Tunisia: Siliana and the heritage of Farhat Hached sixty years after his assassination

Farhat Hached is still making history in Tunisia, where the government is fixated on shifting Tunisian society in a more religious direction, while failing to address the country’s appalling poverty and unemployment. We learn about that history.

Sixty years ago on this date, December 5, 1952, Farhat Hached, legitimately considered the key founder and father of the independent Tunisian trade union movement was assassinated by agents of French colonialism.  But the movement that he was so instrumental in creating and shaping, the Union General des Travailleurs Tunisien (UGTT) remains vibrant, fighting for workers’ rights, fair wages and social justice today just as it did in those now long gone, last dark and painful days of French colonial rule. Nationwide commemorative activities were planned to mark the occasion.

But it is not for nothing that 60 years later, through all of Tunisia’s years as an independent country, through the Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s years, that it has been impossible to snuff out the memory of Farhat Hached. He’s too much a part of his country’s history. Farhat Hached was the son of a fisherman from the Kerkennah islands, 12 miles off the coast of Sfax, a poor island chain,‘the periphery of the periphery’. He made history. Sixty years after his’ death, he’s still making it.

There was no better way to celebrate Hached’s heritage than the way it was done in Siliana, Tunisia, a town ninety miles southwest of the capitol, Tunis. There for five days, a classically militant Tunisian youth – those same folks whose righteous wrath overthrew the Ben Ali dictatorship two years ago – took to the streets with the local members of the UGTT. For five days, tens of thousands of them stood strong in the streets of Siliana, facing down units of the Tunisian military sent by the Ennahdha-led government to crush their momentum. The military opened fire with bird shot, wounding 200 and if reports are accurate, permanently blinding at least 17 youth..

Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. A man is seen applauding in front the headquarters of the Tunisian General Union of Labour UGTT.

But when physical confrontation ended and the UGTT called off the demonstrations, it was the government, shaken to its core, that was forced to concede, and not the workers. A few days before the sixtieth anniversary of Hached’s assassination, and with the shadow of the self-immolated Sidi Bouzid youth Mohammed Bouazizi also haunting them, the three-party- coalition transition Tunisian government blinked first, backed off and agreed to UGTT demands that the district’s governor be sacked and that a state jobs programme be implemented to address the nagging socio-economic crisis facing not only Siliana, but the whole country,

The labour-led Siliana uprising was more than just a spontaneous expression of anger and frustration. It was much more. It was a reminder that massive youth unemployment, low wages combined with classic ‘structural adjustment take-ways’ were among the key contributing factors to the revolt which brought down Ben Ali and forced him and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, to flee the country on January 14, 2011.  It was a protest against the government’s dilly-dallying, its fixation with shifting Tunisian society in a more religious direction while coming up empty (or almost so) in efforts to address the country’s appalling poverty and unemployment. It was a protest against the social polarization between rich and poor, between the urban centres and the more rural areas, which again has hardly been addressed since Ben Ali fled the country. In Siliana, the Ennahdha-led transition government, one that has continued with the main lines of the neo-liberal economic policies of the Ben Ali administration, took a sharp blow.

And make no mistake – Siliana was a warning to the transition government – nothing less: get serious about dealing with the country’s genuine problems, or face the consequences. Failing that ‘the people’ will sweep you from power as they did Ben Ali. The message was unambiguous: time to get back to the basics  - to resolving the socio-economic crisis, the crisis in democracy which had triggered the 2010-2011 social explosion in the first place.

And Siliana sent another message to the Tunisia’s government: that the UGTT, as it was when Farhat Hached was using his extra-ordinary talent as a labour organizer, remains a force with which to be reckoned.  Farhat Hached, watching all this and raising his fist in solidarity with the youth and trade unionists  of Siliana from his vantage point above, must be smiling.

‘La Main Rouge’ assassinates Farhat Hached …

On December 5, 1952, on the road to Rades, Farhad Hached was gunned down by a French para-military hit squad called La Main Rouge (The Red Hand’) in a operation which all had all the signs of being run by the French president, Jean de Hautecloque, a hard line French colonial administrator, sent to Tunisia to break the back of the growing pro-independence movement. The murder took place in two stages. First, a car pulled up alongside his; two gunmen on the passenger side opened fire, severely wounding Hached and drove off. Severely wounded, Hached was still able to get out of his car alive. But then a second car stopped; gunmen got out and finished Hached off with bullets to the brain. Hached left a devastated 22 year old wife and four young children: the oldest Nour-eddine, who would become Tunisia’s ambassador to the United States and Japan, was eight years old; his youngest Samira, who would never know her father, only eight months old.

Demotix/Sarah Mersch. Peaceful rally at the regional UGTT (Tunisian trade union) office in the morning with several hundred participants.

