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

1 / 2
Protesters in Tunis rail against President Kais Saied’s tightening grip on power. (AFP)
2 / 2
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)
Short Url
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.



Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

Updated 13 August 2022

Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

CAIRO: A vehicle accident involving an overturned microbus in southern Egypt killed at least nine people and injured eight, authorities said Saturday.
The crash took place Friday when the passenger vehicle overturned following a tire blowout on a highway in Minya province 273 kilometers (170 miles) south of the capital Cairo, provincial authorities said in a statement.
The microbus, a sort of mass transit minivan, was transporting people from Sohag province to Cairo, the statement said.
Ambulances rushed to the site and moved the injured to hospitals in Minya, the statement added.
Deadly traffic accidents claim thousands of lives every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. The crashes and collisions are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
Earlier this month, a microbus collided with a truck in Sohag, killing at least 17 people and injuring four others. In July, a passenger bus slammed into a parked trailer truck in Minya, leaving 23 dead and a least 30 wounded.


Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

Updated 12 August 2022

Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

  • Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labour union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a "social contract" to tackle national challenges
  • The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page

TUNIS: Tunisia’s government and both its main labor and commerce unions agreed on Friday to start talks on Monday over economic reforms required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue program.
State news agency TAP reported that Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labor union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a “social contract” to tackle national challenges, citing a government statement.
The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page.
The labor union, which represents a vast syndicate of workers, has been a staunch critic of IMF economic reforms proposed by the government, including subsidy cuts, a public sector wage freeze and the restructuring of state-owned companies.
It previously said, such reforms would increase the suffering of Tunisians and lead to an imminent social implosion.
Tunisia is seeking $4 billion in IMF support amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, though diplomat sources told Reuters any IMF program approved would be unlikely to reach that level.
The IMF wants the UGTT, a powerful union that has a million members and has previously paralyzed parts of the economy in protest, to formally agree to government reforms.
Efforts to secure the IMF bailout have been complicated by Tunisia’s political upheavals since President Kais Saied seized most powers a year ago, shutting down parliament and moving to rule by decree.
Last month, he pushed through a new constitution formalising many of the expanded powers he has assumed in a referendum. Official figures showed that 31 percent of Tunisians took part, but opposition groups have rejected the figure, calling it inflated.

Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

Updated 12 August 2022

Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

  • It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border
  • The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday

BEIRUT: Syria’s autonomous Kurdish region transferred to the Iraqi government more than 600 relatives of Daesh group members who were detained at the notorious Al-Hol camp, a monitor said Friday.
It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border.
In the latest transfer, around “620 people, relatives of Daesh members, left Al-Hol,” coordinated between the camp administration and the Iraqi government, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday, an official in the Kurdish administration told AFP.
Thousands of foreign extremists joined Daesh as fighters, often bringing their wives and children to live in the “caliphate” declared by the group across swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Kurdish-led forces backed by a US-led coalition dislodged the militants from their last scrap of territory in Syria in 2019.
Kurdish authorities have repeatedly called on countries to repatriate their citizens from crowded displaced camps, of which Al-Hol is Syria’s largest.
More than 100 people, including many women, were murdered in Al-Hol over an 18-month period, the UN said in June, calling for camp residents to be returned home.
But nations have mostly received them only sporadically, fearing security threats and a domestic political backlash.
The first repatriation of Iraqi families from Al-Hol, involving around 300 people, took place in May last year.
Iraq should repatriate 500 families in total from Al-Hol this year, the official Iraqi New Agency announced on Wednesday.
In addition to the returned family members, the Iraqi government also received this week about 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters and leaders who were detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces, according to the Observatory.
The SDF spearheaded the fight against Daesh in Syria with the support of the US-led coalition.
In early June, Iraq repatriated another 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters who were detained by Kurdish forces. They were among 3,500 Iraqis held in Syrian Kurdish prisons, a senior military official said at the time.
In April, a senior Iraqi security official said the Al-Hol camp is a security threat and should be dismantled.
It houses around 55,000 people, the UN reported in June.

