Economy in Tunisia main reason for new migration wave into Europe

Photo Credits: Fethi Belaid/AFP

Tunisia was the starting point for the the Arab Spring. Now dissatisfaction is simmering there again because living conditions are getting worse and there have already been various protests. Will there be open riots again?

Sugar, cooking oil, rice and even water bottles are temporarily disappearing from the shelves on the markets in Tunisia. People queue, often for hours, to buy those goods, which are now increasingly available in rations only. And when they do show up in stores again, many people will find them unaffordable, and the prices will be staggeringly high. This has been going on in Tunisia for weeks, and now smoldering discontent in the North African country is threatening to degenerate into greater turmoil and an increasing migration wave. There are sometimes scuffles, even fights, in the lines outside food markets, and protests and sporadic clashes with police have erupted in many parts of the country. In a suburb of the capital Tunis, a fruit vendor recently took his own life after police confiscated the scales he used to sell his produce.

The act of desperation brought back memories of the self-immolation of another Tunisian trader, Mohammed Bouazizi, in 2010. The protests triggered by this had led to the fall of long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and, in the months that followed, triggered similar uprisings in other parts of the Arab world, the Arab Spring.

After the Prime Minister was sacked and Parliament dissolved, President Kaïs Saied has given himself far-reaching powers over the past year. The steps are necessary to save the country in the face of protracted political and economic crises, he said. Many Tunisians initially reacted positively, but critics and Western allies see Tunisia’s fledgling democracy in danger.

Saied not only blames “speculators” and black market hoarders for the food shortages and inflation, he has also suggested that his main political rivals from the moderate Islamist Ennahda have a hand in it. The party firmly denies this.

The government in Tunis blames speculators, black market hoarders and the war in Ukraine for the food shortages and massive price increases. But economists also blame the ruling class, saying its fiscal crisis and inability to negotiate a long-sought loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have exacerbated the situation.

The government is currently negotiating a loan of two to four billion dollars with the IMF in order to be able to cope with a budget deficit that has been exacerbated by the corona pandemic and the consequences of the Ukraine war. In return, Tunisia will have to commit to painful reforms, including shrinking the public administration sector, one of the largest such apparatuses in the world. It eats up almost a third of the national budget. The IMF is also calling for the phasing out of subsidies and the privatization of state-owned enterprises, likely to trigger massive layoffs and worsening unemployment. According to the World Bank, the current rate is already 18 percent.

The Commerce Ministry vowed in September to tackle food shortages, announcing the import of 20,000 tons of sugar from India in time for a major Muslim holiday, the day Muslims commemorate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. But on the night before the celebration, residents lined up outside supermarkets again – hoping to get a packet of sugar – an essential part of traditional holiday meals.

But food isn’t the only commodity in short supply. Tunisia lacks the energy resources its neighbors Libya and Algeria have, so the country relies heavily on imports. But given its long-term economic problems, it has limited opportunities to secure what it needs in international markets.

Inflation is now at 9.1 percent, the highest level in three decades, according to the national statistics agency. The Tunisian central bank has increased bank fees and interest rates, making it more difficult for citizens to access credit.

In an impoverished suburb of Tunis and considered a gauge of public discontent, in September, hundreds of people took to the streets in the evenings to protest against the deterioration in their living conditions. The protesters blocked the city’s main thoroughfare with burning tires and defied police, who used tear gas. “Work, freedom, dignity” they chanted, taking up the main slogan of the 2010/2011 revolution.

Faced with a future life with no perspective, increasing numbers of Tunisians are no longer hesitant to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe in the hope of building a better life there. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights – a non-governmental organization that closely monitors migration – reports that 507 Tunisians have died or disappeared trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year.

And according to the Tunisian National Guard, they thwarted 1,500 attempts at illegal migration into Italy between January and September. Whole families were involved – with a total of almost 2,500 children.

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