Update: I wrote this post in February 2011, during the early stages of what came to be known as the Arab Spring. Much has happened in the region in the ensuing four years. Governments have been overthrown (in Tunisia, for example,) some countries have been plunged into civil war (most notably Syria, but Libya and Yemen are also experience violence and bloodshed,) while in other countries repressive and/or unpopular regimes have managed to fend off calls for change and remain in power.) In 2015, the Arab Spring spilled over into Europe in the form of tens of thousands of refugees and migrants, mainly from Syria, trying to make their way into the countries of the European Union.
What has not changed in the Arab World, however, are the population dynamics I discuss below.
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.
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.