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."