Are the Arab uprisings an intergenerational conflict?

David Kingman investigates whether the Arab Spring has really been a battle between older generations and the young.

Since they began last December, the series of protests sweeping the Arab world have been depicted largely as a political conflict; a pitched battle between the downtrodden masses marching in the streets to demand democracy and the autocrats in their parliaments and palaces who continue to turn a deaf ear.

Yet this simplification of events may ignore one of the most important dimensions of the conflict. The protests have been overwhelmingly organized and conducted by the young, while those they seek to sweep from power have been clinging on to the trappings of a corrupt gerontocracy.

In many places the Arab Spring has been as much a conflict between the disenfranchised youth and the elderly supporters of these regimes as it has between their different political positions. This means the changes going on in these countries have profound intergenerational implications.

Youthful Populations

The conditions which made revolution possible all began with demography. The Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa (often referred to as ‘MENA’ for short) have traditionally had some of the highest birth rates found anywhere in the world.

Even today, the average Iraqi woman gives birth to 4.8 children in her lifetime, while her counterparts in Palestine and Yemen will have more than 5. Yet across the region as a whole, birth rates have actually been falling for several generations.

However, the rate of mortality has fallen even faster than the birth rate. This means that more of these children are surviving infancy, and going on to enjoy longer lives as life expectancy has increased. The fact mortality began falling earlier than fertility meant there was an explosion in the number of young people in these countries.

By 2005 there were 95 million people in the MENA region aged between 15 and 24 (more people than the entire populations of the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and Belgium put together).

As the Arab countries previously had quite small populations, older people were rapidly outnumbered by the young – under-25s now account for 52% of the population in Egypt, 55% in Syria and a staggering 65% in Yemen.

For those societies struggling to adapt to ageing populations in the Western world, this may seem like an ideal situation. But having an overwhelmingly youthful population comes with many potential pitfalls of its own, especially for an authoritarian gerontocracy attempting to cling onto power.

Educated rioters

‘Despite a wealth of oil resources and major improvements in health and education over the past few decades, this region’s political, social, and economic systems have not evolved in a way that effectively meets the changing needs of its rapidly growing young population,’ concluded Ragui Assaad and Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi, two researchers working for the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), in a 2007 report into MENA’s youthful population.

Herein lies the difficulty for the Middle East – young people have a certain set of demands which years of totalitarian rule have left MENA’s societies totally ill-equipped to deal with.

Part of the problem was that these young people have been given hopes and expectations for a better life than their parents had led. This had a lot to do with education – the same report quoted above found that during the last two decades primary school education has become virtually universal across the MENA region, while the gender-gap in basic literacy and numeracy has narrowed strongly in many countries.

The number of young people going on to enter higher education has increased substantially, with more than ever before studying abroad, experiencing social and intellectual climates in which their authoritarian homelands must have seemed anachronistic. Even for the majority who completed their education at home, access to the internet and satellite television across the region has grown substantially, exposing more and more young people to the freedoms of the outside world.

Many of the protests were organized using social-networking websites, particularly Facebook and Twitter, while Qatari-based Al Jazeera News broadcast nightly coverage of the riots in Tunisia and Egypt across the region, giving protests that might once have flamed-out unnoticed an international audience.

These changes led to what Al-Najma Zidjaly, a university professor in Oman, has termed the ‘Youthquake’: a wave of anti-authoritarian protest led by the young, reminiscent of the 1960s demonstrations that gripped the Western world, which also embodied the conflict of ideas between a larger, younger generation and an older, smaller one.

Lord of the Flies Societies

The danger for the Arab autocrats was that William Golding really was onto something in his novel Lord of the Flies; societies comprised of young people do tend to be violent and anarchic.

Demographers often refer to this as part of the ‘youth bulge’ problem; the difficulties societies tend to encounter when their populations contain a disproportionate bulge in numbers around the younger age cohorts.

Richard Cincotta, a political demographer with the Stimson Centre, a US think-tank, found in a 2003 research paper that countries which had a youth bulge in the 1990s were more than twice as likely to experience civil unrest as societies with a lower proportion of young adults. The youth bulge problem has even been implicated in some historical episodes of political conflict, including the French Revolution!

There is definite evidence that young people in many of the countries which erupted in chaos deeply resented the status-quo.

The Anglo-Egyptian journalist Shereen El Feki conducted a survey of Egyptian youth in 2003 which spelt out their attitude towards the status quo. 15,000 10-29 year olds were asked about their lives, revealing that 20% of the working-age respondents were unemployed, over 40% felt their education hadn’t given them the right skills to get a job, and more than a quarter of young men said they planned to emigrate.

Very youthful countries are likely to suffer from high unemployment because their economies would need to create millions of additional jobs just for employment rates to stand still. The PRB report referenced above predicted that the MENA region would add 43 million extra workers to its labour force between 2000 and 2010, almost as many who joined during the entire 40-year period from 1950 to 1990.

The result was that male youth unemployment was nearly 30% in Tunisia, the first country to depose its leader, and is over 30% in equally restive Algeria and Yemen. Unemployment isn’t high just for demographic reasons – apart from a few major resource-exporters, the countries in this region have tended to have largely public-sector dominated economies, fuelled by a network of patronage (called wasta in Egypt) where who you know can get you on the government’s payroll.

Such a system obviously can’t go on absorbing extra workers forever, especially since these countries already had deeply inefficient public services which struggled to deliver what the public needed.

While an older generation of rulers has been removed in a few Arab countries, curbing these networks of intergenerational patronage may present an even stiffer challenge for those who replace them – while demographic pressures mean the region will have to contend with the anger of huge numbers of young people for several decades to come.