Arab Society in Revolt: The West's Mediterranean Challenge

Arab Society in Revolt: The West's Mediterranean Challenge

by Cesare Merlini, Olivier Roy

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815723974
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 06/20/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 268
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Cesare Merlini is a nonresident senior fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings and chairman of the board of trustees of the Italian Institute for International Affairs in Rome. Olivier Roy is a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, directing the Mediterranean program at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, and a senior researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

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Arab Society in Revolt

The West's Mediterranean Challenge


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ISBN: 978-0-8157-2397-4

Chapter One


Demography, Migration, and Revolt in the Southern Mediterranean

For the people of the Mediterranean, the early 2010s will be remembered as a period of great change. In the south, Arab citizens' claims to fundamental freedoms and dignities have toppled—or at least seriously shaken—decades-old dictatorships, while in the north the market's failures have confronted governments with an unprecedented crisis concerning the equally old and unsustainable production and welfare systems. The two crises, political in the south and economic in the north, have no common origins except that they are both partly rooted in the progressive, inexorable transformations brought about by demographic change.

Historians will certainly highlight the crises' concomitance with a radical demographic turning point that is barely noticeable in real time, as shifts in population evolve slowly and therefore invisibly for those who focus on the short term. The period around 2010 will indeed be remembered as the time when the population of young adults peaked in the Arab world while an enduring population decline gained momentum in Europe. Demography offers a key to understanding changes that separately affect the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean while, at the same time, linking them together through international migration.

This chapter will, first, briefly review how demographic trends challenge Europe's ambitious economic, social, and political goals and will ask to what extent immigration can help in addressing demographic challenges. The rest of the chapter focuses on Europe's closest neighborhood, the Arab Mediterranean region, from which large flows of recent immigrants have originated. It describes the lack of economic prospects, political freedom, and individual agency that young adults—more numerous but more excluded than ever—suffer in the context of the powerful social changes that accompany such a demographic shift, such as women's empowerment, the spread of education, and, for the first time, the birth of the individual in societies that have been based, since time immemorial, on families and communities.

The chapter then offers an interpretation of emigration and revolt as two possible responses of the young, whose new aspirations are frustrated by the patriarchal order of both the family and the polity, which largely negates individuals' aspirations. After recalling that Arab countries have their own "œsouth" and thus constitute a migrant receiving as well as a sending region, the chapter finally examines what happened when migration and revolt met in the course of 2011. By way of conclusion, it will speculate on the future of migration in relation to long-term demographic and short-term political changes in the Arab region, as well as on the future of European policies regarding Arab migration.

Generational Contracts at Risk

For the first time in history, Europe must prepare for a long-term decline in population that will not be the result of wars or epidemics, as in the past, but rather the outcome of individual choices freely made by its own people over the last half century regarding procreation. Demographic recession cannot be stopped unless the downward trend is offset by large-scale immigration. Moreover, below-replacement fertility rates will combine with continuous gains in life expectancy to produce unprecedented population aging. While this process is potentially universal, it will affect Europe first and more acutely than any other part of the world.

Europe's demographic recession will have three facets. The first will be a shrinking Europe. While the total population of Europe will decrease or stabilize, depending upon migration scenarios, the number of people in most other regions will continue to increase so that the relative weight of Europe in world population terms will dwindle. Europe's closest neighbors will continue to follow their own demographic paths. For example, if the members of the League of Arab States eventually accomplish the dream of its founders and build one Arab nation, this nation will have 633 million inhabitants in 2050 (versus 357 million in 2010), whereas the twenty-seven member states of the European Union (EU27) are projected to have only 448 million inhabitants in 2050 (versus 506 million in 2010) if no immigration takes place.

The second facet will be a fast decline in Europe's workforce, endangering its wealth. If no immigration occurs between 2010 and 2050, the EU27 will lose 84 million working-age persons, a relative change of -27 percent (compared with an absolute gain of +1,349 million working age individuals, or +34 percent, at the world level).

The third facet will be an unprecedented rise in the elderly population, jeopardizing Europe's social contract. Booming numbers entitled to pensions combined with shrinking numbers subject to taxation will soon make the whole welfare state unsustainable. With no further immigration, the EU27 old-age dependency ratio (population aged sixty-five and over divided by population aged fifteen to sixty-four) will jump from 0.256 in 2010 to 0.468 in 2050.

