Finally, some good news for Tunisians: milk was back. Five months ago, this staple food item, fundamental to childrens’ diets, reappeared on the shelves of local grocery stores and supermarkets. This come-back was less the result of government’s efforts before the start of Ramadan to prevent food shortages during the holy month (March 22 – April 21, 2023), and more due to the fact that this period happened to correspond with the high production phase of cows’ lactation cycle.

However, Tunisian households will still have to wait to restock their pantries. For nearly a year now, getting hold of basic necessities, especially food goods, is like being on a constant treasure hunt. Key goods regularly disappear from store shelves for uncertain periods of time, and the situation is not going to improve anytime soon.


When products do finally reappear, they are only briefly available. And because they are distributed to shops in small quantities, stores are forced to impose their own ration systems. Buyers are only entitled to certain amounts—250 grams of coffee, 1 to 1.5 kg of sugar, two packages of flour or semolina, two cartons of milk, etc.

 As a result, Tunisians are faced with revolving shortages since key products are never all available at the same time.

This is not the first time that post-Ben Ali Tunisia has encountered shortages. In the first three years following the country’s revolution, there were several occasions when certain basic commodities became scarce; In July and August 2011, Tunisians struggled to find mineral water and fuel. In 2012, it was mineral water once again. The following year, cement became scarce. However, these shortages were never as frequent nor as prolonged as they have been over the past year.


President Kais Saied expressed concern about the country’s supply of essential commodities from very early on. It has been a key issue for his administration over the past three and a half years, at least according to his speeches.

On August 5, 2021, ten days after the coup on July 25, 2021, President Saied received Bashir Khtiri, the CEO of the Grain Office. During their meeting, the president asserted that no one is to “touch Tunisians’ food.” The CEO assured him that the existing stock of semolina and pasta was sufficient to cover demands until January 2022.

Three days later, the president visited two refrigeration chambers in the governorate of La Manouba. He warned that “anyone who tries to control the food of the Tunisian people and starve them” would find him standing in their way.

The bread crisis: A conspiracy narrative gone stale

As president Kais Saied has explained to Tunisians, the country's bread shortage was orchestrated by certain actors in order to provoke crises and exacerbate the social situation. The Ministry of Commerce has attributed the shortage to consumers’ frenzied and voracious appetite for bread. In the meantime, the structural crisis relating to the country's wheat supply, State control over the sector and commodity subsidies intensifies.

Kais Saied stated that he found it unacceptable that “distribution channels control the quantities of products released into the markets,” that “prices rise excessively” and that “this simultaneously impacts famers’ and consumers’ purchasing power.

The president invoked the subject once again on August 24, 2021, during a meeting with Minister of Commerce Kalthoum Ben Rejeb. Saied urged the ministry to show “more firmness” with those who, according to him, seek to starve the Tunisian people.

On October 13, 2021, just two days after taking office as head of government, Najla Bouden was encouraged by President Saied to use “all legal means available” to win this war, and to “lower prices,” even, if necessary, by fixing them herself. The following day, among the Council of Ministers, the president gave the same instructions to the minister of commerce.


This issue remains a frequent topic of discussion during the weekly Council of Ministers meetings, as well as those the president holds with the minister of trade. These sessions almost inevitably result in the government being called upon to make greater efforts to fight back against speculators.

On November 24, 2021, then Minister of Commerce Fadhila Rabhi was instructed by the president to “find a legal framework for distribution channels, since certain parties have stockpiled food and other products.”

On February 1, 2022, the president issued the same order to the trade and finance ministers, blaming–for the first time–the shortages “on those who are nostalgic for before July 25, 2021”. Saied and his supporters have since played this explanation on repeat. On August 24, 2022, he said that “the occasional absence of certain food products had nothing to do with the state’s financial capacities but is instead the result of concerted attempts to manufacture these crises.

And yet many Tunisians who are neither supporters nor opponents of Kais Saied believe otherwise.

