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Tunisia's stale economy sees shoppers go home with empty bread baskets

Tunisia is in the midst of a deep financial crisis, with supermarkets running low on basic foodstuffs while the government contends with an IMF bailout package
Tunisians queue up to buy bread a bakery in the capital Tunis on 7 August 2023 (MEE/Stephen Quillen)
By Stephen Quillen in Tunis

It's 7am and a queue has already formed outside the public bakery in Tunisia's Bab Jedid neighbourhood.

Baguettes, priced at just $0.07, are flying off the shelves, as Tunisians, young and old, rush to buy the daily staple running in short supply. 

"You have to get here early, otherwise you won't get any bread," an elderly man told Middle East Eye as he waited in line to pay the cashier.

"I sometimes have to stand in line for 15 minutes or longer just to get baguettes."

Across the country, similar scenes are unfolding.

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From the northern city of Bizerte to the southern towns of Djerba and Tataouine, Tunisians are complaining of long queues and dwindling bread supplies.

A vital component in every Tunisian family's diet, bread is essential for homemade dishes such as mloukhia, ojja and shakshuka. 

But it's not just bread that's becoming hard to come by. Other wheat-based products, such as flour, couscous and pasta, are increasingly scarce, along with other staples such as rice and sugar.

'If you wait till noon you won't find [bread] anywhere'

- Alaeddine, Sidi Bouzid resident

In the capital's affluent neighbourhoods, where delicacies such as foie gras can be found in speciality stores, supermarket shelves are often running on empty on basic staples.

"If you wait till noon you won't find [bread] anywhere," Alaeddine, a resident of the central town of Sidi Bouzid, told MEE.

"And forget about finding it at a regular store or supermarket - it will only be [available] at a bakery."

At the root of the problem, economists say, is the government's struggle to cover subsidies, which many Tunisians have relied on for decades.

"The Tunisian state has always prioritised access to basic goods, particularly food staples such as bread, pasta and couscous," Tunisian economist Tarak Bouacida told MEE.

"But with the economic crisis, this is becoming more difficult."

War in Ukraine

With a multi-billion dollar budget deficit and mounting international debt payments, the government stopped selling subsidised flour to hundreds of private bakeries last week, triggering strikes and protests on Monday. 

The North African nation produces an average of 1.1 million tonnes of wheat per year, but consumption is estimated to be around three million tonnes.

Meeting less than half of its domestic needs, Tunisia relies heavily on Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Greece and Romania for its wheat supplies. But this year, to make matters worse, the wheat harvest fell by a staggering 60 percent due to a severe drought, compounding the bread crisis.

Tunisia's economy has also been in a state of tumult since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, with political unrest, the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine hurting state coffers.

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The war in Ukraine has also meant that cereal-based products have disappeared regularly, leading to a dearth of products in shops and supermarkets.

A lack of improvement in the state of the economy since President Kais Saied's 2021 power grab has seen the issue of wheat fall lower on his government's list of priorities.

According to the non-governmental Association for the Fight against the Rentier Economy (ALERT), Tunisia is a year late in paying its subsidies to the national grain agency, forcing it to reduce hard wheat imports by 30 percent this year. 

Fadhel Kaboub, an economics professor at Denison University and president of the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, said that Tunisia's bread shortage - along with its general food subsidy challenges - was a result of decades of failed policies.

"The underlying problem is that we've lost our food sovereignty," Kaboub told MEE, adding that the decision to push farmers towards export-oriented cash crops, like strawberries, came at the expense of essential foodstuffs. 

"We are always importing more than we export. And we are not borrowing to invest, we are borrowing to consume."

'The beginning of the end'

To limit its wheat imports, several Tunisian governments have made efforts to address the issue, either by gradually increasing prices or decreasing the size of a standard loaf.

However, some of these attempts have triggered widespread anger and even public outrage. In 1984, under pressure from the IMF, the government of then President Habib Bourguiba completely ended wheat and semolina subsidies, causing bread prices to increase by 100 percent.

As a result, the country witnessed the nationwide "Bread Riots" that left 150 people dead before the policy was reversed. 

Saied, who has been negotiating a $1.9m loan package with the IMF, has been reticent to slash subsidies, leaving the deal at an impasse.

To address the shortage, he's said that there should be only "one type of bread", and taken steps to stop private bakeries from using subsidised flour in their ingredients to produce other varieties that cost slightly more. 

Tunisians queue up to buy bread a bakery in the capital Tunis on 07 August 2023 (MEE/Stephen Quillen)
Tunisians queue up to buy bread a bakery in the capital Tunis on 7 August 2023 (MEE/Stephen Quillen)

Since 1 August, the Ministry of Commerce has blocked more than 1,500 private bakers from purchasing subsidised flour, putting their businesses at risk and leading to demonstrations. 

"The government could try to come up with a creative way to cut subsidies that gives the IMF what they want without it being too noticeable to the public," Kaboub said. "But it is hard to anticipate how this could play out."

The only sustainable solution to Tunisia's food security problem "is a coherent and comprehensive strategy to invest in food sovereignty and agroecology", he added. 

For many working-class Tunisians the idea of ending subsidies is unthinkable.

"This must be only temporary," said Nourdine, a regular customer at the public bakery in Bab Jedid. "An end to subsidies would lead to chaos."

But Mohamed, who runs the bakery, thinks the writing's already on the wall.

"I think this is the beginning of the end of subsidised bread," he told MEE. "If this the case, the Tunisian people will be the ultimate victims."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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