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Tunisia Predicted: Demography and the Probability of Liberal Democracy in the Greater Middle East

In 2008, demographer Richard Cincotta predicted that between 2010 and 2020 the states along the northern rim of Africa – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt – would each reach a demographically measurable point where the presence of at least one liberal democracy (and perhaps two), among the five, would not only be possible, but probable. Recent months have brought possible first steps to validate that prediction.

Date & Time

Mar. 24, 2011
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET


In 2008, demographer Richard Cincotta predicted that between 2010 and 2020 the states along the northern rim of Africa – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt – would each reach a demographically measurable point where the presence of at least one liberal democracy (and perhaps two), among the five, would not only be possible, but probable. Recent months have brought possible first steps to validate that prediction.

Cincotta, a consultant with the Environmental Change and Security Program and demographer-in-residence at the Stimson Center, discussed his predictions based on a method described in the ECSP Report 13 article, "Half a Chance: Youth Bulges and Transitions to Liberal Democracy." Discussant Mathew Burrows, counselor at the National Intelligence Council, said Cincotta's work demonstrates that "the demographic tool is essential" to analysts and policymakers.

A Demographic Lunch Break

The third wave of democracy, which, according to political scientist Samuel Huntington, ended in the early 1990s after the fall of communism, is not over, Cincotta said. Instead, liberalization was "taking a demographic lunch break," while countries advanced along the demographic transition from high birth and death rates to low.

In particular, what many Western political scientists missed, Cincotta said, was the "quiet" reproductive revolution taking place in North Africa. With a lower fertility rate than the United States, Tunisia's fertility decline was the fastest and the first, followed by Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

When populations are young, political violence is more likely, Cincotta said. Citizens and elites are therefore willing to make a Hobbesian bargain, trading political rights and civil liberties for security.

"On the other hand," Cincotta said, "net benefits for liberalization should increase as age structures mature, when political violence becomes less likely, and more people are educated, and when the social mood calms." At this point, citizens and the commercial and military elites are likely to question the need for an authoritarian government and reject the costs – in terms of civil liberties, political rights and corruption – that they bear, said Cincotta, noting that this calculation may have been expressed explicitly when General Ammar sided with protesters instead of President Ben Ali.

By examining the age structure of countries at the time they achieved a "free" rating in Freedom House's annual Freedom of the World assessments, Cincotta developed a relationship that used a measure of the population's age structure to calculate the probability of a stable liberal democracy. He found that, historically, when the proportion of youth (those aged 15-29 years) dropped to around 40 percent of the total working age population (those aged 15-64 years) states had an even chance – in other words, a 50 percent probability – of being stable liberal democracies. So, in any group at this particular stage of age structural maturity, analysts should expect about half to be liberal democracies.

Between 2010 and 2020, each of the North African countries will hit this point. Thus, if this region acted like East Asia and Latin America, there is roughly a 97 percent chance that at least one North African state would end the decade as a liberal democracy.

From this analysis, Cincotta found that Tunisia would have a 50 percent chance of being a stable liberal democracy in 2011. Algeria reaches this point in 2014, Morocco in 2015, and Egypt in 2018. Using the same formula, he projected a few countries outside the North African region; Iran will reach the 50-50 mark in 2014, Syria in 2025, Iraq in 2035, and Yemen in 2045.

Cincotta cautioned that neither Tunisia nor Egypt are, to date, liberal democracies, and whether they can achieve (and maintain) that status remains to be seen. Similarly, he advised the international community to temper their expectations for other countries' democratization based on their stage in their demographic transition.

Demography as a Tool

"While there's a general understanding within the policy and analytic communities about rapid change, it's still very hard for analysts to really think about discontinuities and predicting discontinuities," said Burrows. Until the events in Tunisia, analysts believed the Middle East and North Africa region was "unique" and "immune to any democratization," he said; discontinuities, such as rapid regime change or massive democratization movements, were considered unlikely.

"Demography is an extremely valuable tool" for helping policymakers figure out where and when the next major world event will happen, said Burrows, praising Cincotta's work. Being able to project out 20 or 30 years "is about as certain as you can get," he said, explaining why many involved in strategic foresight are now gravitating to political demography for insights.

Going forward, the U.S. government should seek to understand the relationship between demographics and other trends and dynamics, such as personalities and institutions, said Burrows. "There is a real appetite among policymakers" for understanding demography, he said, because it gives them more structure than political science narratives.

Drafted by Christina Daggett and edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker
Geoff Dabelko, Environmental Change & Security Program, 202-691-4178


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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