Pyramids in the Middle East

February 14, 2011
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Population pyramids for selected Middle Eastern territories (From the US Census Bureau international Database. Click on the image for a larger version)

Much has been made of the fact that the the crowds protesting in Egypt against former President Hosni Mubarak consisted mainly of young people. This should not, however, be surprising. Any crowd picked randomly from the Egyptian population would consist mainly of young people.

61 percent of Egyptians are under 30 years old, and more than half of the population is under 25. Barely 10 percent of the country’s population is over 50, and fewer than one in 200 is over 80. Hosni Mubarak is 82, and much of the military leadership that replaced him is not far behind.

Many young Egyptians, particularly in the cities, are relatively well educated but unable to find employment, and they like people in the rest of the region face food prices that have increased significantly in recent months. These young people have made it clear that they blame their plight on their country’s elderly and ossified political elite (as did Tunisians before its popular uprising.) Egypt was – and for the moment still is – a country of young people governed by elderly, autocratic and out-of-touch leaders. This is hardly a recipe for political stability.

If demography was indeed an element in Egypt’s revolution, then it is no wonder that the autocratic leaders of Yemen, Syria and Jordan are worried, as are Palestinian leaders in Gaza and the West Bank. As the graph below shows, all of these places have more rapidly growing and younger populations than either Egypt or Tunisia. And all, to greater or lesser degrees, face the same problems of poverty and increasing food prices.

The region's youngest populations (Graph prepared using data from the U.S. Census Bureau International Database)

If we shift our gaze to the east, and examine the population pyramid of the Gulf State of Bahrain, we find a country its not the age structure of the population, but rather its ethnic and national composition that may be one of the elements that fuels discontent. The king, Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa and the political coterie that surround him are mainly Sunnis, but 70 percent of the population are Shia Muslims, and most of them are young (I took these photographs of Bahrain during a brief visit to the country in October 2011.)

Further complicating Bahrain’s situation is the rather odd shape of its population pyramid (left.) Like most of the Gulf States, Bahrain is fairly wealthy, and its economy relies heavily on expatriates and guest workers who  are disproportionately male and of working age.  In Bahrain’s case, foreigners also make up much of the country’s security force, leading to speculation that if called up to put down an  uprising, they will be more likely to open fire (in contrast with members of Egypt’s military, most of them conscripts.)

Demography isn’t destiny any more than are religious, national, or ethic diversity. Young populations don’t always produce political instability. But it is impossible to understand what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and what is brewing in much of the rest of the Middle East, without knowing something about the region’s population geographies and dynamics.

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23 Responses to Pyramids in the Middle East

  1. Kasey Moore on June 30, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    I thought that the key reason the “young population” was brought into the spotlight was because of the new methods of protesting. Technology! I went to a panel at UMW last semester about the Arab Spring (I think it was Arab Spring: Winter for Women?… something like that) and one of the first question brought up was how has technology made a difference. It is no surprise that the protesters are mostly young, as we have seen in this article but so what? Well, the youth bring a different dynamic to protesting. Something we have yet to see. Something new. World Changing. Inspiring. The use of technology for mass protest. We see this in the Occupy movement- where technology has changed the game, technology incorporated by the youth (Occupy offer other innovation such as human microphone and community). While yes, it would be important to a story that it is the youth who are angry at the elder leaders (elders who are a minority in the first place)… that the why.. but what about the so what?

  2. Lindsey Green on February 19, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    It makes sense that because the majority of the Egyptian population is young they would protest against a government run by people in their 70s and 80s. They are from a different generation, they see the world from different eyes. If you look here in the US, we have age minimums for government positions, but it still puts officials in their 30s and greater. This gives a wider variety of perspectives on how to run a country. For youths in Egypt who can’t find jobs because of the way their country is run, it makes sense to protest. They want their voices heard in a society that they dominate.

  3. Donald Rallis on February 20, 2013 at 5:31 am

    Well, not quite true. We have minimum age requirements for public representative but, at the Federal level, most are a lot older than the minimum. Did you know that the 112th Congress, which took office in 2011, was one of the oldest in US history? The average age of House members was 58 – that’s older than I am, and that’s just the average (See http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/01/meet-the-new-congress-facts-and-figures-about-the-113th.html) In the Senate the average was 62. The US does differ from the Arab world demographically, however, in the shape of our population pyramids. The ratio of younger to older people in the Arab world in much higher than it is in the US, and this is one of the issues underlying the Arab Spring protests. Kasey mentions another important one below.

  4. Donald Rallis on February 20, 2013 at 5:57 am

    Yes, a lot has been made of the so-called ‘Twitter Revolution(s),’ and there is no doubt that social media played a role in both the organization of the protests and, crucially, in getting information out to the world about what was going on in Egypt, Tunisia, and, crucially, Syria. It is easy, though, to exaggerate the influence of any one element in a causing or even facilitating an uprising, particularly one that spreads over very broad area and a number of different countries. Demographics played a role as did social media. The self-immolation of a Tunisian vendor served as a catalyst for the protests, but none of these caused them. The causes lay (and continue to lie) in the perception by large segments of the populations concerned that their governments were undemocratic and unresponsive (Here’s an article, written early on in the protests, which reports on some different perspectives on the role of social media: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/25/twitter-facebook-uprisings-arab-libya )

  5. Sara Hickey on February 20, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    I agree that technology is a huge factor in the youth political uprisings. I think technology introduces knowledge to them concerning how other places have made changes and their systems. This information gives them hope and inspiration to change their current situation. Its an exciting and dynamic change in the political sphere.

