It is too soon to assess with any accuracy what will be the long-term outcomes of the recent revolution in Tunisia, and the demonstrations growing in intensity right now in Egypt. The implications for the greater Arab world and the Middle East, and the rest of world are unknowable right now.
But I think we can make some observations about likely drivers of these events, and possibly of similar events to come.
I see two drivers of change. There are more drivers I am sure, but these two alone suggest that change may become the norm in the next few years, in nations similar to Tunisia and Egypt.
The first driver is demographic, namely the new population bomb in the form of masses of young people in the developing world. Many have seen this coming and for a long time, none better than Jack Goldstone in the January-February 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs. In a section of his article entitled “Youth and Islam in the Developing World” Jack notes that 70% of the world’s population growth between now and 2050 will take place in 24 nations labeled by the World Bank as low income or lower-middle income. The per capita average income was $3855 in 2008. These countries generally have little prospect of providing well-paid employment, or jobs of any kind, to their young people. He cites, in the Muslim world, Egypt, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey as especially challenged.
We see in the stories from Tunisia and from Egypt, in fact, that the forces at play who are demanding changes from or in government are spearheaded by young people, frustrated by the lack of prospects for the future. Goldstone concludes,
Strategists worldwide must consider that the world’s young are becoming concentrated in those countries least prepared to educate and employ them, including some Muslim states. Any resulting poverty, social tension, or ideological radicalization could have disruptive effects in many corners of the world.
The second driver was captured in a single phrase when my long-ago futurist mentor, Ed Lindaman, defined freedom as “Being able to participate in the creation of your own future.” In nations with a history of strongman rule, and few prospects for the future in the eyes of their young, unrest may boil until at some point it boils over.
What we do not know is how it will turn out. All too often these initial yearnings for reform and freedom do indeed overturn the current autocratic rule, and a “Prague Spring” ensues, only to be followed by clever and even more autocratic forces leveraging the new found freedom into their own totalitarian rule. That is the thing to work against.