Argument

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."

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

'It's OK, You're Allowed to Laugh.'

The incredibly awkward comedy stylings of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

It's not easy for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to make light of world events. Every day, he is required to comment with solemnity and pathos on the world's afflictions: a car bombing in Iraq or Afghanistan, a bloody crackdown on protesters in Syria, a flood in Pakistan, an earthquake in Haiti, or the prospects of a nuclear war with North Korea. But as the holiday season approaches, bringing a host of year-end anniversary events, Ban gets an opportunity to crack wise now and again.

Which begs a serious question: How funny is the secretary general?

I scoured the record for a collection of Ban's most memorable comic moments. Frankly, most of the jokes are on the corny side, and I had trouble deciphering a few of the punch lines. But the spectacle of a man with barely a single strand of comedic DNA in his system and plagued with bad timing playing for laughs has produced some humorous moments. "I'm going to be a little bit funny this evening so I hope you will bear with me," Ban warned in a typical disclaimer during the U.N. Correspondents Association's awards banquet last year.

Ban treaded a similar path this year, warning the audience to brace for "a real disaster: me trying to be funny." Actually, it was one of Ban's more successful ventures into comedy, complete with a video vignette depicting the 67-year old diplomat having a wild night out on the town, skateboarding along New York City's 1st Avenue, and accidentally transmitting online photos of himself to leaders of the G-20.

In one skit, Ban responds to the global financial crisis by moonlighting as a short order U.N. cook and seeking alternative sources of revenue on a Home Shopping Network channel. With the number 1-800-UN4Sale blinking on the screen, Ban tries to sell a U.N. coffee mug, a U.N. resolution, and a bag of construction debris from the renovation of the New York headquarters. When that doesn't work, he offers to auction UNICEF's headquarters and a lunch with Associated Press's fetching U.N. reporter Edie Lederer. Following a long riff on bulls -- Ban received a gift of one from South Sudan's President Salva Kiir -- the U.N. chief took issue with criticism that his reform efforts have a lot like his new pet: "too big, too slow, and full of waste."

"That's bull," Ban insisted. "That's bullshit."

When Ban, fresh out of the Korean Foreign Ministry, began his first term as secretary general, he had to fight the impression that he was a bit too bland for the world's top diplomatic job. He quickly set out to charm the press corps with a rendition of "Santa Clause Is Coming to Town." Only, in this version, it's Ban who is coming to town. He gets points here for trying, but it's clear that the U.N. chief could stand to have a better command over his material.

For a high-flying diplomat like Ban, a bit of local comic humor is always a good way to soften up a foreign audience. On a recent trip to New Zealand, Ban invoked the country's roots -- declaring in the native Maori He waka eke noa -- "we are all in this canoe together," and comparing the national sporting obsession to his own line of work.

"Rugby scrums confuse anyone who doesn't know the game. So do U.N. debates," he said. "And sometimes they can look very similar! In rugby, you lose teeth. In diplomacy, you lose face."

On May 13, 2010, Ban introduced himself to young participants at a model U.N. conference with this line: "I must admit, I was a little confused when I walked in. You are all so polished and wonderful to look at. I thought you could be models, and I thought that I was at New York Fashion Week. Perhaps that's what Model U.N. really means! It's OK. You are allowed to laugh."

I guess you had to be there.

Ban usually lightens up at the annual fundraiser for the U.N. Foundation, an advocacy group formed with a $1 billion contribution from Ted Turner -- and this year was no different. With the rock band Linkin Park in attendance, Ban said: "I am proud to be the first secretary general in the United Nations history to have had a Facebook townhall meeting with Linkin Park. But, I must admit. I wasn't always so hip. Some years ago, my daughter said, ‘I really like Linkin Park.' I said ‘Linkin Park? Is he Korean?'"

French is the U.N.'s second working language, and Ban has struggled to master it. Every year, at the annual meeting of the Francophonie -- a gathering of 56 French-speaking governments -- Ban has sought to disarm the audience with some jokes in French. "This is the third time I have attended a francophone reception and I still don't know exactly what Francophonie means," he said.

Reflecting on the French phrase for the good life, l'art de vivre, Ban said that he sometimes asks his friends what "art de vivre" means, "and they tell me you have to live it to know it. In my opinion, my friends are trying to make me understand that I need to get out a bit more."

This past summer, Ban joined Olympic track legend Carl Lewis at a ceremony at U.N. headquarters, switching on a one-year countdown clock to the July 27, 2012, opening of the London Olympic Games. "Our challenge is what to call this remarkable timepiece," Ban said. "We all know of Big Ben ... someone suggested that ... since this will be placed in the United Nations, we might perhaps name it Big Ban." Ok, on to the next one.

