Tunisians struggle to keep Ramadan spirit as economic crisis persists

Food inflation rate reached 12.1 per cent in January

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At the Sidi Bahri popular supermarket in downtown Tunis, business during Ramadan has been slower than previous years.

As it is for Muslims all around the world, Ramadan for Tunisians is not only a holy month of worship but it is also a chance to bring families together and celebrate traditions.

But Ramadan has turned into another reminder for Tunisians of their country’s visible economic strains and the basic needs they no longer can afford.

“Ramadan has lost its taste,” say most people on the street.

Traditions such as big family and friends gatherings have mostly stopped because of the worsening economic situation.

For one Tunisian, such drastic change makes her feel sad and nostalgic for the old days when the arrival of the holy month meant only joy.

“In the past, all corners of our houses used to be filled [with food], there used to be goodness and bliss everywhere,” says Fatma Hilal, 60, a homemaker. “But now we find ourselves lacking many things and barely buying what we need with these price rises.”

In the past, Tunisians would gather at Ramadan to make oula, which involves preparing meals from things like couscous, spices and dried meat.

Today, only the well-off are able to keep that tradition.

According to the most recent figures from the National Statistics Institute, the overall inflation rate in Tunisia fell to 7.5 per cent in February – compared to 10.4 per cent in the same month last year – but it remains high for food.

Food inflation reached 12.1 per cent in January, with the highest increases reported for coffee (35 per cent), lamb meat and cooking oils (23 per cent) and fresh vegetables (19.3 per cent.)

Mrs Hilal no longer buys fish or red meat.

“There is nothing that you would lay your hand on at the supermarket and actually feel confident that you could afford,” she says.

After working for more than 30 years as a clerk for the Tunis Municipality, Fathi Hanchouch, 67, says that he is now left with a 280 dinars ($90) monthly pension to cover all of his expenses.

“All prices are on fire now and 200 dinars could barely cover one week’s expenses so we find ourselves obliged to buy certain types food and cut it into small portions to consume slowly,” he tells The National at Sidi Bahri market.

He was holding an almost empty shopping basket with only a can of concentrated tomato paste and few leafy vegetables inside, just enough for him to cook a small stew to break his fast at the end of the day.

“I hope they [the state] would show kindness to those who spent their lives working only to end up impoverished at the end like me,” Mr Hanchouch says.

What could be done?

Despite the Tunisian government’s actions to counter the hoarding of certain basic products by wholesalers and their recent announcement that they will be importing food like beef, poultry and certain fruits to boost the local market in preparation for Ramadan, merchants at Sidi Bahri market say that it is a little too late for such measures to work on the ground.

“If you want to actually revive the market, importation is the only solution for prices to stabilise and for citizens to be able to afford meat again,” butcher Mohamed Mlouki, 75, tells The National.

Although the solution may seem clear, it remains nearly impossible to achieve with a crisis in public finances, low foreign currency reserves and the devaluation of the dinar.

“The state keeps lying about importing, they do not have the money for it and the citizen already lost hope and no longer bother to buy [certain food,] Mr Mlouki says.

The situation is even more precarious because of the inherent monopoly of some stakeholders that have maintained their control over the domestic market for decades.

“Red meat prices have only reached this ultimate high because the state had long granted the licence for selling cattle fodder to only one person that has kept using it to dictate the prices in our market,” Ali Aafli, a butcher working at Mr Mlouki's shop said.

Updated: March 23, 2024, 7:41 AM