Why bread, jobs and dignity remain a distant dream for Tunisians

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Protesters in Tunis rail against President Kais Saied’s tightening grip on power. (AFP)
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Unemployed Tunisian graduates protest on Dec. 17, 2021, in Sidi Bouzid to mark the 11th anniversary of the start of the 2011 revolution. (Anis Mili / AFP)
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Updated 16 June 2022

Why bread, jobs and dignity remain a distant dream for Tunisians

  • Civil and political leadership urged to prioritize the issues stirring discontent to avert economic meltdown
  • IMF rescue package cited as best option, but country’s biggest public sector union rejects further austerity

LONDON: Tunisia was already contending with widespread disaffection when it announced its third fuel price rise (5 percent) of the year. But in the wake of a Ramadan characterized by images of empty shelves, ordinary people are concerned less with the state of public finances and more with day-to-day survival.

Eleven years after the first of the Arab Spring revolts toppled a dictatorship and enabled Tunisians to build a democracy, vote in elections and exercise the right to free speech, the dream of bread, jobs and dignity continues to be just that.

“As I look at it, everything is definitely going in the wrong direction,” Elie Abouaoun, director of the North Africa Program at the US Institute of Peace, told Arab News. “Prices are going up, there is heightened anxiety over survival, and the prospects of a new IMF deal are as far and as distant as they have ever been.”

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

Those fuel price rises are not the end of it either. A minister told reporters that the country will face further increases of “at least” 3 percent per month for the remainder of 2022.

For farmers, the news will compound an already precarious position, after the price of barley, a staple animal feed, surged by as much as 94 percent in 12 months — not accounting for the impact of war in Europe.

Fuel price hikes have only driven up their costs and, in an effort to recoup some of the losses, farmers in several areas engaged in protests in which milk was poured into the streets, roads were blocked and threats to cut production were made.

The rising cost of essential food items means many Tunisians now face a struggle to meet their basic needs. (AFP)

Seeking to quell the prospects of further unrest, the government announced it would raise the price of eggs, milk, and poultry, but Abouaoun is concerned how this will affect the wider population.

“The problem for everyday people is not shortages,” said Abouaoun. “There are very few products that are unavailable, what they are contending with is prices, which are going up almost by the day, so they must be looking to identify food sources that can be got for cheaper rates. To get Tunisia out of this crisis, focus must be entirely on economic and social problems. The political must be put to the side.”

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

Tunisia has been ruled by more than eight governments since the long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in 2011. Kais Saied, the current president, was democratically elected in October 2019, but he dismissed the previous government and suspended parliament against a backdrop of disenchantment with the political class, high unemployment and a stuttering economy.

A retired law professor, Saied said he wanted to give Tunisia’s politics and economics a facelift. But with political and economic problems continuing to mount, he took over executive powers in July 2021 and has been frequently shuffling the cards. On June 7, he replaced 13 governors out of a total of 24, in addition to the four he had shunted out in August last year.

According to experts, the way to address Tunisia’s deepening economic crisis is through foreign investment inflows. Until such investments materialize, however, a multi-billion-dollar IMF package is the only realistic rescue option. But to land that, Saied faces a fight with the country’s largest public sector union, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail or UGTT.

“The next two to three months are crucial,” Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow for Carnegie’s Middle East Program, told Arab News. “The IMF deal is not a white knight; it won’t fix all the issues alone. But what it does is unlock other opportunities by boosting investor confidence with the likely result of credit agencies easing off. But the IMF has said for the deal to be greenlighted, the UGTT must sign off on it.”

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

However, the likelihood of that appears distant at present, with the UGTT threatening a national strike and refusing to heed Saied’s calls for dialogue, arguing that he has excluded democratic forces and appears to be “unilaterally” determining who will participate.

On top of this, the UGTT has spent more than a decade in stark opposition to an IMF toolkit response that demands cuts to public sector spending.

