Mohamed Ali in Berlin: 100 years of Tunisian syndicalism

Close to the Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, especially known since the uprisings of the Tunisian ...

However, the street does not refer to the US-American boxer, but was named in honour to Mohamed Ali El Hammi, a symbol of the Tunisian trade union landscape. Also, with regard to the cooperation between Tunisian and German trade unions Mohamed Ali seems to be interesting. His stay in Berlin about 100 years ago, from 1919 to 1924, lead to the formation of his political ideas. What remains of Mohamed Ali's stay in Berlin? To what extent did his stay in Berlin inspire his further political engagement in Tunisia?

A childhood and youth in humble circumstances without any connections to power and politics

Although little is known about Mohamed Ali's childhood and youth, his traces lead to the south of the country to a small village near Gabès. It can be assumed that he was born between 1890 and 1896. At the turn of the century, he moved to Tunis, where he started working as a market trader. Mohamed Ali is supposed to be one of the first Tunisians passing his driver licence in 1908. This enabled him to work as a chauffeur for Enver Pasha, an Ottoman military officer. Historians believe that he left Tunisia in 1911 or 1912 to accompany Enver Pasha to Constantinople. During his stay in Constantinople, he got in touch with members of the Ottoman Empire and the political reform movement Young Turks, with whom he then moved on to Berlin in 1918.

Politicisation in Berlin – between Marxism and Pan-Islamism

His stay in Berlin was first confirmed by his inscription as auditor at the Friedrich Wilhelm University, which is today the Humboldt University to Berlin, on the 25th May 1920. Furthermore, his official registration as a student can be documented. He was officially registered as a student in the field of economics in November 1920. However, less is known about the further course of his studies. It can be assumed that he attended courses by Heinrich Cunow, an important Marxist theoretician, and Heinrich Herkner, a national economist. Because of his special interest in the organisation of rural cooperatives, one may assume that he assisted in courses of August Müller, Minister of Economics under Friedrich Ebert. At this point, the question arises how he was able to overcome the financial and administrative requirements for his registration as a student at the Friedrich Wilhelm University. The influence of his environment in Berlin probably helped him.

The same environment of the Young Turks created a pan-islamic network in Berlin to continue the combat against the French Protectorate. Enver Pasha and Talât Pasha played a central role in this. In 1920, Enver founded the "Union des sociétés islamiques révolutionnaires", an association of Islamic revolutionary communities. In Berlin, the so called “Club d’Orient” has been founded as part of the association. Also, Mohamed Ali was actively engaged in the association. Some indications even suggest that the "Club d'Orient" was founded in his apartment. From March 1921, the club published a magazine called "Liwa-el-Islam", which helped to propagate their beliefs and their interests within the communist current of their time. Because of Enver’s death in August 1922, Mohamed Ali lost his main source of financing. From then on he had to pursue a job so that he could not concentrate solely on his studies. He was exmatriculated in January 1924, that is justified with the note “indolence” in the archives of the Friedrich Wilhelm University.

Mohamed Ali’s involvement in the foundation of cooperatives

Again, few pieces of information concerning Mohamed Ali’s political convictions and political work are available. Nevertheless, his stay in Berlin seems to have had an impact on his engagement when he returned to Tunisia. He has not only gained new knowledge in the field of economics, but also got involved in the organisation of anti-colonial politics. On his return in Tunisia, he first concentrated on the establishment of consumer and producer cooperatives. In his point of view, these were necessary to improve the miserable situation of the working population and to build an alternative economy to the colonial economy. A class conflict in the sense of Marxism did not seem appropriate for the Tunisian situation because of the French occupation and because of the heterogeneity of the Tunisian working class. Mohamed Ali's combat was thus directed against the foreign oppression of Tunisian society as a whole rather than exclusively against the oppression of the working class.

The first trade unions, mostly foreign, initially organised themselves at the local level. In cooperation with the Young Turks, a group purchasing organization was founded on the 29th of June 1924. One possible reason for this focus is Mohamed Ali's inspiration from the German model of agricultural purchasing cooperatives, the so called "Raiffeisen". Overall, Mohamed Ali's initiative to found a cooperative was inspired by his stay in Berlin. Later, Mohamed Ali was elected president of the cooperative's management committee.

The strikes of dockworkers in Tunis and Bizerte caused the restructuring of the Tunisian trade union landscape. These events were also decisive for Mohamed Ali's political involvement. Increasingly, the cooperative adopted nationalist aspirations, so that on the 3rd December 1924 the "Confédération Générale Tunisienne des Travailleurs" was founded as the first Tunisian trade union. Mohamed Ali was designated as general Secretry of the union. The union rejected the idea of a communist revolution and focused instead on the implementation of social reforms. However, the “Confédération Générale Tunisienne des Travailleurs” was quickly suppressed by the French Protectorate and its main leaders, including Mohamed Ali, got arrested on the 5th of February 1925 and condemned to ten years of exile in November 1925. Also, his stay in Berlin was considered for the sentence. In the meantime, the newly founded trade union had already been dissolved. Mohamed Ali spent his exile in Alexandria in Egypt, where his traces were lost. Historians assume that Mohamed Ali died in May 1928.

After the Second World War, another attempt was made in Tunisia to establish a trade union confederation. So, in 1946 the "Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail" was founded and Farhat Hached was elected as the first General Secretary. During his mandate, he concentrated on some social reforms envisaged by Mohamed Ali and integrated them into the guidelines of the newly founded union. Even 100 years after Mohamed Ali's work, he is still the namesake of roads and social projects. His political initiatives and ideas laid the base for the "Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail", which is one of the strongest civil society actors in Tunisia.


Simone Bieringer - Former intern at FES Tunisia, Master student in International and European Governance at Universität of Münster and Sciences Po Lille.

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