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01 October 2023

Food runs short in Tunis but locals hail freedom


Dozens of people crowded on Sunday at the few stalls open at the main market in Tunis as soldiers patrolled the streets but spirits were high after the overthrow of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

"Our children will live in a free country," said Mouna Ouerghi, 29, a university lecturer who was queueing for bread.

"The situation is getting better," she said. "A lot of shops are open today. We believe in our people."

Ouerghi said local residents in her area had organised into vigilante groups to guard against looters after numerous shops and homes were ransacked in the aftermath of Ben Ali's downfall on Friday after 23 years in power.

"We're not afraid. Our men are protecting our areas from armed militias that are there to terrorise... I feel very safe," she said.

Many people blamed the looting on members of Ben Ali's security apparatus.

Following days of violent protests during which virtually all the shops in the capital remained shuttered, residents rushed out to buy food.

But only around a quarter of the stalls at the market were open.

"There are major food shortages. We don't have enough bread and flour. We risk a food crisis if this continues," said Najla, who was filling her basket with meat and vegetables. "Just in case," she said.

Reluctant to give up on old habits in the tightly-controlled country, she declined to give her last name, saying: "We always have to be prudent."

Some shoppers complained about the sudden rise in food prices, while the government urged people not to stock food in order to prevent shortages.

"Shopkeepers should re-open their shops. There is no reason to be afraid.
But people should not rush to buy food to stock up," a spokesman for the commerce ministry said on state television.

"There will be no problem with supplies if we work together," he said.

A vegetable seller, Ahmed, said: "I didn't come to work yesterday. I was guarding my house day and night."

The main streets in central Tunis meanwhile remained closed and were virtually deserted, with soldiers and police deployed at strategic points.

The central Avenue Bourguiba was guarded by tanks and the few cars seen circulating in the capital were stopped and searched.

Inside the market, a poster of Ben Ali lay torn up on the ground and was trampled by passers-by.

"Ben Ali should be put on trial now, along with his wife and his relatives," said Modher, a civil servant.

Meherzia Marzouki, a nurse, said: "We feel free now. We're proud. We have regained our freedom. Now we want the freedom to choose our leaders."