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.
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

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

Indian PM Calls for Unity Amid Tense Climate Over Beef Attacks

Recent series of beef-related incidents seen as signs of rising intolerance toward Muslims and other religious minorities More

Why These Are New York City's Most Treasured Spaces

Under threat of jail time and fines, some New York property owners are not allowed to renovate their spaces without prior approval More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs