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.”

FASTFACTS

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.

 


Iran says nuclear deal still possible despite Qatar talks setback

Iran says nuclear deal still possible despite Qatar talks setback
Updated 9 sec ago

Iran says nuclear deal still possible despite Qatar talks setback

Iran says nuclear deal still possible despite Qatar talks setback
TEHRAN: Iran insisted Thursday that a revived nuclear agreement with major powers remains achievable despite a negative US assessment of two-way talks in Qatar intended to reboot the stalled negotiations.
The US State Department said the EU-brokered proximity talks in the Qatari capital Doha had concluded late Wednesday with “no progress made.”
But Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said he believed the talks had been “positive” and a deal could still be reached.
“We are determined to continue negotiating until a realistic agreement is reached,” he said after a phone call with his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, who hosted the indirect talks.
“Our assessment of the recent round of talks in Doha is positive,” he said.
“I insist on the fact that we are making serious efforts to reach a good, solid and lasting agreement,” said Amir-Abdollahian.
“An accord is achievable if the United States is realistic.”
The two days of talks, in which EU mediators shuttled between Iranian and US delegations, were intended to reboot wider negotiations between Iran and major powers in Vienna which have been stalled since March.
The talks aim to bring the United States back into a 2015 deal jettisoned by the Donald Trump administration in 2018 by lifting the sweeping economic sanctions he imposed in exchange for Iran’s return to full compliance with the limits set on its nuclear activities.
Washington has “made clear our readiness to quickly conclude and implement a deal on mutual return to full compliance,” the US State Department spokesperson said after the talks wrapped up in Qatar.
“Yet in Doha, as before, Iran raised issues wholly unrelated to the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) and apparently is not ready to make a fundamental decision on whether it wants to revive the deal or bury it.”
Differences between Tehran and Washington have notably included Iran’s demand that its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be removed from a US terror list.
The talks in Doha came just two weeks before US President Joe Biden makes his first official visit to the region, with trips to Iran foes Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Egyptian PM asks Algeria to advance political and economic relations

Egyptian PM asks Algeria to advance political and economic relations
Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly is currently in talks with Algerian officials. (File/AFP)
Updated 30 June 2022

Egyptian PM asks Algeria to advance political and economic relations

Egyptian PM asks Algeria to advance political and economic relations

CAIRO: Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly is currently in talks with Algerian officials on the advancement of political and economic relations between the two countries during his two-day visit.

Madbouly and the high-level ministerial delegation accompanying him arrived at Houari Boumediene International Airport in the Algerian capital on Wednesday evening to head the eighth session of the joint higher committee between the two countries.

Algerian Prime Minister Ayman bin Abd Al-Rahman welcomed Madbouly, expressing Algeria’s pride in the strong relations with Egypt and its keenness to strengthen cooperation with the country.

It is expected that the visit will comprise meetings with senior Algerian officials and will see the signing of a number of memoranda of understanding between the two sides, especially in the oil and housing sectors. The Egyptian-Algerian Business Leaders’ Forum will also be held to review investment and trade opportunities available in the two countries.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune paid an official visit to Egypt last January, during which he met with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

Tebboune said that his talks with the Egyptian president “presented an opportunity to address economic cooperation” and facilitate investment between the two countries.

At the beginning of this month, Algeria and Egypt agreed on the need to transform their historical relations into “reciprocal partnerships” in the oil sector.

This came during official talks between the Algerian Minister of Energy and Mines Mohammed Arkab and the Egyptian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tarek El Molla, which took place through a remote meeting.


Critics of Iran’s pandemic mismanagement must be freed, urges rights group

Critics of Iran’s pandemic mismanagement must be freed, urges rights group
Updated 30 June 2022

Critics of Iran’s pandemic mismanagement must be freed, urges rights group

Critics of Iran’s pandemic mismanagement must be freed, urges rights group
  • Five activists face up to four-year jail terms for engaging in constitutional rights

