Touche pas à ma UGTT: The Syndical Movement as a ‘Secular Sacred’ Value
By Alyssa Miller
In a 2012 essay published on the webzine Nawaat, sociologist Hela Yousfi alleged that the Ennahda party – then head of Tunisia’s transitional government and dominant partner in the ‘Troika’ coalition – was surreptitiously attacking the UGTT by dumping garbage in front of its regional branches. Outraged by these actions – and as an implicit rejoinder to the alleged perpetrator’s claim to religious authority – Yousfi asserts that “a great many Tunisians” regard the UGTT as a “sacred space”, on par with more conventional religious institutions like mosques, churches, or synagogues. She argues that the UGTT embodies the spirit of the Tunisian people in its struggle against colonial oppression and authoritarian rule, as well as its commitment to the values of egalitarianism and democracy. Moreover, the union’s regional branches often served as the literal grounds on which such battles were fought. Much like the Sufi zawiya during the colonial encroachments of the 19th century, Yousfi portrays the UGTT as a ‘refuge’ and rallying point in Tunisians’ unfinished struggle for liberation.
The comments below are neither intended to endorse Yousfi’s position, nor to juxtapose the powerful ‘secular’ labour union as antithetical to the ‘religious’ Ennahda party. My intentions are far more modest. Rather, based on a reading of visual materials on display in the Sfax and Kerkennah branches of the UGTT, as well as memorials dedicated to the founders of the UGTT, Ferhat Hached and Habib Achour, I will explore some aspects of what we might call secular religion in Tunisia. My observations are guided by the question: how do the forms of political veneration practiced in the regional branches of the UGTT resemble religion in its mythmaking and ritual practice?
Working-Class Heroes in the Nationalist Movement
Among the most striking visual features of any UGTT branch office is a distinctive and apparently obligatory panel of four portraits. At some locations, such as the Place Mohamed Ali in downtown Tunis (known simply as al-battah), these portraits gaze out directly from the building’s façade, while at others they preside more modestly over an interior office or conference hall. From left to right, the portraits always appear in the following order:
Habib Achour (1913–1993)
Ahmed Tlili (1916–1967)
Farhat Hached (1914–1952)
Mohamed Ali al-Hammi (1890–1928)
These represent the founding fathers of the Tunisian syndicalist movement. Among them, two are native sons of the Kerkennah archipelago. Farhat Hached and Habib Achour were born within one year of each other in El-Abassia, a small fishing village in the most populated and easternmost island, Chergui. Farhat Hached, who founded the UGTT in 1946, is remembered primarily as a martyr for Tunisian national independence. Habib Achour, for his part, served as General Secretary of the UGTT during critical periods of Tunisia’s postcolonial history, notably the contentious cycle of labour action that cumulated in ‘Jeudi Noir’ (16 January 1978).
Both inside and out, the space of the UGTT headquarters is remarkably didactic, recounting Tunisian national history from the vantage point of the workers’ struggle. Older, plaster-cast panels in the hallways of the Sfax and Kerkennah branch offices offer insight into the early iconography of the syndicalist movement, celebrating the diversity of labour performed by ordinary people. Allegorical scenes of masonry, fishing, and the olive harvest make up a triptych assembled under a Qur’anic verse (“Say: work, and your work will be seen by God, His Messenger, and those who believe”) dramatising the dignity of labour and its virtue in the eyes of God.
However, in more contemporary displays, emphasis on quotidian acts of labour is eclipsed by the glorification of great men, whose heroic lives are presented as the embodiment of national history. Just weeks before our visit on 31 March 2022, the UGTT offices in Kerkennah had marked the twenty-third anniversary of Habib Achour’s death. We found the assembly hall transformed into a museum exhibit for the occasion, covered with texts and photographs narrating Achour’s storied career as a rendezvous with national destiny. Other images glorified the UGTT leader in simpler, timeless terms, drawing on images frequently associated with political cults of personality throughout the Middle East and North Africa region. One giant poster juxtaposed Achour the orator with the majesty of a lion, underscoring the obvious visual metaphor with the words: “This is how you were, oh leader!”
The Political Lives of Dead Bodies
Following our visit to the UGTT branch offices in Kerkennah and Sfax, our hosts accompanied us to El-Abassia, the birthplace of founding fathers Hached and Achour. Our first stop was at the Hached family home, where Farhat once lived with his wife Emna and four children in a traditional domestic complex that also housed his close agnatic relatives. In a grassy field adjacent to these quarters lies the modest grave of Farhat Hached, marked with a simple white marble headstone that identifies him as a martyr. Following his assassination in Radès by the French terrorist group Le Main Rouge, Hached’s remains were transported overseas from La Goulette to Kerkennah, where they were buried by his family. In 1955, the body was exhumed and transported back to the capital Tunis, where it was laid to rest in a dedicated mausoleum at the Kasbah, a location dense with memorials to the martyrs of the national struggle (Place des Martyrs). As we reflected solemnly on the empty gravesite in El-Abassia, one of our hosts informed me in a low voice that upon exhumation, Hached’s body was found in a perfect state, bearing no sign of decomposition, exactly as it had appeared the day he was buried. This whispered remark piqued my interest, as it resonates with discourses on martyrdom in Islam, where the moral value of the deceased is reflected in the appearance and material condition of the body. For example, in many Sufi traditions, the saint’s body is said to be incorruptible, resisting decomposition and even emitting a pleasant smell or perfume after death.
Despite the reverence that was clearly communicated through these remarks, Hached appeared to be marginalised as a local figure, overshadowed by his compatriot Habib Achour. Perhaps, due to his apotheosis as a martyr for national independence, Hached’s memory had been fully assimilated into national history and, in that process, deracinated from the local context in Kerkennah. While there is no denying the grandeur of the Hached mausoleum in Tunis, there is something generic about its emplacement at Place des Martyrs that lends the monument an air of anonymity – akin to a tomb of the unknown soldier. When compared with the neglected Hached homestead, the Kerkennah burial site of Habib Achour provides a sense of plentitude, imbued with the warmth and extensivity of kinship relations. The mausoleum consists in a vaulted brick pavilion surrounded by manicured gardens, sheltering a necropolis of white marble slabs. Some of these grave markers already bear the names of those who have passed away, while others wait, blank and pristine, for the inscription of names to come.
We cannot account for this differential treatment among the dead based solely on these observations; ultimately, this is determined by each founding figure’s contemporary political reception. However, the grandiose and recently constructed Achour mausoleum testifies to his powerful and lasting influence within the UGTT organisation, as well as the significant weight of the labour union itself in local and national politics.
 Hela Yousfi, “Quand l’UGTT brule, c’est tout la Tunisie qui brule!” Nawaat, 22 February 2012.
 Roberta Danaro, “The Most Beautiful Body: The Physical Dimension of Martyrdom Narratives”, Annali Sezione Orientale 77 (2017): 97–115.
 Anya H. King, Scent from the Garden of Paradise: Musk and the Medieval Islamic World (Leiden: Brill, 2017).
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.
Further articles in the #Identities&Beliefs thread of the #MECAM series on TRAFO:
Alyssa Miller and Arbia Selmi, The UGTT: A “Counter-Power” in Contentious Times – Notes from the Field, 07 June 2022
Citation: Alyssa Miller, Touche pas à ma UGTT: The Syndical Movement as a ‘Secular Sacred’ Value, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.06.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/38209