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PoliticsMiddle East

Inflation, boycotts mean turmoil for Tunisia

September 17, 2022

With political conflict escalating and inflation rising, Tunisians are pessimistic and strapped for cash. Many are considering leaving the country. Others are preparing to protest — again.

Tunisians take part in a protest against President Kais Saied's referendum
The referendum on the new constitution was widely boycotted and criticizedImage: Zoubeir Souissi/REUTERS

Kais Alaoui has given up. The 47-year-old hasn't been able to find work since he lost his hotel job on the island of Djerba during the COVID pandemic in 2020.

Now his savings are gone, and, with prices rising, even if he were to find work at a hotel again he wouldn't make enough to meet his needs. "It's impossible to make a living on the average pay of 500 Tunisian dinars [$155/€155] due to the price rise," he told DW.

For now, he has postponed his "dream of having a little family." Instead, he has applied for a position abroad and will soon leave for Northern Ireland. 

Mohamed Denguezli from Tunis also isn't able to afford enough to provide food for his family, even though he considers himself to have a relatively well-earning job. "The situation has changed dramatically," the 38-year-old technician told DW. 

According to the state-run National Institute of Statistics, food price inflation is at its highest in three decades, at close to 12% this August.

A lack of staple foods such as sugar or oil, and what Denguezli calls a "foggy political climate," has kept the family father increasingly worried about a future in his home country.

 A Tunisian protestor holds bread during a demonstration.
Tunisia's difficult economic situation has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and the shortfall of wheat importsImage: Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/picture alliance

The thought of leaving Tunisia, even without a work contract or any other reliable financial basis for living abroad, has occurred to an increasing number of people this year.

According to a recent statement by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, around 13,500 Tunisian migrants made their way to Italy between January and September. This marks an increase of 23%, or 2,500 people, year-on-year. 

Ramadan Ben Omar, a spokesperson for the NGO, has no doubt who to hold responsible. "The Tunisian presidency bears full responsibility for the increase of immigration to Europe," he told the Reuters news agency earlier this week.

Tunisia has been mired in a complicated grid of problems, exacerbated by a controversial political makeover by Tunisia's President Kais Saied ahead of — equally disputed — parliamentary elections in December 2022.

Empty shelves in Tunisian supermarkets as sugar products as biscuits are unavailable in early September 2022
Sugar is pretty much unavailable in Tunisia at the moment, leaving cookies and cakes off supermarket shelvesImage: Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Does Saied have support of the public?

In July 2021, Saied, then in his second year of a five-year-term as president, started ruling by decree. He dissolved the parliament, replaced the government, including the prime minister, and dismantled democratic institutions, like the Supreme Judicial Council.

Saied, however, has since argued that these steps were necessary to end the political paralysis, to erase corruption and to "protect the state from an imminent danger." 

Tunisian President Kais Saied waves to Tunisian citizens
Tunisian President Kais Saied started his authoritarian rule in the second year of his five-year-term in 2021Image: Slim Abid/Tunisian Presidency/AP/picture alliance

However, while he was widely supported by the population at the beginning, these steps have been considered highly controversial by the political opposition.

The coalition against Saied's government, the National Salvation Front, called for a boycott of the public referendum on the new constitution, which grants even more powers to the president. Yet it was passed with 96% 'yes' votes in July, albeit with a low voter turnout rate of 30%.

However, for Sami Hamdi, managing director of the London-based analysis firm The International Interest, the low turnout also "reflects the absence of significant popular support for Saied."

Anthony Dworkin, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, disagrees — for now. "Saied remains by far the most popular and trusted political figure in the country," he told DW.

"Without anyone else to turn to, it seems that many people still hope that he will attend to their economic and social concerns," Dworkin said.

At the same time, he believes that "there is little interest in Saied's constitutional agenda and he would be unwise to think that his support is secure in the longer term."


'Dangerous strategy to wait for public unrest'

On Thursday, Saied published a draft presidential decree in the run-up to parliamentary elections on December 17. A day earlier, however, the National Salvation Front had called for a boycott of the election.

"We are not recognizing illegitimate elections, since they represent a perversion of the democratic process," Jawhar ben Mobarak, head coordinator of the National Salvation Front, told DW.

For him, it's obvious that the election mainly serves to "endorse the coup, and participation would mean the approval of the coup."

International observers, however, remain doubtful about the impact of the oppositional boycott.

"The momentum of the National Salvation Front has waned significantly. It has been unable to sway a population that continues to blame political parties for the crisis," Hamdi told DW. 

This view is echoed by Dworkin. "It is clear that the opposition's strategy is essentially to wait for economic hardship to turn people away from Saied and the system he has constructed and drive them into the streets," he told DW. "It is a dangerous strategy to wait for public unrest," he warned.

Supporter of Tunisian President Kais Saied celebrate the referendum on the constitution
Saied supporters celebrated the referendum on the constitution, as the opposition called for a boycottImage: ANIS MILI/AFP


Meanwhile, Mohamed Denguezli has lost hope. "I know many people, and some are even quite old, who are seriously considering to leave the country," he said. 

"For most of us there is nothing more important in life than safety and a balanced social climate for raising a family." 

Edited by: Ben Knight

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and political analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.