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Who Participated in the Arab Spring Revolutions?

Although youth led the revolution, looking at the main supporters of the revolution, it wasn’t youth, according to a statistical study of participants in the Egyptian (sample size of 98 people) and Tunisian Revolutions (192).[i] Only 8% of students who were surveyed were active in demonstrations in Egypt, compared to 35% in Tunisia. Only 13% of the Egyptian demonstrators were aged 18 to 24, (compared to 35% in Tunisia) and 31% were aged 25 to 34 (25% in Tunisia). The authors concluded, “These simple statistics give lie to folk theories that the Arab revolutions were caused primarily by youth frustration.” Keep in mind that only 8% of the Egyptian sample reported participating in the demonstrations, compared to 16% in Tunisia, so the authors were working with a small sample.

In Egypt, using data from the Second Wave Arab Barometer administered in 2011, the three authors concluded that the Tunisian Revolution was comprised of a younger and more diverse class background than in Egypt. Both revolutions were supported disproportionately by the educated middle class and by males (76.5% of the demonstrators in Egypt and 79% in Tunisia). In Egypt the participants were more likely to be middle-aged, middle class, professional, and religious. In Tunisia the rebels were younger (likely to be students), more secular and from more diverse class backgrounds.

Although the outcome of the uprisings was free elections, the primary motivation for rebels—including youth– in both countries was economic grievances, and to a lesser extent anger about corruption, rather than a desire for democracy. In Egypt, the second greatest motivation was they were against Mubarak’s son Gamal as heir to the throne. Being unemployed wasn’t a significant predictor of participation in either country and the poorest people had the lowest rate of participation. For the minority of rebels who prioritized democracy, in Egypt they were likely to have participated in civil society associations, while in Tunisia they had higher levels of income. Few in either country wanted an Islamic regime, but the participants were not less religious than non-activists in the sample. The fact that democracy was not the top goal helps explain why Islamic parties were elected in both countries.

Despite young people’s beliefs that they made the revolution, a Harvard scholar agreed with the Princeton scholars that increasing support for democracy by the middle class was the main force behind the revolution.[ii] Ishac Diwan based his conclusion on the 2000 and 2008 World Value Surveys that showed “little inter-generational differentiation” in Egypt by 2008. Support for democracy jumped from 24% to 52% over the survey period. He believes that class has more impact than other explanations for increasing support for democracy and thus the Arab Spring: modernization (secular rational values), the youth bulge (associated with less democracy and more political violence), splits within the governing coalition as when the army supported the uprising, political Islam, or conflict between the rich and the poor over resources with the latter in favor of democracy.

Diwan argues that the middle class was motivated by the rise in skilled unemployment and frustration over economic inequality to abandon support for the regime. He included educated youth in the middle class and their more modern views. He concludes, “While the movement towards democratization was initiated by the youth, it spread among the poor and especially the middle class by 2008,” partly due to the Muslim Brotherhood’s support of democracy starting with the 2005 elections.

Two other academics use their data to emphasize the impact of expansion of education and rising expectations combined with job scarcity.[iii] This combination creates discontent, plus an unresponsive autocratic government, equals the uprising of the Arab Spring. The key role of education is enhanced by the finding that educated people are more likely to be politically active. A poll conducted in Egypt in April 2011 asked participants in the protests what motivated them—64% cited “low living standards/lack of jobs,” while only 19% mentioned lack of democracy. This seems to conflict with Diwan’s emphasis on class and desire for democracy although the middle class is more likely to be educated. When I asked him about this, he emailed, “My results do not contradicts theirs – I find that democracy is a means to an end, and that most people that shifted from support for “order” in 2000 to support for democracy in 2008 have done so because of their grievances.” Regarding youth, the co-authors state that the not-so-young group aged 25 to 39 were a bigger share of the population in countries where uprisings occurred and they suffered from the high unemployment rate. The authors suggest that this formula for revolution can be applied to other countries in the future.

[i] Mark Beissinger, Amaney Jamal, and Kevin Mazur, “Who Participated in the Arab Spring? A Comparison of Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions.” Princeton University, APSA conference paper, 2012.


[ii] Ishac Diwan, “Age or Class? Leading Opinions in the Wake of Egypt’s 2011 Popular Uprisings,” Youth Policy, December 2012.


[iii] Filipe Campante and Davin Chor, “Why was the Arab World Poised for Revolution?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring 2012, pages 167-188.



What’s on the Minds of Arab Youth 18 Months After the Revolutions: A 2012 Survey

Need for financial security may trump desire for democracy, as evidenced in 2012 interviews with 2,500 Arab youth, ages 18 to 24 (60% male). The emphasis on democracy dropped from 68% to 58% in 2012; however in Egypt 75% of youth view it as very important. Youth unemployment in the region is 25%, the cost of living is rising and foreign investment is decreasing. A year after the Arab Spring, top priority changed from wanting to live in a democracy to desire for fair pay (82% said it is very important) and wanting to own a home (65%). This goal of homeownership is similar to a large survey of 25,000 young people in 2010 cited elsewhere, indicating a global desire for security in recession. The other country where they would most like to live is modern UAE with its high standard of living and a ruling family. Youth point to the two biggest obstacles facing them and the region as lack of democracy and civil unrest, so they’re still very focused on liberty. (Their second biggest concern is the danger of drugs.) There are much more likely to keep up with the news and to blog on the Internet than before the revolutions. Despite economic troubles, like young people elsewhere, Arab youth are optimistic about their futures. In Egypt, optimism jumped from 38% in 2011 to 74% in 2012.

How do Arab youth evaluate the revolutions a year after? Favorably. In 2012 interviews with 2,500 Arab youth from throughout the Middle East, ages 18 to 24 (60% male), 72% feel strongly that the region is better off because of the Arab Spring and 68% feel they are personally better off. Eighteen months after the beginning of the Arab Spring, they report that their government has become more transparent, although they’re more concerned about corruption than in interviews the year before the uprisings. Egyptian youth are especially concerned about corruption as the biggest problem (66%). An amazing jump from 18% in 2011 to 62% the following year say they follow the news daily and the number to blog has increased from 29% to 61%. Despite their positive views about the democracy movements, only 24% believe that protest movements will spread to other countries. Despite all the turmoil after ousting the dictators, youth are still supportive of democratic change.

Muslim countries have traditional values, but even there some change is occurring. In 2012 interviews with 2,500 Arab youth in 12 countries, ages 18 to 24 (60% male), 65% agree that “traditional values are paramount” down from 83% who agreed in 2011. The most traditional countries are Libya, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. The percent who believe these values are outdated is increasing, including 44% of youth from Tunisia, 42% in Iraq, 41% in Jordan and Qatar. When asked about their top concerns, in Oman 52% say they are very concerned about opportunities for women.

“A White Paper on the Findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2012,”  Interviews with 2,500 Arab youth ages 18 to 24 (60% male) in 12 countries.



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