Youth Bulge, Exclusionary Regimes, and the Islamic State’s Big MistakeFebruary 10, 2015 By Jack A. Goldstone
Last week, the Islamic State’s ignorance of the role of demography in their local success may have led them to overplay their hand. Seeking to dissuade Jordanians from following their government in actively supporting the alliance arrayed against them, they executed a captured Jordanian pilot in horrendous fashion, burning him alive. Yet Jordan is not like Syria or Iraq, where violence against westerners or Shi’a or other minorities has helped split people from their allegiance to the government. Instead, this act of violence seems to have unified Jordan’s Sunnis against the Islamic State for their actions against a fellow Sunni Muslim. Jordan has expanded its assault, striking dozens of targets in Iraq for the first time.
Jordan is not like Syria or Iraq
What do the vicious cauldrons of violence where the Islamic State has had most success have in common? Syria and Iraq are not only the most conflict-riven states in the Middle East and North Africa, they are the youngest and have deep ethnic divisions with weak, exclusionary governments unable to bridge those divides. Yemen, where the government’s authority has virtually collapsed and the capital is overrun by Houthi rebels from the north, also falls under these categories.
Jordan may be relatively young and ethnically divided between Bedouin and Palestinian populations, but unlike Syria, Iraq, or Yemen, it is 92 percent Sunni, and the population has both some access to politics, through an elected parliament, and a respected national monarchy.
As the bright hopes felt in 2010-2011 fade, many are searching for explanations for what went wrong with the Arab Spring. Political demography offers a start. We know from research by Richard Cincotta, Henrik Urdal, and other political demographers, often cited in this blog, that states with younger populations are often more prone to experience political violence. Thus it is not surprising when we look across a region where people have many of the same grievances – governments that favor economic elites or particular ethnic groups, few opportunities for educated young people, and widespread corruption – that countries with the youngest populations are most likely to have the most violent and severe state breakdowns.
States with younger populations are often more prone to political violence
Only two Arab countries in 2010 had a population aged 15-29 that was fully half or more of the total adult population, sometimes referred to as a “youth bulge”: Yemen (56 percent) and Syria (50 percent). In most Arab countries this ratio was in the low 40 percent range; in Tunisia, home to the least violent revolution, it was only 37 percent. The next closest is Iraq at 47 percent, followed by Jordan at 45 percent.
Another way to look at a country’s age structure is median age, the age at which half the population is younger and half is older. In 2010, only three countries in the Middle East and North Africa had a median age under 20: Yemen and Iraq. Syria is next at 22. Almost every other country was in their late 20s: Egypt, Libya, and Morocco are 24-26, Kuwait and Lebanon were over 28, and Tunisia is at 29. Jordan was relatively young with a median age of 23 in 2010; indeed it is the youngest of all the remaining stable states in the region.
Government for Some People
Governments that rule to the benefit of one particular group and largely exclude others have been a bane in the Arab world. Alawites in Syria, Sunnis under Assad, Sunnis in Yemen, and recently Shi’as in Iraq have ruled over significant populations of other groups that largely reject their authority. Exclusionary regimes, not surprisingly, are known to be vulnerable to uprisings if the government’s coercive capacity should weaken.
The combination of exclusionary regimes that are also exceptionally young creates a particularly toxic stew of young people who feel excluded and resentful of the rule by “others” imposed on them. This has been conducive to recruitment by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and to the mobilization of a large number of regional, ethnic, and jihadist anti-regime groups in Yemen.
Under these conditions, the oft-cited panaceas for conflict – more education, more jobs – are unlikely to bring an end to conflict. Syria and Iraq, along with other Arab nations, had invested huge amounts in education and double or tripled their numbers of college graduates in the decades prior to the Arab Spring. Such education only made people more aware of exclusionary politics and more sharply aggrieved. And if access to the best jobs is controlled and tilted in favor of the dominant ethnic group, creating more won’t help either.
What is needed is fair and inclusive government that can open paths to opportunity and bridge differences across sectarian lines. Such governments are hard to find in the Middle East and may not even be possible at the moment, given the bitterness of ongoing violence.
Dividing the Map?
Given this demographic perspective, if we ask what a stable situation in the Middle East and North Africa looks like, it will probably involve a different set of state boundaries which conform more closely to religious and ethnic identities.
The history of the Balkans, Middle East, and North Africa repeat a single lesson
In Iraq, the Sunni dominated west has come under control of the Islamic State, while the Kurdish northern provinces are acquiring sovereignty in all but the most formal sense. In Syria, the mainly Sunni south and east are under control of the Islamic State, while the Alawite-dominated Assad regime retains authority in the coastal area and the multi-ethnic urban corridor from Damascus to Aleppo. In Yemen, which has been split before, the Shi’a northern regions are proving to be increasingly resistant to rule from the capital. The future may therefore contain several new states: a Sunni Islamic State straddling the former eastern Syria and Western Iraq; a smaller Iraq dominated by Shi’as and possibly also spawning an independent Iraqi Kurdistan; and a Shi’a state comprising northern provinces of Yemen with a rump state of Yemen dominated by Sunnis.
When it comes to political boundaries and conflicts, the history of the Balkans, the Middle East, and North Africa repeat a single lesson: the demography of ethnic and sectarian divisions cannot be ignored, and will reassert themselves in conflict until such groups feel secure in the government that rules them. In some cases, this leads to fractionalization (the world’s newest state, South Sudan, exists because of sharp religious and ethnic differences between the Arab and Muslim north and the Black and Christian and Animist south), but in others it can lead to solidarity, as in the case of Jordan’s response to the killing of Moaz al-Kassasbeh.
Jack A. Goldstone is a fellow at the Wilson Center, and the Hazel Professor of Public Policy and a fellow of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. His latest works are Political Demography (2012) and Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction (2014).
Sources: Al Jazeera, The Brookings Institution, Goldstone et al. (2011), Goodwin (2001), Institute of International Education, International Journal of Business and Social Science, UN Population Division.
Photo Credit: A Jordanian woman lights a candle near a poster of Jordan’s King Abdullah (R) and a poster depicting Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh during a candlelight vigil in solidarity with the family of Kasasbeh, who was burnt alive by the Islamic State, courtesy of Reuters/Muhammad Hamed.