Tunisia’s LGBTQ Activists Fight Back After Hate Campaign

Activist Saif Ayadi of DAMJ beside a trans flag at a demonstration in Tunis on December 10, 2021. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

In early August, 30-year-old Malek Khedhri, a previously minor commentator on social media, launched a campaign attacking LGBTQ minorities in Tunisia. When he received push back online from the LGBTQ community, he began calling for violence and escalating his attacks. In the midst of the campaign, Khedhri gained thousands of followers–reaching about 187,000 on Instagram and about 780,000 thousand on TikTok, according to activist Saif Ayadi, a member of the DAMJ Tunisian Association for Justice and Legality. As Khedhri’s followers surged, DAMJ received several reports of LGBTQ people being assaulted, and in at least one case the attackers stabbed a trans woman while using the same language that Khedhri used in his videos. Khedhri continued this campaign for several days, building up to calling for a demonstration in Tunis against LGBTQ people to be held on either Saturday August 12 or August 13th.

“Malek [Khedhri] was encouraging his supporters to literally stalk the community through dating apps and to “rape” and “torture” them. Some took it far, to the point of literally encouraging each other to cut gay [people’s] penises so that they can never use them again. And [they] claimed that if they do it, we can’t run to the cops since what we’re doing is illegal in the first place,” said Amir, who identifies as a queer man.

Article 230 of the penal code, which dates to the French colonial period, punished sodomy with up to three years in prison. Human rights campaigners have long campaigned to decriminalize sodomy.

“One of my friends was beaten up twice in the streets. I freaked out when things got physical. We were frightened to go out, especially since the attacks started to become organized, structured and specific as they started sharing photos of the targets in the telegram group [that Khedhri launched],” Amir continued. “The words ‘rape’ and ‘murder’ were frequently used.  Some friends of mine were frightened to even go to work. Including me. I got verbally attacked almost every time I stepped downtown.”

But then activists pushed back, with DAMJ filing a lawsuit against Khedhri for incitement to violence. Others reported Khedhri to social media platforms and his employer for his calls for violence, and he was fired from his job at the Movenpick hotel in Tunis. His media accounts were shut down, and the anti-LGBTQ demonstration was cancelled. But despite Khedhri’s campaign stalling, several LGBTQ people, who already face discrimination and and violence from large segments of society and authorities, told Meshkal they were traumatized by the episode. And attacks are still continuing: on August 17, after Khedhri’s protest was cancelled and his social media accounts shut down, Amir’s ex partner was attacked by a group of boys in the street who threw stones.

“We don’t have proof that they’re the people Malek [Khedhri] mobilized. But I think the rise of queerphobia in Tunisia and Malek Khedhri’s influence are interconnected to the hate crime that happened to my ex,” Amir told Meshkal.

Meanwhile Khedhri’s own claims to be coordinating his campaign with officials are being taken seriously by civil society groups like DAMJ.

Hate Campaign Begins

According to Ayadi, the hate campaign began when Khedhri attacked an LGBTQ person and posted photos of them, “which made other LGBTQ Instagrammers react by attacking Malek [Khedhri] back and emailing Meta [Facebook & Instagram’s parent company] [asking them] to delete what Malek posted. That’s when Malek launched a whole campaign that started with three violent videos inciting people to kill the [LGBTQ] community and execute them with fire,” Ayadi, a human rights and queer activist told Meshkal on August 16.

“Khedhri even attacked the community’s allies and the people who call for peaceful coexistence.” Ayadi added.

In some of Khedhri’s videos that Meshkal watched, he said he was launching the campaign to protect Tunisian society from LGBTQ people. He claimed that non-heterosexual people were sick and should be forced to be treated medically. He spoke of foreign financial support for LGBTQ associations and causes as well as support for sexual deviancy in general, framing himself as a patriot defending traditional society from foreign interference. He also indicated that he would reveal the names of Tunisian celebrities and public figures belonging to sexual minorities. Khedhri had previously created content in support of the violent and hateful campaign against black migrants in Tunisia from other African countries, part of a trend that escalated after President Kais Saied’s racist speech against them on February 21.

“When I first saw [Khedhri’s] video being shared a lot, I tried to ignore it since it’s not the first time an influencer talks bad about the LGBTQ community. I thought it was just a matter of time before he moves on. Yet he didn’t, and it got worse in content and became something mentally disturbing. Especially to see that his supporters are increasing,” said Amir, the queer man. After Khedhri’s attacks, queer activists told Amir and other LGBTQ people that they should “make our social media accounts private and delete our dating accounts. When I got on my Insta[gram] account, I found many new followers and the same with my friends. That’s when we realized that what’s happening is serious.”

Violent Attacks

On the night of August 7, five days after Khedhri’s campaign started, two people stabbed a trans woman in her stomach while she was at her place of work in Ben Arous. The attackers reportedly said: “Die, faggot” [mout ya miboun], a phrase that Khedhri had used in his videos. This incident was shared with Meshkal by Ayadi, who is in charge of the legal and social support group at DAMJ that responds to hotline requests for help. The trans woman used the hotline after she was assaulted and managed to get through, despite Khedhri urging his followers to spam the hotline.

