In recent weeks, Tunisians have faced rising food prices and shortages of essentials, threatening to escalate the country’s simmering unrest and become the epicenter of the Arab Spring demonstrations.
Stores that sell sugar, vegetable oil, rice, and even bottled water occasionally stop carrying them.
For these basic foods, which have long been subsidized and are increasingly only available in rations, people wait in line for hours.
Many people are unable to pay the outrageous price for them when they are put on the shelves.
Economic experts claim that Tunisia’s problems have been exacerbated by the government’s own budget crisis and its inability to negotiate a long-sought loan from the International Monetary Fund. The government has placed the blame on speculators, hoarders on the black market, and the conflict in Ukraine.
Fighting occasionally breaks out in the lines at food markets, and protests and run-ins with the law over rising costs and shortages have happened all over the nation.
A young fruit vendor who was on the street recently committed suicide in a suburb of Tunis after police took the scales he used to weigh his goods.
His desperate act brought back memories of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in 2010, which sparked protests that resulted in Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s overthrow and sparked similar uprisings throughout the Arab world.
Amina Hamdi, a customer, expressed her despair at trying to purchase essentials: “I came to shop and found people fighting to buy and the prices were very high.”
During a recent trip to the fish and meat market in Tunis, Aicha declared, “It is impossible to survive without food. “We don’t need furniture or building supplies, but we do need to eat,” Out of concern for police retaliation for speaking out, she only gave her first name.
When the 20,000 tons of sugar from India were announced to be imported in time for Mouled, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, the Ministry of Commerce made a promise that shortages would end.
But the evening before the holiday, people lined up in front of stores for hours in order to get a package of sugar, which is needed to make traditional dishes for the religious holiday.
Not everything is in short supply, including food. Lacking energy resources like those in its neighbors Libya and Algeria, Tunisia is heavily dependent on imports, and due to its protracted economic problems, it has little negotiating power to secure the goods it needs on global markets.
According to the National Institute of Statistics, inflation has reached a record high of 9.1%, the highest level in thirty years.
By raising bank fees and interest rates, the Central Bank of Tunisia (BCT) further hampered access to consumer loans.
Last month, hundreds of people protested the deterioration of their living conditions in the streets of Douar Hicher, a poor neighborhood outside of Tunis that is regarded as a barometer of general unhappiness.
Demonstrators blocked the town’s main thoroughfare by lighting tires on fire while yelling “work, freedom, dignity,” the catchphrase of the 2010–2011 revolution. The police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Demonstrators put up a banner that read, “Enough of speeches and promises, people are gripped by hunger and poverty,” their rage at the government and political elites evident.
Over the past year, President Kas Saied has given himself sweeping powers after ousting the prime minister and dissolving parliament.
Many Tunisians welcomed the moves, which he claimed were necessary to save the country amid a protracted political and economic crisis, but critics and Western allies claim the coup threatens Tunisia’s fledgling democracy.
Saied blames “speculators” and those who have a monopoly on goods they store in illegal depots for the shortage of food products and the increase in prices.
He implied that Ennahdha, the Islamist movement and his main political foe, had some sort of involvement, which the group categorically denies.
The Salvation Front, an alliance of five opposition parties and a number of independent organizations, claimed in a statement that the protests were an indication of “a general explosion and the collapse of the social and political order.”
The state’s overstretched budget is to blame, according to Noureddine Taboubi, general secretary of the influential trade union UGTT.
To address a budget deficit made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the government is currently in negotiations with the IMF for a $2 billion to $4 billion loan. On Saturday, a senior Tunisian delegation traveled to Washington in an effort to seal the deal.
In exchange, Tunisia will be required to undertake difficult reforms, such as reducing the size of its one of the world’s largest public administration sectors, which consumes about a third of the national budget.
According to the most recent data from the World Bank, the IMF is also calling for the gradual elimination of subsidies and the privatization of state-owned businesses, which would result in massive job losses and a worsening of the unemployment rate, which is already at 18%.
Tunisians are less reluctant to risk their lives when faced with such hopeless circumstances in order to travel to Europe in search of a better life.
An NGO that closely monitors migration, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, reports that 507 Tunisian migrants have died or gone missing so far in 2022.
From January to September 2022, the coast guard prevented more than 1,500 attempts at illegal immigration to Italy, involving entire families and nearly 2,500 children, according to National Guard spokesman Houssameddine Jebabli.