by Hernando de Soto
It is widely known that the Arab Spring was sparked by the self-immolation in 2011 of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street merchant. But few have asked why Bouazizi felt driven to kill himself—or why, within 60 days, at least 63 more men and women in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt also set themselves on fire, sending millions into the streets, toppling four regimes and leading us to today’s turmoil in the Arab world.
To understand why, my institute, The Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Lima, Peru, joined with Utica, Tunisia’s largest business organization, to put together a research team of some 30 Arabs and Peruvians, who fanned out across the region. Over the course of two years, we interviewed the victims’ families and associates, as well as a dozen other self-immolators who had survived their burns.
These suicides, we found, weren’t pleas for political or religious rights or for higher wage subsidies, as some have argued. Bouazizi and the others who burned themselves were extralegal entrepreneurs: builders, contractors, caterers, small vendors and the like. In their dying statements, none referred to religion or politics. Most of those who survived their burns and agreed to be interviewed spoke to us of “economic exclusion.” Their great objective was “ras el mel” (Arabic for “capital”), and their despair and indignation sprang from the arbitrary expropriation of what little capital they had.
Bouazizi’s plight as a small entrepreneur could stand in for the frustrations that millions of Arabs still face. The Tunisian wasn’t a simple laborer. He was a trader from age 12. By the time he was 19, he was keeping the books at the local market. At 26, he was selling fruits and vegetables from different carts and sites.
His mother told us that he was on his way to forming a company of his own and dreamed of buying a pickup truck to take produce to other retail outlets to expand his business. But to get a loan to buy the truck, he needed collateral—and since the assets he held weren’t legally recorded or had murky titles, he didn’t qualify.
Meanwhile, government inspectors made Bouazizi’s life miserable, shaking him down for bribes when he couldn’t produce licenses that were (by design) virtually unobtainable. He tired of the abuse. The day he killed himself, inspectors had come to seize his merchandise and his electronic scale for weighing goods. A tussle began. One municipal inspector, a woman, slapped Bouazizi across the face. That humiliation, along with the confiscation of just $225 worth of his wares, is said to have led the young man to take his own life.
Tunisia’s system of cronyism, which demanded payoffs for official protection at every turn, had withdrawn its support from Bouazizi and ruined him. He could no longer generate profits or repay the loans he had taken to buy the confiscated merchandise. He was bankrupt, and the truck that he dreamed of purchasing was now also out of reach. He couldn’t sell and relocate because he had no legal title to his business to pass on. So he died in flames—wearing Western-style sneakers, jeans, a T-shirt and a zippered jacket, demanding the right to work in a legal market economy.
I asked Bouazizi’s brother Salem if he thought that his late sibling had left a legacy. “Of course,” he said. “He believed the poor had the right to buy and sell.” As Mehdi Belli, a university information-technology graduate working as a merchant at a market in Tunis, told us, “We are all Mohamed Bouazizi.”
to read the full article, click here: Mohamed Bouazizi