Bread or Freedom?: Tunisians Lose Both at Once

2023-10-24    |   

Bread or Freedom?: Tunisians Lose Both at Once

At the time of writing this article, the security-force crackdowns on bakeries and mills have not brought an end to the bread queues and scarcity. That is because this policy is intended to feed into a conspira torial explanation of the crisis. It is not that concerned with structural solutions to the crisis, nor does it even consider telling the people frankly the actual factors that produced it. Two years ago – at the beginning of the constitutional coup – a narrative spread among sympathizers, supporters, and part of the elite, promising that the new era will truly restore the people’s sustenance  and resources stolen by the “freedom thieves ”. In other words, the slogan of bread provision, as a symbol of material and economic satisfaction, was raised  against the post-revolution years, which had become analogous in people’s minds  – because of organized steering  and the colossal economic failure – with the notion of freedom that does not provide food. It is not arbitrary that some Arab channels hostile to the waves of Arab  liberation described the seven years following the revolution as “the lean seven”.


Throughout two years of autocratic and authoritarian rule, the policy of violating public and private freedoms has been applauded by people  who vary in the extent of their hostility to freedom and their political and ideological reasons but agree on the fallaciousness of the freedom slogan , which  y”. Hence, it must be replaced by the material efficiency that usually comes via a tough and dominant state driven by the notion of economic planning and strict control over economic and social deviations (cornering, corruption, breaching public morals, disobeying traffic signals, and so on). This desired state has no time to waste on “brazen ” discussions about freedom and human rights, and the regime controlling it can trample rights and human dignity whenever it deems them a threat to public order or state security. During the last two years , the authority headed by President Kais Saied was effective in exercising different forms of influence  by attributing all predicaments and crises to factors external to the existing governance structure and attaching them to interest groups working “undercover” and “manufacturing crises” to “inflame conditions”.[1] In parallel, the state’s security and punitive tools were used to settle the political dispute with opposition forces and all adversaries , eliminate deliberation in the political sphere , and spread “freedom phobia”.   on the president’s authority via coercion, demonization of dissidents, the creation of  , and consultations, referendums, and elections designed to serve the autocrat’s  agenda and conceptions.


This style of governance is oriented towards the past despite the hopeful future promised by its utopian discourse . It is a distorted reproduction of  models of governance that prevailed in Tunisia, the Arab region, and other parts of the world during and after the 1960s and 1970s. In the era of building post-independence states, the idea of economic construction and combating illiteracy, poverty, and diseases dominated at the expense of the demand for democracy . This priority produced authoritarian regimes that monopolize discussion in the name of the community and nation , and punish – to varying extents – anyone who breaks away from the national line . To some extent, the initial socioeconomic gains following independence convinced broad social sectors that there are things  worth sacrificing freedom for. However, when the peoples woke up to the limitations of this logic and its internal contradictions – most obviously  the privileges enjoyed by minorities connected to the ruling parties and the civilian and military bureaucracy – they had nowhere but the public squares and streets to confront inaccessible  and unresponsive regimes. The bread uprisings that pervaded the Arab region in the late 1970s and early 1980s are the greatest sign of this popular challenge (Egypt in 1977, Tunisia in 1984, Algeria in 1988, Jordan in 1996, and so on). In the wake of these events, the masses returned to their homes under threat of water cannons, teargas, live bullets, prison, death by torture, and armies deployed to the streets . However, a vague conviction – namely that sacrificing freedom had not always been in the interest of bread and that peoples that relinquish  their fate and decision-making to their rulers and withdraw into the shadows will not gain food security  and will never recover their right to speak without expending more blood – took form. At the end of the day, the greatest, albeit not fully understood , lesson was that freedom and bread are both fundamental rights , and peoples that trade one for the other will lose both.