  6. Erik Gajeton on February 20, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    I do agree that technology does have some sort of effect on the fact that most of the protesting crowds are made up of young people. However, I think it’s important that we take notice that we cannot label it as the sole factor. There have to be other reasons, like differing views based off of generational differences, the few privileged governing the rest, and the realization that the government isn’t a fair representation and is unresponsive. That being said, we might infer that the protestors’ recognition of these facts might have stemmed from and increasing use of technology, but there were probably other ways news spread, like word of mouth. Another reason why a majority of the protestors are young could be because the idea of an undemocratic, unresponsive government is not what they want in their future. At least in American culture, it is often said that the younger generations are key to the future, and the protestor’s in Egypt putting that ideal into action by protesting. Again, age is only one demographic, and, like technology, there are other factors that need to be considered in analyzing these protests.

  7. Kelly MacRitchie on February 20, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Although social media is a contribution to youth political movements, I do not think we should give social media too much credit. Remember the Stop Kony campaign in 2012? Sure it spread like wildfire, but after (admittedly, some interesting and undermining developments) it was completely forgotten and left behind. Social media plays a part in aiding communication and the spread of information, but any real attempt at political change has to be in some form still in the ‘real world’. People sitting behind computers clicking buttons may feel like they are changing the world, but at some point, someone has to go outside and physically do something.

  8. David Nunez on February 23, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    Our system is democratic and very different than most of the middle east dictatorships or authoritarian governments. By being democratic, our system will only allow a congressman to retain his position of power if he does a good enough job to get a majority of the votes in the next election. This means the congressman must to appeal to the young crowds as well as the old. In dictatorships the rulers maintain power until the are decease. The larger and younger demographic haven’t lived with that dictator their whole life the same way the old demographic has. Because the young demographic is the majority of the population, they have the strength to take on the government. The young demographic can use this power to influence their government by rioting or large civil disobedience demonstrations.

  9. Hannah Riddle on February 24, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    It is very interesting to think that age can have an impact on a nation’s stability. I think in the US, we tend to have a glorified view of youth. “How great to be young and in the prime of life,” we often hear, and we are told, even in this geography class, that as the upcoming generation, we must be bright and promising. We are also frequently encouraged in schools to “make a difference” with emphasis put on community service. I am curious as to whether countries like Egypt also have a worldview that idealizes youth. Did the discontent of young Egyptians come from their being denied a chance to “make a difference’ in their society? I guess what I’m asking is, what kind of influence does the view of young people have on their discontentedness or contentedness with their countries?

  10. Svyatoslav Petrov (Geog 101. Sec 1) on February 25, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    Critical post! A good percentage of people structure their positions and understandings of conflicts in the Middle-East based on stereotypical assumptions. Often, indigenous populations in Middle-Eastern countries are perceived to be inherently violent (rebellious) and irrational. Such perceptions are of course introduced by the media and solidified via common discourse. Such misunderstandings arise specifically because the general public is frequently uninformed about the history, socio-cultural relations, and religious differences that influence changes and tension in the Middle-East. Moreover, considering “population geographies and dynamics” is also critical to a more balanced understanding of present events in the Middle-East. Without taking into account a plethora of elements that shape behavior and interactions within Middle-Eastern countries, peoples’ perceptions will continue to remain ethnocentric and misinformed.

  11. Emily Bostaph on April 16, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    This may be a stupid question but why dont they migrate to a different country? Kuwait, Qatar, and Israel all have really high GDPs and are relatively close, so why wouldn’t they immigrate to those countries? I know a huge number of Palestinians move to Kuwait where there are better and more job opportunities, so why wouldn’t the Egyptians do the same? Even South Africa offers more job opportunities than many other African nations. I would assume if it was so bad in Egypt that they weren’t living to reach their fifties, they would try to find work else where. Are there laws prohibiting it, or is it a national pride issue?

  12. Melissa S. on June 17, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    I would say the younger generation would like to have their voices heard. They are a large part of the population and they should be heard. The older generation are most and likely set in there was and due not like change. They need to realize that change is good and the younger generation is just as well educated if not better than they are and be open minded for change to make their economy stronger. Prices will continue going up and jobs pay rates need to continue going up and unemployment rates need to go down.

  13. Jessica K on June 18, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    I think we all can relate to how difficult it is to create jobs when the economy is in a crunch. Also, it is a reminder to us that the leaders of a country are there to serve the needs of the people not the other way around.

    Since this was written in 2011, have the food prices continued to rise or have they evened out?

