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Food crisis looms over Tunisia

As food grows scarcer in Tunisia, more residents are growing upset at the government's inaction.
FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

TUNIS — A food crisis is looming over Tunisia, where markets are running out of several basic commodities amid the ongoing political crisis between the authority led by President Kais Saied and the political opposition.

As she shopped at a market in the northeastern Ben Arous governorate, Zainab, who declined to share her full name, told Al-Monitor, “Prices have skyrocketed. Most basic commodities that we use on a daily basis have run out. We can’t find sugar, tea, coffee, flour and other such items.”

She added, “The situation is very complicated. The authorities are talking about hoarding and speculators, but we have yet to see them take serious action to stop it. Even well-off families cannot buy anything because they cannot find anything.”

Yahya Marzouki, who owns a food shop in the Ben Arous municipal market, told Al-Monitor, “Today, we merchants are unable to meet the needs of Tunisians, who constantly express their anger at this situation.”

He explained, “Sugar has become very difficult for us to access, as are water, tea, coffee, flour, rice and other items. We have to go every single day to the distribution centers and most of the time we return empty-handed. The situation is getting ridiculous, especially since the authorities are not giving us convincing arguments about there being a monopoly.”

Yahya noted, “There is no monopoly here because these products — namely sugar, tea, and flour — are controlled by the government, which is responsible for their distribution. We do not know what is happening exactly.”

Several Tunisian organizations fear that the scarcity will worsen with inflation hitting 8.6%, a rate not seen in the country since 1991, according to figures from Tunisia’s National Institute of Statistics.

Ammar Dhia, head of the nongovernmental Consumer Defense Organization, told Al-Monitor, “There is a great shortage of goods, and government officials acknowledge that there are difficulties in securing goods for the Tunisian market.” He explained, “The reasons for this shortage are both internal and external, as shipping and transportation prices have increased. According to the Ministry of Trade, there is a delay in the arrival of some shipments, and there are also difficulties in providing liquidity for shipments. The severe economic crisis in Tunisia has affected all of this.”

Tunisia has become highly dependent on the importation of several commodities such as sugar and grains.

The Tunisian authorities are campaigning to persuade citizens to reduce consumption, insisting that the main drivers of the shortages are speculators and hoarders.

An official source from the Ministry of trade told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to make statements to the media, “The problem lies in the state's inability to pay foreign suppliers. As a result, several shipments of sugar and other goods left Tunisian ports without unloading their cargo.”

He added, “The crisis … has affected factories as well, including soft drink and cookie factories, threatening the jobs of dozens of workers.”

Al-Monitor tried to contact the Ministry of Commerce, which declined to comment on the matter. 

On Sept. 8, Tunisian officials announced that the country had run out of sugar, threatening several factories with closure. 

While the authorities deny any responsibility for the crisis, the Tunisian street is grumbling and demonstrations could erupt.

Even supporters of the president, who says he is facing “gangs” seeking to dismantle his government, are growing more frustrated with the deteriorating situation, more than a year after Saied overthrew the parliament and starting ruling by decree.

Jalal, a shopper in the Ben Arous municipal market, told Al-Monitor, “I do not regret supporting him and voting for the new constitution that he drafted. However, the prevailing conditions require that he and his government take action because the situation cannot be resolved by accusing opponents of creating crises. There is a real crisis in the country, and we only want him to come out and tell us what is happening.”

The Tunisian dinar continues to depreciate against the dollar as the government fails to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after months of discussions.

Tunisia wants to obtain $4 billion in financing from the IMF, which requires certain economic reforms before signing such an agreement.

Ramadan bin Omar, spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, told Al-Monitor, “Tunisia is already vulnerable to social unrest with the authorities so weakly handling the current crisis.”

He explained, “The crisis started within the global context of the coronavirus pandemic and later the Russian war in Ukraine, which caused the cost of transportation to rise. But we also have the internal situation related to the country’s economic crisis and the scarcity of hard currency. Tunisia no longer enjoys the confidence of foreign suppliers. Shipments have thus arrived and left without unloading their cargo.”

Bin Omar added, “The government did not anticipate this crisis. It blames speculators, but it was the Tunisian state that set the perfect scene for them to act.”

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