LGBTQ activist Mounir Baatour holds a rainbow flag after submitting his candidacy for the upcoming early presidential elections in Tunisia. (Hassene Dridi/AP)

Lawyer Mounir Baatour officially announced his candidacy for the Tunisian presidency Thursday, becoming the first known openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world and heralding a major step forward for LGBT rights in a country that still criminalizes gay sex.

Baatour, the president of Tunisia’s Liberal Party, presented his candidacy to the country’s election commission a day ahead of a Friday deadline to qualify for the Sept. 15 election. He received nearly 20,000 signatures in support of his candidacy — double the required number — according to a statement posted to his Facebook page.

“This enthusiasm already testifies to the immense will of the Tunisian people, and especially its youth, to see new a political wind blowing on the country and to concretely nourish its democracy,” the statement said, calling Baatour’s candidacy “historic.”

The election was moved up by two months after the death of former president Beji Caid Essebsi in late July.

Baatour insists that his personal sexual identity did not drive his decision to enter the race, nor will it “interfere” in his candidacy. He said in an interview his record as a lawyer and human rights activist qualifies him for the country’s top job.

“I presented my candidacy for the presidency of the Republic of Tunisia because for years, I have been a defender of human rights, a defender of minorities, a defender of individual liberties,” he said. “I believe that I am the person best positioned to make a positive change in realizing greater individual liberties in Tunisia.”

Tunisia, widely considered the Arab Spring’s only democratic success story, has seen civil liberties blossom since the 2011 revolution ended half a century of authoritarian rule. Freedom of expression has expanded significantly in the new democracy and previously repressed political groups have burst onto the national stage.

But LGBT Tunisians remain marginalized, and authorities have continued to prosecute Tunisians for engaging in gay sex — a crime punishable by up to three years in prison under Article 230 of Tunisia’s criminal code. Authorities arrested more than 100 people last year based on their perceived gender identity or sexual orientation, according to human rights groups.

Baatour, 48, has made a name for himself in the small North African country as a champion of gay rights. Rainbow flags adorn his social media accounts, and he has talked openly about his sexuality and written op-eds demanding the repeal of Article 230.

In 2015, he founded the advocacy organization Shams — “sun” in Arabic — which has pushed for the decriminalization of gay sex and fought the ongoing practice of authorities forcing men they suspect of having sex with other men to submit to anal examinations.

The Tunisian government has repeatedly tried to shut down Shams — most recently in February, when the government petitioned an appeals court to overturn a ruling in the organization’s favor. In its petition to the court, the government wrote that homosexuality is “contrary to Islam” and that “this association offends the Arab-Muslim sensibility of the Tunisian people,” according to an op-ed Baatour published in HuffPost Maghreb.

Baatour’s candidacy is no small feat in a region where tolerance of homosexuality remains low across the board. A 2019 Arab Barometer survey of more than 25,000 people across the Arab world found that in Algeria — the country most tolerant of gay people — only 26 percent of respondents reported finding homosexuality acceptable. In Tunisia, that proportion was 7 percent.

Still, Baatour’s candidacy is not guaranteed; the election commission must declare his bid valid. If it does so, Baatour will face an uphill battle during the two-week campaigning period in early September.

Law professor Kaïs Saïed, polling second after Nessma TV founder Nabil Karoui, has suggested homosexuality is a foreign plot. Many Islamists, meanwhile, protested a presidential task force report last year that recommended, among other things, the decriminalization of homosexual activity.

Conservative segments of Tunisian society aren’t the only groups fighting Baatour’s bid for the presidential palace in Carthage. Baatour’s nascent candidacy has also laid bare divisions within Tunisia’s LGBT rights movement. Eighteen activist groups based in Tunisia and around the region have circulated a petition opposing Baatour’s candidacy.

The petition, which calls Baatour “a big danger to our community,” levies a number of charges against him. It accuses him of being overly sympathetic to “the Zionist entity” — Baatour has called for normalizing economic relations with Israel — and of inappropriately outing closeted Tunisians.

The groups also charged that Baatour has sexually abused minors. He spent three months in jail in 2013 for allegedly having sex with a 17-year-old male student. Baatour has denied the allegations, France 24 reported.

“This person does not represent in any way the LGBTIQ+ community or our movements in Tunisia,” the petition reads.

Baatour dismissed the authors as members of groups with “no legitimacy in Tunisia.” He volleyed criticism back at them for their remarks on Israel, accusing them of anti-Semitism.

Several of the organizations behind the petition did not respond to requests for comment.

Tunisia’s election commission will release the official candidate list on Aug. 31, two weeks ahead of the election. The winner in September will take the reins from interim president Mohamed Ennaceur.