As the fourth annual Global Entrepreneurship Week is underway we would be remiss not to recognize Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian entrepreneur whose frustration and self-immolation inspired protests throughout the Middle East.
Bouazizi was a produce vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid, in central Tunisia, who at the age of 26, was the sole breadwinner for his family. As the owner of a small business operating in the informal sector, he was subject to repeated police harassment, excessive fines, demands for bribes, and the confiscation of his goods and equipment. With no recourse to defend himself, the harassment caused humiliation and despair. On the day Bouazizi lit himself on fire, a policewoman effectively put him out of business by confiscating his produce and weight scale.
Renowned Peruvian economist and reformer Hernando de Soto recently authored an article in the Financial Times, where he illustrates the institutional barriers that kept Bouazizi out of the formal sector, leading to the abuse by the Tunisian authorities. According to de Soto it would have taken Bouazizi 142 days and $3,233 to register his business. The $3,233 is roughly 12 times his monthly net income. Bouazizi was also unable to buy a truck to expand his business, since he could not record the deed to his family home in order to use the property as collateral.
As Egyptians and Tunisians begin to grapple with the complicated issues of constitution writing, electoral laws, and the role of Islam in the political sphere, they should not lose sight of the circumstances that led them here. Issues such as property rights, access to capital, and fair treatment under the law all have enormous effects on people’s daily lives as Bouazizi and the revolutions in the Middle East this year have emphatically demonstrated. Entrepreneurship, the ability to start and build one’s own business, has the potential to be a driving force behind economic growth in the Middle East. The entrepreneurial energy and desire exists, but governments in the Middle East should seek to facilitate rather than hinder this enterprising spirit.
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