.”
Baatour faces challenges not only from the country’s widespread contemporary antisemitism targeting the Jewish state, but from the Tunisian state’s anti-gay law.
Article 230 of Tunisia’s 1913 Penal Code states that people convicted of sodomy can be incarcerated for three years.
Baatour wrote on Facebook: “We are proud of the absolute equality of all Tunisians no matter what their religion, color, gender, language [or] sexual identity. Tunisia needs a democratic agenda that can include the different identities, cultures, beliefs and languages of this country. Our program aims to democratize power, by strengthening the weight of Parliament and giving more weight to local institutions.
“Economically, our program targets growth of production and the real sector, job creation and the cleansing of an economy that is artificially inflated and extremely dependent on foreign investment. In foreign policy – as on the domestic scene – our motto is peace.”
Tunisian authorities are seeking to use Islamic Sharia law to shut down LGBT rights and LGBT groups in the country.
Baatour, who is president of the Tunisian LGBT rights organizations Association Shams, told The Guardian in April that “the judicial harassment against our association has no legal basis, and reflects the homophobia of the Tunisian state and its will to discriminate and stigmatize the LGBT community, which is already marginalized. Such harassment makes our work difficult and creates a climate of tension and fear among the team working for our association.”
Association Shams said there was a spike in arrests under Tunisia’s anti-gay law in 2018 compared with 2017 – there were 127 arrests in 2018, while 79 people were arrested in 2017.
According to The Guardian, Baatour said his car was vandalized in a homophobic attack, and he is worried about prison conditions for LGBT people in Tunisia.
Benjamin Weinthal is a European correspondent at The Jerusalem Post and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.