High prices, food shortages hit Tunisia

An empty shelf is seen at a supermarket in Tunisia on October 10, 2022. Tunisians have been battered by soaring food prices and shortages of basic goods in recent weeks, threatening to turn lingering discontent into North African country _ birthplace of the Arab Spring protests _ into further turmoil.  (HPD Photo/Hassene Dridi)
An empty shelf is seen at a supermarket in Tunisia on October 10, 2022. Tunisians have been battered by soaring food prices and shortages of basic goods in recent weeks, threatening to turn lingering discontent into North African country _ birthplace of the Arab Spring protests _ into further turmoil.  (HPD Photo/Hassene Dridi)
An empty shelf is seen at a supermarket in Tunisia on October 10, 2022. Tunisians have been battered by soaring food prices and shortages of basic goods in recent weeks, threatening to turn lingering discontent into North African country _ birthplace of the Arab Spring protests _ into further turmoil.  (HPD Photo/Hassene Dridi)

An empty shelf is seen at a supermarket in Tunisia on October 10, 2022. Tunisians have been battered by soaring food prices and shortages of basic goods in recent weeks, threatening to turn lingering discontent into North African country _ birthplace of the Arab Spring protests _ into further turmoil. (HPD Photo/Hassene Dridi)

An empty shelf is seen at a supermarket in Tunisia on October 10, 2022. Tunisians have been battered by soaring food prices and shortages of basic goods in recent weeks, threatening to turn lingering discontent into North African country _ birthplace of the Arab Spring protests _ into further turmoil. (HPD Photo/Hassene Dridi)

TUNISIA (HPD) — Rising food prices and shortages of basic goods in recent weeks are hitting Tunisians and threatening to turn lingering unrest in the North African country — the birthplace of the Arab Spring protests — into a tinderbox.

Sugar, vegetable oil, rice and even bottled water periodically disappear from supermarkets. People queue for hours for essential products that have been subsidized for a long time and are now available only in rations. When they appear on the shelves, many people cannot afford the exorbitant prices.

The government blames speculators, black-market hoarders and the war in Ukraine, but experts say the government’s budget crisis and its inability to negotiate a long-term loan from the International Monetary Fund have compounded the country’s problems.

Fights sometimes break out in queues at markets, and there have been isolated protests and sporadic clashes with police over price hikes and product shortages in various parts of the country. In a suburb of the capital, a young fruit vendor recently killed himself after police confiscated the scale he used to weigh produce.

His act of desperation revived memories of the self-immolation of another vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, which sparked the protests that led to the fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and fueled similar protests across the Arab world.

The Ministry of Commerce promised last month that product shortages would ease and announced the import of 20,000 tons of sugar from India in time for the milad, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. But the night before the holiday, citizens formed long queues in front of supermarkets hoping to get a packet of sugar, an essential product for the traditional dishes of the date.

Food is not the only thing that is scarce. Lacking energy resources like those that abound in neighboring Libya and Algeria, Tunisia is dependent on imports and its economic problems mean it has little leverage in international markets to secure the products it needs.

Inflation has reached a record level of 9.1%, the highest in three decades, according to the National Statistics Institute.

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