In the Arab world, demography is destiny

February 03, 2011|By Ron Smith

The current revolutionary mood sweeping the Middle East is looking very much like another real-life example of philosopher Auguste Comte's observation, "Demography is destiny."

At the turn of the 19th century, Westerners made up roughly 30 percent of the people on this planet. By the middle of this century, extrapolating present trends, Muslims will be about 30 percent of a much more crowded human population and Westerners reduced to less than 10 percent.

This has all sorts of implications, laid out thoroughly by Bill Bonner and Addison Wiggin in their book, "Financial Reckoning Day." But I want to focus on just one: how a population explosion in the Arab world, stretching from Morocco through the Levant, has set the stage for the revolutionary fervor we've seen on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Amman and elsewhere in the last couple of weeks.

Young people ages 15 to 30 make up about 30 percent of the Arab population. If we include those younger than 15, it's approximately half of the living Arab people.

What this means, above all, is that the current systems under which these populations exist are all but certain to be overthrown, regardless of the immediate fate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Saudi royal family and the king of Jordan. Or the longtime strong man in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who, in an attempt to head off the budding rebellion in his country, has just announced he won't seek reelection as president in 2013.

The historian Jack Andrew Goldstone asserts in his book, "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World," that there is one thing in common between the English and French revolutions and the ones that took down the Ottoman Empire and the imperial dynasties in China and Japan. The ruling systems were confronted by rising populations and diminishing resources, and their inflexibility led to their downfall.

The cataclysm in Russia early in the 20th century was stoked by a doubling of the population between 1850 and 1913. In the West, there were industrial jobs for the burgeoning populace, but in Russia, an agrarian society, only about a third of the people could be absorbed in that way. Lenin stoked seething resentment into the communist revolution.

The Egyptian eruption took Washington, Tel Aviv and even Cairo by total surprise. Perplexity is the dominant theme among world leaders. They don't know what to do, nor do they have any idea what might come next.

It is amazing that we Americans can squander $80 billion or so yearly on intelligence agencies that can't predict events as huge as the fall of the Soviet Union, but that's another story.

The rulers in many Arab lands are rich beyond imagining. Their lavish lifestyles are on display wherever they travel, though recently even Saudi princes have taken pains to tone down their extravagances as "the street" becomes more restive.

The neocon line has been that we shouldn't betray such a staunch ally as President Mubarak. MSNBC news talker Chris Matthews is apparently incensed that we should advise him to skedaddle, likening the situation to 1963 and the murder of South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem after we gave thumbs up to his removal from office.

Israel has its own, well-publicized, demographic dilemma. If no two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is implemented, birthrates dictate a forthcoming apartheid state imposed by a dwindling proportion of Jews upon a growing number of dispossessed Palestinians.

The truce between Israel and Egypt, hammered out at Camp David in 1979, has been of supreme importance to the Jewish state. The worry in Israel, especially among those old enough to have memory of the several wars between the two nations, is whether the truce can be maintained if Mr. Mubarak is ousted.

But, long-term, the question is what will happen if regimes old or new in the Arab world cannot provide opportunities for their growing numbers of young people. It is the young who rebel. In this age of digital media, the masses see for themselves how the luckier people live. They want the promise of that and they want it now.

Ron Smith's column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.
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