Last year, while the Arab world pulsed with hopes for radical change, the economic thorn in the bush had not gone by unnoticed. The regional pleas from citizens were for their countries to take on a progressive form, but these countries were mired by decades of retrograde economic policies and countless episodes of fiscal corruption benefiting the individuals in power.
The uprisings came and a tide of political drama left the world in awe of the region. In addition, a new notion of “change” emerged, calling for fresh starts and fresh ties with old friends and foes alike. But just as the tide came, it went out. Washed up on the shore were harsh realities: long lines at grocery stores, surging unemployment rates and feeble economic indicators.
On the surface, Tunisia – the nation at the vanguard of the Arab Spring exactly a year ago – is changing and rebuilding its political constructs to help foster renewed economic development. But in 2011 the Tunisian economy was in its dying days; the revolutionary unrest cost the country as much as $8 billion, or nearly 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Indeed, a hefty price was only to be expected for such a substantial political power shift, but it was not only political volatility that left its stain on Tunisia, Egypt and much of the rest of the region.
In addition to a surge in global oil and food prices, the Eurozone and American debt crises slowed these already-fragile countries to a crawl. Estimates from the International Monetary Fund suggest Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen – the six Arab countries that experienced the most serious unrest – lost around $50 billion in output last year, or 11 percent of their combined 2010 output.
So what now? Still in the mood for celebration when people across Egypt are saying “it was better when Mubarak was in power?” When they naturally expect stability – even if slight – in their financial situation or the country’s wider fiscal picture a year after the revolution first began in January 2011.
It’s these people who see continued corruption and nepotism since the revolution and have not seen a increase in employment opportunities or attempts on the behalf of governments to help those who are educated yet jobless, for instance.
Until recently, Egypt has refrained from announcing an active job-creation plan, disheartening Egyptians who thought they’d come out of their revolution a more appreciated people. The country’s leaders announced this week the formation of an “economic constitution” ahead of a planned International Monetary Fund visit regarding a contentious $3 billion loan, and have reportedly put the “dire need for job creation” at the forefront of discussions. Tunisia’s new government leaders, meanwhile, have declared their intention to pursue business-friendly policies and put an end to corruption – which had cost the country $1 billion annually for years, according to the Global Financial Integrity Foundation.
Wishing the Arab Spring a “Happy Birthday” is easy to do, considering it achieved a lot and was an epochal year for the region. But the Arab dictators who sat on their thrones for decades had a testy trait: sluggishness. For Egypt and Tunisia, after marking their first anniversary of their uprisings, the fear that the concept of slow progress could be inherited from former governments is one bred into their economic landscapes. A pity, particularly as the uprisings, in part, initially stemmed from financial angst.
Sustainability and stability in the post-revolutionary Arab world – let alone any reports of growth – is probably going to be a tall order for the foreseeable future.
(Eman El-Shenawi, a writer at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: email@example.com.)