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Demographics of Arab Protests

Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Senior Staff Writer, CFR.org
Interviewee: Ragui Assaad, Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota
February 14, 2011

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From Tunisia to Egypt, youth have become the face of dissent against longstanding autocratic regimes in the Arab world. The region is facing a demographic bulge in which youth aged fifteen to twenty-nine comprise the largest proportion of the population. These young people, frustrated with lack of jobs, have been at the forefront of anti-government protests. Ragui Assaad, a professor at Humphrey School of Public Affairs at University of Minnesota and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, says the region has to move toward greater democratic systems and open economies "to allow these young people to vent and have a say in their future." He predicts the youth bulge will be a destabilizing factor in Yemen and will lead to further unrest in Iran with calls for regime change. Migration, he says, will emerge as yet another important issue with youth bulges in the Mideast and an aging population in Europe. "There needs to be international agreements to regulate migrant flows," he adds.

How significant has the role of demographics been in the protests across the Middle East?

Demographics have played an important role, not because they are the problems themselves but because they have exacerbated other serious problems that youth are having in the way that they have been affected by the reforms that have occurred over the past three years in the Middle East. So, demographics, simply by having large numbers of people who are very frustrated at their inability to turn their education into productive jobs, has really exacerbated the problems.

The entire region is experiencing a pronounced "youth bulge," where the proportion of young people is significantly larger compared to other age groups. Is this an opportunity or a challenge?

Currently it's proving to be a challenge, but it's not necessarily a challenge. In other parts of the world, the youth bulge phenomenon has been an opportunity. In East Asia and Southeast Asia with their open economies and good education systems, they've been able to use the youth bulge as an advantage. In the Middle East, unfortunately, it's turning out to be a challenge because of the governments' inability to put together economic policies that make use of these human resources. When you have people whose expectations have risen because of their education, and then these expectations are shattered, they become very angry and dangerous to the regimes.

But these countries in the Middle East--Tunisia, Egypt, and even Yemen--that are facing popular uprisings are at different stages of demographic transition, right?

They are definitely. Tunisia is ahead of the game. Its fertility started declining earlier than in either Egypt or Yemen, and its youth bulge is kind of passing at this point. The young people are moving on to their thirties and later. However, that group was not very well treated by the transition that occurred in Tunisia from public sector-led economies to a more market-driven economy, and their dissatisfaction is still there. However, as a demographic phenomenon, it's been getting less extreme.

"In East Asia and Southeast Asia with their open economies and good education systems, they've been able to use the youth bulge as an advantage."

Egypt is very close to the peak of its youth bulge. These last few years, the youth bulge is beginning to decline as the share of fifteen to twenty-nine year-olds starts to decline. However, that group of young people is making its way into the labor market right now and putting a lot of pressure in the form of unemployment and informalization of the labor market as they get poor jobs.

Yemen is going to have a problem for a very long time because the fertility in Yemen has not declined yet or has declined very little. So, Yemen is going to have a youth bulge that is going to continue well into the future, probably for another thirty years. That is going to be highly destabilizing in Yemen for a long time.

Are youth generally more given to revolutions than other age groups?

One can argue that the youth protests and unrest that occurred in the United States and in Europe in the late sixties was driven by the baby boom that occurred after the Second World War, which was a youth bulge in its own right. So, it is not uncommon for youth bulges to cause unrest. Sometimes it's in the form of peaceful protest, and sometimes it's in the form of civil conflict and other times it's in the form of more serious forms of violence. I think that in a sense we are lucky that in Tunisia and Egypt, the conflict that is resulting is peaceful in the form of these demonstrations. It could have been much worse.

What do these large populations of youth mean for the future and for the security of the region?

Governments have to devise political systems that allow these youth to be represented, to have a voice in the running of their country. And they have to devise economic systems that make good use of these productive resources that the youth potentially are. However, if that doesn't happen, there is going to be a generation of people who are going to continue to be frustrated and continue to be a source of instability. The region definitely has to move toward more democracy, more freedom to allow these young people to vent and have a say in their future.

Are there things the West should be worried about in relation to these large youth populations in the Middle East, things they should be watching for?

"What the West needs to watch for is cases in which political regimes are extremely weak and the countries are very fragmented, [because then] these youth bulges can result in extended civil conflict and potentially a failure of the state."

What the West needs to watch for is cases in which political regimes are extremely weak and the countries are very fragmented, [because then] these youth bulges can result in extended civil conflict and potentially a failure of the state. I think Yemen is at risk of that, and maybe there are other places. Clearly, the situation in Palestine is very worrying, as very pronounced youth bulges with unresolved conflict with Israel could portend future problems.

However, in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, if the West can support the transition to democracy, then there are very good potential long-term implications in terms of making youth move into adulthood and become productive members of their societies. That's going to make the societies richer in general.

Do you think the events in the Mideast have implications for other countries in the vicinity, such as Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, which also have very high youth populations and are struggling to provide basic needs and stability to their populations?

Absolutely, Iran is the perfect example. Iran has the most pronounced youth bulge of anywhere in the world because Iran not only had this reduction in mortality rate that resulted in more young people surviving, but it also had an increase in fertility after the Iranian Revolution. These two factors together produced a very pronounced youth bulge, which is at its peak right now but is expected to decline very fast because of the rapid decline in fertility that occurred in Iran post-1990. These are the young people who were fueling the protests that we saw two years ago in Iran, and they're going to be continuing to fuel protests. These are people who are born after the revolution. They do not necessarily support the Islamic regime there. But they are going to be demanding change for quite some time. So we haven't seen the [last] of youth unrest and calls for change in Iran.

Pakistan also has a pronounced youth bulge, and Pakistan ostensibly has a democratic system in which some of these frustrations can be vented. But especially if there are regional issues and there are issues in the northwest area of Pakistan, it could cause of instability in parts of Pakistan.

In general, the whole region has this demographic phenomenon occurring, but it does not have to be a problem if it is handled properly and if it's considered to be a resource that is used for productive purposes.

"The region definitely has to move toward more democracy, more freedom to allow these young people to vent and have a say in their future."

To get dividends from these youth populations, what do you think these countries must do?

They must pursue development strategies that bring the benefits of development to the [majority] of the population, especially ones that promote labor intensive and job creating growth. So far the development strategies in many of these countries have benefited a few cronies--a few people close to the regime have become extremely rich basically at the expense of the rest of the population.

They [also] have to provide political systems that allow these young people to have a voice in the future of their country. They have to open economies because that's the way they're going to be able to specialize in those activities that make use of labor intensively, just the way that Southeast Asia and East Asia have done.

Another issue that needs to be on the table is the possibility of migration. Many of the developed countries, but in particular Europe, have a deficit of young people, and there's going to be tremendous pressure for migration from the countries in the southern Mediterranean and elsewhere in the Middle East and Asia to migrate. We have to find ways to allow this migration without creating anti-migrant backlashes in Europe or creating problems with absorption of migrants in European countries.

What role can the international community play here?

There needs to be international agreements to regulate migrant flows. We need to strengthen international organizations for migration. Like there are trade treaties that govern trade between countries, there need to be migration treaties as well. The economic forces for greater migration are extremely powerful--as the European population ages and there is the graying phenomenon that occurs in Europe--but still the cultural and social factors of fear of migrants in Europe are going to create problems.

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