Empty shelves and rising prices are testing the patience of Tunisians

Food shortages are worsening in Tunisia with empty shelves in supermarkets and bakeries, adding to popular discontent over high prices and risking unrest as the government tries to avert a public finance crisis.

Source: Reuters/Jihed Abidellaoui

There are widespread shortages of sugar, cooking oil, milk and butter, coffee, tobacco and bottled water, with the situation appearing worse in poorer areas far from the capital.

Street tea vendor Mustafa Dahech, 82, said he relies on sugar to make the sweet drink which he sells in paper cups from a metal teapot as he strolls through the narrow streets of a poor district of Tunis. “There is no sugar. I swear there is none,” he said, which made it harder for him to increase his income beyond his pension. ‘State $55 per month.

Small protests have already taken place and the leader of the powerful main trade union, the UGTT, has repeatedly warned in recent months of a “revolution of the hungry”.

The shortages are partly due to a global squeeze on raw materials and rising prices due to disruptions related to the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Precarious finances

However, Tunisia could face increased disruptions as its fragile fiscal situation makes it harder to buy commodities at high international rates and sell them domestically at the same subsidized rate it was already using.

The government is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help finance its budget and debt repayment, but support is likely to depend on subsidies and public sector wage bill cuts, as well than the restructuring of public enterprises. Talks between the government and the UGTT to agree on these reforms – a likely condition for IMF support – are still stalled.

Without an IMF bailout, Tunisia would likely have to borrow internally, restricting credit to local businesses in ways that diplomats say could further harm the economy, or use its foreign exchange reserves, harm the dinar and increase inflation.

The government blamed the shortages on global commodity compression and domestic hoarders and speculators and denied having problems paying for imports.

Food and fuel shortages hit Tunisian stores

The UGTT said earlier this year that the government was struggling to pay for wheat imports. The World Bank, the European Union, Japan and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have all given Tunisia food aid loans this year.

Dairy farmers sought state aid for feed inflation and other operating costs they blamed on milk and butter shortages.

A UGTT official said the sugar shortage had caused blackouts at several food factories. Last week, workers at a soft drink factory protested the threat to their jobs.

Coffee shortages, which are rationed to just one packet per customer in some stores, have also led to temporary cafe closures. “We are a cafe. We only have coffee to offer our customers,” said Noureddine Ben Hsan, owner of Café de l’Indépendance in Tunis, adding that shortages of coffee, milk and sugar were forced to close.

Michael A. Bynum