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Demographic Changes: Were the Revolutions in the Arab Countries Inevitable?

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Jan 16, 2015 / 0 Comments

By Youssef Courbage* 


In the annals of regional history or even the history of humanity, 2011 will always be known as Annus mirabilis. Political upheaval in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain ushered in significant change in every sphere—social, economic, cultural, ideological, and religious. Are we sufficiently mindful of the fact that a demographic dimension also underpins these changes?


That said, I will begin by examining recent demographic changes and then go on to demonstrate the extent to which demography is implicitly bound up with present and future events.


First, up to 2007, the year of publication of Le Rendez-vous des Civilisations, which I co-authored with Emmanuel Todd, demographic convergence with the northern Mediterranean countries continued at a sustained pace in all southern Arab and non-Arab countries. By singling out, in the cluster of indicators, fertility, the most emotionally and psychologically charged indicator—one used in the writings of the famous Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci to paint an ugly portrait of the Arab and Muslim worlds—this convergence is striking in the case of Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, and Turkey and, moving further afield, the Islamic Republic of Iran, where fertility indicators are at or even below European levels. In the case of Morocco and, even more surprisingly, Libya, where fertility continues to decline, this convergence is only a few years away. In contrast, the demographic transition seems to be slower or to have come to a halt in Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. However, the most startling changes are unfolding in the Israel-Palestine dyad.


Oddly enough, in the countries that have faced or are facing political upheaval—the famous Arab Spring countries—the demographic picture is uneven.   In the countries where instability is on the rise, there are those such as Bahrain, where the demographic transition is complete, as well as others where this transition is just beginning, such as Yemen and Sudan.  However, demographic change affects the entire region and is a harbinger of sweeping political change everywhere.


Demographic Changes


In Morocco, the fertility index has been declining steadily since 1975, while life expectancy has been increasing. The 2004 census revealed a fairly low fertility index of 2.47 (France 2.02).  The 2009-2010 survey, which was repeated, confirms this decline—2.19, an indicator of a fairly low fertility rate, even in the rural areas. Fertility has held steady in the urban areas, now home to most of the population, at a level below the replacement rate—2.05 children per woman.


In Tunisia, total fertility rates up to 2007 were below the replacement threshold (2.10).  The challenge, common to these Maghreb countries, is to predict future fertility trends once the rate has fallen this low.  Some years ago (2002), Tunisian demographers projected a very low fertility rate of 1.5 only.  More recent projections (2005) put the lower limit at 1.75 beginning in 2024, a figure below the United Nations’ estimate, which is based on the latter’s assumptions (and bearing in mind its desire to maintain a certain level of global homogeneity).


Algeria has, for a long time, been an outlier, given its very high pre-transition fertility rate of eight children per woman, which surpassed the pre-transition rates of Morocco and Tunisia by one additional child per woman. The country’s slower transition relative to its neighbors is less attributable to the government’s policy of promoting population growth and childbearing and more driven by the effects of a rent-based economy that can accommodate high and even significantly high population growth.[1] However, in two decades, fertility rates in Algeria caught up those in Tunisia and Morocco.  Since 2000 however, the demographic transition trend has been reversed—fertility is on the rise! The trend that started in 2000 is too marked to attribute to a statistical glitch.  It is perhaps even too great to be explained solely by such cyclical factors as the improved economy, the easing of the housing crisis, and the lessening of political violence, factors that are thought to have pushed up marriage rates (280,000 marriages in 2005 compared to 341,000 in 2009) and thus the childbirth rate.  A change in the childbearing strategies may be taking place and bringing Algeria’s demographic situation more closely in line with the rest of the Near East.  Contrary to this trend, however, the decline in fertility among married couples continues.


Libya, an under-populated country with a rent-based economy, has experienced a demographic transition in line with oil-producing nations of the Gulf.  For a long time, the official policy encouraging childbearing was offset by the generous redistribution of oil revenue.  Falling oil prices followed by the international embargo put the Libyan population on a Malthusian path. Libya, one of the most demographically enigmatic countries, provides scant statistics, a situation that perhaps will not improve given the chaos currently prevailing in this country. However, based on the sparse data available, fertility in Libya has fallen steadily and stood at 2.68 children in 2003.


In Egypt, a remarkably sustained fertility rate followed by an increase in this rate stands in contrast with the country’s current political instability.  Perhaps one explains the other.  Despite its extremely high population density, owing to the fact that only four to five percent of the one million km2 of land is habitable and must accommodate a population of 85 million, population growth continues at the surreal rate of 2 percent per year.  This robust population growth is attributable to a very high fertility rate (taking into account the context) which, after levelling off for a long time at roughly 3.02-3.25 children—50 percent higher than in Morocco or Tunisia—is now hovering around 3.5.  This complex phenomenon cannot be explained by a single and simple factor; it is driven by a mix of cultural and political/ideological factors or by factors linked to migratory flows toward the Arabian Peninsula (rather than toward Europe, as is the case with the Maghreb countries), with all that these destinations imply in terms of family choices.