Yerkes said that if the strike goes ahead, it cannot be attributed to Saied, noting that this protest is motivated by an economic situation that predates his leadership. But she can sympathize with the hostility toward the IMF’s fetishization of austerity, even as she acknowledges that Tunisia has the highest public sector payments in the world “and this is an issue that has needed dealing with for 11 years.”


Parliament to remain suspended until next election.

Referendum on constitutional reforms slated for July 25.

New legislative elections scheduled for Dec. 17.

Abouaoun agreed. “Tunisia needs to reform its public sector,” he told Arab News. “There is a list of measures, and these must be implemented, but there is a lack of courage to discuss this with the public, but without dialogue, you do not get out of the crisis.

“I am not saying everything the IMF is requesting is good, but this is where dialogue is useful, as you can say we will do this but not that. When I look at the president and the UGTT, I see a complete lack of will by both sides to compromise, and there is absolutely no acknowledgement that all parties contributed to this crisis.”

Yerkes said she believes there is space for compromise, particularly within the IMF, suggesting that if a pledge to cut pay was included in the deal but was not immediately acted upon, that it may be willing to look the other way, provided other conditions were adhered to.

There is speculation that any agreement would include some political conditionality, notably the UGTT’s support and a ban on outlawing all other political parties.

One formidable force against President Saied Kais' reform effort is the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGGT), which opposes the IMF's presciption to cut public sector spending. (AFP file photo)

“There have been instances of wink wink, nudge nudge about cutting pay, but not actually doing it as long as Saied meets the political conditions,” Abouaoun said.

“With this threat from the UGTT of a strike, Saied may decide he has to take the hit, especially with talk that the IMF is willing to provide a bridge loan to keep negotiations moving on.”

Externally too, donor countries are looking at Saied’s consolidation of power over the past 11 months and getting the jitters. This can be seen in the US Congress proposal to cut 50 percent of its aid spending on Tunisia in response to what it sees as a drift toward authoritarianism.

Abouaoun agreed that “some of the measures” adopted by Saied went “a bit too far.” How far he is willing to go, however, remains unknown. And now both the US and its European partners have said “inclusive progress” must be part of any bailout.

Tunisian President Kais Saied may have gone a bit too far in his quest to fix his country's problems, analysts say. (AFP)

This outside pressure will certainly make him rethink whether he is ready to go the “whole hog” and put democratic legitimacy aside, said Yerkes.

“The next few months are going to be messy,” she said. “The US seems more willing to push Saied with the stick but, given its proximity, the EU and European nations may be more concerned with prioritizing Tunisia’s economic and social stability — although they will be paying attention to the constitution Saied is drawing up.”

Abouaoun reiterated that the troubles being faced are not solely down to one man, noting that civil society and the UGTT have contributed to the looming meltdown, but he concurred that for many the priority is the “return to everyday normalcy” and that starts with getting food prices under control.



Kurdish officials: Death toll climbs in Iranian drone attack

Updated 23 sec ago

Kurdish officials: Death toll climbs in Iranian drone attack

  • Kurdish regional government ‘strongly condemns’ repetitive violations of its sovereignty
  • Iranian artillery fire has hit border districts of Iraqi Kurdistan on several occasions in recent days

KOYA, Iraq: An Iranian drone bombing campaign targeting the bases of an Iranian-Kurdish opposition group in northern Iraq Wednesday has killed at least nine people and wounded 32 others, the Kurdish Regional Government’s Health Ministry said.

The strikes took place as demonstrations continued to engulf the Islamic Republic after the death of a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who was detained by the Iranian morality police.

Iran’s attacks targeted Koya, some 65 kilometers east of Irbil, said Soran Nuri, a member of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan. The group, known by the acronym KDPI, is a leftist armed opposition force banned in Iran.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry and the Kurdistan Regional Government have condemned the strikes.

“Attacks on opposition groups through the Islamic Republic of Iran’s missiles, under any pretext, is an incorrect stance which promotes a misleading interpretation of the course of events,” the Kurdistan Regional Government said.

“We strongly condemn these continuous attacks which result in the death of civilians and we call for an end to these violations.”

Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its statement condemned “in the strongest terms the artillery and missile targeting by the Iranian side, which affected four areas in the Kurdistan Region.”

Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency and broadcaster said the country’s Revolutionary Guard targeted bases of a separatist group in the north of Iraq with “precision missiles” and “suicide drones.”

The Iranian drone strikes targeted a military camp, homes, offices and other areas around Koya, Nuri said. Nuri described the attack as ongoing.

Following the first series of strikes, Iran then shelled seven positions in Koya’s stronghold in Qala, a KDPI official told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity in order to speak publicly. The Qala area includes the party’s politburo.

An Associated Press journalist saw ambulances racing through Koya after the strikes. Smoke rose from the site of one apparent strike as security forces closed off the area.

On Saturday and Monday, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard unleashed a wave of drone and artillery strikes targeting Kurdish positions.

The attacks appear to be a response to the ongoing protests roiling Iran over the death of a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who was detained by the nation’s morality police.

The United Nations Secretary-General called on Iran early Wednesday to refrain from using “unnecessary or disproportionate force” against protesters as unrest over a young woman’s death in police custody spread across the country.

Antonio Guterres said through a spokesman that authorities should swiftly conduct an impartial investigation of the death of Mahsa Amini, which has sparked unrest across Iran’s provinces and the capital of Tehran.

Kuwait goes to polls, yet again, as opposition groups return

Updated 28 September 2022

Kuwait goes to polls, yet again, as opposition groups return

  • Kuwait has held 18 elections since the parliamentary system was adopted in 1962
  • Parliament has been all-male since the only woman MP lost her seat in December 2020

KUWAIT CITY: Kuwait will hold its most inclusive elections in a decade Thursday with some opposition groups ending a boycott after the oil-rich country’s royal rulers pledged not to interfere with parliament.
The polls are the sixth in 10 years, reflecting the repeated political crises that have gripped the only Gulf Arab state with a fully elected parliament.
The elections come after Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah announced the dissolution of parliament in June following disputes between lawmakers and the government, the fourth to be named in two years.
Several opposition MPs had been on strike in protest at delays to parliamentary sessions and the failure to form a new government. A core source of friction is MPs’ demand for ministers from the royal family to be held accountable for corruption.
Kuwait, which borders Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran and is one of the world’s biggest oil exporters, has held 18 elections since the parliamentary system was adopted in 1962.
But when he dissolved parliament, Sheikh Meshal promised there would be no interference by authorities in the election or the new parliament.
“We will not interfere in the people’s choices for their representatives, nor will we interfere with the choices of the next National Assembly in choosing its speaker or its committees,” the crown prince said.
“Parliament will be the master of its decisions, and we will not be supporting one faction at the expense of another. We will stand at the same distance from everyone.”
Opposition figures have stayed out of elections over the past 10 years, accusing executive authorities of meddling in the workings of parliament.
One of them, People’s Action Movement candidate Mohammad Musaed Al-Dossari, said he had been persuaded to stand again by the crown prince’s promises.
Sheikh Meshal’s speech “reassured” Kuwaitis and “encouraged the political groups and MPs who had been boycotting to return to run in the elections,” Al-Dossari said.
Thursday’s vote also comes after the country’s emir issued an amnesty last year for political opponents who had been tried on various charges.
Some 305 candidates, including 22 women, are competing for 50 seats in five constituencies. Parliament has been all-male since the only woman MP lost her seat in December 2020.
Women represent 51.2 percent of the 795,920 voters. About 70 percent of the population of around 4.2 million is made up of expatriates.
While the last elections were affected by anti-coronavirus measures, this time candidates have been able to open electoral offices and hold live hustings. Security services have stepped up their monitoring of vote-buying.
The election results are expected to be announced on Friday. The opposition, mostly Islamist politicians, won 24 seats out of 50 in the last polls.


