Tunisia’s Hunger Games

In June 2023, a woman waited for the last customer to leave a grocery store in La Marsa, in northeastern Tunisia. She mumbled to the shopkeeper, “Do you have it?” The shopkeeper took her to a back room and handed her a small packet wrapped in a dark bag. Once she got home, she opened the bag and showed it to her husband. She had managed to secure a bag of coffee. Just a month earlier, she had to go through the same process to get butter, and prior to that, to obtain rice.

Amid widespread shortages of basic products in Tunisia, grocery store owners have become like black marketeers, in one manifestation of Tunisia’s growing food crisis. More than a quarter of Tunisians experience severe food insecurity today. Part of the problem is external, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the effects of climate change have inflated food prices. But government policies have exacerbated the situation. Subsidies and government price caps force farmers and manufacturers to produce some food items at a loss. They have little incentive to increase production to meet demand. Meanwhile, the government’s economic crisis has left it unable to finance food imports.

The circumstances have driven individuals to illicit activities to meet their basic needs. The prevalence of wasta, the need for connections and favors to secure jobs and opportunities, was one of the drivers of Tunisia’s revolution 12 years ago. Today, wasta is needed even for necessities. Tunisians must establish connections with shop owners and rely on a network tuned in to the constantly shifting rules of access and availability of goods merely to go grocery shopping.

President Kais Saied blamed his political opponents and speculators for the food crisis. A government campaign against price hikes and hoarding exposed rampant speculation. These investigations have left many Tunisians unsure of what to believe, helping some to escape accountability.

The slogan that started the Arab Spring in Tunisia in 2011, was “Bread, water, and no more of Ben Ali”. Almost 12 years later, Ben Ali may be gone, but bread and water are in increasingly short supply.