This same situation exists in Syria and Jordan. Despite tremendous strides made by both countries in the areas of education and illiteracy eradication, fertility rates remain very high, surpassing 3.5 and 3.8 children per woman, respectively. In the 1990s, the trend toward lower fertility rates slowed very quickly, coming to a virtual halt. Here again, as in Egypt, a host of factors rather than any one factor are at work. A totally patrilineal context and the absolute need for a male descendant explain the persistently high fertility rates, unlike the Maghreb where many couples have abandoned this unequivocal imperative. Religious rivalries in Syria, which have their origin in Jordan (Palestinian/Transjordanian), are curbing the decline in fertility to some degree, because of the competition among certain groups.


Lebanon, however, stands apart from the rest.  It is a very modern country in terms of its low fertility rate (1.6) and the fact that this applies to both religious groups—Maronites and Shiites.  In this country, the demographic rivalries that were commonplace in the 1960s and 1970s prior to the civil war and helped fuel this war have disappeared, leading to a country where calm prevails in the demographic sphere, as we wait for politics to catch up with demographics.


The demographic shift in Turkey is well underway; the country’s fertility index of 2.09 now places it below the replacement threshold.  In other words, despite the Islamist governments that advocate childbearing such as Erbakan in the past and Erdogan presently, civil society and families are freely deciding the number of children they will have and opting to limit this number. 


Another example of this disconnect is the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the fertility rate of 1.8 is even lower than Turkey’s. The difference is no doubt attributable to the fact that Iran has more effectively integrated its minority Kurds, unlike Turkey, where Kurdish particularism is also reflected in fertility rates well above the average.


The big surprise lies in the Israel-Palestine dyad, that is, in the demographic behavior of Jews and Palestinians. Year after year, the fertility of Jews in Israel has been increasing and now surpasses the symbolic threshold of three children per woman, while the fertility decline is continuing among Palestinians living in the occupied territories—the West Bank (East Jerusalem) and even Gaza, where rates had climbed to a world record during the period of the first Intifada. In fact, the total fertility rate in these territories declined during 2011-2013 to 4.1 children per woman, whereas it stood at 6 children per woman in 1997. “Low” fertility must be seen in the context of demographics and conflict. The paradox is that Palestinian fertility rates are trending toward modernity as a result of education and individual freedoms, while the fertility of Jews in Israel continues, hewing to the patriarchal norms attributable to the Arabs, and thus to attitudes that support population growth, the importance of the family, and childbearing.


Demographic Interpretation of the Revolutions Underway


The Arab Spring, coupled with the fact that its genesis was in Tunisia, took the world by surprise. However, this revolution was inevitable; demographics attest to its inevitability.  The European process that began in the seventeenth century spread to the entire world.  It could not bypass the south Mediterranean countries which, for four decades, have been experiencing the same changes in the demographic, cultural, and anthropological spheres as Europe did, from the time of Cromwell in England, Robespierre prior to the French Revolution, and other European revolutions, to the 1905/1917 era of Lenin. The Arab world is no exception.


Educational Progress


Educational progress and the eradication of illiteracy, first for boys and then for girls, ushered in the changes we are now witnessing.  With the exception of Lebanese Christians who benefited from the presence of Christian missions and their universities in the nineteenth century, higher levels of education and lower fertility rates, beginning in the 1960s in the case of the most developed countries, ushered in change in the Arab world. In every country such as in Tunisia under Bourguiba, there was a desire to make access to education for boys and girls alike the path to modernization. In Morocco, this was the case with the first governments that took office after winning independence, which made education a priority.  Broad access to education led to birth control and the use of contraceptives.  Although the economic benefits are obvious, this may temporarily reflect the anxiety felt by families.  The sharp decline in fertility (to two children) in the Maghreb shook the very foundations of traditional patriarchal values. (Remember this sentence as it is key to the demography-based argument).


The Family Unit in Turmoil


Furthermore, endogamy, or confinement to one’s family group, which led social groups to turn inward and gave rise to hide-bound institutions, is on the decline.  With less endogamy, societies become open and potentially more inclined to revolt when they are governed in an authoritarian manner. Universal access to schooling and lower birthrates can also indirectly lead to heightened awareness and to rebellion. Changes in these two areas create turmoil in the family unit, giving rise to both positive and negative effects. Positive, because when the number of offspring is limited, parents can take better care of their children, feed them better, and provide them with education that is better and continues for longer periods. Therefore, in a small  family, the model toward which the Arab and Muslim family is moving, father-mother and parent-child interactions become more democratic, a situation that is bound to produce a positive impact in the social and political spheres.  Negative, because from the moment an educated child and an illiterate father wielding absolute authority (all these societies were patriarchal), live under the same roof, the situation becomes fraught.  These family issues may temporarily be reflected in problems at a broader level and in part explain the turbulence in the Islamist world.


The transition of boys and then girls to universal education and the heightened awareness resulting from reading and writing leads to secularization, disenchantment with the world, and lower levels of fertility. These are all essential ingredients of the “democratic transition.”         


[1] States with rent-based economies can take care of their citizens from the cradle to the grave.  The cost of taking care of a child becomes very low, a factor that could foster pro-birth policies.


Youssef Courbage

Youssef Courbage is the Director of Research at the Institut National d'Etudes Démographiques de Paris


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