According to an account in a recently published biography of Mahmoud El Materi, one of the founders of Tunisia’s Neo-Destour – `New Constitutional’ Party, (Mahmoud El Materi: Pionnier de la Tunisie Moderne by Anissa El Materi Hached. Sud Editions, Tunis: 2011), Hached’s assassination provoked angry demonstrations far and wide throughout the Arab World and Europe at the time. Trade unionists in Casablanca, in a number of Algerian cities and elsewhere throughout the world demonstrated for over a week following the assassination.

A street in Casablanca bears his name as do numerous schools, hospitals and streets throughout Tunisia. Other ‘Red Hand’ assassinations of Tunisian nationalist leaders followed: Hedi Chaker, head of the Neo-Destourian Party in Sfax was also killed, as was Chadly Kastalli, vice president of the Tunis Municipality and close to the pro-nationalist Moncef Bey. But none of these assassinations achieved their goal of derailing the nationalist movement and utterly destroying the Union General des Travailleurs Tunisiens, the UGTT as it was already commonly referred to and still is today..

On the contrary, in the aftermath of Hached’s death, the movement for national independence from French colonial domination stiffened and would lead a mere four years later to Tunisian independence, an independence in which Hached himself was a major player.

The Man From Kerkennah

Sixty years after his murder, Farhat Hached remains nothing short of a much-loved national Tunisian hero of the anti-colonial movement. Hached was one of the least factional figures of his day during a period when factionalism was rife. His eyes were always ‘on the prize’ – independence from France, although he never lived to see the end of the French Protectorate in Tunisia that he helped to discredit and ultimately defeat.

While time – and historical revelations – have tended to puncture the halos atop the heads of many of the country’s nationalist icons, Hached’s contribution and reputation remain intact. Hached’s family along with several French human rights groups are suing the French government both for an apology and for the release of classified government documents related to the case.

Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. A woman is seen chanting slogans against the government, and a Tunisian flag is seen waved.

Farhad Hached, was born on Kerkennah, a small chain of fishing village islands off the coast of Sfax in 1914. In 1929, forced to leave school at the age of 15, and seek employment because of his father’s death, Hached found work in Sousse, some miles up the coast, halfway between Sfax and Tunis with la Société du transport du Sahel (The Sahel Transportation Company) - as a mail courier (convoyeur). Almost immediately some of his other talents surfaced. He wasted no time in organizing a union of transport workers, which affiliated with the France-based Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT). Hached’s union activities continued and soon he became active beyond the transport workers and involved in regional and national union organizing drives, for which, eventually in 1939 he was fired.

Difficult years followed during World War II, when Tunisia was ruled by Vichy France and temporarily occupied by the Nazis until British and US armies liberated it in May of 1943. After the liberation, Hached was rehired by the Free French colonial government to direct its Public Works Department in the Sfax region. He immediately went back to union organizing, and now employed, took the hand of a Kerkennah cousin, Emma Hached. Soon thereafter, Hached broke with the CGT for which he had organized for 15 years. He, and other Tunisian trade unionists were critical of the positions taken within the French union by socialists and communists who ignored – and did not support – the Tunisian call for independence from France. From now on the Tunisian trade union movement would be standing on its own Tunisian feet, finding its own way.

The split was significant as it marks the beginning of an independent Tunisian trade union movement with its own leadership and a cadre split off from the colonial centre in Paris. Hached’s experience, having ‘grown up’ politically and as a union organizer within the CGT (as either a member or supporter of the French Communist Party – I do not know the exact details here) was by no means unique. Another North African, whose evolution paralleled Hached’s is the Algerian trade unionist and anti-colonial militant Messali Hadj.4

Soon after the split from the CGT, Hached, in concert with other Tunisian trade unionists began the process of bringing together an independent Tunisian national trade union movement. His first effort was to create what was referred to as the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of the South – meaning the south of Tunisia (L’union des syndicats libres du Sud) based upon a three point programme: 1. Social justice 2. Equality between Tunisian and French workers (working in Tunisia) 3. Support for national independence and an end to French colonial rule. Not long afterwards, he organized, or was involved in organizing a similar federation in the North of the country which came together in Tunis and shortly thereafter, logically, the two federations merged, in 1946, to form the General Union of Tunisian Workers (L’Union generale tunisienne de travail – UGTT).

Hached becomes secretary general of the UGTT at the age of 30

In 1947, at the tender age of 30, Farhat Hached was unanimously elected as secretary general of Tunisia’s independent trade union movement. From the outset, Hached directed the energies of the UGTT, ending colonialism and winning independence for Tunisia. Autonomous of French influence and completely independent politically, the trade union movement became one of the main bases for support for the broader nationalist movement led by Habib Bourguiba and his pro-independence Neo-Destour Party. The strikes, demonstrations and agitation for independence from 1946 onward intensified, as did the calls by the UGTT to improve the standard of living of Tunisian workers living and working under colonial conditions with all the indignities involved.

