Dispatch

Tunisia’s Perfect Economic Storm

Crises at home and abroad have touched off food shortages across the country.

A woman carefully chooses her fruit in Tunis, Tunisia, amid an ongoing food and inflation crisis.
A woman carefully chooses her fruit in Tunis, Tunisia, amid an ongoing food and inflation crisis.
A woman carefully chooses fruit at the Bab el-Fella street market in Tunis, Tunisia, on Sept. 1. Rosie Julin photos/Foreign Policy
By , a podcast producer at Foreign Policy.

TUNIS, Tunisia—On Sept. 8, Selma weaved her shopping cart through the Bab el-Fella street market in Tunis to find the best deals. She had traveled for over an hour from her home, pushing past the crowds of back-to-school shoppers. Megaphones with recordings of vendors shouting “One dinar, one dinar” filled the air, in a cacophony of voices. “You have to make a trade: your time, pain, and fatigue in exchange for the cheapest food,” said Selma, who declined to give her last name.

Tunisia’s economic situation has gone from bad to worse over the past year, as the country grapples with an ongoing COVID-19 crisis, soaring energy prices, inflation, and the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine. For vendors in Tunis’s Central Market, that means business is down.

“Even during COVID lockdowns [when the market was open for just three hours a day], it was better than this,” said Hamza Ayari, a lemon vendor in the market. “Before the revolution, [at least] the president was aware of prices at the market,” he said, referring to Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s longtime president who was ousted in Arab Spring protests in 2011.

TUNIS, Tunisia—On Sept. 8, Selma weaved her shopping cart through the Bab el-Fella street market in Tunis to find the best deals. She had traveled for over an hour from her home, pushing past the crowds of back-to-school shoppers. Megaphones with recordings of vendors shouting “One dinar, one dinar” filled the air, in a cacophony of voices. “You have to make a trade: your time, pain, and fatigue in exchange for the cheapest food,” said Selma, who declined to give her last name.

Tunisia’s economic situation has gone from bad to worse over the past year, as the country grapples with an ongoing COVID-19 crisis, soaring energy prices, inflation, and the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine. For vendors in Tunis’s Central Market, that means business is down.

A young man admires pastries at a sweets stall in Tunis' historic Medina
A young man admires pastries at a sweets stall in Tunis' historic Medina

A young man admires pastries at a sweets stall in Tunis’s historic Medina quarter on Sept. 1.

A woman walks down the street in the Medina of Tunis.
A woman walks down the street in the Medina of Tunis.

A woman walks down the street in the Medina quarter of Tunis on Sept. 9.

A boy watches as a chicken is killed in the souks of Tuni.
A boy watches as a chicken is killed in the souks of Tuni.

A boy watches as a chicken is killed in a market in Tunis on Sept. 1.

“Even during COVID lockdowns [when the market was open for just three hours a day], it was better than this,” said Hamza Ayari, a lemon vendor in the market. “Before the revolution, [at least] the president was aware of prices at the market,” he said, referring to Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s longtime president who was ousted in Arab Spring protests in 2011.

Food prices—and the cost of living more generally—have outpaced salaries, forcing many people to cut back. Instead of purchasing their usual cuts of meat, for example, families are forced to buy what one butcher described as the parts usually reserved for dog food. “People are no longer able to purchase more expensive products like lamb or beef,” added the butcher, 24-year-old Saif Saadi.

Saif Saadi (left) and his older brother watch as shoppers pass their butchery on a 107-degree day in Bab el Fella Souk in Tunis.
Saif Saadi (left) and his older brother watch as shoppers pass their butchery on a 107-degree day in Bab el Fella Souk in Tunis.

Saif Saadi (left) and his older brother watch as shoppers pass their butchery in Bab el-Fella on Sept. 8. Temperatures that day reached 107 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Men sit in an all-male cafe in Le Kram, a working class neighborhood just outside of central Tunis.
Men sit in an all-male cafe in Le Kram, a working class neighborhood just outside of central Tunis.

Men sit in an all-male cafe in Le Kram, a working-class neighborhood just outside central Tunis, on Sept. 3.

A family shops for back-to-school supplies on Rue de Algerie in Tunis.
A family shops for back-to-school supplies on Rue de Algerie in Tunis.

A family shops for back-to-school supplies on Rue de Algerie in Tunis on Sept. 9.

This year, the country also faced shortages of basic necessities, including sugar, cooking oil, semolina, flour, and one of the country’s most culturally symbolic foods: bread. “People were stressed out, anxious. Fights were breaking out [in line],” said Safem, a bakery owner at the market, referring to bread lines that formed across the country earlier this year.

The crisis had a political dimension as well, as President Kais Saied sought support for a new constitution in a national referendum this summer. Many analysts viewed the constitution as a shift away from democracy and the referendum as a power grab. It passed in a landslide, though voter turnout was relatively low.

Tunisia is one of the world’s top consumers of wheat products and is a net-importing country. It relies heavily on Ukraine’s wheat production in order to feed its people, particularly the poor. Some analysts believe this trade imbalance is reinforced by financial support from global institutions—which has effectively discouraged Tunisia from growing the food it traditionally consumes. The country is currently negotiating a new aid agreement with the International Monetary Fund, and a deal is expected by the end of October. 

“The loans are not used to improve infrastructure or [to fund] projects which will increase the rate of return,” said Chokri Thabet, an agricultural economist. 

A man pulls his cart past a prickly pear vendor in Tunis’ souks.
A man pulls his cart past a prickly pear vendor in Tunis’ souks.

A man pulls his cart past a prickly pear vendor in Tunis on Sept. 9.

As a result, there’s a growing movement to break this cycle and increase domestic food production. “It’s our policy to look for money abroad to finance agricultural production,” said Layla Riahi of the Food Sovereignty Working Group, a Tunisian nonprofit organization. “It’s like the government is not aware that we are at the limits of starvation here. They are not reacting seriously enough on this issue.”

Rosie Julin is a podcast producer at Foreign Policy.  Instagram: @rosie.julin

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