Seven Men and One Table: The 20th Century through a Photograph
By Elizabeth Bishop
A photograph near the bottom of the wall caught my attention at the Habib Achour exhibit in the Kerkennah branch of the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT, General Union of Tunisian Workers). A caption provides the information that the black-and-white photograph was taken on 26 January 1978.
This image bears meaning in three realms: the literal, the political, and the symbolic. Let me unpack them. At its simplest, the photograph represents seven men and a table. The two oldest men sit across the table from one another, elbow-to-elbow within the reach of one another’s breath. Other men are younger. Reading left-to-right, one wears a uniform and sunglasses; two hold an antiquated camera with its separate flash – and the right-hand frame of the image truncates two additional male witnesses.
The specificity of the date, “26 January 1978”, prompts a turn to an online encyclopaedia for basic information about Jeudi Noir. A brief historical sketch informs the casually-curious that on this date: “demonstrations organized by the UGTT in Tunis led to clashes between state security forces and striking workers. Scores of demonstrators were killed and injured, and hundreds of UGTT members, including its leadership under Habib Achour, were arrested.” With a comparably-brief explanation of the circumstances that gave rise to Jeudi Noir, the encyclopaedia explains: “demonstrations were organized to protest a worsening economic crisis in Tunisia brought on by state policies as framed in the Five-Year Plan of 1973–1977” (with the term ‘five year plan’ alluding to a method of economic planning over limited periods, used first in the USSR between World War I and World War II).
Read in the political dimension via metaphors of ‘right’ and ‘left’, this image may be understood to represent a clash of two models of governancea clash that encapsulated essential conflicts through the 20th century. The two models include the Wilsonian (represented by Bourguiba), and the Leninist (represented by Achour).
Sitting with his elbows on the table, the man on the right of the black-and-white photo is Habib Achour (born in Kerkennah, 66 years old during 1978). Another online encyclopaedia provides additional context, suggesting that this photograph was taken at a moment of transition from right to left: “The result of a crisis between the government and the unions, the first general strike organized since the country’s independence was a great success and the country was completely paralyzed. It also marks the moment when the Tunisian trade union movement marks a radical opposition to power, affirming its desire for autonomy in the face of the latter”, omitting any reference to UGTT, as well as Habib Achour.
Sitting with his elbows on the table, the man on the left is Habib Bourguiba (born in Monastir, 76 years old in 1978); standing behind him, a man wears a military uniform and sunglasses. According to this second source, Jeudi Noir was not a group of unorganised ‘demonstrations’ and random ‘clashes’; rather, these events reflect a high level of political organisation, “a general strike” (without the benefit of the UGTT or Habib Achour). The strike revealed the extent to which a large part of the Tunisian population were disgruntled; the decline in the popularity of Bourguiba and his party ultimately led to the most important political crisis since Tunisia became ‘independent’ under Bourguiba’s presidency.
In the face of such divergent interpretations, additional analytic steps become necessary. First, when the UGTT was founded, the ICFTU was still affiliated with the Fédération syndicale mondiale [World Federation of Trade Unions, WFTU] until it split off from the WFTU (claiming “communist domination”) during 1949. In other words, this general strike that culminated in the Jeudi Noir events was organised without the benefit of a global organisational structure. Second, laying a brick in the wall of ‘Tunisian exceptionalism’, Najet Mizouni claims this general strike that culminated in the Jeudi Noir events to be the “first general strike in Tunisia and in the Arab world”.
Reading the political situation from left-to-right, Derek Hopwood notes: “a general strike called against the government led to violent clashes in the capital. The army was called in to restore order and some strikers were killed and hundreds wounded”. Sami Zemni observes: “Habib Achour resigned from his position in the Political Bureau of the [UGTT]”. Beyond two men elbow-to-elbow at their elbows on a table, the confrontation of 1978 stamped political legacies.
