Food shortages in Tunisia have been exacerbated by empty shelves in supermarkets and bakeries, fueling public discontent over high prices and risking unrest as the government tries to avert a crisis in public finances.

Source: Reuters/Jihed Abidellaoui

Shortages of sugar, vegetable oil, milk and butter, coffee, tobacco and bottled water are widespread, and the situation appears to be worse in poorer regions far from the capital.

Street tea vendor Mustafa Dahech, 82, said he used sugar to make the sweet drink, which he sells in paper cups from a metal teapot, while wandering the narrow lanes of a poor area of ​​Tunis. “There is no sugar. I swear to you it’s not there,” he said, making it difficult for him to raise an income beyond his $55-a-month state pension.

Small protests have already taken place, and the head of the powerful main union UGTT has warned repeatedly in recent months of a “hungry revolution”.

The shortage is partly due to global commodity shortages and rising prices due to disruptions related to the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Shaky finances

However, Tunisia could face more disruptions because its weak fiscal position makes it difficult to buy staples at high international rates and sell them domestically at the same subsidized rate it already enjoys.

The government is seeking aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help it finance its budget and debt repayments, but support is likely to depend on subsidies and public sector wage cuts, as well as restructuring of state-owned companies. Negotiations between the government and the UGTT to agree on these reforms – a likely condition for IMF support – are still stuck.

Without IMF help, Tunisia would likely have to borrow domestically, restricting credit to local businesses in a way that diplomats say could further damage the economy, or use its foreign currency reserves, hurting the dinar and fueling inflation.

The government blamed the shortage on global commodity shortages and domestic hoarders and speculators and denied it was facing problems paying for imports.

Shortages of food and fuel hit Tunisian stores

Earlier this year, the UGTT said the government was struggling to pay for wheat imports. This year, the World Bank, the European Union, Japan and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development provided food aid loans to Tunisia.

Dairy producers demanded government help in fighting inflation in animal feed and other operating costs, which they blamed for the shortage of milk and butter.

A UGTT spokesman said the sugar shortage had led to disruptions at several food factories. Last week, soda factory workers protested threats to their jobs.

The shortage of coffee, which in some shops is distributed at one pack per customer, also led to the temporary closure of some cafes. “We are a coffee shop. We have nothing but coffee to offer our customers,” said Noureddine Ben Hsan, owner of Independence Cafe in Tunis, adding that shortages of coffee, milk and sugar forced him to close.

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