The Real Arab Spring

Originally published in Flourishing July/August 2013.


I wrote about this two years ago, when the Arab Spring was first making the nightly news reports.  At that time most commentators in the media presented the protestors as student idealists or as pawns of the Muslim Brotherhood, or both.  I’m back to say I told you so; the media were wrong back then (with one notable exception), and they’re still wrong today.  The real Arab Spring was/is about economic freedom and opportunity.

I remember back in 2011, seeing Geraldo Rivera interview a group of Libyan millennials, during the battle to overthrow the certifiable Muammar al-Gaddafi.  To his great credit, Geraldo clearly understood those young people as seekers after freedom, economic opportunity, and the rule of law.  Clutching their smart phones as their most potent weapon against tyranny, they were obviously frightened, but hopeful.  They were trusting Geraldo to tell their story honestly and without the filter of partisan talking points.  It may have been his finest hour as a journalist.  But, if anyone in Washington heard him, we’ve seen no evidence of it.  To the contrary, in fact.

Hernando de Soto is a Peruvian economist and author of The Mystery of Capital1.  He recently published an article on the real Arab Spring—the one Geraldo reported on—in the July 13 issue of The Spectator.2   In it he wrote that the Arab Spring was an economic uprising, not just a fight for a “democracy” wherein the people get to elect their next dictator.  They were seeking the very things they had shared with Geraldo Rivera, economic opportunity, property rights, and the rule of law:

“The Arab Spring was a massive economic protest: a demand that the poor should have the basic rights to buy, sell and make their way in the world. I have the nerve to say this because just after the death of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller who started the Arab Spring by setting himself ablaze, my researchers spent 20 months in the region to find out more …


…They were all, like Bouazizi, extralegal entrepreneurs—protesting for the right to get on. The right to own and better their lives; to accumulate capital; not to have their property expropriated on a whim. They were in businesses as diverse as restaurants, computing, real estate, opticians and taxis and their decision to commit suicide in public was usually taken after the authorities confiscated their wares or their documentation.

…Outside Cairo, the poorest of the poor live in a district of old tombs called the ‘city of the dead’. But almost all of Cairo is the city of the dead — that is to say, dead capital. Assets that cannot be used to their fullest, cannot be used as collateral for loans or changed for other assets. Seeds that can never grow. These people are working, but not in ways that western governments are prepared to recognise. Given the chance, they would pull themselves, and their countries, out of poverty. But they are denied the chance, because the rule of law is a cosy club to which only the elite belong.

If the West places Egypt and the Arab Spring into the category of ‘Islamist uprising’, it will not only misunderstand the hopes of millions but miss a remarkable opportunity. By our estimates, entrepreneurs who want a legal system with property rights like those in the West outnumber al-Qa’eda members in the region by a ratio of about 100,000 to one. [emphasis added]

…Britain is ideally placed to see the link between the 1688 Glorious Revolution, and what it did to ensure so many shared the benefits of the industrial revolution, and what is happening today in Egypt. If it did so,

much of the confusion of what underpins the Arab Spring would clear up. This is not only an Arab phenomenon. It needs an eloquent western advocate, who can point to the  economic potential in extending the rule of law, property and businesses to the many, not the few. [emphasis added]


Unfortunately, they don’t have one in either London or Washington. But, they do have Hernando de Soto and his research team, perhaps Geraldo Rivera, too; and therein lies the seed of a promise of a better future for young Arabs and many others still struggling for freedom and opportunity throughout the Middle East.  mh


The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, Hernando de Soto,

       Basic Books, 2000.

2     Arabs Are Rebelling Because They Want Capitalism,