Commemorating International Struggles at UGTT Sfax: Palestinians and Saddam Hussein
By André Bank
Internationally, the standing and profile of Tunisia’s General Labor Union (French: ‘Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail’, UGTT) has been shaped by three broad images: The first image emanated from the UGTT’s active participation in the so-called Jasmine Revolution in 2011, when its leadership and members protested the ‘ancien régime’ of President Zine Abidin Ben Ali. Not only did the UGTT play an important role in the downfall of the decades-long authoritarian regime at home, but it also contributed – willingly or unwillingly – to initiating the Arab uprisings abroad. The second image of the UGTT stems from its leading role within the National Dialogue Quartet of late 2013, which brought together secular and Islamist political actors and contributed decisively to the final adoption of Tunisia’s new constitution in early 2014. Together with the other quartet members, the UGTT was awarded the Noble Prize for Peace in 2015 for its productive role in safeguarding the country’s democratic transition. The third component of the UGTT’s international image concerns its most recent political positioning, especially its strong, public show of support for President Kais Said’s power grab on 25 July 2021.
In this blog post, I will not weigh in on whether these specific political events have really been the most crucial in shaping the UGTT’s international image, nor will I reflect on whether the UGTT’s role in the Tunisian revolution, the Quartet, or the post-25 July situation have really been so straightforward. Instead, I will highlight the UGTT’s contemporary self-presentation when it comes to the commemoration of international struggles – inside Tunisia and thus likely geared towards a Tunisian audience. What emerges is a strong disconnect between the international image of the UGTT – at least outside the Maghreb – and its self-presentation inside Tunisia. Rather than referring to the 2011 Revolution or the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, the UGTT in its regional headquarters in the central port city of Sfax connects its self-legitimation to two classic tropes of pan-Arab and anti-imperialist, anti-Western identity: solidarity with the plight of Palestinians and solidarity with the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Upon entering the regional headquarters of the UGTT in Sfax, what caught my immediate attention was the exhibition on the historical and contemporary struggles of the Palestinian people, which covered half of the building’s entrance hall. The exhibition was set up on the occasion of ‘Land Day’ (in Arabic: ‘yawm al-‘ard’), the annual events on 30 March commemorating the resistance of Arab citizens of Israel – in the form of a general strike and country-wide marches – against the Israeli government’s plan to expropriate large swathes of land in 1976. ‘Land Day’ continues to be a pivotal event in the Palestinian political calendar today, marking the first time that Arab citizens of Israel organised a collective, quasi-national response to government policies post-1948.
Moving up the stairs, the UGTT’s ‘Land Day’ exhibition continued. On the first floor, the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli images were presented next to the UGTT’s traditional murals that showcase typical occupations of Sfaxian people, such as fishing, olive harvesting or bricklaying.
With this visual display, a direct symbolic connection is created between the Tunisian union and the Palestinian people’s ongoing struggle for liberation and self-determination. In addition to the countless references to the four ‘holy forefathers’ of the UGTT and their role in Tunisia’s political trajectory, the regular invocation of the international struggle for Palestine, including Palestinian martyrdom, served as a second central trope for the union’s (self-)legitimation in our meetings with UGTT – beyond the specific commemoration of ‘Land Day’.
What the UGTT representatives did not refer to in their elaborations of the historical and contemporary political role of the general union were the linkages or forms of solidarity with Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president from 1979 to 2003. This is rather striking insofar as there were – to my surprise – four or five different images of Saddam Hussein on the first floor of the Sfax headquarters. In fact, Saddam Hussein was the only person regularly shown beyond the four historical leaders of the UGTT.