Because support for the ‘rioters’ eliminated some candidates from PSD [Le Parti socialiste destourien, Bourguiba’s successor to the Neo-Destour] lists, the UGTT was able to extend and consolidate its leadership. Fethi Zouhir’s “pleadings at the trial of the rioters of January 28, 1978 led Habib Bourguiba to prevent him from standing as a candidate on the PSD lists during the legislative elections of November 1979”. About Habib Achour, Lisa Anderson writes: “Although the strike had not been sanctioned by the UGTT, the union leader and PSD Political Bureau member Habib Achour supported the workers, and the UGTT became the rallying point for opposition to the regime”.
Read symbolically from the right, Wilsonian liberal internationalism derived from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s ‘fourteen points’, in his State of the Union address before the U.S. Congress (8 January 1918). When prescribing self-determination for “the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule” (an oblique reference to the Arabic-speaking demographic majority), Wilson referred to “secure” and Security within the space of a single sentence. From this speech and U.K. diplomatic practice, nation-states emerged on the basis of what Max Weber described as “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. Such a vision gave rise to postcolonial nations with full defence and security functions.
Read symbolically from the left, Leninist internationalism derived from the ‘twenty-one conditions’ that Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (‘Lenin’) and Lev Davidovich Bronstein (‘Trotsky’) introduced at the second congress of the Communist International (III International). Eschewing any requirement for armed force in favour of other technologies of power, its first five conditions referred three times to “propaganda and agitation” and “editorial boards”. Ninth among them – which “it is the duty of any party wishing to join the Communist International to conduct systematic and unflagging communist work in the trade unions, co-operative societies and other mass workers’ organizations” – gave rise to postcolonial nations with organisational capacity in support of workers’ rights and cultural distinctiveness.
Projecting a black-and-white photograph – near the bottom of the wall at a trade union office on an island off Tunisia’s coast – across the politics of the twentieth century, such a vision merges literal, political, and symbolic frames of analysis. Sami Zemni offers “shades of gray” of the political situation at that table during 1978. While “at first, the government decided to decapitate the union: a so-called ‘puppet leadership’ look over, while the legitimate leaders were, with few exceptions, all thrown in jail”, such a confrontational strategy failed to pacify the workers’ movement or bring stability to Tunisia; “on the contrary, a younger and more militant syndical generation emerged”. Such was the context in which an armed operation was launched within the strategically important mining region, the ‘Gafsa coup’ of 27 January 1980.
With seven men, the black-and-white photograph at the bottom of the wall of the Kerkennah branch of the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT, on Rte el Kraten) bears meaning in three realms. At the moment the photo was taken, two men were sitting elbow-to-elbow across the table; those who surround them – in a uniform with sunglasses, with camera and flash, and male citizens – can be read as bearing meaning in the literal, the political, and the symbolic realms. Interpreted in full nuance, these represent conflicting interests in labour politics and citizenship during a global Cold War.
 Sami Zemni, “From Socio-Economic Protest to National Revolt: The Labor Origins of the Tunisian Revolution”, in The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects, Nouri Gana, ed. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 136.
 Najet Mizouni, “L’UGTT, moteur de la révolution tunisienne”, Tumultes 2012/1–2, no. 38–39: 71–91.
 Derek Hopwood, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia: The Tragedy of Longevity (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992) 93.
 Zemni, “From Socio-Economic Protest to National Revolt”, 136.
 Éric Gobe, Les avocats en Tunisie de la colonisation à la révolution (Paris: Karthala, 2013),182.
 Lisa Anderson, The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 242.
 Woodrow Wilson, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress on the Conditions of Peace [‘The Fourteen Points’]”, 8 January 1918, in The American Presidency Project, Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, eds.
 Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (Psychology Press, 1991), 78.
 Zemni, “From Socio-Economic Protest to National Revolt”, 136.
Elizabeth Bishop is an Associate Professor of History at Texas State University. She teaches the history of the Middle East, postcolonial Arab history, and the history of the Global Cold War. Her research has been supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA)’s Fulbright Program, and Texas State’s Department of History. She currently serves on the board of the American Institute of Maghrib Studies (AIMS). 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.
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, 7 June 2022
Alyssa Miller, Touche pas à ma UGTT: The Syndical Movement as a ‘Secular Sacred’ Value, 16 June 2022
Citation: Elizabeth Bishop, Seven Men and One Table: The 20th Century through a Photograph, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.06.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/38319