For example, former Trade Minister Mohsen Hassan who can hardly be suspected of hostility towards the current government, believes that “speculation and smuggling are not the only causes of shortages of certain consumer products and rising prices.”

In his opinion, the shortages are due to the lack of a strategic grain stockpile, because early on “Tunisia, like other countries, did not anticipate the crisis.” Then, once the crisis unfolded, “the country was unable to build a good strategic stockpile due to the financial challenges facing the Grain Office and other agencies.

The former minister questions whether the government’s analysis of the food shortage is the product of “the President’s advisors hiding the truth from him”, or if President Saied understands the real causes of the issue “but only wants to talk about part of the problem”.


The representative of the World Bank in Tunisia, Alexandre Arrobio, also blames the shortages on the state’s large financiers. In September 2022, he declared that “ships loaded with grain were indeed in Tunisian ports, but they were not able to unload their cargo because the Office was facing financial challenges.”

However, digging a little deeper, it is clear the repeated shortages are, at least in part, also due to the way Kais Saied views his mission, sets his priorities and runs the country.

In examining the president’s activities since he took office on October 23, 2019, certain characteristics of his leadership that were difficult to discern at first glance become clear. First, economic and financial issues and related structural reforms have not been among Saied’s priorities. He came to power with the firm intention of devoting himself almost exclusively to dismantling the political system established by the January 2014 constitution and replacing it with his “new republic.”

During meetings, the most frequent topics of discussion have been the new political regime, the fight against corruption, placing pressure on judges to apply the law, community-based enterprises, and other issues close to the president’s heart—rather than questions of economy, and, in particular, structural reforms.

The second characteristic of Saied’s tenure is his indecision around what sort of trajectory to pursue regarding these questions, before ultimately becoming openly hostile to one of the most important reforms: eliminating subsidies for basic commodities.

Subsidies for basic goods: The presidency and government scrap it out

After having left government to the task of establishing a program to eliminate subsidies for basic goods, President Kais Saied has switched gears.

Najla Bouden’s government did, however, begin work on this endeavor in preparation for eliminating subsidies. She even announced the creation of a platform to facilitate aid distribution to the segments of the population most likely to be impacted by the removal of subsidies.

At the beginning of January 2023, Trade Minister Fadhila Rabhi had reported that the platform would be launched in February. Three months later, there has been no progress and it remains unclear when the initiative will take effect.

In return for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan of $1.9 billion, the government proposed to implement a “national reform program” to be unveiled at the end of October 2022. Initially, Kais Saied seemed to support this approach and the proposed reforms.

This was the impression he gave during a meeting with the head of the Tunisian Central Bank (BCT), Marouane Abassi, on October 10, 2021. The President of the Republic’s Facebook page reported that the two men discussed the country’s economic and financial situation and “necessary and urgent reforms to be implemented in parallel with political reforms to achieve growth.

However, on November 1, 2021, the president began to backpedal. Once again in a meeting with Abassi—who then explained that “international donors are ready to meet Tunisia’s demands provided that it has a clear vision and clear objectives”—President Saied stated that “economic and social decisions must be rooted in our reality,” stressed “the need to rely, above all, on ourselves” and insisted that “international cooperation be at the service of Tunisia’s needs and within the framework of our national strategy.”

Five months later, Kais Saied has maintained his position, rejecting “the diktats” of the IMF. The question now is whether our nation’s “great helmsman” will be able to bend the will of world’s great financial institution.

Saied’s economic policy: IMF, BRICS and magical thinking

President Saied’s hostile remarks about IMF injunctions have stirred public debate around economic alternatives to pull Tunisia out of crisis. The struggle is bitter between adepts of the classic « structural adjustments » prescribed to save flailing economies, and adherents of the president’s magical thinking-based approach.

Starting September 2023, Nawaat’s Patreon subscribers get early access to English translations of articles from the Nawaat print magazine. This article is part of the translated series and was first published in Nawaat Magazine #8, p.46 . Keep free speech alive in Tunisia. Support Nawaat on Patreon!