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The Whole World Is Watching

6 Apr 2011 in , , ,

Edward Sayre and Samantha Constant analyze how the youth bulge in the Middle East and associated pressures in the education and labor markets have triggered recent political events in the region and what governments must do to meet the economic challenges that remain and will remain even in the context of political reforms. This commentary was originally published in the National Journal on February 19, 2011.

Over the past several weeks, the world watched enraptured as crowds led by young Egyptians thronged the streets of Cairo to protest President Hosni Mubarak’s rule and to force him from office. No two countries are exactly alike. But many of the same demographic and economic forces that produced the Egyptian earthquake are present throughout the region—which could mean more tremors ahead.

Like Egypt, most countries in the Middle East are experiencing an unprecedented youth bulge. In countries from Morocco to Iran, people ages 15 to 29 make up the largest share of the population. Ominously for the region’s rulers, neither Tunisia nor Egypt, the epicenters of the uprising, is particularly unique in its demographic tilt. Young people represent 29 percent of the population in both Egypt and Tunisia, compared with 28 percent in Bahrain, 30 percent in Jordan, 31 percent in Algeria, and 34 percent in Iran, all of which have faced their own protests. The comparable number in most Western countries is around 20 percent. What’s more, the next few years may represent a point of maximum demographic pressure across the region—a period somewhat analogous to the 1960s in the United States when the first baby boomers surged onto the political and cultural scenes. In Bahrain and Jordan, the share of the population under 30 is projected to continue rising for several years. But in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran, the youth bulge is either peaking now or will peak shortly. That means the generational demand for change could also be cresting.

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