Europe has recourse to a range of strategies to address the consequences of these population trends. Pursuing enlargement by including new countries in the European Union would increase the weight of the EU in world population but hardly mitigate distortions in its age pyramid, even if new member states have younger populations (for example, Turkey). Adopting pronatalist policies, raising the retirement age, increasing economic participation among women and immigrants of former migration waves, and elevating labor productivity would partly address the consequences of an aging population. Finally, redesigning pro-immigration policies—instead of suspending them in response to rising unemployment with the economic crisis, as most EU states are doing at the time of this writing—is a strategy that states must not dismiss, keeping in mind that the economic crisis will pass, but the demographic recession is here to stay.

Not far to the south, the Arab world presents a demographic pattern that contrasts strikingly with that of Europe (see figure 1-1). Until the 1980s Arab populations were viewed as the epitome of the demographic explosion. The "œpopulation problem" was felt as early as the 1930s in Egypt, when intellectuals and scientists pointed at overpopulation and rapid population growth as a major cause of underdevelopment, and a fatwa allowing contraception was pronounced by Egypt's grand mufti in 1937, decades before the issue became a matter of debate for the Vatican.

From that time until the 1980s, the population problem centered on high birth rates, which caused the population to grow faster than the economy. A demographic measure—birth control—was seen as the solution, and family planning programs were initiated in the early 1960s in Egypt and Tunisia, then in the following decades across all the Arab world except the Gulf states (where governments considered national populations too small in relation to the size of their oil-driven economies). Finally, the annual number of births began to grow more slowly and stabilized between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s (dates varying slightly from country to country), the years during which the largest generations were born.

Twenty to thirty years later, in the early 2010s, these generations now constitute the twenty-to thirty-five-year-old age group, which stands at its historical peak, and the population problems associated with this cohort can no longer be addressed through demographic measures. Because the numbers of young adults have grown faster than resources available to them—from labor access to employment and income to enjoyment of freedom, and more particularly the freedom to act—the solution now must be both economic and political. Before examining the various options available to the young in the Arab world, it is useful to reflect on two key determinants of demographic change: the condition of women and the spread of education.

Women, Fertility, and Patriarchal Traditions

The average total fertility rate (TFR) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) was 3.3 children per woman in 2005—10. Although this is relatively high compared to the world average (2.5), it is low compared to the six to eight children per women that were the norm for the previous generation (figure 1-2). The global decline in birth rates began later in the Arab world than in Southeast Asia or Latin America, but once under way it progressed faster. There are still significant differences among MENA countries. Tunisia and Lebanon are now just at replacement level (between 2.0 and 2.1 children per woman), Morocco and Libya are slightly above (2.4 and 2.7, respectively), and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria fall in the middle range (3.0 to 3.5). The TFR is still high in the Gulf states and Sudan (around 4) and in the Palestinian Territory (5.1), where the factors that would promote fertility decline have largely been countered by the economic and social ramifications of the Israeli occupation and the associated conflict.

Fertility also varies across regions in the same country. As a general rule, cities and the richer regions have lower levels of fertility than villages and poorer regions. For example, in Morocco in 2004, urban women had a TFR of 2.1 (replacement level) compared with 3.1 for rural women. In Tunisia in 2009, the district of Tunis had a TFR of 1.65 (with a minimum of 1.50 in Ariana)—a level comparable with the very low fertility observed in Mediterranean Europe—while the district of Centre-Ouest (Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid) had a TFR of 2.46. In the Arab world, as elsewhere, factors that explain birth control include the roles of women and the place of children in the family and society, all of which change dramatically with urbanization, the shift to service economies, and the spread of school education.

Why have these universal causes for lower birth rates acted later in the Arab countries than in other parts of the world? The common view among Western social scientists is that Islam held back two key engines of demographic transition: women's autonomy and the emergence of civil society that fosters community self-empowerment. If so, then how can one explain that Iran has experienced one of the fastest fertility declines in history—with a TFR literally collapsing from 6.54 in 1980—85 to a far-below-replacement level of 1.77 in 2005—10—precisely when the country was ruled by the most fundamentalist of clergies?8 Likewise, how can one understand the fertility collapse in Algeria in the 1990s that coincided with the rise of Islamic radicalism?