Photo of a trans flag at a demonstration in Tunis on December 10, 2021. Photos by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

“They harassed our hotline numbers,” said Ayadi.

According to Ayadi, witnesses to the stabbing detained the attackers right away before handing them over to the police.

But while Ayadi and other activists at DAMJ were responding to calls for help, they were also under attack, receiving threats online that their offices would be attacked with Molotov cocktails, forcing them to shut the office and work from home.

“He was also publishing personal data about DAMJ’s employees in a telegram group with their faces and their place of residence. But the most dangerous thing is that in the group there were calls for violence to attack the headquarters of DAMJ with Molotov cocktails. These people are so unaware of how dangerous and absurd this is that they allowed themselves to literally make homicide acceptable and a heroic act,” Ayadi said. “We also asked our community to move in together for protection and never wander alone at any time.”

Claims of Official Support

The DAMJ association compiled some of Khedhri’s videos and published them on their Facebook page as evidence of his hate campaign. In those videos, Khedhri claimed that he was coordinating with a group of state officials. He also claimed to have the support of a senior official from the Interior Ministry. He claimed that the official had told him that the police were fed up with homosexuals and sexual minorities and that the ministry was “boiling” with rage at the LGBTQ community.

The video also includes vocal messages apparently sent by Malek Khedhri in a public Telegram group he created assuring people that “the officials” he knew at the Interior Ministry promised to grant him authorization for the protest he planned for either Saturday, August 12 or Sunday August 13. The telegram group had close to 2000 people in it. After his vocal messages were shared outside of the Telegram group, Khedhri posted an Instagram story claiming that the LGBTQ community had fabricated the recording and that it was not him speaking. He also claimed that the LGBTQ community had hired people to harass him and threaten to kill him. He called them “mafias” and “bacteria hollowing out society.”

Khedhri’s hate campaign received thousands of likes and comments in support on social media. It also won him a 90-minute interview on Manara FM radio station, in which the hosts voiced support for his violence against the LGBTQ community, Ayadi claimed. The interview has now been deleted from Manara FM’s social media accounts after a member of the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH) visited the studio to complain, Ayadi claimed, but he also said that DAMJ managed to download the video before it was scrubbed.

“We saw a very poor and unprofessional media engagement with this campaign and its damaging effect on the LGBTQ community where a radio called Manara FM invited Malek  [Khedhri] as a guest and gave him 90 minutes on air to spread his hate campaign. As if social media was not enough,” Ayadi said.

However the hate campaign also drew responses of condemnation, including from outside of just the LGBTQ+ community. The Tunisia League of Human Rights (LTDH) released a statement on August 10 in solidarity with LGBTQ people who were targeted and called on the State “take up its responsibility defending the physical and mental well-being of all citizens, regardless of their gender identity.” On August 14, the group Frontline Defenders also released a statement in solidarity with DAMJ and LGBTQ activists, calling on Tunisian authorities to “hold those responsible for threats and harassment accountable, and protect the safety and well-being of the human rights organization and its members.”

“DAMJ considers the state’s silence on hate crimes as complicity,” Ayadi said.

Just a few days before Khedhri launched his hate campaign, DAMJ claimed they were receiving harassing phone calls from the Interior Ministry threatening to shut down the association for what they said was their illegal operation.

Ayadi also claimed that Khehdri’s campaign gained traction at this moment because “there is already a prepared ground for hate after the president’s fascist speech against different minorities,” referring to President Saied’s February speech against black migrants.

“The hate comes from the government’s political speech that’s implicitly violent when the conspiracies and the foreign powers are always blamed, which later on…was adopted by the people,” Ayadi said, saying that the latest mobilization against LGBTQ people is the first mass campaign he’s seen since the 2018 protests after then President Beji Caid Essebsi appointed a Commission on Individual Freedoms and Equality. That Commission, led by Member of Parliament Bochra Belhadj Hmida, had proposed decriminalizing the French-colonial era law against sodomy, a proposal that was unsuccessful.

Ayadi said that at that time, “religious groups raised slogans like ‘No to homosexuality,’” but that “people didn’t focus back then because the context was different, but now…the hate became reinforced by the government itself.”


On August 8, DAMJ filed a lawsuit with the public prosecutor at the Tunis Court against Khedhri for his hate speech, incitement to murder and discrimination.

“We filed a criminal complaint against Malek [Khedhri] and submitted a direct notice to the Minister of Interior and the General Department of Human Rights on August 8, 2023 and said that he is dangerous as he’s mobilizing people and gathering mobs that are attacking the LGBTQ community,” said Ayadi.

Meanwhile, an LGBTQ activist reached out to Khedhri’s employer, the Movenpick hotel in Tunis, and informed them about Khehdri’s hate campaign. According to Ayadi, the hotel responded by first questioning him about it, and then firing him after he did not respond to the questions. As for social media accounts, every time Khedhri opens a new account on Instagram and TikTok they get shut down.

A screenshot of Malek Khedhri’s “goodbye” video.

In a sort of “goodbye” video posted to TikTok around August 10, Khedhri said that he had wanted the State to get involved in the issue but that it didn’t.

“I can’t do it alone…Tunisians, you see: someone who speaks up gets fired from their job. Someone who speaks up is targeted.”


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