Tunisia – Ilyes, a local artisan, looks right and then left and whispers, “Would you like milk? I can get you milk,” in the slightly dodgy way someone might try to sell a more unsavory product.
However, obtaining butter is much more difficult. Ilyes sucks air through his teeth: “It’s difficult,” he says, shaking his head. “The milk is ready for today, but I can bring you some tomorrow,” and the deal is sealed.
Packets of butter are rarely seen on supermarket shelves, and the once butter-laden croissants that Tunisians love are now labeled as made with margarine. The well-heeled artisan butter sells for 13 Tunisian dinars ($4.1) per 200g, about three times the usual price.
Semi-skimmed milk is subsidized to the consumer, but farmers are not supported, and the national herd of cattle has shrunk in recent years.
President Kais Saied has previously blamed food shortages on speculators, but his opponents say he is to blame for his failure to revive the country’s economy ahead of Saturday’s general election. The majority of the opposition will boycott, saying the vote is illegitimate.
deficiency “permanent issue of life”
Coffee is the elixir of life for Tunisians, but without milk, cafes often only serve black coffee.
Radhouan, who works at a leading chain of coffee merchants, said: “We have problems with the classic blend because the bureau of commerce only imported 60 percent of what the country needs, and that has to be shared with every cafe and shop in the country.”
The regular coffee used in cafes is subsidized, and all coffee is purchased by the state. But as the state’s foreign exchange reserves are depleted, imports are affected.
Coffee traders rely on the state bureau of commerce to facilitate most imports, while paying separately for specialty items like new blends from Peru and Bolivia.
“Now we’re having trouble importing these new varieties because of the Office du Commerce,” says Radhouan while rolling his eyes and pretending.
Food, medicine and fuel shortages have been a recurring theme in Tunisian life throughout 2022. Many people are upset that after so many promises, Saied has focused on political changes – like introducing a new constitution – rather than finding economic solutions to their most pressing needs.
The toxic combination of soaring inflation and the global financial crisis is affecting Tunisians across class lines.
Bab Souika, a normally busy, popular neighborhood with a traditional market on the edge of Tunis’ old medina, seems less crowded these days.
Butchers can only sell cheap cuts of meat, while spice shops adorned with dried red peppers are still stocked with canned and dried goods that few people buy.
Fishmongers no longer sell high-end fish like sea bass, instead stocking up on small fish that people can afford. Where the market opens onto Halfaouine Square, at the foot of the Saheb Ettabaa Mosque, there are fruit stalls selling spoiled apples instead of the fresher fruit previously available.
The situation is similar with the supermarkets. The shelves at the local branch of Aziza, a local supermarket chain, seem to be constantly empty. Supermarkets across the country have gaping holes in their shelves where produce used to be. In this aisle, it’s the fizzy drinks that are no longer available.
Mohammed, a shelf stacker at Aziza, looks at the labels to remember what was there.
“I’m not sure why there’s no lemonade, I don’t know, a lot of products are missing, like rice and tea and coffee,” says Mohammed, pointing to another gap on the shelves. “But it’s not just missing products, it’s the prices, look at this bottle of oil, 1.8 liters, that’s 18 dinars ($15.7) now, before it was seven ($2.2) or eight dinars ($2.5), it has more than doubled.”
Food shortages and rising prices have highlighted the widening gap between rich and poor in Tunisia.
In La Marsa, one of the city’s more affluent suburbs, luxury cars can still be seen cruising down the freeway past billboards promoting luxury developments in which the well-heeled can invest.
For those with money to spend, there’s no shortage of luxury imports of foie gras and trendy new health food products, selling at multiples of European retail prices.
While the rich are experimenting with black quinoa and tofu, for the poor, a bowl of tomato sauce pasta has become a rare treat. The gap between rich and poor is wide and it is clear that some people are thriving while others are starving.
“Meskeen (poor) Tunisia,” laughs Fatma, a shelf stacker at an urban branch of Monoprix, a French supermarket brand. “We haven’t scheduled any milk deliveries, I can’t remember the last time we had butter and now we’re even running out of canned tomatoes, what next?”