Cleric’s supporters again storm Baghdad’s government zone

Updated 28 September 2022

Cleric’s supporters again storm Baghdad’s government zone

  • Al-Sadr’s bloc won the most votes in parliamentary elections last October but he has been unable to form a majority government

BAGHDAD: Supporters of Iraq’s influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr again stormed Baghdad’s Green Zone government area Wednesday as the Iraqi parliament holds session on the resignation of its speaker.
Associated Press journalists saw those supporting Sadr waving flags as security forces gathered around them.
Al-Sadr’s bloc won the most votes in parliamentary elections last October but he has been unable to form a majority government. His followers stormed the parliament in late July to prevent their rivals from Iran-backed Shiite groups from forming the government.
With ensuing rallies, clashes with security forces, counter-rallies and a sit-in outside parliament, the government formation process has stalled.
Al-Sadr has now been calling for the dissolution of parliament and early elections and has been in a power struggle with his Iran-backed rivals since the vote.

At least 4 killed in Israeli raid in West Bank

Updated 28 September 2022

At least 4 killed in Israeli raid in West Bank

  • The Israeli army confirmed in a tweet that troops were “operating in Jenin”
  • The raids have sparked clashes that have killed dozens of Palestinians, including fighters

JENIN: An Israeli raid targeting alleged militants in a West Bank flashpoint killed four Palestinians Wednesday, including the brother of a man blamed for a deadly attack in Tel Aviv.
The violence was the latest to hit Jenin, in the north of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, an area that has seen near daily clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen since an escalation that began in March.
The Palestinian health ministry recorded four dead and 44 wounded by live fire in the latest Israeli operation.
Among them was Abed Hazem, whose brother Raad was named as the killer of three Israelis in a shooting spree in Tel Aviv’s busy nightlife district in April.
Raad Hazem was shot dead after a massive Israeli manhunt. Israeli forces have been pursuing Abed and Raad’s father Fathi for months.
The army only immediately confirmed two deaths during an operation it said targeted “two suspects involved in a number of recent shooting attacks.”
“While surrounding the residence in which both suspects were located, an explosive device detonated and the suspects opened fire toward the security forces. The security forces fired back according to standard operating procedures and the two suspects were both killed,” the army statement said, confirming Hazem as one of the men killed.
Since March, Israel has launched hundreds of operations in the northern West Bank, including in Jenin and nearby Nablus, in pursuit of alleged militants.
The raids have sparked clashes that have killed dozens of Palestinians, including fighters.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967 but parts of the territory are nominally controlled by the Palestinian Authority, in accordance with terms set out in the 1994 Oslo peace accords.
Analysts have warned that the dramatic rise in Israeli West Bank raids is further weakening the unpopular Palestinian Authority, with Palestinians increasingly condemning president Mahmud Abbas’s administration for its security cooperation with Israel.
Following the latest Jenin unrest, Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeina, accused Israel of “tampering with security and stability through pursuing a policy of escalation,” in a statement published by the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.
Israel has demanded that the PA security forces do more to crack down on alleged militants, and Prime Minister Yair Lapid vowed earlier this month that he would “not hesitate to act in any place that the Palestinian Authority does not maintain order.”
Israel is on high alert over the Jewish holidays, which began Sunday with New Year, or Rosh Hashana, and continue Tuesday with Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar.

Iranians outraged after TikToker shot dead in protests

Updated 28 September 2022

Iranians outraged after TikToker shot dead in protests

  • Funeral held for Hadis Najafi, young Iranian woman who was shot dead by security forces during protests near Tehran
  • Najafi was shot six times in the city of Karaj, and was hit by bullets in the face and neck, according to report by Radio Farda

DUBAI: A funeral has been held for Hadis Najafi, a young Iranian woman who was shot dead by security forces during protests near Tehran.

Najafi was shot six times in the city of Karaj, and was hit by bullets in the face and neck, according to a report by Radio Farda.

Videos of Najafi's funeral has been circulated on social media as online users paid tribute to the 20-year-old.

She had earlier gone viral in a TikTok video where she was seen tying her hair and preparing to join the anti-government protests, which were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the ‘morality police’ for breaching the strict Hijab rules.

At least 41 people have been killed as Iran continues to crack down on the nationwide demonstrations.