US Foreign Policy

Demography and Democracy in the Middle East

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By Elena McGovern – The Middle East’s demographic “youth bulge” may offer some new understanding about how societies transition to more democratic systems. According to new research by demographer Richard Cincotta, the proportion of young adults (15-29 years) in the working-age (15-64 years) population of a country approximates the relative level of risk of political violence within that society. For example, the “youth bulge” method places Syria, where young adults comprise 52% of all working-age adults, at a higher level of risk of political violence than Tunisia, where that figure is 43%. It is only when the perceived risk of instability is low do elites and governments begin to support democratic reforms. By this reckoning, several countries of the Middle East are now approaching a more promising demographic profile for achieving and sustaining democratic change.

Demographer Richard Cincotta of the National Intelligence Council’s Long Range Analysis Unit presented his research on demographics and political liberalization at a recent event held at the Stimson Center. Based primarily on an analysis of East Asian and South American democratic and demographic transitions, Cincotta posited that the youth bulge model could help analysts understand and explore democratic progress in the Middle East. This model asserts that states with high birth rates and subsequent “youth bulges” experience high levels of unmet need for social services and employment opportunities. These factors, along with a high social density of adolescents, facilitate self-organizing groups, especially among young men, increasing the potential for social tensions and violence. As a result, elites are less willing to push for democratic reforms, and governments are less likely to accept them. Conversely, states that possess low birth rates and less youthful population structures should be better positioned to move towards and sustain full democracy.

Demographics is only one factor that affects the prospects for democratization, but, according to Cincotta, it is useful to consider the way in which demographic change creates more favorable conditions for political change, by lowering risks of political violence.  According to this new analysis, the Middle Eastern states that have more favorable demographic profiles are Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Iran.  Less likely to achieve political liberalization based on demographic conditions are Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria.

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