Economics at the Center of Arab Spring Ground Zero by Roger Brown

In early 2011, the Arab Spring quickly ignited in Tunisia, and within weeks its fires had spread to almost every nation in the Arab World. As massive demonstrations and conflicts ignited in city after city, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto realized that he was witnessing what was perhaps the most important event of his lifetime. One question dominated his thoughts: Exactly why would the suicide-by-fire of Mohamed Bouazizi, and insignificant fruit peddler in a dusty backwater Tunisian town, resonate so strongly that the reaction would topple four governments?

He immediately sent a research team to Tunisia and other North African countries to find out. Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD) researchers worked in the streets and souks of North Africa for months. To their great surprise, they learned that there had been dozens of similar suicides by small entrepreneurs and businessmen across the region.

ILD teams interviewed as many families and survivors as they could, and the stories they heard were all eerily similar. Few of the suicides were ever motivated by politics. All were hard workers who were not permitted to work legally. All had been abused, humiliated, ejected, and robbed of their means to make a living. All simply wanted to be left in peace, to be free of petty harassment and corruption.

As the data poured in ILD research teams in North Africa, we at FTCN realized that we had the story of a lifetime. We had access to Bouazizi’s family and friends and were receiving report after report of landmark ILD statistics.

Together, they demonstrated unequivocally that the Arab Spring was far more about economic inclusion than religion or politics. The data also mirrored what the ILD had documented in over 30 other developing world communities worldwide: property rights and inclusive efficient business law are far more important factors in development than suspected.

Our production crew joined de Soto and his researchers, going to ground zero of the Arab Spring: Bouazizi’s family, friends, and community. Together with them, they documented Bouazizi’s last day. They also filmed other small businessmen who are hopelessly trapped outside the system.

Bouazizi’s death resonated so strongly because his experience of corruption, exclusions, daily humiliation, bribery, and bureaucratic labyrinths, specifically designed to be impenetrable to those without connections, are identical to those which over 100 million people across the Arab world would experience on a daily basis. Our documentary introduces a new perspective and critical new ideas essential to the international discussion surrounding these events.

We were exploring new ground here, and, of course, we wondered how much of our finding reflected Islam or Arabic culture. These two elements are part of the picture, to be sure, but de Soto emphasizes that this is a revolution in Arabic society, not an Arabic revolution. He sees this process as one every society must go through.

The end result is the first Free To Choose Network project to be distributed, in Arabic, across the Arab world. The program is being broadcast repeatedly via Alhurra, the network set up by the United States shortly after the Iraq War. It is being used by the ILD in meeting with community groups, and is also being screened in universities across the Middle East and North Africa.

The Arab world is realizing the incredible importance of “invisible things”—property rights, efficient business law, and truly free markets open to all. We often take these for granted, like stoplights, paved streets, or electricity. But with each project I have done with de Soto, I have witnessed how the “invisible things” make all the difference in the world between poverty and prosperity.
To stream The Unlikely Heroes of the Arab Spring, click here.

Roger Brown has been the writer and producer of three FTCN documentaries with Hernando de Soto.
*This on-location report was recirculated from the 2014 Spring Winning Idea News.