The UGTT: A “Counter-Power” in Contentious Times – Notes from the Field
By Alyssa Miller and Arbia Selmi
Since the time of its foundation in 1946, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) has shifted its focus from trade union activism to political action. Due to its participation in the independence struggle, alongside the national liberation movement led by the Neo-Destour party, the UGTT has enjoyed unparalleled historical legitimacy on the Tunisian political scene. Long a ‘refuge’ for the political opposition under the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes, the UGTT’s influence has only deepened under the post-revolutionary transition. Today, the UGTT’s ambitions lie beyond sectorial claims, aiming to develop Tunisian society as a whole and promote fundamental rights.
Over the past twelve years, the UGTT has positioned itself as a power broker in Tunisian politics. Its intervention has proven decisive in several key moments of recent history: Kasbah 1 and 2, the National Constituent Assembly debates, the fight against violent extremism, demonstrations against neoliberal economic policies advanced by successive national governments. And in July 2013, the UGTT was credited with rescuing Tunisia from civil war after two major political assassinations. Following these events, the UGTT initiated the ‘National Dialogue Quartet’, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.
A champion of economic and social rights for working class people, the UGTT today strives to use its considerable influence to shape decision-making processes at the highest levels of power. In the uncertain political environment created by President Kais Said’s consolidation of power on 25 July 2021, the UGTT has been called upon once again to mediate a ‘National Dialogue’. Only this time, they are tasked with overseeing the formation of another constituent assembly, to prepare a new post-revolutionary constitution for national referendum by 25 July 2022.
To learn more about the UGTT’s unique position in Tunisian history and contemporary politics, a delegation of MECAM fellows from IFG V embarked on a road trip to Sfax governorate. We were generously received by local leadership and rank and file members of the UGTT during our visits to the regional branches in Sfax (30 March 2022) and Kerkennah (31 March 2022). These locations represent the geographical seat of UGTT power, as Tunisia’s second largest industrial centre and the birthplace of the UGTT’s founding fathers (respectively).
In this blog series, we reflect on the political identity of the UGTT through a reading of the visual and material culture on display at the Sfax and Kerkennah regional branches. Each UGTT headquarter is a remarkably communicative space, dense with pedagogical texts that speak to national heroism, historical achievement, martyrdom, and transnational solidarity. Our series opens with an ethnographic look at the administrative and memorial sites we visited during our field trip, through Alyssa Miller’s essay on secular hagiography in the UGTT. Next, Elizabeth Bishop does a deep dive into the historical memory of ‘Jeudi Noir’, unpacking how the event’s complex geopolitical currents are condensed into a single photograph. André Bank homes in on expressions of Pan-Arab political commitment – specifically Palestinian ‘Land Day’ and the ‘martyred’ Iraqi president Saddam Hussein – to ruminate on the gap between the UGTT’s international profile and its internal self-presentation. Finally, recognizing that a conspicuous silence often speaks more eloquently than words, Arbia Selmi describes how the absence of women in the UGTT’s narration of history points to continued patterns of gender discrimination within the UGTT organization. Attending to the visual stories that the UGTT tells about itself, we remain sensitive to which identities get foregrounded, as well as to which – or whose – presence is erased.
 Hèla Yousefi, L’UGTT une passion Tunisienne : Enquête sur les syndicalistes en révolution (Paris: Karthala, 2015).
 Kasbah 1 and 2 refer to sit-ins at La Place du Gouvernement in the Tunis medina, held from 23–29 January and 20 February–3 March, 2011 (respectively). These sit-ins were organised by activists from the interior regions, who rightly feared the surreptitious restoration of the old regime following the flight of Ben Ali from Tunisia on January 14. For more details, see Choukri Hmed, “’Le people veut la chute du régime’ : Situations et issues révolutionnaires lors des occupations de la place de la Kasbah à Tunis, 2011”, Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales 211–212 (2016) : 72–91.
Alyssa Miller is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies in Hamburg. She coordinates the Interdisciplinary Fellow Group (IFG) on “Identities and Beliefs” at the Merian Center for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb, based in Tunisia. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, her research investigates socio-political transformations in Tunisia and the MENA region following the 2011 Arab Uprisings.
Arbia Selmi is a sociologist of labour and gender. Her dissertation at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) focuses on the mobilization of women trade unionists for access to positions of power in the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). In addition to her scholarly work, Arbia is a feminist activist engaged in struggles for gender equality and combating violence against women in Tunisia. From March to June 2022, she is a Fellow of the Interdisciplinary Fellow Group (IFG) on“Identities and Beliefs” at the Merian Center for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb in Tunis.
Citation: Alyssa Miller and Arbia Selmi, The UGTT: A “Counter-Power” in Contentious Times – Notes from the Field, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.06.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/38155