Peas, bread and airtime!

ALMOST seven years to the day after they toppled a dictator, sparking the Arab spring, Tunisians are back on the streets. Since January 8th thousands of people have joined protests about economic hardship. There has been unrest in the capital, Tunis, where demonstrators ransacked a supermarket. It is worse in the impoverished interior, where the Arab spring protests began. Police stations have been burned and shops looted. One person has died; dozens have been injured.

The protesters are angry about a new finance law, which took effect on January 1st and caused widespread price hikes. Many of the changes are aimed at the wealthy: taxes on marble, jacuzzis and yachts all rose steeply. But the law also affects everyday goods, such as bread, vegetables and phone cards. The value-added tax was raised by a percentage point.

Youssef Chahed, the prime minister, acknowledged that the country was “having difficulties”, but dismissed many of the protesters as “vandals”. His government argues that it has no choice but to raise taxes. It hopes to bring the deficit down to 4.9% of GDP, from an estimated 6% last year. Such changes are a condition of a $2.8bn loan package agreed with the International Monetary Fund in 2016. The fund froze the second tranche of the loan last year because reforms were moving too slowly.

None of this matters to a public frustrated with a stagnant economy. Inflation hit 5.3% last year. The dinar has lost over 40% of its value against the dollar since 2011. Unemployment is around 15%. The minimum wage, about $160 per month, is not enough to support even small families. Hamma Hammami, the head of the leftist Popular Front, says protests will continue until the government cancels the law. The Tunisian General Labour Union, the country’s largest, wants a higher minimum wage and price controls on staple goods.

More unpopular changes loom. Tunisia’s main fiscal problem is a public sector that employs 800,000 people, or a fifth of all workers. Their wages eat up around 14% of GDP, one of the highest percentages in the world. Hiring is largely frozen, but the government scrapped plans for lay-offs and a salary freeze under pressure from unions. Instead it will offer voluntary redundancies. With private-sector jobs scarce, few are likely to accept.