May 23rd, 2012
02:12 PM GMT
(CNN) – Fifteen months ago Tahrir Square was the site of a tsunami that swept President Hosni Mubarak and his entire government from office.
In the most populous country in the Middle East and North Africa, only the military apparatus has been left intact from the Mubarak era. The world is getting very familiar with the name and face of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt's ruling military council.
This week marks a historic opportunity to break from that past. There are a dozen candidates vying for the top job, a third of them labelled as front runners.
In geo-political circles, Egypt is described as a pivotal power, an emerging market economy and potential political power that can sway the outcome in the region.
There is a long list of multinationals that have planted their flag in Egypt - global banks like Citigroup, global retailers like Carrefour, global telecom operators like Vodafone.
One could not skirt a market of this size, especially with trade agreements or preferential treatment for its goods into the European Union, the U.S., the Middle East and Africa.
But the vital question at this juncture is: Will they be convinced to invest more in the future? That is the wild card at play and it does not only revolve around who takes the job as president.
Investment plunged after the revolution early last year, with businesses taking nearly a half billion dollars out of the country, a sharp U-turn from the $6.4 billion of inflows the year before. Foreign direct investment, according to United Nations figures, hit a record $14 billion in 2007-2008 and the country garnered nearly $50 billion in the five years before the revolution.
Adel Ali is chief executive of the first low cost carrier in the region, Air Arabia. From his hangar at Sharjah airport, in the UAE, he told me he'd set up a hub in Alexandria due to the traits outlined by O’Neill.
Ali is hoping the political conditions will settle once the elections are over. In the meantime he has hit the pause button, telling me: “What we have slowed down is our expansion plans, simply because we want political stability.”
Most strategists agree that Mubarak waited a quarter century too long to open up the Egyptian economy to the forces of globalization. When he did so, it was seen as too late to reach all rungs of society. In sum, the trickle-down approach was happening far too slowly for the nearly 40% who still live in poverty.
Nearly 50 million votes are likely to be tallied. Many of those going to the polls are doing so in the hope a new president can have this key player in the Middle East live up to its potential.
Egyptians need to find work: Official unemployment is running at 11.5%, according to the International Monetary Fund, with youth unemployment just under 28%.
Behind the real elation that this is an open and free election, Egyptian analysts describe quite a nasty battle taking place over the shaping of the new constitution.
In a referendum after the revolution, Egyptians voted to have a constitution drawn up first, but their wish has still not been answered. The more cynical would suggest all the parties are waiting to see the outcome of the presidential campaign before determining which arm of government will carry the most weight, parliament or the president. A clean sweep by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has the biggest block in parliament already, would likely end that debate.
A new constitution would establish the “rules of the road” for investors, and help answer a number of questions about foreign ownership, privatization and tourism which has left many guessing what’s next.
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