Sadr followers hold mass prayer outside Iraqi parliament in show of force

Updated 12 August 2022

Sadr followers hold mass prayer outside Iraqi parliament in show of force

  • Supporters of the populist leader have occupied the Iraqi parliament since July
  • Iran-aligned political groups were expected to hold their own demonstration later on Friday

BAGHDAD: Thousands of followers of Moqtada Al-Sadr held a mass prayer outside parliament in Baghdad on Friday in a show of support for the powerful Shiite cleric who has called for Iraq’s judiciary to dissolve parliament by the end of next week.
Supporters of the populist leader have occupied the Iraqi parliament since July after a 10-month political stalemate that followed elections last October. Sadr was the biggest winner but failed to form a government free of Iranian-backed parties.
He withdrew his lawmakers from parliament and is now preventing the chamber from electing a new government and is demanding early elections.
On Wednesday he said the judiciary must dissolve parliament by the end of next week. If not “the revolutionaries will take another stand,” he said without elaborating.
Outside parliament on Friday thousands of Sadr supporters gathered for prayer. Most were dressed in black to mark the Muslim month of Muharram and some wore white capes symbolizing burial shrouds and their willingness to die.
“You will not break Iraq as long as Sadr is here,” an imam told the crowd from a big red stage set up outside parliament. “There is no going back from this revolution ... and the people will not give up their demands.”
In the intense summer heat, men picked their way through the worshippers and sprayed them with cold water. Some carried portraits of Sadr and his father, also a prominent cleric, as well as Iraqi flags.
“We have revolted and there is no going back,” said Mohammed Elwan, 40, carrying a portrait of Sadr.
Hamid Hussain, a father of five, said: “I am here to call for an early election and make sure that all the corrupt faces are excluded from the upcoming elections...I became unemployed because of the corrupt parties.”
Sadr’s opponents also accuse him of corruption. They say his loyalists have run some of Iraq’s most corrupt and dysfunctional government departments.
Iran-aligned political groups were expected to hold their own demonstration later on Friday, the latest in a series of protest and counter-protest in recent days which have led to fears of unrest.
Sadr counts millions of Iraqis among his followers and has shown he can still stir up gatherings by hundreds of thousands of supporters, mostly working-class Shiite Muslims, if he needs to exert political pressure.
His father Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr was killed more than 20 years ago for his outspoken opposition Saddam Hussein. When Saddam was topped in a US-led invasion in 2003 Sadr began an insurgency against US troops.
His new foes, however, are fellow Shiite leaders and parties mostly aligned with Iran, as Sadr has positioned himself as a nationalist who rejects foreign interference. Those groups, like Sadr, are backed by heavily armed militias, but do not hold the same sway as he does over masses of fanatical followers.

Syria rebels call for protests over Turkey’s ‘reconciliation’ call

Updated 12 August 2022

Syria rebels call for protests over Turkey’s ‘reconciliation’ call

  • Comments sparked calls for protests in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces
  • Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria

SYRIA: Protests broke out in Syria’s rebel-held north on Friday over a call from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu for reconciliation between the Syrian government and opposition.
“We have to somehow get the opposition and the regime to reconcile in Syria. Otherwise, there will be no lasting peace, we always say this,” Cavusoglu said Thursday, in remarks to diplomats.
The comments have sparked calls for protests after Friday weekly prayers in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces and their supporters, including in Al-Bab, Afrin and Jarablus.
Similar calls were made in Idlib, controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and other rebel groups, to gather at border crossings with Turkey.
Small protests already began overnight in some areas, including Al-Bab, where dozens gathered holding opposition slogans and chanting against Turkey.
Some demonstrators burned a Turkish flag, while others took down Turkey’s colors hung up around the city, an AFP photographer said.
Dozens of others gathered at the Bab Al-Salama crossing to Turkey, many shouting “death rather than indignity.”
Turkey’s top diplomat also revealed that he had held a short meeting in Belgrade in October with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Al-Meqdad, adding that communication had resumed between the two countries’ intelligence agencies.
But he denied direct talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad, despite long-standing calls from Russia for such dialogue.
Cavusoglu added that Turkey would continue its fight against “terrorism” in Syria, following warnings from Ankara since May that it could launch new strikes on Kurdish-held areas in north and northeast Syria.
Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria. Most have targeted Kurdish militants that Turkey links to a group waging a decades-long insurgency against it.
Cavusoglu’s comments have sparked widespread anger among the opposition, with renowned figure George Sabra writing on Facebook: “If Cavusoglu is concerned with reconciling with the Syrian regime, that is his business. As for the Syrians, they have a different cause for which they have paid and continue to pay the dearest price.”
About half a million people have died during Syria’s 11-year conflict, which has destroyed large swathes of the country and displaced millions of people.