There’s a compelling reason why Tunisia is the Arab state most likely to become a democracy, why Egypt and Libya have “a fighting chance” of transition, why prospects for Yemen and Syria are far less promising and why “there’s no point in talking about transition” to stable democracy in sub-Saharan Africa.
Drawing on a study of revolutions between 1972 and 1989, demographer Richard Cincotta of the Washington-based Stimson Center found that autocracies with a median population age between 25 and 35 had the best chances of democratizing:
All of the countries that made the transition when their median age was greater than 30 are still democracies today. Nine out of 10 countries with a median age less than 25 slid back into oppressive regimes following revolution. Any older than 35 and revolutions did not occur in the first place. The only other indicator that came close to predicting transition success with the same level of accuracy was wealth per capita.
If the pattern holds, Tunisia – with a median age of 30 – is the Arab Spring country most likely to hold a democracy permanently. Egypt and Libya have median ages of 25 and 26, respectively, giving them a fighting chance of moving to democracy in the next few years, according to Cincotta. But Syria and Yemen – at 21 and 17, respectively – will be lucky to end up with even partial democracies, he says.
Older populations are associated with mature, complex societies, says Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
As societies mature and acquire the institutions and infrastructures of developed nations – urbanisation, higher income, women’s rights and education to name a few – birth rates tend to drop, and the median age goes up (see diagram). All these factors reinforce each-other, says Bar-Yam. At the same time, a complex societal infrastructure is key for a country to make the transition from revolutionary chaos to a newly organised democracy, he says. Under the right conditions, a new leadership can be slotted in at the top of existing infrastructure without too much disruption.
Trust is another key factor, says Jack Goldstone of George Mason University, as mutual trust is less likely in a young population, which inclines towards suspicion of government:
States across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East that perform poorly in indexes of state fragility also tend to have the youngest populations. “This could be just an unhappy coincidence,” said Goldstone, “but I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I think what we’re seeing is a kind of virtuous and vicious circle.”
“Where government is weak, ineffective, doesn’t provide education, doesn’t provide security, it’s advantageous both for individuals and for groups to have larger families,” he said. “However, as population grows, it’s more difficult for the government to provide adequate education and security for the larger, more youthful population.”
“On the other hand, if you can get on the track for a stronger, more legitimate government – a government that’s able to provide education, provide security of property, [and] encourage investment…fertility tends to drop quickly.” “This in turn re-enforces the ability of governments to direct resources to education and economic growth.”
“Mobilization for political conflict draws heavily on youthful populations,” said Goldstone, citing research by Henrik Urdal demonstrating that a bulge in the youth demographic appears to increase the risk of conflict:
However, this relationship is strongly mediated by regime type. While strong democracies and autocracies are considered relatively stable, there is a “risk zone” in between, where instability is more likely.
“We live in a world where the countries with weak, fragile governments [are] about a third of the global population. But in another 30 years, if things remain as they are in terms of governance, you’re looking at closer to half the world’s population living in those more difficult circumstances,” he said.
“If the democracy is not well established, if rule of law is not well regulated, than people don’t necessary trust the outcome of peaceful electoral competition,” said Goldstone. “If people don’t like the outcome of an election, or they feel they’re being excluded, or things are one sided, they may mobilize.” This lack of political trust can result in instability and violence such as the recent protests by Thailand’s “red shirts.”
“There are two big challenges posed by global demography,” said Goldstone.
First, “given that 90 percent of today’s youth are in developing nations, providing them with opportunities to become productive adults through education, stable environment, [and] socialization is crucial,” he contends.
Second, in order to deliver those services, “strengthening governance in the countries where those youth live, in order for those education, security, and social services to be provided,” is essential for securing economic development and political stability.
Algeria and Morocco will change within the coming years, Cincotta says, followed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan in the 2020s:
Revolutions are likely in sub-Saharan Africa, where most regimes are oppressive and most countries’ median age is younger than 20. “But there’s no point in talking about transition to democracy because fertility there is so high,” says Jennifer Sciubba of Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Unless birth rates decline, she says, Africa is doomed to continuous revolts for decades to come.