Abu Dhabi (CNN) – This time last year a match was lit by a fruit vendor in Tunis, which triggered uprisings throughout the region. Countries big, Egypt, and small, Tunisia, have witnessed wholesale change and the toppling of governments.
But at the one year mark, those on the ground here in the region are asking a simple question: Are we better off today than we were before the Arab Spring? People talk of a “The New Middle East” with a mixture of both optimism and despair, from Bahrain to Yemen.
Clearly the voice of the people has been heard and resonates on the streets of Cairo, for example, but unemployment is at a decade long high in Egypt, tourism is down officially by a quarter from a year ago and the Cairo Stock Exchange is the world’s worst performer of 2011.
“This country is literally and figuratively burning and we are approaching the threshold which it will become very hard to rebuild trust in the system,” says Mohamad Al-Ississ, a professor of economics at the American University of Cairo.
Al-Ississ is not optimistic the region’s most populous country can escape “financial Armageddon,” with the erosion of trust in the military. The window of time between now and presidential elections scheduled for late June is considered critical.
Eugene Rogan, of St. Antony’s college at Oxford University, echoes that view. He says the military in Egypt went from “heroes to villains of the revolution in 2011.” But the author of “The Arabs: A History” believes 2012 will offer a great deal of insight on what Islamic-based parties will offer as they move from being the target of repression to the mainstream.
“They are making common cause with the liberal and secular parties to try and frame a new order in which Islamic values will sit side-by-side with secular values and a very much business friendly, attract back tourists sort of agenda,” says Rogan. Those who do not deliver the economic goods to the people of the Arab Spring he says “are not speaking the language of the day.”
In Tunisia, new Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali raised some eyebrows at home and in the international business community when he talked of “living the sixth righteous Caliphate” that will govern future development. Jebali comes from Ennahda, Tunisia’s most prominent Islamist party.
Tunisia’s respected Governor of the Central Bank, Mustapha Kamel Nabli, said in an interview that the new government’s policies and proposals to date are “private sector and market friendly” and that “pronouncements up until now are in that direction as well.”
The economy, he says, could grow by nearly 4% after only treading water during the year of the Arab Spring. It is not the domestic economy that will hold back projections, he believes, but the inability of neighboring Libya to recover and the lack of tourism visitors from Europe, which is struggling with its debt problems.
The government has less than four months worth of cash reserves but he hopes the corner will be turned in the next two quarters, with tourists and foreign investors putting Tunisia back on their priority list.
Egypt is in an even worse position for cash reserves, and is paying record amounts when it taps the bond market. The country garnered just under $50 billion in foreign direct investment in the five years leading up to the Arab Spring, but reforms took two and a half decades to get started under the Mubarak government. As Professor Al-Ississ points out, 40% of the population still live in grinding poverty.
Their frustration with the lack of shared opportunity and the level of mistrust with the military has led to the third interim government in less than a year.
Settling the unrest in Egypt, Al-Ississ suggests, is key for the region. The Military Council needs to get in sync with the Egyptian people before the one year anniversary of the uprising in Tahrir Square.
“This is the moment where we go forward or we go back to ground zero,” he said.