News / Africa

Tunisia Protests to Test Subsidy Reforms

Street vendors demonstrate against the government, Tunis, March 13, 2013.
Street vendors demonstrate against the government, Tunis, March 13, 2013.
Reuters
Protests and strikes planned in Tunisia over the next few weeks will test the government's ability to repair its shaky finances — and may affect its efforts to secure a $1.78 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
 
In contrast to neighboring Egypt, where political unrest has put most economic reforms on hold, Tunisia is pressing ahead with tax rises and cuts to expensive government subsidies that are straining the state budget.
 
Last week authorities raised most fuel prices for the second time in six months, lifting petrol prices at the pump by 6.8 percent. Taxes on alcohol increased this month, and several weeks ago the state-controlled milk price rose.
 
Also this month, the government imposed a levy of 1 percent on salaries above 1,700 dinars ($1,075) per month to help fund remaining subsidies on fuel and food.
 
The steps have met a storm of public criticism. The Tunisian Organization for Consumer Protection, a consumer advocacy group, has called for demonstrations this Friday against the fuel price hike and inflation in general, which could draw thousands of people.
 
Taxi drivers plan a one-day strike on March 18 — their first such mass action in years — which may involve thousands of drivers. Gasoline station owners have called for a three-day strike in April, saying higher fuel prices will encourage the sale of gasoline smuggled from Libya.
 
"After the spread of poverty and unemployment, now the middle class is suffering. We can't support deducting 1 percent of salaries, or the crazy rise of food prices and now fuels," said Salem Ben Naceur, a 35-year-old teacher in Tunis.
 
"We will tell them that the people are very angry and to pay attention to our reaction."
 
Political turmoil
 
The government's determination to go ahead with its economic reforms is striking because it follows some of the worst unrest in Tunisia since the uprising that overthrew president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali two years ago.
 
The assassination of secular politician Chokri Belaid on Feb. 6 led to three days of sometimes violent street protests and the resignation of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali. The new prime minister, Ali Larayedh, last week unveiled a coalition cabinet led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, saying it would serve only until elections later this year.
 
With such a limited mandate, the government might be expected to back down on the economic reforms, at least partially. But so far it appears determined to see them through, perhaps because it calculates the economic costs of abandoning them would be prohibitive.
 
Late last year the government projected a large budget deficit of 6 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, and the outcome could be worse because of the economic costs of the recent unrest.
 
At the end of last month Moody's Investors Service cut Tunisia's credit rating to junk territory, joining the other two major rating agencies, and the cost of insuring Tunisian debt against a default jumped to a four-year high — exceeding levels seen during the turmoil of the 2011 revolution.
 
The money which the government is saving through its recent steps may go a considerable way to reassuring debt markets that Tunisia can cut its deficit. Finance Minister Elyess Fakhfakh said the fuel price rise would reduce the cost of subsidies in the 2013 budget by 500 million dinars, to 4.2 billion dinars. The price hike for alcohol would bring in nearly 200 million dinars.
 
Economy Minister Ridha Saidi, speaking last week after the appointment of the new cabinet, said the government would take further measures to reduce the budget deficit, such as trying to cut ministries' fuel consumption by 30 percent. But he insisted the fuel price hike would stay.
 
Tunisia's subsidy reform program is needed partly because, at present, subsidies often end up benefiting wealthier people rather than poorer ones, he argued.
 
IMF loan
 
One problem with such arguments is that they come at a time when consumers are frustrated by high inflation. Depreciation of the Tunisian dinar last year helped to boost annual inflation to a 57-month high of 6.0 percent in January 2013, according to official data; the rate fell back only slightly to 5.8 percent in February. Economists say actual inflation, as experienced by many ordinary people, is around 10 percent.
 
Another problem is that the economic reforms have become embroiled with the specter of foreign involvement in Tunisia's affairs. Many Tunisians believe the government hiked fuel prices on the advice of the IMF, as part of an understanding under which the country would receive its $1.78 billion loan.
 
The IMF said in early February that talks were at "an advanced stage" on Tunisia obtaining the precautionary stand-by loan. The money would come in handy; the central bank's foreign reserves fell to 11.38 billion dinars, or the equivalent of 107 days of imports, in late February from 12.58 billion dinars or 119 days at the end of 2012.
 
Saidi insisted that the fuel price hike was not in response to pressure from the IMF: "The increase in fuel was originally programmed in the 2013 budget and was an independent decision, not imposed by any party including the International Monetary Fund."
 
The IMF has not revealed details of its talks with Tunisia.
 
However, it has made no secret of its desire for North African countries in general to strengthen their state finances with subsidy reforms, and many Tunisians see its hand in government policy.
 
"All prices have risen and high fuel prices will have a serious impact on the economy, on the poor and on middle class consumers," Lotfi Khaldi, head of the Tunisian consumer advocacy group, told a news conference last week.
 
"The decision is a response to conditions of the International Monetary Fund."
 
Concern about the public reaction to a deal with the IMF could conceivably cause the government to delay signing an agreement, as has happened in Egypt.
 
Moez Joudi, a private economist who divides his time between Tunis and Paris, said Tunisia needed an IMF deal because it would have trouble borrowing from the markets after downgrades of its credit rating.
 
But he said the government should avoid imprudent steps that would hurt the middle class, who were needed to revitalize the economy. It should look at steps such as cracking down on smuggling and tax evasion, creating a more equitable tax system and making public spending more efficient, he argued.

You May Like

Video Positive Messaging Helps Revamp Ethiopia's Image

In country once connected with war, poverty, famine, headlines now focus on fast-growing economy, diplomatic reputation More

Russian Activist Thinks Kremlin Ordered Nemtsov's Death

Alexei Navalny says comments of Russian liberals who think government wasn't involved are 'nonsense.' More

Video Land Disputes Rise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Imagei
X
Marthe van der Wolf
March 03, 2015 9:03 PM
Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.
Video

Video Land Disputes Arise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Ugandan police say there has been a sharp increase in land disputes, with 10 new cases being reported each day. The claims come amid an oil boom as investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers. Meanwhile, the people who have been living on the land for decades are chased away, sometimes with a heavy hand. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video In Russia, Many Doubt Opposition Leader's Killer Will Be Found

The funeral has been held in Moscow for Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was assassinated late Friday just meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov joins a growing list of outspoken critics of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin who are believed to have been murdered for their work. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Simulated Astronauts Get Taste of Mars, in Hawaii

For generations, people have dreamed of traveling to Mars to explore Earth's closest planetary neighbor. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that while space agencies like NASA are planning manned missions to the planet, some volunteers in Hawaii are learning how humans will cope with months in isolation on a Mars base.
Video

Video Destruction of Iraq Artifacts Shocks Archaeologists

The city of Mosul was once one of the most culturally rich and religiously diverse cities in Iraq. That tradition is under attack by members of the Islamic State who have made Mosul their capital city. The Mosul Museum is the latest target of the group’s campaign of terror and destruction, and is of grave concern to archaeologists around the world. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More