As a result of this focused, controlled militant activity, the mood of the country as a whole radicalized. Then in 1949, the UGTT became the Tunisian branch of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) which gave Hached international connections and influence far beyond Tunisia’s borders, including in the United States and western Europe. At the time there were two main international trade union federations. Besides the ICFTU there existed the Moscow leaning World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). During much of the Cold War the two confederations were in competition with each other, splitting the international working class movement down the middle and weakening the impact of both.

In a few short years Hached had become an international personality, and as such was able to present the cause of Tunisian independence internationally. That the radical Hached would choose to lead the Tunisian trade union movement into the US-dominated ICFTU rather than the WFTU is interesting. Part of his reasoning most probably was that he wanted to steer the Tunisian trade unions away from the WFTU where the CGT retained considerable influence and in so doing limiting the influence of French colonialism on the Tunisian labour movement. Along similar lines, the leadership of the Tunisian nationalist movement, and Habib Bourguiba in particular, tried to develop good relations with the United States, because the Tunisians understood that the United States was the emerging global hegemonic power that could nudge the French to grant Tunisia independence. They were right about that.

Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. Protesters are seen chanting " Degage" which means "Out" to say that the Minister of Interior must resign.

Five years later, – and a year before he was assassinated – Hached was able to report to a national congress of the UGTT, the progress the movement had made which included:

            - the UGTT had grown to embrace 120,000 workers throughout the country

            - it had led an organized and disciplined grass roots movement against the French Occupation

            - The Union had won for Tunisian society as a whole a number of civil rights and constitutional guarantees from the French colonial administration

            - the UGTT had achieved international recognition by its adhesion to the ICFTU (Hached had been elected to its executive board)

            - The creation of the UGTT had encouraged, with Hached’s personal participation, other North African nations under colonial domination (Morocco and Algeria under French domination, Libya ruled by the Italians) to create their own trade union movements independent of their colonial overseers.

            - The UGTT had developed its own economic and social vision, civil rights goals that were embraced by the nationalist movement that could provide direction to the nation after independence.

The French repress the Tunisian independence movement

In 1952, hoping to gain a quick independence, the Tunisian national movement opened negotiations with the French government. The negotiations failed and were almost immediately followed by a harsh wave of repression against the movement. The French colonial government in Tunis engaged in a fullscale attack to break the back of the independence movement in one fell swoop. Most of the leadership of the independence movement, including Habib Bourguiba, were arrested. A curfew was imposed; all political activity was banned; mass arrests were carried out by the French foreign legion.

It was at this moment of full crisis, with the nationalist movement reeling from the repression, that the UGTT stepped forward, picked up the pieces and assumed the leadership of both the political and armed resistance (there was some) against the French authorities. In so doing, it was the trade union movement in general, and its talented leader Farhat Hached that saved the independence movement from collapse. In the face of the wave of repression, and French Colonialism could, when it felt obliged reveal its fangs in the nastiest of fashions, it was Tunisian trade unionists – its working class – that stood fast, held their ground and continued the struggle for independence as they say ‘on all fronts’.

And for that they paid a price, a terrible price, one hardly acknowledged outside the country. 20,000 trade unionists were arrested and placed in prison and concentration camps, knowing they would face what the French in North Africa excelled at: abuse, torture of an exceedingly refined kind, possible death. Of the 20,000 arrested, 9 were condemned to death and executed, 12 condemned to life imprisonment of forced labor, with many others receiving heavy jail sentences In protest demonstrations hundreds were killed and wounded.

Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. A demonstrator seen showing a weapon shell used by the police in Siliana.

In a letter that Hached wrote just before his own assassination to the secretary general Oldenbroek of the ICFTU, the Tunisia trade union leader comments, ‘Let us add (to the repression noted above) the 50 assassination attempts against Tunisian militants organized by Le Main Rouge (The Red Hand), French colonial paramilitary terrorist group. 5 Others, when released from concentration camps (imagine – only seven years after the defeat of Hitler the French were establishing concentration camps in Tunisia!) were denied employment.

The resistance largely organized by Hached and the UGTT in that crucial year of 1952, in many ways broke the back of French colonialism and set the stage for talks between France and the Tunisian national movement that would, four short years later, result in independence, an independence that Farhat Hached never lived to see, but to which he made a considerable contribution. His heritage lives on, in his children and in all Tunisians.

This article was first published on Robert Prince's blog.

 

About the author

Rob Prince graduated from St.Lawrence University in French and Religion in 1966, when he served as a US Peace Corps volunteer and staff member in Tunis and Sousse. He lectures in international studies in the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver