How Terror Is Undermining Tunisia’s Gay Rights Struggle

In the wake of two devastating terror attacks, the fight for LGBT rights in a country that still criminalizes homosexuality has become even tougher.

Demonstrating for gay rights in Tunisia.
Demonstrating for gay rights in Tunisia.
Frédéric Bobin

TUNIS â€" Like many of his compatriots, Badr Baabou is deeply distraught from the grave wounds inflicted on Tunisia's young and fragile democracy by two major terrorist attacks in the past three months.

"It's very serious," he says.

On a blisteringly hot Ramadan day, Baabou is sitting in an otherwise empty bar in a Tunis hotel on Bourguiba Avenue. He sports a buzz cut and Bermuda shorts, and also wears a string of rosary beads that stand out against the rest of his attire. "I'm not very religious," he says. "I'm more mystical. Humanism is my religion."

Shortly before the terror attack last Friday that left 39 foreign tourists dead at a Sousse beach resort, Le Monde visited Baabou to ask him about the state of gay rights in Tunisia. A tense climate was already weighing on the country since a similar attack killed foreigners at the Bardo museum in March.

As the country embarks on a security crackdown, and the rising threat of fundamentalist attacks, civil rights struggles such as LGBT rights become even more difficult than usual.

A faint wind of change seemed to be blowing during the spring, when the government recognized Shams, an organization campaigning for homosexuality to be decriminalized here. It's still illegal under article 230 of the Tunisian penal code, and is punishable by three years in prison. This wasn’t the first such acknowledgment of a pro-rights group, but the case was heavily covered and debated on national television.

A few weeks earlier, at the World Social Forum in Tunis â€" an annual meeting of nonprofits and civil society organizations from around the globe â€" LGBT activists brandished a rainbow flag. The scene repeated itself when a model held the flag during an April fashion show in the capital, and the online magazine Inkyfada even published reportage about the fight for LGBT rights entering the public realm.

Last April, an LGBT flag was waved during the International Fashion Festival in Tunis â€" ​Kelmty

One of the first gay rights activists in Tunisia, Baabou heads Damj ("inclusion" in English), the first pro-LGBT organization to be legalized by the authorities in the heady revolutionary days of 2011's summer. Damj was followed by Mawjoudin ("we exist") and finally Shams this year. Gays, bisexuals and transgender people have coalesced in an organization named Chouf Minorités ("look, minorities"), which organized the flag-waving at the forum.

But despite the rise of a new generation of activists who can openly campaign for their rights, the political and cultural environment remains hostile. Homosexuals in Tunisia continue to face threats, violence and hatred based on their sexual orientation.

The political upheaval that followed the Arab Spring hasn't always worked in their favor: There have been 15 homophobic murders recorded between 2011 and 2015. Baabou's predecessor as leader of Damj was even forced into hiding for a time. "We helped him hide for four months before he fled to Switzerland," says Baabou, who himself was attacked for being gay in the center of Tunis in 2012. Police continue to actively enforce article 230 like they did in the final months of the Ben Ali regime, and 60 to 70 people are arrested under the article each year.

Safer synonyms

The dangers of living in Tunisia are still very much present. "It's difficult because we don't even know who our real enemies are," Baabou says. "We don't know who'll hit us next. The interior ministry? The judicial system? All we know is that we are being monitored and at any moment this information can be used to harm any human rights activist."

The democratic parties that blossomed in the aftermath of the revolution, some of which are now in government, should have been Baabou's natural allies. But the "liberals" are biding their time and are hesitant to repeal article 230. "They explained to us that this isn't the right moment," he says angrily. "It will never be the "right moment."”


In the meantime, LGBT activists are using softer, more "acceptable" terms to advance their cause. Baabou and his friends prefer to say they are fighting for "minority" rights rather than LGBT rights. In the best-case scenario, they will be welcomed by some of the more generous members of the current administration. "But only as a form of paternalism like that shown to vulnerable members of society like the disabled," he clarifies. In other words, pity without recognition.

Baabou's friends call him the "eternal optimist," as he believes in his mission despite the obstacles. In the bleak aftermath of Sousse, Tunisia is in dire need of optimists like him.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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