Most accounts of what’s happening in the Middle East place economics as much as politics at the center of the narrative. The protests that led to the fall of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali began when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building to protest the confiscation of his fruit and vegetable cart. Bouazizi, 26, was a university graduate who couldn’t find any work, and the government wouldn’t give him a license to operate his cart. Egypt, meanwhile, was kindling for the spark, with corrupt government officials living lavishly while 40 percent of the people live on less than $2 per day and one-third of young adults are unemployed.
If you want to quantify these problems, look to The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom. The 2011 edition, just released in January, shows that numerous countries in the Middle East are lacking in economic freedom. Egypt ranked 96th and Tunisia ranked 100th out of 179 countries ranked. Yemen, another Middle East country trying to head off political unrest, ranked 127th. Most troubling is where these countries score on the corruption component of the Index. One-hundred is the highest possible score, but Egypt received only a 28, and Tunisia a 43. But Tunisia is actually a relatively high performer on corruption compared to a number of other Middle Eastern countries. Consider these scores: Algeria, 28; Iran, 18; Lebanon, 25; Libya, 25; Morocco, 33; Syria, 26; and Yemen, 21.