Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
Shoppers at the Central Market in Tunis stock up for iftar, but many complain that food prices have risen and accuse the government oflooking after its supporters but neglecting the poor.
Shoppers at the Central Market in Tunis stock up for iftar, but many complain that food prices have risen and accuse the government oflooking after its supporters but neglecting the poor.

High food costs and unemployment dash hopes of better lives in Tunisia

Tunisians hoped for better lives after the unrest, but with food prices and unemployment high, many are starting to blame the Islamist government.

TUNIS // The Central Market in Tunis is a kaleidoscope of foodstuffs, where shoppers linger over mounds of purple figs, glistening pickles and silvery fish, while stallholders call out and national flags fly.

But many of those stocking up for Ramadan dinners say food prices have increased so much that dishes they make every year have become unaffordable, after a series of shocks threatened the country's fragile economic stability.

"I am making economies on meat, eggs, fish, milk," said Bakoush Dhuha, an oil company employee shopping for her family.

"We have the traditional Ramadan foods of soups and salads, but fish is less often present on the table."

Among the countries changed irrevocably by uprisings against autocrats last year, Tunisia's economy has fared better than most, with an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report this month cautiously predicting growth.

But consumers and others say that economic pain is growing and unemployment not easing - developments that could imperil the political transition from last year's overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Like others working and shopping in the market, Mrs Dhuha blamed the state of the economy on the government elected after Ben Ali's demise.

She accused the new leaders of mismanaging the economy, which has been hampered by political rows precipitating the departure of the head of the central bank and the finance minister. One government policy in particular has infuriated many citizens and some politicians: a plan by the Islamist-led government to use public money to pay compensation to people who were prisoners under Ben Ali - many of whom were jailed for involvement with political Islam.

"People are dying of hunger at this time," said Mrs Dhuha. "It's not fair. They're doing it because these are their people."

More than 11,000 have applied to receive compensation under a law passed by an interim government before last year's elections, said state media last month. Each person deemed eligible could receive as much as 50,000 Tunisian dinars (Dh113,000), according to finance ministry estimates.

Activists say they are outraged, upset that the dominant, Islamist Ennahda party is shoring up political support at the expense of people who are unemployed and short of food.

The growth of Islamism and economic problems are key political issues in Tunisia, post-Ben Ali, and as the two converged into one toxic controversy, hundreds gathered to protest at the compensation plan in the capital last month, as the political fallout began.

The proposed payout represents a "serious excess", said Houcine Dimassi, who served as finance minister until the end of last month when he abruptly stepped down

Mr Dimassi said that "promulgation of such a piece of legislation will be in total contradiction with the difficult economic and financial situation that Tunisia will be going through in the coming years".

He also highlighted the earlier dismissal of the head of the central bank, calling the departure of Mustapha Kamel Nabli "arbitrary and unfair".

Mr Nabli's departure in July after a series of disagreements with the political executive, led to Moody's Investors Service downgrading the country's credit rating.

"Mr Nabli's dismissal is credit negative for Tunisia ... it damages the central bank's credibility, a key factor in the sovereign's credit strength, and will further unsettle investors already jittery after last year's revolution," said Moody's.

Other indicators suggest that Tunisia's economic recovery is weak at best.

The important tourism industry is not yet back to normal. According to the National Institute of Statistics, unemployment fell only slightly in the first quarter of this year from 18.9 per cent to 18.1.

The IMF's public note on Tunisia on August 3, while describing a rebound, warned that the country needed huge restructuring for sustained growth.

Slim Besbes, who is, for now, in charge of the finance ministry, acknowledged that there were problems.

Food prices had been driven up, he said, by an increase in farmers smuggling their produce into neighbouring Libya and Algeria, where the prices are higher.

A committee is addressing the problem, he said, and the government is working on public works programmes to combat unemployment. Regarding the controversial payments to former political prisoners, he urged people to think ethically.

"It's not a question of how much," said Mr Besbes.

"It's the principle first, let's discuss the principle." As the law on compensation was passed before the present leaders came to power, they could hardly be blamed for enacting it, he added.

"Those who are concerned with their compensation are impatient, and there are thousands of them," he said. "No one can predict when it might explode."

Mr Besbes insisted that there was no question of political gain, merely that the payout would demonstrate functioning government.

"It shows that the party is effective in the government ... it won't be wise for any party that reached power to ignore their followers," he said.

But reports of water shortages, labour union rows and a growing wave of demonstrations, including a general strike on Tuesday in Sidi Bouzid where the uprisings began, are piling on top of the economic issues.

It is unclear whether Ennahda is convincing Tunisian voters that it is the best party to run the country. New elections for the first full, formal government are tentatively set for next year, once a new constitution has been written.

"The government are not responsible, they are not credible, they did not keep their electoral promises," said Shedly Nawaar, selling bread and jam in the market.

"I voted for Ennahda, but I wouldn't do it again."

afordham@thenational.ae

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National