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Saturday, January 15, 2011




Funky Arabs

Last updated: January 15, 2011

August 17, 2009


Those who followed the latest mess in Iran have sure noticed that something was very wrong and did not make sense in the story. A regime, that was once eliminating dissidents by thousands, was plainly struggling this time to demonstrate how tough and determined it is. Not only the regime has failed to silence the opposition leaders, even the death toll was remarkably limited. What followed next was even more bizarre. One scandal followed another one with the authorities admitting and promising to investigate police abuses. Finally there came demands to kick the Supreme Leader out accusing him of being a dictator, a thing absolutely unthinkable in the past. What's really happening here? And what's really happening in this region in general? Say what's happening with the Arabs?

Saddam Hussein with his gas warfare against the Shias and Kurds does not need any introduction. The same goes about the Black September in Jordan when Palestinian militants were running across mine fields to surrender themselves to Israeli soldiers, whatever only to avoid facing the king's tanks and his mukhabarat. On one sunny day the late father of Bashar Asad has got so upset with a failed assassination attempt against him that within hours he has emptied Syrian jails by rounding up and executing just about every single member of Muslim Brotherhood held there. And there were hundreds if not thousands.

Another famous episode happened when Syrian army flattened within a week a whole town with some estimates putting the death toll at 30 thousand. According to Thomas Friedman, the dictator was not only in no rash to rebuild the city but the place was actually left wide open for all to come and see to get the idea of what awaits those who dare to challenge the Baath rule.

The questions some would like to ask these days are these: If Muslim Brothers stage another uprising in Syria, will the dictator dare again to order his air force to bomb out corridors across Syrian cities to facilitate movement of armour? Or say if the Palestinians in Jordan rise up in defiance, will the king be bold enough to order his tanks to storm Palestinian camps and neighborhoods? The answer may vary depending on who you ask, but some Israeli Arabs I could talk to vehemently denied that anything like this is possible these days. And the reason given most often? The silly TV and other media!

It's very possible that over the last years some regimes around have lost quite a few of their once formidable teeth. But having done this, they can hardly find any consolation in the fact that they are now facing a population, some sections of which may have got very funky recently, but the majority of which has simply got very angry without getting any funky. This combination of weakened regimes and increasingly restless populations is generally not considered conducive to stability. But it may become the defining one in the near future for a few countries around.

Jad Shwery - Funky Arabs



January 13, 2011

This theory is being tested right now in Tunisia where the president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, appears increasingly unable or reluctant to use overwhelming force to stop riots and protests that a few days ago reached the capital.




January 14, 2011

President Ben Ali has apparently fled the country. Prime Minister said he is taking over. The army is reportedly moving in to replace security forces. This is after Ben Ali dismissed the government earlier today and announced early elections.









January 15, 2011

The Point of Inflection

The first Twitter revolution of the Arab World seems on the way to become the first ever to succeed in modern history. I am not going to predict the outcome or the possible region wide domino effect of this surprisingly underreported and under-analyzed revolution. However, I would notice that, together with Iran's subsidy reform, this is one of the most significant and wrought with far reaching consequences developments of the last few years. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali can certainly comfort himself with the fact that some kind of historic immortality is now assured to him as the first modern Arab ruler to be overthrown by a popular revolt.

Several factors were mentioned in connection with the Tunisian Twitter revolution. Autocratic rule. Several very damning WikiLeaks in one of which the US embassy in Tunisia portrayed the country as a mafia state. Unemployment. Food price inflation. Without going into comprehensive analysis of the causes, however, I want to comment on a few economic and demographic aspects of the revolution. So here is the Tunisian population pyramid


The structure of the pyramid provides some clues as to why and why now of the revolution. First of all you can see that 20 years ago Tunisia succeeded to bend its demographics and set itself on the path to winning the battle against population growth. The generation born around this pivotal moment of Tunisia's demographic history is now in the age groups of 15-25.

Basically Tunisia is now living through the peak of its demographic explosion as the country's biggest generation ever hit the labor market. This should explain a certain paradox of how one of the better run economies of the Arab World, that experienced 5% economic growth on average in recent years, can still suffer from massive unemployment. In its last health check of the economy, the IMF reported the following:

Growth is expected to reach 3.8 percent in 2010, after slowing to 3 percent in 2009 as the global downturn took its toll. But unemployment has begun to rise, after having fallen to 12.4 percent in 2007, and at 13.3 percent, remains relatively high, particularly among the educated youth.

Source: Tunisia Weathers Crisis Well, But Unemployment Persists

Tunisia's unemployment malaise has apparently a regional aspect with the bulk of investments diverted to the North at the expense of the South. But besides regional peculiarities, the general situation is defined by the fact that Tunisia has just finished going through massive uninterrupted increase in its working age population. Basically the rate of new entrees on the labor market has just finished stabilizing and is about to start falling every year, unless here comes an unprecedented surge in female workforce participation. To put it short, Tunisia's unemployment crisis is not caused by the lack of economic growth.

In fact, from the population pyramid it appears that Ben Ali was short of just a few years to start seeing the economy exiting its high unemployment trap. Basically until now Tunisian economy was like a bycicle. The moment it stops, it starts falling. The economy could not slow down even for a year without immediately leading to increase in unemployment. Economic growth was relatively robust. However, it could not catch up with the rapidly growing workforce. The global crisis did not crash the economy, but it apparently slowed it down to the point that the unemployment started growing again. This and the globally rising food prices have become the last straw for some people in the country.

Another question is why this thing exploded only now and not before. Tunisia certainly lived through worse than this without experiencing such a massive unrest. This takes me back to my post about Iran's Green Revolution.


Source: Flashdance ReLOADED.

There exists a certain similarity between the two countries. Both have exploded when the point of inflection of the population pyramid reached the age groups of 15-25. We tend to take it for granted that when fertility hits the replacement level, the demographic crisis is over. In reality at this point the crisis is only starting to build up. Potential instability seems to be concentrated in particular age groups and at a particular point on the demographic timeline.

The generations of protesters in both countries share the same traits. They are big. In fact they are probably going to be the biggest ever born in both countries. And they have few children and probably are unmarried on a massive scale. The risk of instability seems to be defined by two factors. You need a sea of testosterone in the form of young males and you need it free, that means unburdened by big families. Naturally, this trend is at its peak when the point of inflection is in the age groups of 15-25. When the age structure is distorted in favor of these age groups, the conditions are the best for another green revolution. This means the revolution can happen 20 years after the trend to low fertility establishes itself and a whole decade after a nation joins the sub replacement fertility club. I am not saying that every nation that reaches this point in its demographic history will explode, or it can't explode at another point. Nevertheless, if you expect troubles, watch this moment.

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