An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Real Mohamed Bouazizi

One year on, a team of researchers uncovers the man behind the martyr and the economic roots of the Arab Spring.


One year ago, on Dec. 17, a humble, cowed fruit-seller in a small, provincial city in Tunisia doused himself in paint thinner and set himself alight. The flames that eventually took his life had an effect he could not have foreseen, even in his wildest dreams: Less than a month later, his country’s long-ruling tyrant had fled for his life and a democratic revolution would soon sweep across the Middle East. His death made him famous, an icon whose face adorns postage stamps and whose name — Mohamed Bouazizi — now stands for the hopes of a generation.

As is so often the case with political martyrs, Bouazizi means strikingly different things to different people. To some he’s a generic symbol of the resistance to injustice; to others an archetype of the fight against autocracy. Occupy Wall Street activists have even enlisted him as a spiritual ally of their struggle against the unholy alliance between Washington and corporate America.

It is hard to imagine that the real Mohamed Bouazizi would have recognized himself in any of these incarnations.

My colleagues at the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD) and I recently spent some three months painstakingly reconstructing Bouazizi’s life and world, conducting interviews with his family members and friends as well as exploring his hometown of Sidi Bouzid (population 38,000). The Bouazizi we uncovered is a far more modest and straightforward figure than many of his admirers would presume. He was an apolitical family man, respected by his peers.

Bouazizi wanted two things: to earn a living for his family and to accumulate capital (ras el mel). He was a young man, only 26, of no other discernible interests. His life was consumed by his role as the primary breadwinner for his family of seven — a role he had played, according to his mother, ever since he started working in the market at age 12. His father died when Bouazizi was 3. He had five siblings. His mother later remarried, but his stepfather, also his uncle, plagued by health problems, was unable to support the family.

As those who knew Bouazizi tell it, he was the very opposite of an activist. “He never even watched the news,” his mother told us. “People like Mohamed are concerned with doing business. They don’t understand anything about politics.” The $73 he earned each week was the family’s main source of income.

Above all, he was a repressed entrepreneur — which is why Bouazizi’s death resonated so strongly and became a unifying force across the culturally, politically, and religiously diverse Arab world, from Morocco to Syria. For decades, market economies have been growing in the Middle East and North Africa, albeit in the shadows of the law. The ILD has estimated that 50 percent of the region’s entrepreneurs operate outside the law. They share Bouazizi’s desire to prosper — and his despair in the face of the insurmountable obstacles in their way.

Bouazizi’s talent was for buying and selling. Each evening he picked up fruit and vegetables from the wholesale market to sell from his street-side cart at a spot facing the office of the district administration. His dream was to buy an Isuzu pickup truck to get his supplies directly from the farmers. He was known in his neighborhood for his shrewd practicality. He was trusted by his peers: His colleagues in the wholesale fruit market sometimes hired him to do their accounts. “He also wanted a permanent stand at the wholesale market,” his mother Manoubia told us. “If they had given it to him, it would have changed his life.”

For years, Bouazizi had endured harassment at the hands of deeply corrupt petty officials — most notably, the municipal police officers and inspectors who lived off street vendors and other small-scale extralegal business-people. The police officers helped themselves to the vendors’ fruit whenever they felt like it or arbitrarily fined them for running their carts without a permit. Bouazizi complained about the greed of local officers for years. He hated paying bribes.

But on Dec. 17, 2010, this otherwise uneventful life took its place in history. That morning, Bouazizi got into a tussle with town inspectors who accused him of failing to pay a fine for some arbitrary infraction. They seized two crates of pears, one crate of bananas, three crates of apples, and his electronic scale — worth some $225, the entire capital of his business. A municipal police officer, a woman named Fedia Hamdi, slapped Bouazizi across the face in front of the crowd that had gathered at the scene. With his uncle’s help, Bouazizi appealed to the authorities for the return of his property. But he got nowhere — a common outcome in a society where small-scale business-people were treated with contempt by local officialdom. One hour after the confrontation with Hamdi, at 11:30 a.m., he doused himself with paint thinner and immolated himself in front of the governorate building in Sidi Bouzid. Bystanders tried to put out the flames with a fire extinguisher. But it was empty.

Why did the suicide of one poor Tunisian in a town no one had ever heard of spark the political revolutions of the Arab Spring? It wasn’t politics; it was economics.

To eke out a living, poor entrepreneurs like Bouazizi — not just in Tunisia, but across the world — have little alternative but to join the local extralegal economy with its own rules for making transactions and protecting assets. Bouazizi, for example, paid 3 dinars a day for the regular use of a location on the street — what the ILD calls an “extralegal property right.” According to our research, he had worked his entire life to establish a small place in the local market economy — and lost it in a matter of minutes.

