But what is the background to the bread riots of 1983/84 and to what extent are the strikes of the Employers' Confederation of Modern Bakeries (CONECT) influenced by it today?
The revolt was triggered by the instability of the Tunisian national economy in the context of global liberalisation. More than hunger or poverty, the demonstrators pointed to the violation of the tacit social contract. Then, as now, inefficient state subsidy policies were a central problem. Independent Tunisia introduced a socialist-oriented economic system in the early 1960s under Prime Minister Ahmed Ben Salah and faced an outflow of capital and a decline in investment. Later, from the second half of the 1970s, it relied on the financial support of the World Bank and the IMF, which introduced structural adjustment measures. Breaking with the socialist tradition, President Bourguiba appointed Hédi Nouira as Prime Minister, a vehement advocate of economic liberalism. He opened up the Tunisian economy by giving tax breaks to companies whose production was exported. The new doctrine was a combination of this entry into liberal capitalism and the continuation of strong state-led policies. Social policy was then drastically reshaped to focus more on the promotion and consolidation of the middle class. This liberalism led to a dramatic worsening of territorial and social inequalities.
President Bourguiba decided to end subsidies on bread and double the price of bread at the end of 1983. At that time, members of the Tunisian government as well as international institutions blamed food subsidies for exacerbating inequalities in the country because they were applied equally to all and not according to individual need. Moreover, by exempting these expenses, the government under Bourguiba intended to create a fund for the most disadvantaged. While the government wanted to reduce the costs incurred by the subsidies, the working classes were mainly concerned with assessing the fair value of bread and what was given in return for the right to bread – in other words: the value of their own labour and the terms of the unequal exchange between the needy workers and the welfare state. In fact, bread did not cost the same for everyone – the slightly larger loaves that formed the basis of the diet of ordinary people saw a more significant price increase than the baguettes of the urban middle class. The same was true for hard wheat semolina, which was mainly used in rural areas to prepare everyday dishes. This structural inequality was mentioned relatively often – at least in the post-revolt period – as it pretty much pointed out the main deficit of liberal policies, which were focused on the profits of the richest and the consolidation of the middle class in a country where the poverty of working and unemployment was still widespread. This policy was followed by a ten-day uprising in which mainly the working class, families and women took to the streets against the police. This uprising was brutally crushed by the police, because Tunisia's orientation towards the model of a liberal Western economy was also accompanied by the strengthening of an authoritarian repressive state. The memories of the events of this bread revolution are still present.
Today's so-called "modern bakeries", which belong to the CONECT employers' association, suspended their bread production from 2 to 19 August 2023. The monthly minimum wage in Tunisia is 450 Tunisian dinars (150 euros). Since the economy is built on low wages, the state has subsidised the purchase of basic foodstuffs since the 1970s. Accordingly, in Tunisia, a state-subsidised baguette has been sold for 190 millimes (0.06 cents) since 1984 through a network of what are now 3737 parastatal bakeries. The "modern" bakeries went on strike as the 1500 bakeries with 18,000 employees in the country, which produce bread not only from the subsidised flour but also from better quality flour, were banned from buying subsidised flour from 1 August 2023. The government accuses the "modern" bakeries of jacking up prices or mixing the flour with certain other types of flour and bread in order not to have to sell the subsidised baguette at the price it sets. Today, the country is facing a severe crisis in the public financial sector, which has worsened since the 2011 revolution. Within ten years, public debt has quadrupled and now stands at 80% of GDP. Suppliers and financial institutions at home and abroad have lost confidence in the market over which the state has a monopoly and which has not been sufficiently supplied. Accordingly, the state lacks liquidity. However, since suppliers want to be paid in advance, supply has to be stretched. Thus, for economist Ezzedine Saidane, it is a "crisis of public finances that (President Saïed) does not admit to". Citing figures from the National Agricultural Observatory (ONAGRI), it is observable that the state has reduced its imports of soft wheat, which is used to make flour. In 2023, imports of soft wheat decreased by 52,400 tonnes compared to 2022. The same applies to durum wheat, although the opposite seems to be the case, as imports had already fallen by 134,500 tonnes and have since increased by 30,000 tonnes. At the same time, the country has experienced severe water shortages over the last three years, which have affected crops.
There is therefore a structural problem in the market supply of flour. Flour is imported to 95% and especially since the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine and the interruption of the supply chains, there are bottlenecks.
The extent of the repression during the bread strike in the 1980s makes clear what was at stake: the true value of bread as a reflection of social inequality. In the testimonies heard at the IVD (Instance vérité et dignité - Truth and Dignity Commission), the violence and duration of the repression that haunted the victims long after their release and after the physical torture had ended are particularly striking. Many of them never found work again and their families were subjected to humiliation. According to the League for Human Rights (LTDH), 123 people were killed and 1500 injured in the unrest. This violence was legitimised by the state through alleged Islamist conspiracies.
The few days of the bread revolt were much more than a temporary uprising against food shortages. They are seen as an episode in which the disappearance of an implicit social order can be seen, alongside promises of progress and hope for an open society that at least allows for forms of meritocracy, whether in schools, factories or small informal trades. The value of bread is thus measured less by hunger than by the social gap that opened up in society.
Similar to 1983 - 1984, Tunisian society today yearns to be heard by the government. "The problem will not be solved by imposing a uniform bread price," says Ezzedine Saidane. It does not help that the president tries to polarise with a polemic that labels the bread sold by modern bakeries as "bread of the rich" and the bread of traditional bakeries as "bread of the poor", because "It is the state that has not bought enough grain. Therefore, there is not enough flour and consequently not enough bread (due to lack of public funds)," according to Ezzedine Saidane.
Gina Mehmood Awan former intern at FES Tunisia, Master student in "Comparative Middle East Politics and Society"
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