LONDON: Iranian authorities are facing pressure from a leading human rights NGO to quash the convictions of five activists who face up to four years in prison for filing a complaint against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mehdi Mahmoudian and Mostafa Nili were each sentenced to four-year jail terms and two-year bans from media appearances, while Arash Keykhosravi, Mohammadreza Faghili, and Maryan Afrafaraz face two years, one year, and 95 days in prison respectively.
Human Rights Watch is calling for their release amid a broader crackdown on political activism by the Tehran regime.
Tara Sepehri Far, a senior Iran researcher at HRW, said: “Sending human rights defenders to prison for attempting to hold the government accountable for its dismal mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis is sadly an unsurprising outcome in Iran.
“Iranian judicial authorities seem more concerned with protecting the state from scrutiny than delivering justice for ordinary people.”
The convictions follow the August 2021 arrests of seven human rights defenders, four of whom are lawyers, as they prepared to file the complaint in the court under Iranian law over the authorities’ mismanagement of the pandemic response.
Under article 34 of the Iranian Constitution, “it is the indisputable right of every citizen to seek justice by recourse to a competent court” with articles 170 and 173 stating every citizen has the right to complain before a court when the government’s rules and regulations conflict with laws or norms.
The country’s national pandemic task force was specifically identified in their complaint, with the health minister and other officials also facing the scrutiny of the activists.
Of the seven arrested, Leila Heydari and Mohammad Hadi Erfanian, both lawyers, were released without charge after a few hours, with the rest facing charges including “establishing an illegal group” and “propaganda against the state.”
Mahmoudian is already serving a four-year prison sentence he received on what HRW calls “politically motivated” charges of “propaganda against the state,” and “assembly and collusion to act against national security.”
These charges were brought for his support for victims of state repression including for calling for a vigil for the victims of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in January 2020.
Sepehri Far added: “Human rights defenders in Iran should be able to carry out their peaceful activities without fear of state reprisal.”
Despite being hit by more than 140,000 deaths linked to COVID-19, Iranian authorities initially banned procuring vaccines produced in the US and Britain, choosing instead to prioritize and promote the production of a domestic vaccine with substantial government resources.


Senior UK politicians warn new Iran nuclear deal would ‘destabilize Middle East’

Senior UK politicians warn new Iran nuclear deal would ‘destabilize Middle East’
The changes include introduction of a stricter monitoring regime of Iranian nuclear activity. (File/AFP)
Updated 30 June 2022

Senior UK politicians warn new Iran nuclear deal would ‘destabilize Middle East’

Senior UK politicians warn new Iran nuclear deal would ‘destabilize Middle East’
  • Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs support former Conservative cabinet ministers urging changes to the new draft agreement

LONDON: Three former British cabinet ministers are set to warn that a renegotiated Iran nuclear deal would destabilize the Middle East, in a warning shot to government support for the agreement.

Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, former Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, and former Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb are all backing a motion to be debated in Parliament that lists a string of proposed changes to the draft they say will impede Tehran’s drive towards nuclear weapons.

The changes include introduction of a stricter monitoring regime of Iranian nuclear activity and taking a tougher approach to policing Iran’s “destabilizing” activities.

The motion to be debated today states: “This House expresses grave concern at the imminent prospect of a nuclear armed Iran; calls on the Government in its ongoing negotiations in respect of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement to seek to extend the sunset clauses, enact a stricter monitoring regime, retain terrorist proscriptions, and expand its scope to include Iran’s other destabilising activities in the region.”

The Tory MPs and supporters from opposition parties Labour and the Liberal Democrats are understood to be concerned by the current reworked agreement, which remains subject to negotiations, and is looking to replace the 2015 deal that the US withdrew from under former President Donald Trump.

That original Iran nuclear deal, termed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed with the UK, the US, China, France, Germany, Russia and the EU, and saw Tehran agree to curb its nuclear development in return for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Jenrick said: “The JCPOA was an inadequate response to Iran’s nuclear programme back in 2015. Why would we return to the deal when it has singularly failed to curtail Iran’s uranium enrichment?

“At this critical juncture, the West urgently needs to change tack in its strategy. Weakly tolerating Iran’s aggression and flagrant breaches out of fear of talks collapsing has led us down a dangerous path. It is time for a more robust approach, reimposing snapback sanctions on Iran and tightening the economic screw until Iran is willing to countenance serious proposals.”

He added: “The UK should follow in the footsteps of the US and proscribe the Iranian revolutionary guards corps a terrorist organisation.”


UAE sends tons of food aid to Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria

UAE sends tons of food aid to Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria
Updated 30 June 2022

UAE sends tons of food aid to Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria

UAE sends tons of food aid to Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria
  • There are currently over 90,000 Ukraine refugees in Bulgaria

DUBAI: The UAE has dispatched a plane carrying 52 metric tons of food supplies to support Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria, Emirates news agency (WAM) reported on Thursday.

The aid comes as part of efforts “to alleviate the humanitarian impact faced by Ukrainian refugees” in nearby countries, the statement read.

There are currently over 90,000 Ukraine refugees in Bulgaria.

Earlier this month, the UAE sent a plane carrying 27 tons of food and medical supplies to Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

Since the outset of the war in Ukraine, the country has dispatched six planes to Poland and Moldova, carrying 156 tons of food and medical aid and ambulances, as part of a $5m donation.