Tunisia: Activists blame government for encouraging influencer's 'homophobic hate speech'

Tunisia: Activists blame government for encouraging influencer's 'homophobic hate speech'
Tunisia's penal code (Article 230) criminalises same-sex sexual activity. Sentences include a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment. 
4 min read
11 August, 2023
Tunisia's penal code (Article 230) criminalises same-sex sexual activity. [Getty]

Tunisian activists are blaming the state for what they say is a rising hate campaign targeting LGBT+ Tunisians, allegedly linked to authoritarian President Kaid Saied's Interior Ministry.

"We hold the state's institutions responsible for impugning the supporters of hate and murder from punishment. (...) we also hold them responsible for protecting the citizens from this dangerous campaign," wrote Wednesday the Shams association, a Tunis-based pro-LGBT organisation, in a press release.

The campaign started earlier this month with Tunisian social media influencer Malek Khedhri sharing with his 120,000 followers conspiracy theories about "foreign plans to normalise homosexuality in Tunisian society."

"There are strong outside powers who are trying to force Tunisia to accept sodomy (...) But we will not let them," claimed Khedhri in one of his now-deleted videos without evidence.

Dubbed a Tunisian Andrew Tate' by his followers, in reference to the disgraced self-proclaimed misogynistic influencer, the once finance content creator started a Telegram group with over 1,000 members to organise a massive demonstration in Tunis.

Despite not obtaining a permit to organise the protest, Khedhri told his supporters that "key officials in the interior ministry support their cause." Tunisia's interior ministry has yet to comment on Khedhri's allegations.

Leaked messages from Khedhri's Telegram group showed disturbing messages about schemes to "hunt" LGBT+ people via dating apps.

"LGBTQ people using dating apps, don't interact with anyone you suspect is hunting for LGBTQ+ members. Don't go to remote locations or houses of people you've never met before," reads a warning widely shared on social media this week.

The protest, set to take place on the weekend, aims for longer prison terms for open homosexuals and suspends all activities of pro-LGBTQ organisations in the country. Khedhri also promised to out "closeted Tunisian politicians and celebrities."

Though, on Thursday, Khedhri posted his last video bidding farewell to his fans after being defeated by what he called "stronger powers." Khedhri, who was reportedly an employee in Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts, a Swiss hotel management chain, was fired from his job, and his Instagram account was suspended for initiating violence.

"Who doesn't want to recover (from sodomy), we will shoot him," said Khedhri in one of his now-deleted videos. 

Khedhri's last video hinted that the weekend's protest had been cancelled.

Many Tunisians perceive the influencer's far-right conspiracy theories as echoing President Saied's political discourse.

"The terms he (Khedhri) uses are very similar to those Saied uses: outside powers, strong powers targetting Tunisia," Amen told TNA.

"Under Saied's rule, racist and homophobic campaigns flourished because the state does nothing about them. You can go to jail for criticisng the president but not for threatening to shoot people simply because they are different," he added.

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LGBT+ legal status in Tunisia

Tunisia's penal code (Article 230) criminalises same-sex sexual activity. Sentences include a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment. 

The North African country adopted the 'sodomy' provision in its 1913 Penal Code under France's protectorate state. Though the law is still in force today (subject to amendments). 

This law also provides for a rectal examination, carried out by forensic doctors, denounced as "degrading and inhumane" by the community.

Since the 2011 revolution, LGBT+ activists have come out of the shadows in Tunisia, but their condition remains precarious due to this repressive legislation and still violent social rejection.

In recent years, LGBT+ people have been regularly facing the court for sodomy charges under Article 230, which several NGOs are calling for its abolition.

Last year, activists reported a spike in police harassment of the LGBT+ community.

Local NGO Damj Association documented more the 60 instances of the police arresting, detaining and prosecuting LGBT+ people in 2022's May and June alone. 

Damj also reported instances of the police retaliating against victims who went on to file complaints about the behaviour of the police.

Across the region, from Jordan and Lebanon to Tunisia, politicians stand accused of instigating a culture war against sexual minorities to distract from their corruption, authoritarianism, and lack of solutions for major economic crises.