The upcoming general strike in Tunisia: a historical perspective

The first general strike in Tunisia since 1978 takes place in a much-changed country and against old friends but for rather similar reasons.

The first general strike in Tunisia since 1978 takes place in a much-changed country and against old friends but for rather similar reasons. To understand post-independence Tunisia, one must get to grips with its labour movement.  Successive governments have tried to compromise with, co-opt, repress or change the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), depending on the situation and the balance of power at their disposal. 

In 1978, the powerful UGTT went on general strike to protest what amounted to a coup perpetrated by the Bourguiba government to change a union leadership judged to be too oppositional and too powerful.  The cost was the worst setback in the union’s history since the assassination of its founder, the legendary Farhat Hached, in 1952.  The entire leadership of the union was put on trial and replaced by regime loyalists. Ensuing popular riots were repressed by the army, resulting in tens of deaths. After only a few years, however, the formidable trade union would rise gain and continue to play a crucial role as a locus of resistance and refuge for activists of all orientations, down to the present time.  

Since its founding in 1946, the UGTT has been the product of Tunisian resistance and its incubator at the same time.  Because of that birth, in the midst of the struggle for liberation from French colonialism, the union was highly politically involved from the start, a role it has kept and guarded vigorously ever since. In 1984, it aligned itself with the rioting people during the bread revolt.  In 2008, it was the main catalyst of the disobedience movement in the Mining Basin of Gafsa.  And come December 2010, UGTT, particularly its teachers’ unions together with some regional executives, became the headquarters of the revolt against Ben Ali.  

After January 2011, the UGTT emerged as the key mediator and power broker at the initial phase of the revolution, when all the political orientations looked to, trusted and needed it. And it was within the union that the committee which regulated the transition to the elections was formed. At the same time, the UGTT has consistently used its leverage to secure historic victories for its members and for workers in general, including permanent contracts for over 350,000 temporary workers and pay rises for several sectors, including teachers. 

Despite various lacunae, the UGTT has remained democratic throughout.  All its bodies were elected freely, even as dictatorship continued to be consolidated over the country as a whole.  A combination of the symbolic capital of resistance accumulated over decades, a record of delivering results for its members and a well-oiled machine at the level of organisation across the country and every sector of the economy, has made the UGTT unassailable and unavoidable at the same time.  But it has also became the force to beat for anyone bent on gaining wider control in Tunisia.  In other words, as Tunisia moved from the period of revolutionary harmony in which the UGTT played host and facilitator, to a political, and even ideological phase, characterised by plurality of parties and polarisation of public opinion, the UGTT has been challenged to keep its engagement in politics without falling under the control of a particular party or indeed turning into one.  Due to historical reasons, and partly because of the nature of trade unionism in a country such as Tunisia, the UGTT has however remained on the left side of politics, and in the face of rising Islamist power become a place where the left, despite its many newly-formed parties, has not only kept its ties but even strengthened them.  It is no secret that the top leadership of the UGTT is largely leftist, or at least progressive in the widest sense of the term.  For these reasons, the UGTT has remained strong and decidedly outside the control of Islamists. This was not for lack of trying, through courtship initially, appeasement afterwards and finally, coercion.  

On December 4, 2012 as the union was gearing up to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the assassination of its founder, its iconic headquarters, Place Mohamed Ali, was attacked by groups known as Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution. The incident was ugly, public and of immediate impact. These leagues, which originated in community organisation in cities across the country were designed to keep order and security immediately after January 14, but were later disbanded. They are now dominated by Islamists of various orientations. They have been targeting the media, artists and members of the former regime under the slogans: purification or cleansing of the old regime and protection of the revolution.  One prominent example of these activities was their violent attack on the party Nida Tounes, headed by former Prime Minister, Beji Qaid Sebsi, which resulted in the first political killing after the revolution, that of Nida member Lotfi Nagadh in the southern town, Tataouine.     

The UGTT sensed in this attack - the latest in a crescendo of actions which began with throwing trash at the unions offices in several regions a few months ago - a repeat of 1978,and an attempt against it that threatened its very existence.  It has responded by boycotting the government, organizing regional strikes and marches, and eventually calling for a general strike on Thursday, December 13, the first such action since 1978. For the first time, the UGTT has come out clearly against the Ennahda party, declaring it enemy number one. This is after stating on many previous occasions that the union takes the same distance from all parties. Anti-Ennahda parties and individuals are now banking on this and backing the UGTT.  In Tunisia, contradictions have suddenly sharpened, a situation not unlike that in Egypt, where President Morsi has managed to unite warring opposition groups against his party when he gave himself sweeping powers.

Tunisia today stands divided, with the UGTT heading one side and Ennahdha on the other.  If history is any guide, the UGTT will overcome this time as well. What is in doubt is the cost to a revolution plagued by a set of circumstances and developments largely beyond the control of the country.  This is also Ennahda’s toughest test, internally and internationally.  Internally, the UGTT is forcing a rift between the government and the party which dominates it by challenging the former to protect a national organization and apply the rule of law. Internationally, the UGTT has already, on the one hand,  laid bare the para-military nature of the Leagues as a danger to social peace in Tunisia, and on the other, rallied the union’s powerful friends in the international labour movement.  As December 13 approaches, Tunisia is holding its breath, and everyone is involved in one way or another to head off what could be a collision of titanic proportions.

About the author
Mohamed-Salah Omri is a tutorial fellow at St. John’s College and a Lecturer in Modern Arabic at the University of Oxford.