• U.S.

Tunisia: Bourguiba Lets Them Eat Bread

4 minute read

After a bloody food riot, the President cancels a price hike

Tunisia has long seemed a gracious outpost of moderation and stability in the developing world: solidly pro-Western, extending a perpetual welcome to foreign sun worshipers. But when word came that the government was raising the price of bread by over 100%, the facade of stability cracked. Riots erupted last week, starting in outlying regions and spreading to the streets of Tunis, the capital. As mobs composed mainly of teen-agers and young men in their 20s rampaged through city streets, smashing shop windows and attacking post offices and banks. President

Habib Bourguiba, 80, declared a state of emergency.

While gunfire sounded, police and army troops in Jeeps and armored personnel carriers fanned out through the city to quell the “bread riot.” The show of force finally brought an uneasy calm, but only after more than 50 demonstrators and bystanders were killed. Then, in a dramatic five-minute radio and television broadcast, Bourguiba announced that he was reversing the price hike. The cost of bread would drop immediately from 18¢ to 8¢, he declared, while previous increases for such staples as pasta and flour would be reduced as well. “We are going back to where we were,” he said, fervently hoping that was so. Once again, thousands took to the streets, this time in frantic celebration. Waving baguettes, Tunisian flags and portraits of the President, the exuberant crowds shouted, “Long live Bourguiba!”

Behind the bizarre succession of events there may have been considerably more at issue than the cost of bread—though rises in food prices have sparked riots in many countries. Despite Tunisia’s relatively prosperous face, it is still a country where the rich get richer. In the south, where the rioting began, peasants, mineworkers and laborers complain bitterly of their economic deprivation, compared with the higher standard of living in the more heavily industrialized north.

Throughout the nation the poor and the young have been especially hard hit by a lengthy recession and unemployment that exceeds 20% in the cities.

Many rioters were young hooligans, but a substantial number were members of Tunisia’s underclasses, which until now have suffered in silence. Said a senior Western diplomat: “There is a Tunisia that has not benefited from economic development and that was usually hidden from view. Now they have shown that they are a substantial power for the first time.”

Bourguiba’s quick policy reversal has allayed their resentment for the time being. Late last week Bourguiba also fired Interior Minister Idris Guigah, who called out the security forces in the riots. But in defusing the violence, Bourguiba also took a step backward in resolving Tunisia’s long-term economic problems. The global recession and plummeting prices of crude oil, Tunisia’s principal export, have reduced revenues. The food subsidies, which would have cost the government an estimated $236 million in 1984, were a sensible target for austerity measures and had been suggested by the IMF and the World Bank, as well as Tunisian economists. Instead, the cuts needed to keep Tunisia’s budget in check will probably have to come from development projects that were destined to create jobs.

The economic dilemma is far from Bourguiba’s only problem. Since 1956, when he played the leading role in winning Tunisia’s independence from France, Bourguiba has ruled his nation without interruption, becoming the object of what amounts to a personality cult. Last week’s riots, however, suggest that he cannot depend on such unquestioning adulation in the future. “The kids in the streets are too young to remember Bourguiba as the hero of independence,” says a foreign analyst. “For them, he is the paramount symbol of the status quo, and they can curse him one day and cheer him the next.” As the time approaches when Bourguiba will have to pass his power to a successor, Tunisia’s stability may depend on the regime’s success in satisfying that new and volatile constituency.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com