In fact, using his name as a play on words is a recurring device in Ban's comedic repertoire. In a November 2008, address before Al Jazeera's children's television network in Doha, Qatar, Ban said: "Asalam u Aleykom! Hi, everyone! It is really great to be here. I know you were expecting someone with an unusual name, but I hope you are not too disappointed that I am Ban Ki-moon and not Po-ké-mon."

2010 -- the year of Wikileaks and bed bugs in the U.N. press section -- provided great material for comedy. Ban mined it for laughs at the U.N. Correspondents Association dinner, making light of the disclosure that the State Department had instructed diplomats to collect all manner of biometric information from foreign officials.

In one video skit, Ban revealed his private biometric information to a room filled with several U.S. diplomats. As Rice watched from the audience, Ban flashed his platinum Am-Ex card up to the camera, as his drivers license number, his U.N. identification number, and his Netflix account scolled across the screen -- as did the disclosure of the existence of a tattoo on an unspecified location of his body and the somewhat assuring fact that he wears "boxers not briefs." It's worth watching.

Less clever was his address to the governing council of the International Telecommunications Union in a video message. "I am very pleased to send greetings to you. But maybe, instead of a video, I should have sent a text message."

But give the man credit: Ban likes to bridge the gap between the U.N.'s fusty diplomatic world and young people. In an Oct. 2008 speech before the United Nations Association, Ban took inspiration from rap star and producer, Jay-Z, who was being honored for his humanitarian works, and delivered a rap homage to the association's then-president, William Leurs. "I will try to be a bit courageous and creative myself," Ban said. "Since one of the honorees is my man Jay-Z, I think I'll try his language tonight. It is a foreign language to me, but one which I love, so please bear with me."

Global Classrooms are a cinch

With the help of Merrill Lynch

When you put the org in Google

Partnerships go truly gloooobal.

There is hope for Earth's salvation

With the Cisneros Foundation

With Jay-Z there's double strife

Life for children and water for life

Human health will get ahead

With the valiant work of (RED)

For the poor and doing good

Stays the job of Robin Hood

U.N. stays on the front burner

Thanks to our champ Ted Turner

And whole revolutions stem

From the work of UNIFEM.

But tonight my special shout-out

Goes to one I can't do without

We have travelled up and down

Frisco, Atlanta, Chicago town

Yes, the king of all the doers

Is my trusty friend Bill Luers

Bill, I cannot say goodbye

So take the floor and take a bow.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Ambassador Bill Luers.

Painful.

Ban Ki-moon tried out his Japanese before a group of students and faculty at Hokkaido University: "Saeki Hiroshi Gakucho, Kyushokuin to gakusei no minasama ohayogozaimasu. Watashi wa Kokuren Jimusocho no Ban Ki-moon desu. Minasama ni omenikakarete koei desu."

"I hope my [Japanese-speaking] U.N. staff has understood what I said."

Weather jokes always get the laughs, right? Here's Ban explaining to a Chicago audience at the Economic Club of Chicago how he nearly missed the first visit to Chicago because of a snow storm. "My plane was canceled last night. I was so disappointed. The first visit by any secretary general to Chicago might have been canceled altogether. What worried me most was that one of my senior advisers came to me and said "Look, Mr. Secretary-General, we have a big problem. You better give up. Once it snows in Chicago, it may continue until springtime."

What about a good old lawyer joke? Here's Ban delivering the Otto L. Walter Lecture at New York Law School in October of this year:"I believe that one of the very difficult audiences to address [are] lawyers. That is why I am here with my Legal Counsel to defend me! If there is going to be any controversies, legal troubles, I hope, Patricia O'Brien, you will protect me."

"Perhaps when Judge Judy decides she has had enough of her reality show, she can become a United Nations mediator to deal with our global reality!" Zing.

Last October in New York, Ban gave remarks at the unveiling of the official portrait of his predecessor Kofi Annan: "To the artist, John Keane, thank you for a wonderful likeness. It is not easy to paint about the United Nations, in fact. Our days might sometimes appear as surreal as a Dali, or as seemingly chaotic as a Jackson Pollock. You have done a marvelous job. Let me also say to all those who ever dreamed of nailing a secretary general to the wall, today is your day!"

And, for your listening pleasure, one final gem: In recent months, Ban, who was reelected this summer to serve a second five-year term as U.N. chief, likes to joke about the lukewarm support he receives at home. This is clearly one of Ban's favorite jokes, and he's used it more than once. Speaking in August at the Denver University Korbel School's annual dinner, Ban recalled "I was deeply honoured that the General Assembly supported my re-election. The vote was unanimous: 100 percent. But then a Korean reporter asked my wife how she would rate my work as a husband and father, she said, ‘Well, I'd give him 70 percent.' So I lodged a protest -- a strong protest. I thought my daughter might support me. But she said, ‘70 percent sounds rather generous.' So I have decided that my first priority for my second term is not foreign affairs -- it is domestic policy!"

Ladies and germs, he'll be here all week. Make that five more years.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images