Tunisians feel 'amputated' as more austerity measures announced

Inflation is expected to reach 10.5 per cent next year, says Minister of Economy

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As Tunisia prepares for another difficult year, many fear that the government’s new austerity measures will make their lives harder.

With inflation expected to reach 10.5 per cent in 2023, the Tunisian government introduced more austerity measures in its new year’s budget in an effort to qualify for a bail out loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Subsidies for basic goods are expected to decrease by 30 per cent and fuel subsidies to be cut by 26 per cent, said Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) economic expert Karim Trabelsi, at a union conference in Hammamet on Tuesday.

Mr Trabelsi said the rise in fuel prices would have an instant effect on food prices, which will continue to rise.

Tunisians await a dimmer fate in 2023

As prices continued to rise in recent months and with shortages of basic goods, Tunisians are no longer surprised by the degrading economic status quo and are buckling up for worse.

Commodity prices have soared since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, placing countries dependent on food and fuel imports at risk of deepening recession. Before then, key sectors of Tunisia's economy, including the vital tourism industry, were battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, while soaring national debt hampered the government's ability to alleviate economic stress.

But many also blame government policies for the worsening economic crisis and doubt that IMF measures will help.

“They amputated the poor’s legs, they ruined us. We no longer have a middle class in Tunisia, you’re either rich or poor. There is no in-between,” said Manel, 49, a “fripe”, or used clothes, seller who spoke to The National at Sidi Bahri market in downtown Tunis.

“Ten years ago you could buy the best clothes for 10 dinars ($3.20) only. Now, even with 50 dinars you can’t buy anything nice, and we [traders] even have no surplus gain any more,” Manel added.

Fellow fripe seller Zied Ben Saleh, 35, agreed. He said he could see the impact of rising living costs in his customers’ eyes.

“Parents would usually come to us to escape the expensiveness of retail sellers, but now instead of the 50 dinars they used to spend to buy new clothes for the whole family, they spend that same amount to only buy one jacket,” Mr Ben Salah explained.

“There’s no business any more. We’re sitting here just scrolling through our phones the whole day.”

The used clothes sector is the latest to announce a 20 per cent rise in prices. The head of the Chamber of Wholesale Used Clothes Dealers, Sahbi Maalaoui, made the announcement on local radio Mosaique on Tuesday.

“People no longer buy from fripes since it’s as expensive as new clothes now. Families can no longer afford to buy clothes for their children,” Zied Ben Salah, who has been selling used clothes for the past seven years, told The National in front of his shop in Sidi Bahri market.

Subsidies become a necessity

Minister of Commerce Fadhila Rabhi said on Monday that subsidies on basic goods would not be lifted next year, but would be preserved, with direct financial transfers to those in greatest need.

However, Tunisians wonder what criteria the government will take into consideration in its gradual lifting of subsidies.

“Subsidies are now a necessity for everyone to make ends meet. How are they going to cut it exactly?” Abdelsalem Hajbi, 67, asked from behind his junk cart in Sidi Bahri market, where he has worked for the past 50 years.

Like many of his fellow Tunisians, Mr Hajbi does not believe there will be any positive changes for working class people like himself who struggle to make five dinars ($1.60) a day.

“Some days you’ll leave empty-handed as you came in the morning and some other days you’d make one dinar or five dinars at best,” Mr Hajbi said. “If you make money you can feed your kids at the end of day. If you don’t, no one would turn to you and lend you a hand, that’s our reality.”

“I don’t think things will get better in our country, we are approaching some tough days.”

Updated: December 27, 2022, 4:02 PM