The Arab Spring and Demographics

In January, the world watched in shock as a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor lit himself on fire to protest the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked a revolution that spread across the Middle East like wildfire—today even threatening governments thought to be untouchable, like the Baathist Assad Regime in Syria.

Shortly after the fall of Tunisia’s strongman, Egypt’s idealistic youth toppled the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak with a peaceful show of resolve. With the army now in control of the country—and promising free elections—it remains to be seen how events will ultimately unfold. Jeffersonian democracy may spontaneously bloom in the desert, or—more likely—an authoritarian regime not materially different from that of Mubarak might emerge after a period of instability. Only time will tell, but we certainly wish the best for the Egyptian people in this exciting period in their history.

Today we’re going to take a look at the demographics of Egypt and of some of the country’s neighbors in the Middle East. Some of the conclusions drawn will surprise you. First, much is made of the fact that Egypt is a “young country” with the majority of its population younger than 25. But what the media doesn’t understand is that Egypt is actually much older today than it was just ten years ago and that the country is aging rapidly.

Much is also made of the fact that the Arab and Muslim world has high birthrates compared to the United States and Europe; but this too is changing. Egypt’s current birthrate, though still relatively high by world standards, is less than half the rate of the early 1990s.

This article will challenge many of the assumptions held by our readers. In doing the background research, it certainly changed mine. Demographic trends do indicate that the world is getting “more Islamic.” But the rate of change is much smaller than many fear.

Youth Gone Wild

This is not the first time we have explored the connection between demographics and political revolution. In July 2009, during the revolt against what many believed was a rigged presidential election in Iran, I penned a short piece titled “The Iran Protests and Demographics.”
I recommend you give the Iran article a read, because the key points are as relevant to today’s situation as they were two years ago. Substitute “Egypt” for “Iran,” and parts of the article could be republished as is.

In the 2009 article I wrote,

American Baby Boomer student revolutionaries in the 1960s used to say “Never trust anyone over 30,” and there is a reason for this. A young person has nothing to lose and has the youthful audacity to believe in change (for better or worse). But by the time a person reaches their 30s, they have a career, a spouse, a family, and a stake in the status quo. As we age, we get more resistant to change because, at the end of the day, we have more to lose. Why risk your livelihood for abstract ideals like “democracy” or “freedom”? So, how do Iran’s demographics look today? In a word, “revolutionary.”

With that said, let’s dig into Egypt’s demographics.

Chart 1

Chart 1 breaks Egypt’s population into 5-year cohorts. One point should be immediately clear. Just as in Iran two years ago, Egypt has a large bulge of 15-29-year-olds. The United States had a large bulge of people this age once too—during the youth of the Baby Boomers in the late 1960s and 1970s. It’s stretching to draw too many parallels between 1960s America and 2010s Egypt, of course. 1960s America enjoyed a high standard of living and a high rate of literacy; Egypt enjoys neither today. America’s rebellious young Baby Boomers were also able to express themselves in a free, if somewhat prudish by today’s standards, country; Egypt’s youth were kept pinned down by the heavy hand of an autocrat.

Still, as readers who lived through the era would no doubt agree, 1960s and 70s America was a time of social revolution and upheaval. Some of the changes—such as the move towards greater racial equality brought about by the Civil Rights movement—were unambiguously good. Others—such as the breakdown of the traditional family—are more controversial. For better or for worse, however, America is a much different country than it was forty years ago.

Egypt’s demographics suggest that Egypt will undergo societal change as well, but it remains to be seen what form that change will take. The American Baby Boomers brought revolutionary liberal change; Egypt’s youth may well bring reactionary change, if the Muslim Brotherhood gets their way. The Mubarak regime, for all its faults, was staunchly secular. If Egyptian society really does become more democratic, it could perversely become far less free than it is currently.

Is the Islamic World “Outbreeding” the West?

Stereotypes abound of veiled, devout Muslim women pushing a baby carriage with five or six small children running around by their feet, and in looking at Chart 2 you can see that the stereotype didn’t spring up in a vacuum.

