The Price of Bread
In Tunisia in the early 1980s a standard loaf of white bread cost 80 millimes (0.08 dinars). But the price was set to more than double in 1984: the government had decided to cut wheat subsidies to meet loan conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The town of Douz on the edge of the Sahara was the first to rise up against the decision in late December 1983, in what would become a national revolt.
‘It was a big difference!’ Mohamed Fekih Chedly told me. ‘We acted impulsively, we didn’t have twenty millimes and they were going to make the bread 170.’ Chedly, a carpenter from Douz, was 27 at the time of the revolt. His younger brother, Sessi, died on 2 January 1984 after being shot by the police, one of around a hundred people who were killed. Sessi was harvesting dates when the unrest started. ‘He came straight back and we immediately joined everyone else,’ Chedly said. ‘You were a traitor if you didn’t.’ The government backed down and cancelled the price increase on 6 January.
The subsidised loaf could be viewed as a metonym for the Tunisian welfare state. It once weighed a kilo pre-baked, but shrank to 800g in the 1980s and has become progressively smaller since. In cities today, the larger, 450g loaf known as khobza, priced at 240 millimes, is rarely found. Most bakeries only sell the 250g baguette at 200 millimes.
People feel the difference. ‘The baguette is an aristocratic bread, for those who want to stay healthy and consume as few carbohydrates as possible,’ according to Hassan Hichri, a forty-year-old builder and activist from Tunis. ‘The big bread satisfies the hunger of the families and the people!’ A family of five would need to buy six baguettes at 1200 dinars, whereas they could buy three ‘big breads’ for 720 millimes.
This summer, eliminating bread subsidies is on the table again as the Tunisian government negotiates for a $4 billion loan from the IMF, the fourth in ten years. National debt is now over 90 per cent of GDP. The government also owes bakeries seven months of subsidy-related payments, prompting a three-day strike in June.
Tunisia’s bread revolt in 1983-84 was one of many popular food riots that swept across the world in countries where austerity reforms were imposed to comply with IMF loan conditions. Egypt’s bread riots of 1977 compelled Sadat to reintroduce food subsidies. In Morocco in 1981 there were sharp increases in the price of sugar, flour, butter and cooking oil; in two days of protests, hundreds of demonstrators were killed in Casablanca.
In Tunisia the revolt spread from Douz to the neighbouring town of Kebili. Someone I met there told me they had joined the protests after seeing the bodies of those injured in clashes with the police in Douz being brought to the hospital.
One of the few places I found open for lunch in Kebili was a sandwich shop, serving omelette and chips in a subsidised baguette. I asked 25-year-old Helmi, behind the counter, what he thought about removing the bread subsidies. ‘I swear to god, I get twenty dinars’ – £5.20 – ‘for a day’s work. If they make the bread four hundred or six hundred millimes that will be hard for me, for my family. The country will flip.’
A survey by the Tunisian Statistics Institute and the World Bank found that during the pandemic the poorest 40 per cent of the population had changed their eating habits and switched to ‘less appreciated’ foods out of economic necessity. The World Bank economist who worked on the study has concerns about the current reform proposals. ‘Food subsidies are there to help the poor,’ he told me. ‘If you remove the subsidies and don’t have a safety net, it’s a blood bath.’
Discussions about bread in Tunisia run seamlessly into discussions about other goods and public services like hospitals and schools. Tunisia’s current wave of Covid-19 – its worst yet, with a record 9823 new cases on 7 July, in a population of 12 million – exposes the neglect of the health sector, which only receives 6 per cent of the budget. Debt repayment is allocated 36 per cent.