Freedom is Not a Privilege


Bread or freedom? This political, economic, and social trade-off is a new version of other trade-offs that were brandished  in the years following the revolution, such as “security or freedom”. However, what does freedom really mean in a society that has suffered over half a century of despotism and one-party rule? Obviously, freedom is the objective antithesis of despotism and the punitive-repressive contract via which the ruler managed his relationship with his subjects . When we look at it from within the course of this half-century, we understand that freedom emerged out of the major needs of Tunisian society, not external to them, and is a product of a people’s struggle which society has repeatedly proven itself worthy  via brave rebellions that ended in tragedy and left a wound not yet healed (the uprisings of 1978, 1984, 2008, and 2010-2011).   as an inescapable institutional and legislative reality and a sociopolitical contract that cannot be undermined upon the first political traffic accident  or unexpected turn imposed by circumstances or an individual .


During the years following the revolution, freedom received harsh blows because it was burdened with defective struggles waged by the ruling elite and various other sociopolitical actors that failed to provide the substance of a true political and socioeconomic struggle  over the past decade. Freedom also gained a bad reputation because the dominant propaganda held it responsible  for the economic failure and degradation of social services. Bit by bit, a complete narrative emerged contending that freedom is not a necessity and that bread and the economy are the top priority. This narrative has been rationalized particularly in the post-25 July 2021 period by the authority’s propaganda and supporters in many situations . Hence, during the last two years, there have been  many currents and discourses positioning themselves as “radical” advocates of social development and sovereignty  and arguing that freedom is the other face of the liberal European value system. They thereby conclude, one way or another, that freedom is nothing but an “elitist” and “bourgeois” privilege being facilitated from abroad. Notably, these discourses lack much knowledge of the concept of liberal freedom , its historical formation in the Western experience, its epistemological and political foundations, and its major stages of transformation.[2] To the same extent, they present no clear and programmatic plan for socioeconomic change. Rather, they merely juxtapose “national sovereignty” and “social justice” with “freedom” . They claim to work with the people from below, but by sidelining the demand for democracy, these currents – in both their Arabist and left-wing forms  – reproduce guardianship over society in the name of the sanctity of economic demands. This is the legacy of vanguardism, which grants a ruling elite the right to decide the fate of society as it – rather than society – sees fit. This irrefutable, innate vanguardist genius  has been proven by history to be a cover for a web of privileges and interests that benefit a minority  at the expense of society and its productive forces.


Generally, after the revolution, there was a broad failure  to develop the social need for freedom and turn it into an actual reality inside institutions, society, the economy, and culture. The need for freedom was dodged with the waves of counterrevolutionary regression  and  . Now, the authority is cynically going along with  the disaffection of broad sectors of society with the idea of freedom, generally channeling it into  producing a new hegemony over society. But the question remains, is it possible to restore the people’s sustenance and day-to-day livelihood , as an urgent national agenda, in a time of non-freedom?


How Can We Secure Our Bread in the Age of Non-Freedom?


The idea of prioritizing bread over freedom does not stem from a smart ordering  of Tunisians’ needs. Rather, it lies at the heart of a game of ideological deception intended to conceal the interests of the oligarchy monopolizing power and wealth. At the beginning of the 1990s, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship marketed the idea of an “economic take-off” at the implicit expense of the entire political sphere , public and private rights, and society’s right to monitor the ruler or hold him accountable. Meanwhile, a full-fledged  policy of attaching the Tunisian economy to the global neoliberal model was enacted, deepening class and regional disparities and benefiting the president’s family and cronies. The proceeds of these structural reform programs – which are being regurgitated in force today and which manifested themselves through privatization and the relinquishment of public institutions , went into the pockets of Ben Ali’s in-laws and loyalists (the companies Autotractor, Nestlé, Gabes Wrapping, the bank then known as Southern Bank, the Transport Company, and so on). The report issued by the National Fact-Finding Committee into Corruption and Bribery in 2011 shows  the extent of the embezzlement and corruption that benefited from the “economy and development first” ideology. Even social indicators, such as poverty and unemployment rates, were manipulated and falsified . Today, we are also witnessing a desire to manipulate the figures, even though this deception  has become more complicated than ever before because of the diversity and ramified nature of data sources. The revolution put the illusions of economic success in their proper place and exposed their limits and contradictions, but it did not manage to form a new economic plan .


