Some of the worst violence since the 2011 revolution hit cities across Tunisia on Tuesday after an art exhibition deemed blasphemous to Islam became a target for ultra-conservative Muslims protesters.
Police stations, a courthouse, and the offices of secular political groups were targeted in a wave of violence which saw 165 arrests and scores of injuries.
For many secular Tunisians, the violence was no surprise; Salafist groups and their followers are staking their claims in the post-revolutionary landscape, and the government is accused of being too soft.
The moderate Islamists who lead the government were quick to put a curfew in place in many cities as well as blame "terrorists" for the violence.
As they wake up — some may say finally — to the threat on their religious right, it’s worth noting that other interest groups are also speaking up, gay and lesbian Tunisians among them.
If you’d asked me where in Tunisia you might stumble across a bar which serves as a gay meeting place, I would have picked where I’ve been living — Tunis.
But then I visited the mass-tourism coastal town of Sousse.
You can get a beer in Tunis, but it’s typically a clandestine business, tucked down alleys or behind closed doors. But in Sousse, there was a bar actually facing the street. Men — Tunisians — could be seen drinking, enjoying the balmy evening.
I joined one young guy at a table when he invited me over.
"He is gay", the guy said after a while, his eyes singling out a middle-aged, German tourist who had come in and was sitting alone drinking his beer. "Is he?" I asked, trying to read the situation a little better. "It’s hard to say. But it doesn’t really bother me." He took this in.
"There are lots of gays in Tunisia", he said. "It’s a problem."
"I think there are gays in every country", I replied.
Moments later, he was at it again. "He’s gay", he said, nodding in someone else’s direction. "You understand? Gay?"
It wasn’t until his remarkably camp friend joined us that I realised I was in a gay bar in a Muslim Arab country. This experience challenged many of the things I’ve seen and learned about the new, post-revolutionary Tunisia.
This week’s violence by the thugs who claim affinity with the Salafist movement is by no means the first sign that LGBTI Tunisians may have reason to be concerned.
In May, the upmarket Tunis suburb of La Marsa witnessed a protest chanting against the hanging of a banner reading "Gay Pride".
While the government condemns the violence and arrests are made, there’s still a feeling among critics and the media that the Salafists and their followers are making the most of an opportunity. The years of brutal repression are over, now is the time to push for their ultimate intent, the Caliphate.
It’s important not to casually link all "Salafism" with violence, as often happens in Tunisia. But it’s also clear that the violent acts as well as the broader trend, such as the recent gathering in the holy city of Kairouan, do have minorities worried, as does the recent licence handed to the puritanical Reform party.
An Islamic state is unlikely anytime soon, but intolerance is flourishing. I’ve spoken to religious minorities — from Orthodox Christians to followers of the spirits of long-dead African slaves — who’ve faced harassment from fringe groups taking it upon themselves to defend the Muslim faith.
To find out more following my accidental trip to a gay bar, I spoke to Fadi Krouj, editor of newly-founded Gayday Magazine.
Gayday was launched a year ago in the heady days after the revolution, and while Krouj says it’s been bashed in the mainstream media, the e-mag is four editions in, and has ignited something of a debate.
Fadi places Tunisia in line with Lebanon and Morocco as one of the more tolerant Arab societies when it comes to homosexuality, but puts it in perspective.
‘People are aware of homosexuality, they might joke about it, but it’s out of their heads that someone in their close circles might actually be gay. Homophobia, intolerance and violence might be expressed when homosexuality is being expressed in public.’
So are LGBTI Tunisians worried about the rise of Salafists and other ultra-conservatives?
"To some degree", Krouj says. "There is some anxiety regarding the development of this group because the more power they gain, the more it endangers all advocacy efforts to promote women and gay rights."
After launch, the Gayday site was targeted and went offline for eight weeks — the attacks were put down to homophobic hackers.
"It was difficult to identify the identity of the hackers due the amount of homophobic messages and threats received", Krouj says.
But the abuse is not a new trend going hand-in-hand with the increasing Islamic influence on the country. LGBTI Tunisians didn’t live openly under the secular dictatorship. Colonial era discrimination laws have remained in place, and Krouj says there’s been no improvement in the ability of LGBTI Tunisians to lead an out life.
"Overall, nothing has really changed that improves our human and civil rights. Gay people are still subject up to three years penalty for getting involved with same sex intercourse", Krouj highlights.
Recently, the Minister for Human Rights rejected UN suggestions that his government might want to repeal this. The same minister said homosexuals were perverted, and stressed that medical treatment was more appropriate than a gay magazine, even if the government appeared to start off on a more tolerant foot.
There were some promises made prior to the elections that the Ennahda party who are now in power would guarantee the rights of minorities but progress has been made. Indeed, allegations of homosexuality are being used as weapons by political parties.
See, for example, the recently leaked sex tape of Interior Minister Ali Larayedh supposedly engaging in gay prison sex while serving time under the former dictatorship.
The tactics were reminiscent of the former regime which had banked on homophobia to discredit politicians in the past, and were largely dismissed — but whoever leaked the tape was stoking the same anti-gay sentiment.
After this week’s violence, it might be more difficult to stumble into a gay bar in Tunisia.
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