‘Let’s make money’: Tunisian companies demand radical change | Political news

Tunis, Tunisia – Systemic change is needed to tackle Tunisia’s economic crisis, level the playing field and support Tunisian entrepreneurs, small businesses told Al Jazeera, as the country faces a tumultuous period after the approval of the the country’s new constitution in a referendum on July 25.

The 2011 revolution ended the kleptocratic dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but when Kais Saied was elected president in 2019 on an anti-corruption ticket, promising to defend Tunisians, the country still faced deep problems economic.

Despite his anti-corruption image, since taking power last July, Saied has closed Tunisia’s anti-corruption authority, which has 20 offices across the country dedicated to investigating corruption cases and developing a more transparent governance in central and local government.

At the same time, Tunisia sank deeper into an economic crisis, as the cost of living soared, hitting both the poor and the middle class, amid shortages of basic commodities. and rising unemployment.

Retailers say small businesses have been hit particularly hard by the economic crisis as the government has failed to tackle endemic problems that stifle competition and innovation.

“A few years ago, spinach cost two dinars per kilo, now it’s four or five dinars [$1.30 – $1.60] a kilo, but our profit margins are shrinking,” Ahmed Landolsi, who runs a vegetable stall in the half-empty but still large hall of Tunis’ central market, told Al Jazeera.

“The rent I pay to the municipality for my stand keeps going up, but they don’t help us. The big problem for us merchants is the loss of customers. Before, they could park their car and come and do their shopping, but they are blocked by the new souk. [market] outside,” Landolsi said.

He said legal vendors struggled to compete with the cheap prices offered by the thriving informal sector. Outside the lavish central market, hawkers sell cheap imported goods laid out on tarpaulins, leaving little space to walk, let alone drive a car.

According to a report by the Carnegie Middle East Center, it is likely that much of the products on display are smuggled in from Algeria and Libya, but come from China and Turkey.

Meanwhile, small vendors are also complaining of being squeezed out of the market and forced into bankruptcy by mass producers and state economic policies.

“Before, there were 12 egg farmers in Ben Arous, now we are down to two and if things continue as they are, I will be forced to close my business,” said an egg farmer in the town. from northeastern Tunisia, who asked to remain anonymous. told Al Jazeera.

Currently, he says he is losing between $2,000 and $3,000 a day because the state sets the retail price of eggs and ignores fluctuations in the cost of production.

“The problem is not only that of the loss. We need start-up capital to pay our overheads, and the price of machines, cages and chickens keep going up,” the egg farmer said:

“[The government should] release the price, so that it can fluctuate according to demand and production cost fluctuation and we make money.

Houssem Saad, a member of the economic rights association Alert Tunisie, said that large commercial groups that sell products benefit from food subsidies funded by the Tunisian state. Many commodities, including cereals, sugar, coffee and vegetable oil, are purchased by the state, which sells quotas to a limited group of large traders who can then sell on the Tunisian market.

“The biggest cost [of egg production] is animal feed and these big companies are owned by groups that import grain and other materials and sell in the market,” Saad explained.

These state purchasing offices are highly indebted and forced to borrow from banks at high rates. Research by Alert Tunisie shows that these banks tend to be owned by the same groups that also own the companies importing commodities such as cereals, sugar and coffee.

Meanwhile, the Middle East Institute reported that Tunisia’s grain board owes Ukraine alone $300 million for unpaid shipments of wheat and barley. Such debts have given Tunisia a reputation as a deadbeat. It is therefore more difficult for the State to obtain supplies of these basic foodstuffs, which leads to regular food shortages.

Others say Tunisian bureaucracy also stifles innovation.

Tech entrepreneur Fares Belghith told Al Jazeera he wanted to create a logistics app that would have acted as a sales interface between wholesalers and small grocers, but the operation was blocked by restrictive trade laws and cumbersome red tape . Simple administrative procedures are still not digitized, tasks such as filing financial statements or tax declarations still involve waiting in line for hours to hand over paper files.

“We had to pivot to become a wholesaler ourselves,” he said.

No one from Tunisia’s Commerce Ministry responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

A mixture of apathy and opposition boycott meant that most Tunisian voters opted out of the constitutional referendum.

Yet the document will now unequivocally concentrate executive, legislative and judicial powers in Saied’s sole hands – giving him the power to change Tunisia’s economic course.

“The solution is to break up the rent-seeking economy and give people economic rights, the right to entrepreneurship, the right to open a bank account – they failed to give those rights in 10 years of democracy,” Saad said.

However, Saad is unsure if Tunisians will be able to secure these rights when President Saied’s new constitution is introduced, fearing it will confine power in his hands.

“They didn’t give us these [economic] rights for 10 years of democracy,” Saad said. “Of course, fighting for new rights is much more difficult under a dictatorship.”

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