Originally published in Fraser Forum January/February 2012
Time magazine’s Person of the Year has been an annual tradition since 1927. Winners have been peacemakers (Gandhi and Martin Luther King) and warmongers (Hitler), heroes (Churchill) and villains (Stalin), liberators (Eisenhower) and dictators (Khomeini), moguls (Ted Turner) and machines (the personal computer), pop stars (Bono) and politicians (Bill Clinton).
According to Time, the 2011 field of candidates includes SEAL Team 6, which took down Osama bin Laden; Apple founder Steve Jobs; soccer superstar Lionel Messi; newly-minted royal Kate Middleton; and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose assertive leadership impacted the Middle East, Africa, NATO and the EU in the past year (Time).
But if Time lives up to its own standard for determining Person of the Year—the person or persons “who influenced the news most, for better or worse”—the answer is obvious. No person influenced global events or global news—or the political fortunes of so many leaders and the political future of so many people—as much as Mohammed Bouazizi.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. Bouazizi was not a famous inventor or philosopher, military strongman or freedom-fighter. In fact, he wasn’t known at all until his death. But his death triggered a geopolitical earthquake that is shaking the Middle East and reshaping how the rest of the world interacts with this vital region and its peoples.
Bouazizi was a Tunisian street vendor, who finally had enough of government regulation and humiliation last December after a police officer confiscated his vegetable cart because he didn’t have a proper permit. When Bouazizi tried to pay the fine, the police officer slapped him and spat in his face. When he tried to appeal to the officer’s higher-ups for relief, he was dismissed and denied a hearing (Abouzeid).
The humiliation and hopelessness—caused by government interference in his life and livelihood—overwhelmed Bouazizi to the point that the young merchant set himself on fire. He died on January 4, sparking a people’s revolution that toppled Tunisia’s dictator less than a fortnight later. As the authors of the Fraser Institute’s report on economic freedom in the Arab world concluded, Bouazizi’s defiant act “highlighted in the most dramatic way the desire for, and benefits of, economic freedom in the region”
(Cervantes, McMahon and al Ismaily, 3).
The shockwaves have spread across the Arab world. However, it should be noted that just as the Arab world is not a monolith, neither are the revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring: In some instances, there has been a Sunni-Shiite undercurrent; in others, corruption has fueled the revolt; in still others, government indifference has been the driving force; some of the revolutions have been spurred by the lack of economic freedom, others by the lack of political freedom.
Though the triggers may have been different, the targets were all the same: autocrats.
• On January 17, an Egyptian man, overwhelmed by the grinding poverty and lack of opportunity in his homeland, imitated Bouazizi’s horrific act of civil disobedience. Massive anti-government protests then broke out in Egypt. Cairo’s Tahrir Square became the new epicenter of the political earthquake. And in the span of three weeks, Hosni Mubarak was toppled—after three decades in power. (A year later, violent unrest continues in and around Tahrir Square.)
• As Mubarak’s one-man rule collapsed, Libyans in Benghazi began protesting Moammar Qaddafi’s 41-year reign. But unlike his neighboring dictators, Qaddafi would not go peacefully. Instead, his regime vowed to crush the Benghazi rebels, triggering a Libyan civil war. A range of factors—Libya’s oil wealth, concerns over a tidal wave of refugees washing onto Europe, the ghosts of Srebrenica and Rwanda—compelled NATO leaders to support the rebel force with air and sea power. By June, Qaddafi’s writ had shrunk to the city limits of Tripoli. By August, the rebels had taken Tripoli. And by October, Qaddafi was dead. The Arab Spring had claimed its third dictator.
• Although Morocco wasn’t scarred by civil war, the protests forced Morocco’s reform-minded king to agree to a new constitution.
• The unrest wasn’t quarantined to North Africa, however. Fueled by social media and satellite television, Bouazizi’s revolution jumped across the Red Sea and onto the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen was rocked by violence that spiraled toward a full-blown civil war. Ensconced as Yemen’s autocrat for 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh would flee to Saudi Arabia after being badly wounded in battles raging in the capital. Then, after recuperating, Saleh returned to San’a and directed his military forces for several months before finally signing an agreement to transfer power, hold elections, and broaden access to the country’s political process (Almasmari). Another autocrat had been ousted.
• In Bahrain, the chaos forced the government to appeal to Saudi Arabia for assistance. Eager to prevent any threat to friendly autocrats, the Saudis dispatched hundreds of troops and tanks to prop up the Bahraini regime. It was an Arab version of the Brezhnev Doctrine, the brutal and blunt instrument of coercion used by the Soviet Union to justify armed intervention in communist nations in order to prevent anti-communist revolutions.
• Jordan weathered weeks of largely peaceful protests that demanded parliamentary and economic reforms. In response, King Abdullah II, a much more benign monarch than his counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, unveiled political reforms that seemed to mollify his subjects—at least for the time being.
• In Syria, the revolution arrived late but has lasted the longest. The protests were peaceful at the outset, but Bashar Assad would not countenance any challenge to his rule. It’s simply not in his DNA to allow for pluralism. (Recall that his father, Hafez Assad, slaughtered 20,000 Syrians to staunch a 1982 uprising.) So the order came down to smash the protests and disperse the protesters. Assad’s henchmen have now killed an estimated 4,000 Syrians. Lacking the stomach to fire on innocent civilians, thousands of Syrian soldiers have switched sides and formed the Free Syrian Army to defend the protesters and dislodge Assad’s regime (BBC). As a consequence, Syria is now edging toward a Libya-style civil war.
That brings us up to date—and back to Bouazizi.
