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

Special Why bread, jobs and dignity remain a distant dream for Tunisians
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Protesters in Tunis rail against President Kais Saied’s tightening grip on power. (AFP)
Special Why bread, jobs and dignity remain a distant dream for Tunisians
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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)
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Updated 16 June 2022

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

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.


Iraqi security forces kill two protesters in the south

Iraqi security forces kill two protesters in the south
Updated 21 sec ago

Iraqi security forces kill two protesters in the south

Iraqi security forces kill two protesters in the south

BAGHDAD/NASSIRIYA: Iraqi security forces shot dead two protesters in the southern city of Nassiriya on Wednesday after using live ammunition to disperse an anti-government protest, police and medical sources told Reuters.
At least 16 protesters were wounded, mainly by live bullets, when security forces attempted to move them away from bridges and a central square, the sources said.
Police said protesters threw stones at security forces, wounding 17. A Reuters witness said crowds subsequently gathered outside a hospital morgue, demanding the release of the two bodies.
Around 300 people took part in the demonstration which was called to protest against recent arrests that targeted activists in the mainly Shiite city of Nassiriya.
Protesters took to the streets against a court ruling this week sentencing Hayder Hamid Al-Zaidi, 20, to three years in prison over alleged criticism of state-sanctioned militias.
Zaidi, 20, who was active in popular anti-government protests that began in October 2019, was sentenced Monday in a criminal court in Baghdad over comments on Twitter that he maintains he did not write. He had been charged under a penal code section that outlaws publicly insulting any government institution or official.
Al-Zaidi was arrested over the tweet in June and released after 16 days on bail. He has maintained that his account was hacked.
It was the first such deadly demonstration since a new government was formed by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani in October. 
(With Reuters and AP)

Islamic school funded by Kuwaitis opens in Venezuela

Islamic school funded by Kuwaitis opens in Venezuela
Updated 47 min 17 sec ago

Islamic school funded by Kuwaitis opens in Venezuela

Islamic school funded by Kuwaitis opens in Venezuela
  • Establishment to teach Arabic, Islamic education, Venezuelan curriculum to more than 180 students

KUWAIT: The Venezuelan Islamic School, funded by Kuwaiti businessmen and overseen by Zakat House, has opened in the country’s capital Caracas, the Kuwait News Agency reported on Wednesday.

More than 180 students in kindergarten, primary, and secondary school will be taught Arabic, Islamic education, and the Venezuelan curriculum following Kuwait’s first charitable work in the country.

The inauguration was attended by Kuwait’s Ambassador to Venezuela Nasser Al-Enezi, Head of the Venezuelan Islamic Center Baligh Saeed, and a number of dignitaries, students and school staff.

Al-Enezi praised the Zakat House of Kuwait for sponsoring projects for the Arab community, and business for its contribution.


Sister of Iran’s supreme leader denounces ‘tyranny’ of regime

Sister of Iran’s supreme leader denounces ‘tyranny’ of regime
Updated 07 December 2022

Sister of Iran’s supreme leader denounces ‘tyranny’ of regime

Sister of Iran’s supreme leader denounces ‘tyranny’ of regime
  • Khamenei condemned her brother in letter posted on Twitter by exiled son
  • Her daughter was arrested in November after criticizing regime in YouTube video

LONDON: Badri Hosseini Khamenei, the sister of Iran’s supreme leader, said on Wednesday that she soon hopes to see the overthrow of her brother’s “tyranny,” adding that he “has brought nothing but suffering and oppression” to his people. 

Khamenei’s family have been fierce critics of the Islamic regime since 1979, after the revolution deposed the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.  

Khamenei and her husband, Ali Tehrani, regularly spoke out against the government while in exile in Iraq during the 1980s, The Times reported. Upon their return to Iran in 1995, her husband, who died in October, was imprisoned for 10 years.

According to The Times, Khamenei has since refrained from publicly denouncing the regime while living in Iran.

However, she is now openly condemning the authorities’ violent crackdown on the nationwide protests.

In a damning letter posted on Twitter by her France-based son Mahmoud Moradkhani, Khamenei wrote: “I think it is appropriate now to declare that I oppose my brother’s actions and I express my sympathy with all mothers mourning the crimes of the Islamic Republic regime.

“I am sorry that due to physical ailments I cannot participate in protest movements as I should. But in heart and soul, I am with the people of Iran.

“Our family’s opposition and struggle against this criminal system began a few months after the revolution.

“The crimes of this system, the suppression of any dissenting voice, the imprisonment of the most educated and the most caring youth of this land, the most severe punishments, and the large-scale executions began from the very beginning.”

Khamenei’s daughter Farideh Moradkhani was arrested for the third time last month after calling on all foreign governments to stop supporting Tehran.

The activist described her uncle’s regime on Nov. 25 as “murderous and child-killing” in a video posted on Youtube.