  14. Brianna D'Agata on June 18, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    I wonder if there are strong tensions between the few old and many young people. I think that I would be very concerned about having a much older President like the young people in Egypt as well. If the President is someone who will make the country a better place in all aspects, then he should be able to relate to the majority of the country which is younger in this case. An 82 year old president may still be living in his time. As a waitress, I notice how different people tip. The elderly either do not tip or tip very little and do not realize that 18% is the norm (probably because of they once tipped years ago). The younger people always tip 15 to 20%. Although serving is much different, I can relate it to this blog and the young people’s concern about unemployment. Maybe there needs to be a younger person in Presidency in Egypt to try to solve some of these concerns that will benefit the majority of the country.

  15. Paola Fuentelsaz on June 19, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Honestly I would be afraid to live in a country like Egypt where there is so many young people. As great as it might be to have young people around, because they can perform all types of jobs, the job competition is scary. No wonder why there is a lot of poverty! I think almost all students have the fear of not being able to find a job after graduation, studying so hard all those years and then having to compete against so many people who are probably more skilled, have more experience, a higher education, etc. has to be one of the most stressful experiences in life. I’m not sure how the education is in the Middle East but my guess would be that having so much competition, pushes people try to excel. Like we saw on the previous article about “our competitors”, those students were learning several languages, getting a higher education, etc. and that’s why they start to become a competition to us as well, here in the United States, as they expand their job opportunities to other countries because of the low job demand in their countries. It could be that someone with a medical degree, for example, has been looking for a job for years in the Middle East but had no luck finding one so they move to the US and within a few months are able to get a job… so something to think about: what effect does their economy situation have on us? Should be concerned about our future?

  16. Katelyn P. on June 19, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    I think I would have to know more about Egyptian culture and the youth culture in general to really have a deeper opinion, but there is a difference in values from generation to generation wherever you go. The younger generation is always going to be at odds with the older generations and I agree that it cannot create a stable political system, however, I cannot say that there is value to age and experience being in places of power. It would be naive to think that the older generation is useless in governing the people. There surely is value in the “old way” of doing things that must find a balance with the younger generation’s “new ways”. It would be unstable if it was one or the other. I think there has to be a balance of old ideas and values meeting new ideas and values due to the culture, the economy, and politics being so dynamic.

  17. Jenny Lang on June 19, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    I believe that Egypt is having conflicts between the elderly and the youth because the different viewpoints both sides see. Since the leaders are elderly the decisions they make are probably not in favor with the youths and so conflicts occur. And maybe because the elderly are in charge their viewpoints may be what the youth considers as ‘outdated’.

  18. quentin dill on June 20, 2013 at 11:14 am

    I think the last disconnect between generations is happening now. With the way technology plays a part in everyday life, staying connected is so much easier. However, the older generation now are not used to this technology if they have not made themselves learn how it works. It’s a shame there is a disconnect in Egypt because with such a high population of youth, there is so much potential for the next generation of the country. The older generation needs to realize where the future lies, and invest time and value into the lives of the youth. I think in all places that investing our time in the younger generations is most valuable.

  19. Cheryl C. on June 20, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    I think no matter what age you are you should have a fair chance at getting a job as any aged person. I understand that this countrys population is mostly younger aged people, but they should be able to have there voices heard, even competing with the older adults. I do understand that things are different, and the younger people are growing up in a different generation than the elder people did. I do understand that becasue of this each generation of people are going to have different views and opinions of what s going on. I think no matter what they should be able to work together, and come upon an agreement on things.

  20. Alicia L. on June 20, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Katelyn, I would have to agree with you. There has to be value in the “old way” or the country would not still have the leaders that they have in place there. The younger generation and the older generation do need to find a balance so they can meet in the middle. The older generation have a lot more knowledge on their country and have been in power for awhile. The younger generation is just beginning to learn and they may be highly educated but they probably do not know enough about the country and politics to run it.

  21. Stephen Weidman on June 27, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    After reading this blog it reminded me of North Korea and how most of the high ranked military officials are elders hinting to why they think they can still blow up the world. But with Egypt, i believe the reason they are having so many conflicts is due to the different age group. The younger people of the country should have a say just for the simple fact most of those older ranked people wont be there in a few years. Just like North Korea all the elderly viewpoints are outdated and just simply wont work anymore.

  22. Omio Chowdhury on July 18, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    I think there is much more to the revolution in Egypt. I think there is a lot of challenge in Egypt amongst the people. There is a clash within the brotherhood. Today the country is in a very vulnerable position. The clashes between the two groups is tearing the country apart. One leader after will come but I am not sure whether peace will be ensured.

  23. Brittni F on July 7, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    The political instability that has taken place in Egypt and that will take place in many other Middle Eastern countries is unavoidable due to the generational split between the young and older citizens. There is a very interesting documentary on Netflix that I decided to watch to better inform my self on the issues in Egypt. After watching the popular documentary “The Square” you get to really see all the different sides and stories that make this political revolution so unique, however it also shows that the split between young and old will continue to cause political issues and is truly a disheartening concern that I really see no end to, but like the people in the video we must keep hope!

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