Tunisia: the Islamic politics of trade unionism


While the UGTT often prides itself on having played a prominent role in the unfolding of the mass protests which eventually led to the ouster of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 2011, the picture is more blurred when it comes to what links the union‘s executive leadership actually entertained with the former Tunisian dictator.

Anne Wolf Raphael Lefevre
21 May 2012

Despite its name, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) is more than a mere syndicate representing workers throughout the country. For most Tunisians indeed, the UGTT is a symbol of their country’s struggle for independence, human rights and dignity. The trade union also played the role of a counter-power when, at times, it resisted the repression of former autocrats by calling for general strikes.

It is worth wondering, however, what role the UGTT is bound to assume in the new democratic landscape characterizing Tunisian politics and society. Most recently, some on the left have called the UGTT to serve as a main counterbalance to the Islamists who, since Ennahda’s landslide victory at last October’s elections, have come to dominate the country’s political scene. Such a dynamic came to a head when, on February 24, the leadership of Tunisia’s main trade union led a rally in the capital calling for the downfall of the Islamic-dominated government. In Tunisian politics, the equation seeming to pit the trade union against the Islamists comprises several unknowns. Much depends on its outcome. How will it be resolved?

The politics of trade unionism

While the UGTT often prides itself on having played a prominent role in the unfolding of the mass protests which eventually led to the ouster of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 2011, the picture is more blurred when it comes to what links the union‘s executive leadership actually entertained with the former Tunisian dictator. Ever since a decision made at an internal UGTT conference held at Sousse in 1989, the union’s leadership had opted in favour of a strategic alliance with Ben Ali – implicitly and at times vocally backing his rule in return for concessions made on workers’ rights.

It is also documented beyond doubt that Abdessalem Jerad, the union’s Secretary General for most of the past decade, was on intimate terms with the Palace. In a cable from the US Embassy in Tunis, it is reported that Jerad used to “receive instructions from the highest levels of the Tunisian government” and that, in exchange for cancelling workers' strikes on a regular basis, the UGTT under his leadership received 200,000 Tunisian dinars per year – most of which reportedly went to “supporters who spontaneously cheer for Ben Ali at public events”. When the leadership sensed that the ouster of the Tunisian dictator was a matter of time once mass anti-regime protests started to shake the country in December 2010, it sided with the demonstrators. Ever since, the UGTT has taken an active part in the country’s political life – to the extent that some observers compare it to a political party.

“The Tunisian revolution changed the nature of the UGTT”, explained Mongi Amami, a former director of the trade union’s research division. “Because of the weight brought to it by its 500,000 members, it became Tunisia’s most important socio-political actor on the eve of Ben Ali’s ouster”. To showcase its newfound political influence, the UGTT presented several candidates running as independents at last October’s elections to the Constituent Assembly and proposed its own draft constitution.

Some, even within Tunisia’s trade union landscape, have criticized such development. “In a democratic system, it’s not the job of a trade union to meddle into politics, behave as a party and propose a draft constitution”, said Habib Guiza, the leader and founder of an alternative trade union – the CGTT. “Yes, the UGTT is more than a trade union solely defending worker’s rights”, agreed the UGTT’s Mongi Amami. “It has a broader vision of society to defend”. Over the past few months, however, it has become clear that such a project for society clashes with the kind of vision put forward by the Islamists in power. Is confrontation between the UGTT and Ennahda inevitable? 

The UGTT: Trojan horse for the Islamists

At the Ennahda headquarters in Tunis, the question is on everybody’s lips. “The UGTT is the only weapon the leftists still have at their disposal!”, asserts Faycel Nasser, a member of the Islamic party’s communications team. Encouraging a standoff between the country’s most important trade union and the Islamic-dominated government could be part of a strategy of left-wing politicians who are quietly planning to benefit from such a conflict. The battle, however, is not merely political, it also deeply ideological. “The leadership of most trade unions is, until now, still deeply representative of the left-wing Tunisian elite more keen on modernism and secularism than on Islamism”, explained the CGTT’s Habib Guiza, who went on to conclude that “Ennahda and the trade unions propose divergent ways of life”.

Many allege that the UGTT itself has not been excluded from the large wave of religiosity and conservatism which reached Tunisian society in the early 2000s and has swept through its politics since last October. The growing importance in the economy of certain sectors in which the workforce is judged as rather ‘conservative’ (e.g. building and public works, new technologies) have fuelled the UGTT’s base with militants sometimes close to Ennahda. A recent decision to legalize the status of temporary agency workers – often seen as poorer, less educated and more traditional – could also benefit, in the long run, the Islamic party’s presence inside the country’s main trade union. There are already estimates according to which 70 UGTT delegates out of the 500 present at last December’s union conference are affiliated with Ennahda – a number the Islamic party said “underestimates” the Islamists' real weight.

“We have two choices”, summed up Ennahda’s Faycel Nasser. “Either we change the system or we change within the system”, he said, hinting at the options faced by Ennahda of either encouraging the emergence of another, more Islamic-oriented trade union or of keeping its members as part of the UGTT framework with the ultimate hope of taking over the union’s leadership when time will come. For many Islamic militants, the equation has already been resolved a long time ago. “When I was a student, I was both a militant of Ennahda and a member of the UGTT”, remembered Muhammed Amor at the Islamic party’s headquarters. “When Habib Bourguiba cracked down on the UGTT in 1986, I was amongst the many Islamists who supported the UGTT’s resistance”. The UGTT therefore enjoys a particular historical legitimacy in the eyes of those Islamic militants. “The Islamists are an entire part of the UGTT’s history, we are not ready to give that up!”, asserted Faycel Nasser.

An internal UGTT law has so far prevented any Islamists from taking executive responsibilities within the union’s leadership. At the UGTT, it is mandatory that a member undergoes at least 9 years of militancy to run for a leadership position within the union. Given the scale of repression suffered under the rule of Ben Ali, however, most Islamist members of the UGTT are unable to fulfil this criterion. But only for the time being…

This article is part of Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.

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