Addressing this, Khamenei added: “When they arrest my daughter with violence, it is clear that they apply thousands of times more violence to other oppressed boys and girls who are subjected to inhumane cruelty.”

Khamenei also said that her brother was not listening to the “voice of the people in Iran,” but was instead taking note of “mercenaries and money-grubbers.”

She called on Revolutionary Guards to lay down their arms and join the people “before it is too late.”


Rifts appear between Lebanon’s two political allies

Rifts appear between Lebanon’s two political allies
Updated 07 December 2022

Rifts appear between Lebanon’s two political allies

Rifts appear between Lebanon’s two political allies
  • Free Patriotic Movement hints at parting with Hezbollah, accusing it of attacking president’s position

BEIRUT: The Free Patriotic Movement’s anger over caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati convening a Cabinet session on Monday led to a shakeup in the relationship between the party and its ally, Hezbollah.

FPM head Gebran Bassil, in a press conference on Tuesday, expressed anger over “expanded decentralization, even without laws.”

Hezbollah and the Amal Movement provided political cover for Mikati to convene a Cabinet session to approve the process of securing medicines for dialysis and cancer patients, which Mikati deems an absolute necessity.

The FPM refuses to hold any Cabinet session in light of the presidential vacuum in order to prevent Mikati from exercising the powers of the Christian president, especially since the movement believes the caretaker government has no right to play this role.

As the country experiences a devastating economic crisis, eight attempts by Lebanon’s divided parliament to elect a president have failed after the term of President Micael Aoun ended over a month ago.

Aoun’s son-in-law Bassil has indirectly presented himself as a presidential candidate, given that his parliamentary bloc is the largest Christian bloc and has the right to nominate the future president.

Bassil rejects the candidacy of former Minister Suleiman Frangieh for the post, who is supported by Hezbollah and Amal.

In a press conference, Bassil said that the Cabinet session on Monday was “unconstitutional, illegal and unconventional,” describing it as “an execution of the constitution and a fatal blow to (the) Taif Agreement.”

The FPM ministers boycotted the Cabinet session, with the exception of the Minister of Industry George Boushkian, who secured the quorum for the session. His behavior resulted in his party, the Tashnak, an ally of the FPM’s, renouncing him for not abiding by its decision to boycott the session.

The FPM website stated that “Hezbollah contributes to the normalization of the vacuum and the assault on the president’s position.”

Bassil indirectly addressed Hezbollah, saying: “If someone thinks that they are pressuring us on the presidential issue, we would like to tell them that it will not work.

“We will not attend the parliament sessions if we do not find a great national need to do so, and we will seek to abandon the blank vote quicker and go for a presidential candidate.”

MP Michel Moussa, a member of the Development and Liberation parliamentary bloc headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, downplayed the possibility of any change in the political map at the level of the presidential elections as a result of the tensions following the Cabinet session. “Not electing a new president contributes to deepening these conflicts,” he said.

Moussa stressed the need to conduct a serious and effective dialogue between all parties to calm tensions and elect a president.

Hezbollah avoided commenting on Bassil’s statements.

MP Bilal Abdullah, a member of the Democratic Gathering bloc, said: “One party has unsuccessfully tried to raise the sectarian discourse. Hezbollah did not respond.”

A political observer, preferring anonymity, said: “Hezbollah, by participating in the Cabinet session, tried to assure Bassil that it was not alone on the scene.”

The Sovereign Front for Lebanon, which opposes Hezbollah, stressed that the MPs must remain in the parliament hall until a new president is elected for the sake of the country and the constitution.

Jordanian, Egyptian and Iraqi foreign ministers discuss opportunities for trilateral cooperation

Jordanian, Egyptian and Iraqi foreign ministers discuss opportunities for trilateral cooperation
Updated 07 December 2022

Jordanian, Egyptian and Iraqi foreign ministers discuss opportunities for trilateral cooperation

Jordanian, Egyptian and Iraqi foreign ministers discuss opportunities for trilateral cooperation
  • They identified potential areas in which their nations could work together in the fields of politics, economics, security and industry

AMMAN: The foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, Ayman Safadi, Sameh Shoukry and Fuad Hussein, met on Wednesday to discuss ways in which the strategic integration of their countries might be boosted through a trilateral cooperation mechanism, the Jordan News Agency reported.

They reportedly identified potential areas for cooperation in politics, economics, security and industry, and recommended that efforts continue to move forward toward signing agreements.

Safadi and Shoukry expressed the full support of their countries for stability and security in Iraq and congratulated the nation on the formation of its new government.

The three ministers also discussed regional issues of mutual interest, including the Palestinian cause. In addition, they agreed to maintain institutional communications to facilitate upcoming projects and plans and overcome economic challenges that requiring systematic cooperation.