On Sunday 25 September, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in the Tunisian capital of Tunis. The protests were ignited by the severe social and economic crisis, which has engulfed the country. The workers and poor of Tunisia are being crushed under rising inflation and food shortages, which have made the living conditions unbearable for the majority.
The demonstrations on 25 September were an indication of the massive frustrations, simmering underneath the surface. In the poor Douar Hicher district of Tunis, protesters marched down the main street, while others burned car tires in a display of anger. Banners called for jobs, an improvement in living conditions and for a lowering of prices. Meanwhile, protesters shouted slogans such as: “Jobs, freedom and national dignity”. In the Mornag suburb, riot police clashed with youths who had blocked roads in protest against police brutality.
Tunisian capitalism has been in a state of deep crisis for many years, but the instability and chaos on the world-market, triggered by the war in Ukraine, has worsened the economic situation in the country considerably. The crisis of Tunisian capitalism has escalated to a new level, where it is utterly unable to provide even the most basic necessities.
The president, Kais Saied, who last year suspended the parliament and took power in a palace coup, has been attempting to divert the responsibility of the food shortages away from himself and the system he defends. He has instead blamed “speculators” and “selfish hoarders”, who allegedly “hold monopolies” in certain sectors. Doubtless, speculation and hoarding by parasitic elites has exacerbated the situation, but the problems run far deeper: to the very heart of Tunisian capitalism.
Tunisia depends on the import of essential foodstuffs and is therefore highly affected by global price rises. This has left the country unable to pay for the import of several food items. In May, four grain ships were blocked in the port of Sfax for at least a month due to authorities failing to pay the dues. The food shortages are a manifestation of Tunisia’s serious economic crisis and the state’s weakened spending power. As basic foodstuffs become scarce, workers and the poor are forced to spend hours searching for necessities such as sugar, milk, butter, cooking oil and rice.
The food shortages have caused desperate scenes in supermarkets and bakeries across the country, where rationing and empty shelves have become commonplace. One video shows customers in a supermarked scrambling over bags of sugar. This current food shortage comes atop an already bleak situation. In October 2021, 55 percent of Tunisians reported experiencing food insecurity, and the situation has only worsened since then.
The impasse of Tunisian capitalism is forcing many youths to leave the country to escape a life of poverty, unemployment and hunger. The so-called central Mediterranean migration route, passing from Tunisia to Italy, has been used by 42,500 migrants between January and July this year - an increase of 44 percent compared to the same period last year! Tunisians now represent the biggest group of migrants arriving in Italy.
While the price of food has skyrocketed, the masses are being squeezed by a general level of inflation which currently stands at 9 percent. On top of the high inflation level, in early September the government raised the price of cooking gas cylinders by 14 percent and fuel by 3 percent. The price rises on gas and fuel were dictated by Tunisia's international lenders, namely the IMF, who for months has been negotiating with the Tunisian authorities over a bailout.
IMF and other vultures
The Tunisian economy is going through possibly its deepest-ever economic crisis. The state budget deficit for 2022 is expected to be 9.7 percent of GDP, the value of the currency is declining and public debt is expected to reach 82.6 percent of GDP by the end of the year. Along with Ukraine and El Salvador, Tunisia is on Morgan Stanley’s top three list of countries most likely to default on their debt.
The severe economic crisis has made the Tunisian government turn to the IMF, hoping to secure a $4 billion IMF loan. But loans from the vultures in the IMF always come with conditions. The IMF dictates harsh austerity, such as a freeze of public sector wages and recruitment and cutting food and energy subsidies. These austerity measures are a direct attack on the workers and the poor, who are being made to pay the full brunt of the failure of the system.
Ironically, the current crisis of Tunisian capitalism was intensified by the exact same IMF-imposed austerity policies. Over the last decade several governments (‘Islamist’ and ‘secular’ alike) have pursued a policy of seeking IMF loans, which all came with heavy strings attached: cuts in public spending, privatisation of state owned companies, lifting of subsidies on basic products, and mass lay offs of public sector workers.
These policies of the past have only further aggravated the economic instability, as well as deepening the country’s domination by imperialism. Instead of economically stabilising weak states, the IMF loans keep countries like Tunisia in poverty and dominated by world imperialism through an ever increasing unpayable debt.
Last time the Tunisian government attempted to remove food subsidies, as demanded by the IMF, it sparked an uprising known as the 1984 Bread Riot. Under the current desperate social conditions, similar austerity measures would very likely provoke a generalised movement against the regime of Kais Saied and the system as a whole.
The need for a revolutionary leadership
Capitalism has proven itself utterly incapable of providing any future for the workers and youth of Tunisia. Its weak ruling class, completely dependent on foreign capital, has failed to satisfy the most basic demands of the 2011 revolution: economic progress and democratic rights. Instead, the Tunisian masses today face hunger and the oppressive regime of Kais Saied, who over the last year has concentrated huge amounts of state power into his hands.
The entire system is discredited. The fact that only 30 percent of the population participated in the constitutional referendum in July illustrates a massive rejection of Kais Saied and his cronies, who together with their foreign backers are strangling the Tunisian masses. The unbearable social conditions are creating a burning hatred for the elites of the country. Sunday's spontaneous protests showed a glimmer of this accumulated anger. Sooner or later the pent up frustrations will find an outlet, just as it did in the protest movement in the beginning of 2021.
On the basis of capitalism there is no way forward. Only by targeting the root cause of all their problems, the capitalist system, can the workers and youth change society in accordance with the interest of the majority. The masses must take power into their own hands by nationalising the means of production, under the democratic control and administration of the working class. On this basis alone would it be possible to immediately solve the most pressing problems of society.
The lessons of the last 11 years of stormy class struggle show that if the Tunisian masses are to have a dignified existence then they need a leadership capable of leading the coming revolutionary movement towards conquering power. The task of the youth and workers of Tunisia is therefore to study the experiences of the past period, and to build a revolutionary organisation, with roots in the working class, before the next revolutionary movement breaks out.