The Demographics Behind the Middle East’s ‘Youth-Driven Wave of Political Unrest’
A baby boom in Egypt since 2011 has added 11 million people to a population that is now approaching 100 million, according to Bloomberg. With a quarter of Egyptians between the ages of 18 and 29 unemployed, and an increasing number of young people entering a labor market that is ill-equipped to absorb them, many experts are raising concerns. Egypt isn’t alone. Across the Middle East, overwhelmingly young populations coupled with a lack of economic opportunity have fueled unrest that could continue. In an email interview, Jack Goldstone, the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel professor of public policy at George Mason University and an expert on demographics, explains what is driving the baby booms in Egypt and the wider region, their potential political impact, and how governments are responding.
WPR: What has led to the recent population booms in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa?
Jack Goldstone: Rapid population growth is a normal result of economic progress. In a process that demographers call “the demographic transition,” higher incomes in a society first lead to a sharp decline in death rates, particularly among infants and children. Some years later, birth rates also start to fall. But the fall in births is typically slower than the decline in deaths, leading to a large surplus of births over deaths. This makes the population younger and generates even more momentum for growth, as the larger number of young women leads to even more births. Such population growth only slows down when the birth rates begin to fall more rapidly and catch up with the earlier decline in deaths. This process unfolded slowly across Europe in the 19th century and ended there in the 1970s. The same process spread rapidly in East Asia in the 20th century but has also ended, or nearly ended, there. This same process occurred across all Middle East and North Africa nations in the 20th century, yet it has not ended. The large excess of births over deaths that arose in the Middle East and North Africa by the late 20th century still continues, so population growth, which doubled across the region from 1980 to 2010, remains unusually high.
Egypt provides a good example of this process. Around 1910, Egypt had a gap of roughly 10 more births than deaths per 1,000 people, producing a growth rate by natural increase of 1 percent. By 1985, deaths had fallen much faster than the decline in births, and the gap opened up to 30 more births than deaths per 1,000 people, for a growth rate of 3 percent. After that, though births fell further, they remained high enough that the gap between births and deaths declined, but it did not close. Therefore, even in the early 2000s, Egypt’s growth rate was still 2 percent. At a 1 percent growth rate, the population doubles in 70 years—but at 2.5 percent, it doubles in just 30 years. So Egypt’s population growth was quite rapid in the late 20th century and remains high. Yet Egypt’s process looks no different from other episodes of population growth worldwide, except that it is still ongoing.
WPR: What political pressures are associated with this phenomenon, and what other substantial risks does it pose?
Goldstone: Rapid population growth leads to ever-larger numbers of young men and women entering the labor market. If jobs can be provided in agriculture, government, business and the informal sector, all is well. But if young people are either not educated enough, or educated too much, for the jobs that are available, a mismatch occurs that produces severe problems in the labor market. In the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt’s leadership promised the small number of college graduates government jobs to encourage education, while construction and other sectors absorbed most of the growth in the labor market. Steadily, the number of college graduates increased and led to a bloated government bureaucracy.
By the early 2000s, the number of young people pouring into colleges and universities had skyrocketed. Egypt’s government could no longer afford to employ them all, and the business sector had not matured enough to provide sufficient white-collar jobs. In addition, after the global recession of 2007 to 2009, construction slowed, and Egypt’s economy relied more on capital-intensive industries, like finance and automated heavy industry, over labor-intensive industries. The result—duplicated to some degree across the Middle East and North Africa—is that Arab countries in 2010 had the highest youth unemployment rate in the world at almost 30 percent, with unemployment even higher among college graduates. This led many young people to lose faith in government, blame corruption and, in some cases, drift to radical ideologies. A potential youth-driven wave of political unrest was thus brewing from the early 2000s.
WPR: What are governments in the region doing to address the issue? How effective have these measures been so far?
Goldstone: Governments in the Middle East and North Africa have done little to address rapid population growth. In most states in the region, patriarchal norms limit support for women’s education and family planning. One exception is Tunisia, which has actually supported women’s education and facilitated women’s entry into the workplace. Another exception, although just outside the Arab world, is Iran, which has supported family planning since the late 1980s, and where population growth has plummeted.
The correlation to political outcome is also worth noting. Demographic pressures were the lowest in Tunisia, where birth rates had begun to decline sooner and had fallen faster than in other Arab countries. Tunisia’s youth, though disgruntled, were a smaller fraction of the population and their fervor may have been tempered by the country’s older population. Tunisia has therefore been able to head off violence and achieve compromises, so far, that have allowed democracy to prevail to some degree. Syria and Yemen, which have the two most youthful populations in the region, remain in violent civil war. In Egypt, the military seized power and has been repressing dissent while going about reforming the economy. The regime of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has now publicly acknowledged that continued rapid population growth is a problem for Egypt, especially as birth rates have ticked higher in Egypt since 2007. Sissi has promoted a program of educating the rural population about contraception and family planning, but it will be years before we know if it will be effective, and decades before it starts to reduce the youth population. In the meantime, finding jobs for growing numbers of young people that match their skills and aspirations will remain a major issue.