The first photo of Saddam is a printout in A4 format, showing a healthy, strong, masculine (with a moustache) and smiling Iraqi president, arguably from the heyday of his rule in the 1980s. It was on the wall of the stairs leading up to the second floor. The second image, from the opposite wall, shows a much older (with a full, largely grey beard), weaker Saddam who points his index finger at observers, in what seems like an accusatory, threatening gesture. This image is likely taken from the trial against Saddam after his capture in Iraq on 13 December 2003 and before his execution on 30 December 2006. In the background of the poster are pro-Iraqi, anti-US fighters who carry rocket launchers, symbolising the legitimate struggle of the ‘good Davids’ against the ‘evil Goliaths’, here likely the occupying US army. Right next to Saddam, it is written ‘qātilūhum’ (in Arabic: ‘Fight them!’). This strong wording, combined with the index finger and broader arrangement of the poster, seems to indicate a strong order that Saddam gives directly to us observers, suggesting that we should continue fighting the US Army, even after his death as a martyr.
The third photo of Saddam Hussein is from the office of the General Secretary, concretely a table clock that displays the time with the UGTT logo on the back. On the left side, a strong Saddam is shown in a triumphant gesture and with army clothes, including a beret. On the bottom, there is a fighting unit in a marching pose with machine guns, symbolising readiness to fight and to stand up against possibly the US and/or Iranian domination of Iraq. The fourth photo is a large, A2 format poster from a wall in the main conference hall of the UGTT Sfax. It shows the same imagery as in the third photo, with the addition of an Iraqi flag (including the ‘Allahu Akbar’ that Saddam added to the flag during his ‘faith campaign’ in 1991). The poster states that it is dedicated to the memory of ‘ash-shahid’ (‘the martyr’) Saddam Hussein who gave his life for a just cause, here the defence of an independent state of Iraq.
How to interpret the display of Saddam Hussein images at the UGTT headquarters in Sfax? Since the UGTT representatives did not talk about their relationship with the former Iraqi president openly and directly, my interpretation is tentative here. Since the UGTT’s (self-)legitimation, at least in our meetings in Sfax and Kerkennah, almost exclusively revolved around the two topics of the union’s crucial historical role in Tunisia as well as its continued support for international struggles, I would try to understand the positive images of Saddam Hussein in the latter context. Given that this is a pro-labour movement in an Arab-majority country that has itself been socialised in an anti-colonial, pro-independence struggle, the UGTT’s pro-Palestine references are not surprising at all. Rather, displays such as the ‘Land Day’ exhibition are very much what would be expected from most self-declared leftist and/or Islamist movements in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Arab or Muslim-majority diasporas elsewhere.
In comparison to the still regionally dominant ‘Palestine question’, the importance of Iraq as an ‘Arab cause’ and of Saddam Hussein as an international symbol for anti-imperialism and anti-Westernism likely only emerged later, concretely around the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In this way, it makes sense that the images of Saddam mostly show him connected with the third Iraq war, that is, the period after 2003. The contents of the Saddam images also stress what the UGTT aims to stand for, at least as loose ideals: strong, independent leadership; resistance against external, Western domination of the region; and the willingness to sacrifice oneself as a martyr. In terms of substance, the identity ties between the UGTT and the Iraqi president seem even looser than between the UGTT and the ‘Palestine question’ – and they are also partially overlapping: The framing of the poster with the old Saddam and the Iraqi fighters in the centre (figure 4) is a display of three types of flags that are regularly arranged: the UGTT’s own flag, the Tunisian flag and the Palestinian flag – but not the Iraqi flag!
 Marc Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today (NY: Columbia University Press, 2006).
André Bank is a Senior Research Fellow at the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies in Hamburg. He is a member of the Executive Council of MECAM, the BMBF-funded Merian Center for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb, based in Tunisia. His research primarily focuses on questions of authoritarianism and conflict dynamics in the Middle East as well as comparatively.
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
Alyssa Miller, Touche pas à ma UGTT: The Syndical Movement as a ‘Secular Sacred’ Value, 16 June 2022
Elizabeth Bishop, Seven Men and One Table: The 20th Century through a Photograph, 21 June 2022
Citation: André Bank, Commemorating International Struggles at UGTT Sfax: Palestinians and Saddam Hussein, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 23.06.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/38395