In late December of 1983, citizens gathered in the city of Douz, southern Tunisia, to express their dismay at the hike in the price of semolina and dough stemming from the decision  by late president Habib Bourguiba’s government to erase the subsidies for grain derivatives and raise the price of bread by 112%. The protesters presented a petition to the city’s mayor, explaining to the local authority their demands. However, the despotic regime confronted this democratic, grassroots  behavior with tear gas, live bullets, and arrests, and the citizen who submitted the petition was tortured, detained, and humiliated.[3] These incidents developed into a mass uprising  against the hike in bread prices that peaked on 3 January 1984. The authority confronted it via distortion and repression, portraying it as “riots”. Such a rebellion and forceful breach of the public sphere was unpalatable to an authority based on the logic of force that had gained an ability to liquidate opposition, close itself off , falsify elections, and mislead through propaganda . Hence, the incidents were met with brutal repression and shooting deaths that affected even innocent children. Twelve-year-old Abdulkarim al-Kabiri was shot by National Guard forces while waiting at the public bus station, and 14-year-old Fakhrudin bin Shahida was shot in the head while watching the events from behind a building’s wall.[4]


The uprising of 1984 was suppressed via bullets, terror , and the application of a state of emergency and curfew. However, it proved that the ruler cannot do whatever he pleases. The authority was forced to back down from the bread price hikes. The uprising also proved that an authority that does not respect its citizens’ freedom and right to speak about their circumstances cannot be trusted with its sustenance. At the same time that government-owned television  was broadcasting cartoonish  reports about wasteful bread consumption, the real crisis lay elsewhere, namely in the authority’s inability to find a solution to the Compensation Fund (i.e. subsidies) crisis, the inability of the prevailing model of governance to meet the people’s increasing needs , and its submission to the program of lifting subsidies from essential goods proposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, which Parliament approved via the 1984 Finance Law.


Under undemocratic circumstances, it was impossible to limit the authority’s transgressions  without rising against it. Society did not have the independent, citizen-based means  to expose the regime’s tricks and web of socioeconomic interests because it controlled speech via government-owned television and radio and the ruling party’s newspapers. It was impossible to organize a grassroots counter-campaign  to expose the truth of the economic policies because Bourguiba’s autocracy was surrounding itself with the aura of “national liberation” and “nation-state building ”. Perhaps some segments of this past are now being dramatically replayed . Late last year, the president’s government announced a reduction in subsidies on essential goods as follows: “TND2,523 million, as opposed to the TND3,771 million estimated in the Amendatory Finance Law of 2022, i.e. a decline of TND1,248 million or 33.1%”.[5] It linked this decline to the “program for reforming essential good subsidies” connected to the structural reform program being negotiated with the IMF. This decline is one of the factors that led to Tunisia’s bread crisis. Meanwhile, presidential propaganda is in full swing trying to prove that  the bread crisis is manufactured and to dry up the channels for logically explaining the crisis within and beyond the authority , capitalizing on the lack of oversight and accountability institutions and the fragility of the media sphere. While the president is making a show – via rhetoric and the security forces – extolling sovereignty and the protection of poor people’s sustenance , his economic ministers  are working on adopting soft strategies to implement their international commitments.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] Saied constantly uses these terms in his discourse.

[2] Abdallah Laroui, “Mafhum al-Hurriyya”, 5th Edition, Morocco: Centre Culturel Arabe, 2012.

[3] “Intifadat al-Khubz 1984”, a report by the Tunisian Human Rights League’s investigation committee published in May 1984, Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights publications, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Report on the draft state budget for 2023, Tunisian Ministry of Finance, 2022.



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