It has been a year since Bouazizi became so fed up with government intrusion in his life that he concluded death was better. His self-immolation was more than a condemnation of capricious, intrusive government. It was also a declaration in defense of freedom—and specifically, economic freedom. It pays to recall that Egypt, Syria, and Bouazizi’s Tunisia were in the bottom half of the 2011 Economic Freedom of the World rankings. Libya and Yemen weren’t even ranked. (Gwartney, Hall and Lawson, 9).
Bouazizi may have never read Hayek or Locke, but what he was seeking was economic freedom—the freedom to use and exchange his property as he deemed appropriate, the freedom from arbitrary confiscation or theft of that property, and the protection of that property from physical invasions by others, including the government (Cervantes, McMahon, al Ismaily, 1).
As Locke observed, it should be every person’s right to “preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate against the injuries and attempts of other men” (Locke). Bouazizi understood the importance of this truth because he lived under a regime that did not. That regime is now gone, and the regional order that supported it is crumbling.
Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about whether the Arab Spring has opened the door to a freer Middle East, or to an extremist takeover of the Middle East, or simply to a time of great uncertainty and instability.
On the positive side, the Middle East’s revolutionaries are demanding freedom, opportunity, justice and an end to government corruption and control, not unlike Eastern Europe’s revolutionaries in 1989-90. Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen have ousted their autocrats; Libyans, with an assist from NATO, have dethroned Qaddafi; and Syria’s despot is under increasing pressure from within and without.
However, some observers understandably worry about what will replace the old order in the Middle East.
Mubarak’s Egypt, for instance, was a moderating influence in the Arab world. It lived up to the promises made at Camp David. As a result, a once-constant source of international instability—war between Israel and Egypt—was taken off the table. Mubarak’s Egypt partnered with the West to promote regional stability by opening Egypt’s ports and airspace to power-projecting nations like the United States, by serving as a bulwark against destabilizing regimes in Iraq and Iran, and by keeping the vital Suez Canal open. It pays to recall that 4.5 percent of global oil supplies, and almost 15 percent of liquefied natural gas, flow through the canal (Krauss).
Similarly, before the Arab Spring erupted, Saleh had worked closely with Western intelligence agencies and military assets to counter al Qaeda’s new power center in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (or AQAP). Qaddafi had come in from the cold, renounced his terrorist ways, given up his weapons of mass destruction, and opened up his country to trade and development.
Of course, Mubarak ran a brutal police state that smothered normal political activity, Saleh stubbornly ignored the will of the Yemeni people, and Qaddafi showed his true colors when his subjects demanded their freedom. In other words, no one should mourn the end of autocratic rule in the Arab world. Libyans, Egyptians, Yemenis, and Syrians, like all people, deserve to be free. But there are risks to revolution. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has observed, “Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy only to see the political process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception, and rigged elections to stay in power or to advance an agenda of extremism” (Clinton).
That is why the world so anxiously watches the unfolding revolution. The realists caution that Islamist groups—movements advocating reordering government and society in accordance with a strict interpretation of Islam—could win at the ballot box and open the door to extremists, that ongoing chaos could roil the region and weaken the global economy, that emergency councils and military strongmen could reemerge as kingmakers, that fractured polities could descend into tribalism, that jihadists could seize power in one or more of these strategically vital countries.
These are real possibilities. Yet there is a sense, finally, that freedom has a fighting chance in the Middle East.
Even so, it will take years—not just a revolution, not just an election—for freedom to take hold. It will take more than elections for the rule of law to take hold. And it will take time for the children of the Arab Spring to learn the ways of political pluralism, to understand the importance of majority rule with minority rights, to recognize that freedom is about more than going to the polls every few years.
As Mohammed Bouazizi understood, it’s also about property rights and economic liberty and human dignity.
Abouzeid, Rania (2011, January 21). Bouazizi: The Man Who Set Himself and Tunisia on Fire. Time. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2044723,00.html#ixzz1eM4yD1WX, as of November 21, 2011.
Almasmari, Hakim (2011, November 23). Yemeni President Signs Power-Transfer Deal. Wall STreet Journal. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204630904577055520418084162.html, as of November 23, 2011.
BBC News (2011, 16 November). Up to 15,000 Syrian Soldiers Defect, Says Opposition. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15768038, as of November 21, 2011.
Cervantes, Miguel and Salem Ben Nasser al Ismaily and Fred McMahon (2011, October). Economic Freedom of the Arab World 2011 Annual Report (2011). http://www.fraserinstitute.org/uploadedFiles/fraser-ca/Content/research-news/research/publications/economic-freedom-of-the-arab-world-2011.pdf, as of November 22, 2011.
Clinton, Hillary Rodham (2011, February 5). Munich Security Conference Plenary Session Remarks. US State Department. http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/02/156044.htm, as of November 21, 2011.
Gwartney, James and Joshua Hall and Robert Lawson (2011, September 20).
Economic Freedom of the World: 2011 Annual Report.
http://www.fraserinstitute.org/uploadedFiles/fraser-ca/Content/research-news/research/publications/economic-freedom-of-the-world-2011.pdf, as of November 21, 2011.
Krauss, Clifford (2011, February 2). Shippers Concerned Over Possible Suez Canal Disruptions. New York Times.
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/03/world/middleeast/03suez.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print, as of November 21, 2011.
Locke, John (1690). Two Treatises of Government.
Time (2011). Time’s Person of the Year 1927-2010.
http://www.time.com/time/interactive/0,31813,1681791,00.html#ixzz1eM42mIsG, as of November 21, 2011.
Time (2011). Who Should Be Time’s Person of the Year 2011? http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/0,28757,2098471,00.html #ixzz1eM3j1UJ1, as of November 21, 2011.
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