Chart 2
Chart 3

As late as 1980, the average woman in Iran and Iraq had over six children, and the average woman in Saudi Arabia had over seven. Egypt’s birthrate was slightly lower, but Egyptian women had well over five children on average.

But then, something strange happened. Birthrates fell off of a cliff.  By 2010, Egyptian and Saudi women were having less than three children on average, and Iranian women were having less than two! Iranian birthrates are currently lower than American, at the sub-replacement levels seen in much of Europe. Only Iraqi birthrates remain elevated, and even these are in freefall.

These numbers are clearly not consistent with the view of an Islamic world that is primed to “take over the globe.” In fact, they would suggest a fate similar to that predicted for China by demographer Phillip Longman: These countries may well grow old before they grow rich.

In Chart 3, you can see how quickly these countries are aging. Starting in 1990, the median age began an upward climb that continues indefinitely. As a point of reference, the current median age in the United States is 37 years old. By 2040, Iran will be older than America today, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be well on their way.

Unless these countries embrace fairly radical economic liberalization—which is highly doubtful given their histories—it is unlikely that they will achieve Western levels of development before the effects of aging demographics create serious impediments. Imagine Japan’s stagnation but without Japan’s accumulated wealth, and you will get an idea of what I mean.

What happened? Have Muslim women thrown off their veils and embraced feminism? Not exactly. Saudi women are still legally prohibited from driving cars and risk harassment or flogging for failing to properly cover themselves in public. And while Egypt, Iraq, and even Iran are considerably less strict, all are clearly patriarchical, male-dominated societies.

What has happened is that the same economic factors that led to smaller families in the United States—urbanization and the diminishing marginal utility of children that come with it—have come to the Islamic world. In a traditional rural economy, children are an asset. They represent a captive labor force and a social safety net for people that do not have pensions to support them in old age. But in a modern consumer economy, children are not an asset. They are an expense. In an economy characterized by increasing marginal returns for knowledge, you have to invest a small fortune educating your children if you want them to be successful. (Yes, even in Iran, believe it or not!) Unless you are fantastically wealthy, this is virtually impossible.

It is questionable whether demographic change will bring political change to the Middle East. It certainly didn’t in China. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese democracy movement fell into irrelevance. Now, as China ages, it is unlikely that radical political change will happen in China any time soon or perhaps ever. China now has no youth bulge coming down the pipeline to agitate for revolution.

A Waxing Crescent

Moving on, The Economist had an interesting analysis of Islam and demography (see “The Waxing Crescent”)

Citing a new report from the Pew Research Center, The Economist writes that the number of Muslims will increase from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion by 2030, or from 23.4% to 26.4% of the world population.

This is an increase, to be sure, but a modest one at only 3%. Their data is purely quantitative, however. There is no way to accurately allow for differences in piety; secular citizens who are only nominally Muslim are lumped in equally with bearded radicals. So, it is entirely possible that the world of 20 years from now will be far more “Islamic” than the raw numbers suggest. Still, the raw numbers suggest that in most Islamic countries, the birth rates are starting to look a lot more Western. (A notable exception would be Pakistan and the Muslim parts of India, where birthrates remain very high.)

The Muslim populations of Europe also make for an interesting study. Because they often do not assimilate well into mainstream European society, their numbers appear larger than they are. According to Pew, Europe’s Muslim population will grow from 6% today to 8% in 2030. Not quite “Eurabia,” though the numbers do get larger in some countries. In France and Sweden, the Muslim population will be around 10%. In the United States, the number is much smaller, at 1.7% of the population by 2030—roughly the same proportion as Jews or Episcopalians.

So, while the world is indeed getting “more Islamic” due to demographic changes, the rate of change is slowing dramatically. The question, of course, remains what direction the Islamic world will take. Will it go the way of Turkey, a constitutionally secular republic where religion has found a way to largely accommodate itself to modern society? Or will it go the way of Iran, choosing to turn its back on modernity? Egypt will be an interesting test case as it works through its current political transition. Unfortunately, all we can do for now is wait and see.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA

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