The Cost of the Uprisings in the Middle East

The winter of our discontent: Egypt’s uprising caused economic hardship. Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty

Ismail Ahmed passes much of the day sitting on a small wooden chair outside his grocery–cum–souvenir shop in Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, watching the cars drive by while smoking Cleopatra cigarettes, which crackle loudly with each drag. Gone are the days when busloads of tourists would pour into his shop near the Pyramids to pick up bottled water and $3 statues of the Sphinx. Since his fellow countrymen rose up against President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, Ahmed’s business has dwindled. Gone are his hopeful expansion plans for the tiny shop, and his son Mohammed, who used to work alongside him, is looking for other jobs, because income from the store has become but a trickle. “Now if I see two tourists in a day, it means it’s a good day,” Ahmed says as he lights another cigarette. “The tourists are too scared to come to Egypt now. My store is not receiving enough income to support the family.”

Two years after revolutions unsettled and redrew the political map of the Arab world, the hope that inspired so many has not brought the desired change. Across the region, economies are unraveling, opposition groups splintering, and promises for establishing democratic secular governments now seem like a pipe dream.

War rages on in Syria, with more than 60,000 people killed so far. On one single day recently, more than 100 people were shot, killed, stabbed, or burned to death by the brutal security forces taking orders from President Bashar al-Assad. Many Syrians lucky enough to have survived the fighting are on the run, and with no end in sight, the 22-month-old conflict threatens to reshape the region. Some 2 million people—more than half of them children—have already fled Syria for Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and beyond. Already there has been trouble in Lebanon, which has its own bloody history, easily recalled and ignited, and regional observers fear political and sectarian grievances will follow the flow of refugees.

Gomaa, a 35-year-old restaurant owner who prefers to go by one name for security reasons, believes his country was better off before the uprising, and certainly his family was. His hometown of Idlib, an opposition stronghold, has been battered hard by the government, and after snipers moved into his apartment building, his family’s life turned into a nightmare punctuated by volleys of gunshots. Fleeing to Egypt with his wife and two young boys, he found that work was scarce and impossible to come by for a foreigner, though eventually he found a lead on a job as a restaurant busboy in Morocco, where he’ll be living with a large group of men in an apartment in Rabat. With little money to his name, he has arranged for his wife and kids to stay for free with family friends in Algeria. “Of course, I wish to be with my family, but I thank Allah that we are alive.”

In Tunisia, where, in despair over government injustice, vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself, inspiring the wave of protests that came to be known as the Arab Spring, demonstrators flooded into the streets earlier this month. Marking the two-year anniversary of the ouster of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, this was no celebratory gathering, but rather a show of frustration by people who fear their new government is corrupt, religious, and self-serving. “Where is the constitution? Where is democracy?” they chanted, as police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. Tunisia has recently been rocked by a scandal dubbed Sheratongate, which centers on allegations that Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, abused public funds to pay for rooms at the five-star Sheraton hotel in Tunis, where he would meet his mistress for illicit trysts. “There are fewer jobs, and corruption and crime is worse than before,” complained Yazid Ouerfelli, 19, a university student from Tunis. “The country is also more divided now because of religion—it didn’t used to be like that.”

In both Egypt and Tunisia, revolutions driven primarily by impassioned youth have since fallen into the hands of an older generation of nonsecular politicians who, after decades of operating underground, are now emerging into the political mainstream. Islamist parties across the region are yielding major electoral victories—although beset by accusations of fraud—and dominating efforts to write their constitutions and rebuild national institutions. At the same time, secular groups are flailing, seemingly unable to unite and present a viable alternative. Protests, once hailed for their peaceful nature, have grown increasingly violent, and observers warn about the risk of a full-blown civil strife if Islamist leaders don’t agree to more power sharing.

While Yemen had enough to worry about before its revolution, almost a year after the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, people there now face famine, sectarian divisions, and tribal warfare. Malnutrition and food shortages—largely stemming from chronic underdevelopment and a worsening water crisis—are creating an emergency very much comparable to what is happening in Somalia, Ethiopia, and North Africa, according to the United Nations. An $8 billion aid package from international donors, including neighboring Saudi Arabia, hinges on the success of reconciliation between quarreling factions inside the country—making domestic politics a high-stakes game. Last year as many as 66 security officials were assassinated, raising questions about government control. Continued attacks on government infrastructure such as oil and power lines, however, not only inconvenience Yemen’s 25 million citizens, such strikes have implications beyond the country’s borders. In the end, Yemenis lose out as jihadism spreads, spurring American drone strikes and economic insecurity.

arab-uprising3-co0304-tease Egypt’s future? A child amid the rubble in Cairo. Moises Saman/The New York Times, via Redux

So were the fragile political freedoms worth the price of the revolutions? Certainly, some—in hushed, embarrassed tones—will tell you no, even if they understand that remaking society can take years, even decades. “Daily life has become too difficult,” says Shaimaa Abdou, a mother of three in the Yemeni capital of Sana. “We have no gas to cook. The markets don’t carry many of the things I need, and if I find it on the black market, it means I must pay two or three times more—and we aren’t able.” Others, though, argue these troubles are passing, the product of a lifetime spent under the boot of dictators. But the sluggish pace of change—and sometimes its direction—wears people down, presenting life as more of the same struggle.

Jan. 25 marks the second anniversary of the Egyptian uprising. But in the weeks and months since the initial heady days of the revolution, political turmoil has battered Egypt’s finances, and fighting between Islamist and secular parties has polarized the country. At the same time, the country’s foreign-exchange reserves have plummeted by more than $5 billion. And tourism, once a cash cow for this ancient nation, has slowed to a drip.

arab-uprising4-co0304-tease Down on their luck: Egyptians struggle to make ends meet. Tomas Munita/The New York Times, via Redux

Heba Ahmed, a housewife whose husband owns a financial consultancy in Cairo, has felt the changes in her own family. In the days since the revolution, they have plunged from a comfortable upper-middle-class existence to poverty. “We are not even middle class—we are poor,” she says. “We are in serious trouble.”

Vivian Salama has spent the last decade reporting from the Middle East and South Asia.