What the Arab Spring Taught Us About the Right to Earn a Living

Things seem to be looking up for the small North African nation of Tunisia. The Arab Spring ignited there four years ago when a desperate street vendor set himself on fire has been a brutal disappointment in most countries, but Tunisia itself is an exception. In 2014, it adopted a widely hailed new constitution, and held both parliamentary and presidential elections as the year drew to a close. The newly elected president just named his prime minister, and The Economist just named Tunisia the 2014 country of the year for its "pragmatism and moderation" in an otherwise troubled region.

Yet to fulfill its promise, the country will need more than just a shiny new democracy. It will also need leaders who have learned the real lesson of the Arab Spring. The dramatic event that touched off months of protests, and led to the overthrow of abusive authoritarian regimes in several countries, was not primarily about the right to vote. It was about the right to work.

Mohamed Bouazizi was a street vendor in the remote Tunisian village of Sidi Bouzid. He supported his mother, uncle and five siblings by selling fruits and vegetables in the local market. Yet nearly every day, he was harassed by local police officers, the very people whose job it is to protect people and their property. They would confiscate his scales and his produce, or they would fine him, ostensibly for running a stall without a permit. He was once fined the equivalent of two months of earnings.

On December 17, 2010, police again robbed the young man of his merchandise and his tools, slapping him and forcing him to the ground when he tried to resist. After trying and failing to get his property back and file a complaint with an official, he decided that he had had enough. Outside the local municipal office, at the ripe old age of 26, he immolated himself in protest, and started a revolution. He died of his burns two and a half weeks later.

What is too often ignored or glossed over in much of what has been written about this incident and the events that followed is that it was a protest not so much about fighting for democracy writ large, or against injustice per se. What Bouazizi so desperately lacked was something much more basic than the right to choose his rulers; what he needed most was limits on what his rulers (and their agents, the police) could do to him. He could not accept that he should be denied the simple right to earn an honest living so that he could support his family.

It was not primarily about politics. It was about economics. It was about doing business: the freedom to work and to seek out business opportunities. And it was about accumulating capital — in Bouazizi's case, in the form of saving up to buy a van instead of having to pay fines and bribes to law enforcement officials who kept seizing his means of earning a living.

"What kind of repression do you imagine it takes for a young man to do this?" one of his sisters asked at the time, complaining about the fines and confiscations her brother endured for so long, until he could endure them no longer. "In Sidi Bouzid, those with no connections and no money for bribes are humiliated and insulted and not allowed to live."

As reported by his friend Jamil, another vendor, Bouazizi's ultimate, exasperated plea just before he lit himself on fire illustrated eloquently the economic roots of the uprising that came to be called the Arab Spring: "How do you expect me to make a living?" It is a plea the newly minted Tunisian government would do well to keep in mind as it begins to govern.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.

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