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.

 


Lebanon's banks to reopen on Monday - statement

Lebanon's banks to reopen on Monday - statement
Updated 7 sec ago

Lebanon's banks to reopen on Monday - statement

Lebanon's banks to reopen on Monday - statement

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s banks will reopen on Monday, with each taking their own measures, the country’s banking association said in a statement on Sunday.
The country’s banks have shut for about five days following a spree of bank hold-ups by depositors seeking access to their savings.


At UNGA, UAE minister demands return of 3 islands seized by Iran

At UNGA, UAE minister demands return of 3 islands seized by Iran
Updated 11 min 35 sec ago

At UNGA, UAE minister demands return of 3 islands seized by Iran

At UNGA, UAE minister demands return of 3 islands seized by Iran

NEW YORK: The United Arab Emirates on Saturday urged Iran to return to the Gulf state the three islands it had been illegally occupying for the past five decades.

In an address before the General Debate of the 77th United Nations General Assembly in New York City, Reem Al Hashimy, UAE's Minister of State for International Cooperation, said Iran's occupation of the three islands was a violation of the sovereignty.

"... we renew our demand for an end to Iran's occupation of the three UAE islands: Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa – the UAE’s sovereignty over which is proven by history and international law," Hashimy said.

Iran seized the three islands in November 1971 shortly after British forces were pulled out. The islands are all located in the Strait of Hormuz between the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

"Despite the UAE’s sincere calls to peacefully resolve this conflict over the past five decades, we stress here that Iran has not responded. We will never relent in voicing our claim to these islands either through direct negotiations or through the International Court of Justice, as is our legitimate right," Hashimy said.

Iran has been accused by its Arab neighbors and members and the West of seeking to destabilize the region by funding and arming its proxy militias, including the Hezbollah of Lebanon, the Houthis of Yemen, and other militants in the Palestinian territories and in Iraq.

On Sunday, the UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan met with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

During the meeting, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed called for strengthening international cooperation to achieve stability and peace in the region and achieve the aspirations of people, according to a statement on the Emirates News Agency (WAM).

Both officials discussed bilateral relations and ways to enhance cooperation between the two countries to achieve their common interests. They also exchanged views on regional and international developments and reviewed several issues on the agenda of the General Assembly.

 

 


Palestinian killed by Israeli fire in West Bank

Palestinian killed by Israeli fire in West Bank
Updated 25 September 2022

Palestinian killed by Israeli fire in West Bank

Palestinian killed by Israeli fire in West Bank

NABLUS: Israeli troops killed a Palestinian militant in the occupied West Bank on Sunday, Palestinian sources said, with Israel’s army saying soldiers fired on “armed suspects” during a routine patrol.
The army said that “hits were identified” after soldiers fired toward “armed suspects driving in a vehicle and a motorcycle” near Nablus in the northern West Bank, an area that has seen near daily violence in recent months.
The Palestinian health ministry named the man killed as Saed Al-Koni.
A loose coalition of fighters called “The Lions Den” that has recently emerged in Nablus claimed Koni as one of their members.
Among the members of this group was teenager Ibrahim Al-Nabulsi, who has become a folk hero on social media since his killing by Israeli forces in August. Pendants of Al-Nabulsi are on sale in the markets of Nablus Old City.
Koni’s death was the second in the Nablus area in the past two days.
On Saturday, a Palestinian driver was killed by Israeli troops after what the army called an “attempted ramming attack,” but which Palestinians said was a traffic accident.
The army said soldiers and police opened fire on a vehicle after the driver “attempted to run them over” during a patrol outside Nablus.
The Palestinian foreign ministry described Muhammad Ali Hussein Awad, 36, as a “defenseless Palestinian” who was not “posing any danger.”
“The Israeli police deliberately shot Awad, with the aim of killing him, after his vehicle collided with a police vehicle in a traffic accident,” the ministry said.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six Day War of 1967.
Israeli forces have faced criticism over their frequent use of lethal force in response to perceived threats.
Israel is on high alert ahead of the Jewish high holiday season which begins on Sunday evening with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.
Since March, Israel has launched hundreds of raids in the northern West Bank, including Nablus and nearby Jenin, in pursuit of individuals it accuses of involvement in deadly attacks targeting Israelis.
The raids have sparked clashes that have killed dozens of Palestinians.


President Alimi, UN Secretary General discuss peace efforts in Yemen

President Alimi, UN Secretary General discuss peace efforts in Yemen
Updated 25 September 2022

President Alimi, UN Secretary General discuss peace efforts in Yemen

President Alimi, UN Secretary General discuss peace efforts in Yemen

Dubai: Head of the Presidential Leadership Council in Yemen, Rashad al-Alimi, discussed on Saturday peace efforts with Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly's meetings.
Alimi welcomed the role of the UN and its secretary general’s efforts to stop the war in Yemen and to alleviate the severity of Yemen's crisis, state news agency SABA reported.
Alimi discussed the latest developments in Yemen, economic, service and right reforms adopted by the Presidential Council and the government..
The secretary general confirmed the commitment of the UN in supporting the presidential council and the government and mobilizing necessary resources to alleviate humanitarian suffering.
He also confirmed employing all efforts to tighten the truce and renewing it, resuming the political process and enabling Yemeni people to build their state.


German Chancellor arrives in UAE after Saudi Arabia visit

German Chancellor arrives in UAE after Saudi Arabia visit
Updated 25 September 2022

German Chancellor arrives in UAE after Saudi Arabia visit

German Chancellor arrives in UAE after Saudi Arabia visit
  • Scholz is scheduled to visit Qatar before going back to Berlin on Sunday night

DUBAI: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrived in the UAE Saturday night on the second leg of a two-day tour to the Gulf region.

Scholz was welcomed by the UAE’s Minister of Climate Change and Environment, Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, and several officials at the Presidential Terminal of the Abu Dhabi International Airport, the Emirates News Agency (WAM) reported.

Earlier, Scholz left Saudi Arabia after meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Both leaders reviewed aspects of Saudi-German relations and areas of partnership between the two countries, in addition to discussing prospects for bilateral cooperation and opportunities for its development in accordance with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.

Scholz, accompanied by a large delegation that includes representatives of several economic sectors, is scheduled to visit Qatar before going back to Berlin on Sunday night.