Mounir Baatour’s office is cool, the steady thrum of the air conditioner offering a welcome break from the blistering summer heat that has descended upon Tunis. Past noon, little moves outside. The streets are empty and even the city’s ubiquitous cat population has slinked off to the shadows.

Despite the temperature, Baatour, the first openly gay man to run for president in a Muslim country, remains focused upon the task ahead.

The road leading to the November poll is unlikely to offer a smooth ride. Homosexuality itself isn’t illegal in Tunisia. However, practising it is. This distinction has allowed Baatour, a lawyer, to register the pressure group Shams. Along with others, the group campaigns for a repeal of the colonial French law proscribing sodomy.

Likewise, legal restrictions criminalising ”outrages against public decency” are often used to persecute the country’s LGBT+ population – these remain firmly with the sights of Baatour and other rights campaigners.   

On top of this, the police force appears eager to exploit existing edicts allowing, for instance, enforced anal examinations to be used as evidence of sexuality. This is buttressed by a judiciary and political establishment long practised in the art of looking the other way.

In February, a young man from the coastal city of Sfax received an eight month sentence for engaging in homosexual acts after reporting being raped by two other men. Other stories of official abuse are legion.   

“I am openly gay,” Baatour says. “I came out 20 years ago. I was jailed for three months for sodomy in 2013. There’s no shame for me. There’s no shame for any of us.”

Baatour, his association and his relatively fringe Liberal party are children of Tunisia’s revolution. In the years immediately following 2011, a number of gay rights groups emerged, led by Baatour’s own Shams, calling for a repeal of anti-homosexual laws.

However, even here, Shams’ tactics have given rise to division, with the Tunisian Coalition for LGBT Rights issuing a statement last year distancing themselves from Shams and its president, a schism Baatour attributes to his openness to potentially normalising relations with Israel, a suggestion considered anathema to many on Tunisia’s left.

Perhaps ironically, the same period during which many of these groups arose also witnessed an explosion in Islamism across Tunisia, with the moderate Islamist Ennahda party vying with the radical Ansar al-Sharia for the political souls of Tunisia’s religious majority.

When you put gay people in jail for three years, what, do they come out straight? No 
Mounir Baatour 

Ansar al-Sharia was outlawed in 2013, and support for Ennahda appears to have ebbed since the groundswell of popular support that saw them achieve a plurality vote in the country’s first free elections in 2011.

But across many sections of Tunisian society, values typically bend towards the traditional. In August, conservative demonstrators of both genders took to the street to protest a presidentially mandated report urging greater individual freedoms and equality across the genders.  

As far as homosexuality is concerned, those conservative sentiments cut deeper. A June 2019 survey by the polling institute Arab Barometer reported that just 7 per cent of Tunisians condoned homosexuality. It’s a sentiment reflected within the rhetoric of some of Baatour’s populist rivals for the presidency. Law professor Kais Saied is a close second in the polls – he has suggested that encouraging the spread of homosexuality within the country is a foreign plot.