During our research we found hundreds of small enterprises like Bouazizi’s, run by Tunisians with no legal identity, no legal address, and no legal right to their shack or market stall. Without legal documents, their ability to make the most of their assets is limited, and they live in constant fear of being evicted or harassed by local officials. According to our research, around half of the entire Tunisian workforce is employed by extralegal businesses of this kind. Around the region, the number is far larger — over 100 million Arabs.

If committing suicide over the loss of $225 worth of goods and a regular location on the street for a fruit stand seems inconceivable to most people in the United States and Europe, Bouazizi’s counterparts throughout Tunisia and in the extralegal economies in the rest of the Arab world understood immediately his desperation. In their eyes, Bouazizi had not been just the victim of corruption or even public humiliation, as horrible as they are; he had been deprived of the only thing that stood between him and starvation — the loss of his place in the only economy available to poor Arabs.

Indeed, by running against the goodwill of the authorities he not only lost his fruits and scale, but also his access to property, credit, and future capital. His merchandise had been bought on credit; once it was confiscated, he couldn’t sell it to pay his creditors back. Because his working tools were confiscated, he had lost his capital. Because the customary arrangement to pay authorities 3 dinars daily for the property right to park his vendor’s cart in 2 square yards of public space had been terminated, he lost his access to the market.

The authorities not only expropriated his merchandise but also his potential. Take that Isuzu pickup truck Bouazizi dreamed of. Given his monthly income, the only way he could have afforded such an investment would have been by getting a loan. But banks won’t lend without collateral, and all that Bouazizi could have offered was his small family home, where he shared one of the four rooms with his 14-year-old brother, Karim. That would have been near impossible, given that Bouazizi’s father died in 1988 without leaving behind a clearly formalized title that could be transferred to his descendants. The only document that claimed ownership of the house was a 1985 land-sale contract between Bouazizi’s father and the municipality — which was never registered at the local deeds registry.

Bouazizi might have tried legalizing his business by establishing a small sole proprietorship. But that’s easier said than done. We calculated that doing that would have required 55 administrative steps totaling 142 days and fees amounting to some $3,233 (about 12 times Bouazizi’s monthly net income, not including maintenance and exit costs).

Even if Bouazizi had managed to find the time and money, a sole proprietorship still wouldn’t have enabled him to pool resources by bringing in new partners, limit liability to protect his family’s assets, or capture new investment by issuing shares in the business.

It is precisely these sorts of barriers that have kept the vast majority of entrepreneurs from participating in the mainstream economy as legally empowered actors.

Thus, when the news spread throughout the Arab street about Bouazizi’s “martyrdom,” his plight was shared by millions who took up his fiery protest. Our research found that in the 53 days after Dec. 17, 2010, at least 35 more extralegal businessmen throughout the Middle East and North Africa replicated his self-immolation, sparking the Arab Spring.

Bouazizi lingered for weeks after setting himself on fire. Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali visited him in the hospital, presenting the family with a check that, they say, presidential aides then took back after the cameras left. Bouazizi finally died on Jan. 4. Ten days later, Ben Ali, after 23 years in power — nearly all of Bouazizi’s life — fled for Saudi Arabia.

Today, Bouazizi’s body lies in a modest cemetery on the outskirts of Sidi Bouzid. His family has moved to the capital, Tunis. (According to rumors reported in the press, the house’s rent is being paid for by a documentary filmmaker who wants to make a movie about Bouazizi’s life — an account fiercely denied by Bouazizi’s mother.)

Initially celebrated for Bouazizi’s role in triggering the revolution, his family has now become the object of envy from some of their compatriots. In Sidi Bouzid, some complained to us that “[Bouazizi’s] mother is the only winner of this revolution.” While it is true that the high expectations raised by the revolution have yet to be met, the insinuation that Bouazizi’s family has somehow benefited from his death is a source of considerable anguish to the Bouazizis. However unfair, it can be seen as a typical expression of the disdain that many of the region’s elites hold for the merchants of the casbah.

Bouazizi is, of course, not the only hero of the Arab Spring. There are thousands of them, if not millions. Neither is economics the only root of the revolution. But it is clear that the undercurrents of popular unrest — what led the economic martyrs of the revolution to such desperate acts — have yet to be resolved. Governments have been toppled, but the underlying economies still remain and are ignored at our peril.

We asked Salem, one of Bouazizi’s brothers, what his brother in heaven might have hoped his sacrifice would bring to the Arab world. Salem did not hesitate: “That the poor also have the right to buy and sell.”

Hernando de Soto is president of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy and the author of The Mystery of Capital and The Other Path. This article was produced under the auspices of the Democracy Lab project, a forthcoming joint venture between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.