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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.



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