The Grim Economic Legacy of the Arab Spring Poster Children

Five years after the movement, weak growth and high unemployment persist in Egypt and Tunisia

EGYPT-UNREST-POLITICS
Photographer: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

A cry for economic inclusion and social justice sparked uprisings in 2010 and 2011 that spread across North Africa and the Middle East. But what happened to Tunisia and Egypt, where the protests originated and delivered, at least on paper, the semblance of political change?

In six charts, we answer that question. 

Ailing Economies

In 2011, leaders in both countries were cast aside after decades in power, yet growth rates have yet to return to their pre-revolutionary days. Growth in Egypt, the largest economy in North Africa, fell from 7.2 percent in 2008 to an average 2.2 percent between 2012 and 2014. In Tunisia, gross domestic product shrank the year following the self-immolation of a street vendor that set in motion the ousting of a president.

Looking to next year, the International Monetary Fund predicts Tunisia will expand 3 percent while Egypt will grow 4.3 percent. That is a poorer showing than in the years leading up to the mass demonstrations.

Visitors Wanted

For a long time, holiday-seekers steered clear of their beach resorts and archaeological sites. That was bad news for Egypt and Tunisia, where tourism accounts for 11 percent and seven percent of GDP, respectively, and provides work for millions. International visitors have begun to trickle back in, though recent attacks on a Tunis museum and nearby seaside resort — which left approximately 60 dead — have battered hopes of a recovery there.

Capital Needed

With tourism one of the main draws for outside capital, foreign direct investment took a serious hit as a result of all the upheaval, especially in Egypt. Levels haven't returned to their pre-Arab Spring highs, though they no longer pose a critical threat. 

Vulnerable Currencies

Egypt burned through its foreign currency reserves — $36 billion on the eve of the uprising — as the central bank tried to defend its collapsing currency. Even with help from rich Gulf countries, they hit a low of $13.4 billion on March 2013. The bank has since switched to a managed decline of the pound, letting its currency weaken against the U.S. dollar to the point that it broke the eight Egyptian pound barrier for the first time on Oct. 18.

Soaring Prices

The rising cost of food was a catalyst for the wave of popular discontent. By the time the old regime was swept away, Egypt was experiencing food price inflation rates of 11 percent a year. Even in the current climate of depressed global commodity prices, inflation in Egypt remains in double digits. To ease the strain on state coffers, the government has lowered fuel subsidies and also increased rail and electricity prices.

No Work

It was the lack of job opportunities that drove the Arab youth to overthrow the status quo. Yet despite numerous pledges from respective new governments to tackle the problem, unemployment continues to run in the double digits.

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