Saturday, July 13, 2013

Mike Butler: No right to trade in Arab world

The Arab Spring was a demand for freedom, not necessarily democracy, according to British political journalist Fraser Nelson. Mohammed Bouazizi started the so-called Arab spring by burning himself alive on a Tunisian street market two years ago.

Bouazizi was a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that he reported was inflicted on him by a municipal official and her aides.

"As his family attest", Nelson wrote an article first published in the Daily Telegraph of London on July 4. "He had no interest in politics. The freedom he wanted was the right to buy and sell, and to build his business without having to pay bribes to the police or fear having his goods confiscated at random. If he was a martyr to anything, it was to capitalism."

Nelson, who is editor of The Spectator magazine, wrote that “all this has been established by Hernando de Soto, a Peruvian economist who travelled to Egypt to investigate the causes of the Arab Spring.

“His team of researchers found that Bouazizi had inspired 60 similar cases of self-immolation, including five in Egypt, almost all of which had been overlooked by the press”, he wrote.

The narrative of a 1989-style revolution in hope of regime change seemed so compelling to foreigners that there was little appetite for further explanation. But de Soto’s team tracked down those who survived their suicide attempts, and the bereaved families. Time and again, they found the same story: this was a protest for the basic freedom to own and acquire ras el mel, or capital.

“Bouazizi killed himself after police confiscated all his fruit and a pair of second-hand electronic scales”, Nelson.wrote. “This was all he had. He was a gifted trader; he had hoped to save enough money to buy a car and grow his business.”

On the face of it, losing some fruit and a £100 pair of scales seems like an odd basis for suicide. But having made enemies of the police, Bouazizi realised he would not be allowed to trade again. His family say he felt his life had ended and that, if he died for any cause, it should be that the poor should be able to buy and sell.

Nelson pointed out that for most of the developing world, no such right be able to buy and sell exists. In theory, everyone is protected by law; but in practice, the process of acquiring a legal licence is so riddled with bribery and bureaucracy that only a small minority can afford to go through with it.

To economist de Soto, this explains much of world poverty.

“Step out of the door of the Nile Hilton”, he says, “and you are not leaving behind the world of internet, ice machines and antibiotics. The poor have access to all of these things if they really want it. What you are leaving behind is the world of legally enforceable transactions of property rights. These traders do not really break the law – the law breaks them”.

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