Rising Literacy and a Shrinking Birth Rate A Look at the Root Causes of the Arab Revolution

AFP

Part 2: Unemployment and Social Frustration Foment Unrest


SPIEGEL: Aren't poverty or affluence also crucial? Tunisia, Syria, Egypt and Yemen don't have bubbling oil revenues.

Todd: Of course, one can placate the people with bread and money, but only for a while. Revolutions usually erupt during phases of cultural growth and economic downturn. For me, as a demographer, the key variable is not the per capita gross domestic product but the literacy rate. The British historian Lawrence Stone pointed out this relationship in his study of the English revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries. He saw the critical threshold at 40 to 60 percent.

SPIEGEL: Well, most young Arabs can now read and write, but how is the birth rate actually developing? The population in Arab countries is extremely young, with half of its citizens younger than 25.

Todd: Yes, but that's because the previous generation had so many children. In the meantime, however, the birth rate is falling dramatically in some cases. It has fallen by half in the Arab world in just one generation, from 7.5 children per woman in 1975 to 3.5 in 2005. The birth rate among female university graduates is just below 2.1, the level needed to maintain a population. Tunisia now has a birth rate similar to that of France. In Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt, it has dropped below the magic threshold of three children per woman. This means that young adults constitute the majority of the population and, unlike their fathers and mothers, they can read and write, and they also practice contraception. But they suffer from unemployment and social frustration. It isn't surprising that unrest was inevitable in this part of world.

SPIEGEL: Is that why angry young men are taking the revolution into the streets, while there is a lack of recognized older forward-looking thinkers and leaders?

Todd: That isn't surprising. Young men led the revolutions in England and France. Robespierre was only 31 in 1789, and he was 36 when he was sent to the guillotine. His adversary Danton and his ally Saint-Just were also young men, one in his early 30s and the other in his mid-20s. Although Lenin was older, the Bolshevik shock troops were made up of young men, as were the Nazi storm troopers. It was young men who faced off against the Soviet tanks in Budapest in 1956. The explanation is banal: Young men have more strength and more to gain.

SPIEGEL: Why has it taken so long for the values of the modern age to reach the Islamic world? After all, the golden age of Arab civilization ended in the 13th century.

Todd: There is a simple explanation, which has the benefit of also being applicable to northern India and China, that is, to three completely differently religious communities: Islam, Hinduism and Confucianism. It has to do with the structure of the traditional family in these regions, with its debasement and with the disenfranchisement of women. And in Mesopotamia, for example, it extends well into the pre-Islamic world. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, granted women far more rights than they have had in most Arab societies to this day.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean that the Arabs conformed to older local circumstances and spread them across the entire Middle East?

Todd: Yes. The patrilinear, patrilocal system, in which only male succession is considered valid and newlyweds, preferably cousins in the ideal Arab marriage, live under the roof and authority of the father, inhibits all social progress. The disenfranchisement of women deprives them of the ability to raise their children in a progressive, dynamic fashion. Society calcifies and, in a sense, falls asleep. The powers of the individual cannot develop. The bourgeois achievement of marriage for love, and the free choice of one's partner, replaced the hierarchies of honor in Europe in the 19th century and reinforced the desire for freedom.

SPIEGEL: Is female emancipation the prerequisite for modernization in the Arab world?

Todd: It's in full swing. The headscarf debate is missing the point. The number of marriages between cousins is dropping just as spectacularly as the birth rate, thereby blasting away a barrier. The free individual or active citizen can enter the public arena. When more than 90 percent of young people can read and write and have a modicum of education, no traditional authoritarian regime will last for long. Have you noticed how many women are marching along in the protests? Even in Yemen, the most backward country in the Arab world, thousands of women were among the protesters.

SPIEGEL: The family is the private sphere par excellence. Why do changes in its structure necessarily spread to the political sphere?

Todd: The relationship between those at the top and those at the bottom is changing. When the authority of fathers begins to falter, political power generally collapses, as well. This is because the system of the patrilinear, endogamous extended family has been reproduced within the leadership of nations. The family patriarch as head of state places his sons and other male relatives in positions of power. Political dynasties develop, as in the case of the senior and junior Assad in Syria. Corruption flourishes because the clan runs things for its own benefit. The state is of course privatized as a family business. The power of obedience is based on a combination of loyalty, repression and political economics.

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