Demographic expert: Tunisia may be ready for democracy, Egypt probably isn’t

The model does indicate that there are grounds for optimism in Tunisia. The proportion of its working age adults who are young adults is xxx, which translates to a probability of liberal democracy of 0.48, or around one in two, similar to Chile's probability as it democratised. Meanwhile Egypt, with its young-adult proportion of 0.48, translates to a probability of liberal democracy of 0.31 - less than one in three.

Can social science tell us anything about the likelihood of Egypt or Tunisia adopting democracy or a new form of authoritarianism if their revolutions are successful? It turns out it can, and while there is room for optimism in Tunisia, the picture is far bleaker in Egypt.


One explanation for whether countries can sustain liberal democracy that does hold evidential water is the youth-bulge theory, that revolutions and civil wars are driven by demographic changes to a society, particular as it moves from high to low fertility and mortality rates. This produces a ‘youth bulge’ of young working age adults who, especially under conditions like high unemployment and limited opportunities can drive internal conflict.

Working with the general framework of youth-bulge theory, Dr Richard Cincotta of the Stimson Center has uncovered a correllation between how free a country is and its age structure. In essence, once a nation’s youth bulge has passed into middle age its chances of adopting and sustaining liberal democracy are  higher. He has developed a model which can be used to indicate the statistical likelihood of a country becoming a free and democratic society, and has used it in a paper, written for Left Foot Forward and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. The full paper can be found here; its findings are summarised below.

The model uses two variables. One is liberal democracy, as measured by U.S. NGO Freedom House on a one (very free) to seven (not free at all) scale as the dependent variable, or that thing the model is trying to explain. The other is young adults (those aged 15 to 29 years) as a percentage of working age adults (those aged 15 to 64) as the independent variable, or the thing we hope will do the explaining.

To develop the model, Dr Cincotta divided the world into five regions, and then calculated whether there was a relationship in each region for the proportion of countries rated as free by Freedom House, and the age structure for that region. He also ran the calculation for each region in 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000. He found a consistent relationship between age structure and freedom in all four years expressed as an equation.

This equation, originally applied to entire regions, can then be applied to individual countries, as long as we realise that it is used as an indicator and not a rigid predictor.

The model indicates that there are grounds for optimism in Tunisia. The proportion of its working age adults who are young adults is 0.41, which translates to a probability of liberal democracy of 0.48, or around one in two, similar to Chile’s probability as it democratised. Meanwhile Egypt, with its young-adult proportion of 0.48, translates to a probability of liberal democracy of 0.31 – less than one in three.

He explains:

“The demographic and political circumstances of Tunisia’s ascent, to me, appear like Chile’s – but not exactly. Under pressure from Pope John Paul II and elements of Chile’s economic and military elite, Augusto Pinochet orchestrated his own departure by initiating a process that readied the country for liberal democracy (which took only three years). A similar timeline could evolve in Tunisia.

Egypt, however, will be tougher for democrats to negotiate. If one accepts youth-bulge theory, Egypt’s age-structural youthfulness is likely to depress the costs and difficulties of recruitment to extreme ideologies. In a regime that brings the Muslim Brotherhood to power, Egypt undergoes considerable risk of stalling on the path to democracy or the dismantling of any newly acquired democratic reforms.

“A coalition of opponents to the Muslim brotherhood could also undermine attempts to rapidly reform political and civil liberties in order to deter the Muslim Brotherhood from electoral victory.”

However, for Yemen, where thousands of protesters have staged a show of force in the capital Sana’a, the prospects appear even bleaker:

“Yemen – a very youthful country that has recently felt the heat of anti-government demonstrations – comes in at a near-zero chance (because the linear model is overly simplistic estimate of a more complex function, Yemen actually registers just below zero, which is impossible).

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