Why bread, jobs and prestige are distant dreams for Tunisians

LONDON: Tunisia was already facing widespread discontent when it announced its third fuel price hike of the year (5 per cent). But in the wake of Ramadan, characterized by images of empty shelves, common people are less concerned about the state of public finances and more about day-to-day survival.

Eleven years after the first uprising of the Arab Spring overthrew a dictatorship and enabled the Tunisians to form a democracy, vote in elections and exercise the right to free speech, the dream of bread, jobs and dignity remained.

“As I see it, everything is definitely going in the wrong direction,” Eli Aboun, director of the North Africa program at the US Institute of Peace, told Arab News. “Prices are rising, survival concerns are rising, and the prospects for a new IMF deal are as distant and distant as they have ever been.”


Protesters in Tunis rail against President Kais Saied’s tightening of hold on power. (AFP)

The hike in fuel prices is not the end of it either. One minister told reporters the country would face a further increase of “at least” 3 percent per month for the remainder of 2022.

For farmers, the news would exacerbate an already precarious situation, after the price of barley, a staple animal feed, rose by 94 percent in 12 months – not accounting for the impact of the war in Europe.

The rise in fuel prices has only increased their costs and in an attempt to make up for some of the losses, farmers in many areas engaged in protests, including milking, blocking roads and cutting production. was threatened.


Rising costs of essential food items mean that many Tunisians are now struggling to meet their basic needs. (AFP)

Trying to quell the possibilities of further unrest, the government announced that it would raise the price of eggs, milk and poultry, but Aboun is concerned about how this would affect the wider population.

“The problem for ordinary people is not scarcity,” Aboun said. “There are very few products which are unavailable, what they are struggling with is the prices, which are increasing almost day by day, so they should identify the food sources which can be found at cheaper rates. For Tunisia to come out of this crisis, it will have to focus entirely on economic and social problems. Politics should be put aside.”


Empty shelves in a supermarket and a sign saying ‘one bag per person’ in French. (AFP)

Tunisia has been ruled by more than eight governments since the overthrow of long-time President Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali in 2011. Current President Kais Saied was democratically elected in October 2019, but he dismissed the previous government and suspended parliament against one. Against the backdrop of disillusionment with the political class, high unemployment and a faltering economy.

Saeed, a retired law professor, said he wanted to give a new look to Tunisia’s politics and economics. But with political and economic problems escalating, he assumed executive powers in July 2021 and has been frequently shuffling cards. On June 7, he replaced 13 governors out of a total of 24, in addition to the four governors he had removed in August last year.

According to experts, the way to deal with Tunisia’s deepening economic crisis is through foreign investment inflows. Until such investments materialise, the multi-billion dollar IMF package is the only real hedge. But to get it off the ground, Said faces a battle with the country’s largest public sector union, the Union Generale Tunisien du Travail, or UGTT.

“The next two to three months are crucial,” Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Middle East program, told Arab News. “The IMF deal is not a white knight; This alone will not fix all the issues. But what it does do is unlock other opportunities by increasing investor confidence with the potential consequence of easing credit agencies. But the IMF has asked for the deal to be flagged, should the UGTT sign it.


While President Kais Saied initially found substantial support in his reform efforts, critics say he may have gone too far. (AFP file photo)

Although the prospect of this seems remote at present, the UGTT threatened a national strike and refused to heed Syed’s call for talks, arguing that they had ousted democratic forces and were “unilateral”. Determine who will participate.

On top of this, the UGTT has spent more than a decade in vehement opposition to the IMF Toolkit response that calls for cuts in public sector spending.

Yerkes said that if the strike goes ahead, it cannot be attributed to Saeed, noting that the protests are driven by an economic situation that preceded his leadership. But she can sympathize with the IMF’s hostility to austerity, even as she acknowledges that Tunisia has the highest public sector payments in the world “and is an issue that has been tackled for 11 years.” is required.”

Fastfact

Parliament will be adjourned till the next election.

Referendum on constitutional reforms on July 25

New legislative elections scheduled for 17 December.

Aboun agreed. “Tunisia needs to reform its public sector,” he told Arab News. “There is a list of measures, and these should be implemented, but you lack the courage to discuss it with the public, but without dialogue you don’t get out of the crisis.

“I am not saying that whatever the IMF is requesting is good, but this is where dialogue is useful, as you can say we would do that but would not do that. When I am the President and the UGTT I see that there is a complete lack of will to compromise on both sides, and there is absolutely no acknowledgment that all parties have contributed to this crisis.”

Yerkes said he believes there is room for compromise, particularly within the IMF, suggesting that if the deal included a pledge to cut wages but not act immediately, She might be willing to look the other way, provided other conditions were met.

There is speculation that any agreement would include certain political conditions, notably support for the UGTT and a ban on outlawing all other political parties.


The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGGT) is a force to be reckoned with in the reform efforts of President Syed Kays, who opposes the IMF’s notion to cut public sector spending. (AFP file photo)

“There have been incidents of winks, nudges about pay cuts, but not really doing so until Saeed meets political conditions,” Aboun said.

“With the threat from the UGTT of a strike, Saeed may decide that it has to take a hit, especially given that the IMF is willing to provide a bridge loan to advance negotiations.”

Even externally, the donor countries have been in a state of panic and consolidation of Syed’s power over the past 11 months. This can be seen in response to a US Congress resolution to cut its aid spending on Tunisia by 50 percent, which sees it as a drift towards authoritarianism.

Aboun agreed that “some measures” adopted by Said went “a little too far”. However, how far he is willing to go is unknown. And now both the US and its European partners have said that “inclusive progress” should be part of any bailout.


Analysts say Tunisian President Kais Saied may have gone too far in his attempt to fix his country’s problems. (AFP)

Yerkes said this outside pressure would certainly force him to reconsider whether he was ready to be a “whole hog” and put democratic legitimacy aside.

“The next few months are going to be messy,” she said. “The US seems more inclined to push Saeed with a stick, but given its close proximity, the EU and European nations may be more concerned about prioritizing Tunisia’s economic and social stability – although they do focus on that constitution.” Must be giving what Saeed is preparing.”

Abouin reiterated that the problems they are facing are not just for one person, noting that civil society and the UGTT have contributed to the impending recession, but agreed that the priority is “for many people on an everyday basis.” return to normalcy” and it begins with achieving control over food prices.