Another explanation may be found in the political economy of the Arab countries. All these countries (except Morocco) share a heavy dependency on oil revenues. Dependence is direct in the case of major oil exporters (the Gulf states and Iraq in Western Asia, Libya and Algeria in North Africa) and mostly indirect for minor exporters and for nonexporters where Arab oil wealth arrives in the form of development assistance, foreign investment, and migrant workers' remittances.

The dramatic oil boom between 1973 and the early 1980s generated an income that enabled Arab governments to subsidize a wide range of household needs from food to school education and health, thereby cutting the cost of children for families—in other words, it made high fertility affordable. In an enduring patriarchal context valuing large families, the wealth from the oil boom extended the era of high levels of fertility. The redistribution of significant oil wealth effectively pitted the forces of conservatism and change against one another. A low level of economic participation among married women, whose maintenance in the home directly fostered high fertility, reflected social conservatism. Social change, meanwhile, was seen in the rising school attendance among the young, who later would act as catalysts for political change.

The oil crisis in the mid-1980s put an end to the oil-supported pattern of high fertility rates. Collapsing oil prices affected states' and households' revenues in all Arab countries, oil exporters as well as nonexporters indirectly depending upon oil revenues, and governments, except in the Gulf states, adopted International Monetary Fund economic reforms under which families lost out. Average age at marriage among Arab women rose—from under twenty years of age in the 1960s to between twenty-five and thirty years in the early 2000s—and couples started to drastically limit the number of children they had in order to be able to provide them with educational opportunities. The universal mechanism described by Gary Becker as a child quantity-for-quality trade-off was no longer deactivated by oil wealth.

Will fertility continue to decline and reach replacement level in Arab countries (by around 2030 as is assumed in the population projection of the United Nations)? While there seems to be no question that demographic transition is an irreversible process here as elsewhere, it responds to changes that are themselves unidirectional, making its actual pace uncertain. Indeed, the declining trend in fertility was curbed or even slightly reversed in several Arab countries in the early 2000s. In Algeria the TFR has regularly increased from a historical minimum of 2.4 reached in 2001 to 2.5 in 2002, 2.6 in 2005, 2.8 in 2008, and 2.9 in 2010. In Egypt it has never fallen below 3.5 children per woman, and its level in 2009 (3.9) was already reached in 1992 (table 1-1); in Tunisia, the Arab forerunner in demographic matters, it has imperceptibly risen from 2.04 in 2005 to 2.05 in 2009. This list could be extended. One cannot rule out that the resilience of patriarchal views that a woman's role should be confined to being wife and mother is currently at play in the Arab region, whether or not it is fueled by Islamic fundamentalism.

Women have gained considerable visibility and an accompanying capacity to act for themselves over the last half century, but their empowerment is not complete. While schooling has allowed girls, previously confined to the family house, into the public space (see the following section), many workplaces are de facto closed off to women. In the 2000s, Arab countries had by far the world's lowest rates of female economic participation. In the mid-2000s (last available statistics), the rate of economic activity among women aged fifteen and over was 24.7 percent in Morocco (2004), 24.2 percent in Tunisia (2004), 16 percent in Egypt (2006), 14.6 percent in Syria (2004), 15.7 percent in Palestine (2007), and 14.2 percent in Algeria (2008), compared with a world average of 55 percent. While female employment exists in Arab countries, as elsewhere it is mostly held by never married, divorced, and widowed women, not by married women—a fact suggesting that society may allow women to work in the public space, but husbands do not.

Demographic change, however, is slowly undermining the patriarchal system that has governed the family since time immemorial. That system rests on two pillars: younger brothers' subordination to the eldest brother, and women's subordination to men. Fertility decline breaks the first pillar. Schematically, the current trend towards two-child families—on average, a boy and a girl—undermines a hierarchy among brothers, for lack of brothers. The second pillar can still be based on Islamic law, but the gap between law and practice is widening. Rising educational levels are shaking the hierarchy of genders. Young adult women have now received an education comparable to education for men of their age (which makes them much better educated than their fathers), and a new competition, between the genders, is appearing in the upper reaches of the labor market.


Excerpted from Arab Society in Revolt Copyright © 2012 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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