TUNISIA, Tunis (AP) — Tunisians have been hit by rising food prices and shortages of staple foods in recent weeks, threatening to turn simmering discontent in the North African country — birthplace of the Arab Spring protests—into greater upheaval.
Sugar, vegetable oil, rice, and even bottled water periodically disappear from supermarkets and grocery stores. People queue for hours to get these essential foods that have long been subsidized and are now increasingly available only in rations. When they appear on the shelves, many people cannot afford the staggering price for them.
“I came to buy and found people struggling to buy and the prices were very high,” said 63-year-old shopper Amina Hamdi, desperate to try to buy basic goods.
“It is not possible to live without food,” Aicha said during a recent shopping trip to the fish and meat market in Tunisia. “We can live without furniture, construction material, but we have to eat.” She only gave her first name for fear that the police would persecute her for speaking out.
The government has blamed speculators, black market hoarders and the war in Ukraine, but economic experts say the government’s own budget crisis and its inability to negotiate a long-sought loan from the International Monetary Fund have added to the Tunisian problems.
Fights sometimes break out in lines at food markets, and there have been scattered protests and sporadic clashes with police over rising prices and shortages across the country. In a suburb of the capital Tunis, a young street fruit vendor recently killed himself after police seized the scale he used to weigh his produce.
His act of desperation revived memories of the 2010 self-immolation of another Tunisian vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, which sparked protests that led to the toppling of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked similar uprisings across the Arab world.
The Ministry of Commerce promised last month that shortages would ease, announcing the import of 20,000 tons of sugar from India that will be available in time for Mouled, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. But the night before the holiday, citizens formed long lines in front of supermarkets in the hope of getting a packet of sugar, essential food to prepare the traditional dishes of the religious holiday.
Food is not the only thing that is scarce. Lacking energy resources like those of neighboring Libya and Algeria, Tunisia relies heavily on imports, and its long-standing economic problems mean it has limited influence on international markets to secure the goods it needs.
Inflation has reached a record rate of 9.1%, the highest in three decades, according to the National Statistics Institute.
The Central Bank of Tunisia (BCT) added a blow by raising bank fees and interest rates, making it harder to access consumer loans.
In Douar Hicher, an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Tunis considered a barometer of popular discontent, hundreds of people took to the streets last night to denounce the deterioration of their living conditions.
Shouting “work, freedom, dignity”—the flagship slogan of the 2010-2011 revolution—the demonstrators blocked the town’s main artery, setting fire to tires, defying police who fired tear gas to disperse them.
“Enough of speeches and promises, the people are gripped by hunger and misery,” said a banner raised by the protesters, their anger with the government and political elites palpable.
After firing the prime minister and dissolving parliament, President Kaïs Saied has given himself sweeping powers over the past year. He said the moves were necessary to save the country amid a protracted political and economic crisis, and were welcomed by many Tunisians, but critics and Western allies say the seizure of power endangers Tunisia’s fledgling democracy.
Saied attributes the shortage of food products and the rise in prices to “speculators” and those who have a monopoly on the goods they store in illegal warehouses. He suggested that his main political rivals, the Islamist Ennahdha movement, had a role, which the party strongly denies.
In a statement, the Salvation Front, a coalition of five opposition parties and several independent groups, called the demonstrations a sign of “a general explosion and collapse of the social and political order.”
The general secretary of the powerful UGTT union, Noureddine Taboubi, blames the overloaded state budget.
The government is currently negotiating a $2 billion to $4 billion loan from the IMF to deal with a budget shortfall exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine. A high-ranking Tunisian delegation traveled to Washington on Saturday in hopes of closing a deal.
In exchange, Tunisia will have to commit to painful reforms, including downsizing the public administration sector, one of the largest in the world, which consumes about a third of the state budget. The IMF also demands the gradual lifting of subsidies and the privatization of state companies, which implies massive layoffs and a resurgence of unemployment, which already reaches 18% according to the latest figures from the World Bank.
Faced with such a bleak outlook, Tunisians no longer hesitate to put their lives at risk to try to reach Europe in search of a better life.
The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO that closely follows migration, says that 507 Tunisian migrants have died or disappeared so far in 2022 while trying to cross the dangerous Mediterranean Sea.
According to National Guard spokesman Houssameddine Jebabli, the coast guard thwarted more than 1,500 illegal migration attempts to Italy between January and September 2022, involving entire families, including nearly 2,500 children.
Barbara Surk in Nice and Mehdi El-Arem in Tunisia contributed.