Food shortages, rising food prices hit Tunisia

Tunisians have been hit with soaring food prices and shortages of basic staples in recent weeks, threatening to turn simmering discontent in the North African country, the cradle of the Arab Spring protests, into larger turmoil.

Sugar, vegetable oil, rice and even bottled water periodically disappear from supermarkets and grocery stores.

People stand in line for hours for these food essentials that have long been subsidized and are now increasingly available in rations only.

And when they appear on the shelves, many people cannot afford to pay the staggering price for them.

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 Tunisia’s troubles.

Fights sometimes break out at food market queues, and scattered protests and sporadic clashes with police over rising prices and shortages have occurred around the country.

In a suburb of the capital, Tunis, a young itinerant fruit vendor recently killed himself after police seized the scales he used to weigh his wares.

His act of desperation revived memories of the 2010 self-immolation of another Tunisian vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, which prompted protests that led to the ouster of long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and provoked similar uprisings around 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 to 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 package of sugar, an essential food to prepare traditional dishes for the religious holiday.

Food isn’t the only thing in short supply. Lacking energy resources like those in neighboring Libya and Algeria, Tunisia relies heavily on imports and its long-running economic troubles mean it has limited leverage 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 Institute of Statistics.

The Central Bank of Tunisia (BCT) added a hit by increasing bank fees and interest rates, hindering access to consumer loans.

In Douar Hicher, an impoverished suburb on the outskirts of Tunis considered a barometer of popular discontent, hundreds of people took to the streets at night last month to denounce the deterioration of their living conditions.

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 the collapse of the social and political order.”

The general secretary of the powerful trade union UGTT, Noureddine Taboubi, blames the state’s overburdened budget.

The government is currently negotiating a $2 billion to $4 billion loan with the IMF to cope with a budget deficit aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine. A high-ranking Tunisian delegation went to Washington on Saturday in the hope of finalizing a deal.

In return, Tunisia will have to commit to painful reforms, including shrinking the public administration sector – one of the world’s largest – which eats up about a third of the state budget.

The IMF is also demanding the gradual lifting of subsidies and the privatization of state-owned enterprises, which implies massive layoffs and a worsening of unemployment, already at 18% according to World Bank’s latest figures

Faced with such bleak prospects, Tunisians increasingly no longer hesitate to put their lives in danger to try to reach Europe in search of a better life.

The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO that closely monitors migration, says 507 Tunisian migrants died or went missing so far in 2022.

According to National Guard spokesman Houssameddine Jebabli, the coast guard thwarted more than 1,500 attempts at illegal migration to Italy from January to September 2022, involving entire families including nearly 2,500 children.

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