The uprisings of 2011 were brought forward by a profound transformation in Arab societies. More specifically, decreasing fertility rates and rising literacy levels have led to changes that have ended up having political repercussions as well. But a reversal of the trend may be under way

This article was published in Oasis 31. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:04:55

A profound transformation of Arab society preceded the uprisings of 2011. In particular, a decline in fertility rates, followed by increased literacy rates, resulted in a certain number of changes also at the political level. In recent years, these indicators have signalled a possible change of course. At the same time, the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic loom on the horizon. 


Due to the unpredictable upheavals of recent months, this text may quickly become obsolete. The coronavirus pandemic that is raging throughout the globe has not spared the Arab world, even if its epidemiological severity (incidence of infection, mortality rates, etc...) has not reached the peaks that it has hit elsewhere, particularly in the United States and Europe. Moreover, Arab countries are very diverse, and not all have suffered the same degree of harm, with some being spared more than others for reasons that are only very partially known. But while both the pandemic and mortality have been relatively moderate, their economic, social, and political consequences have been devastating. Without a doubt more so in these latitudes than in developed countries. It would therefore be appropriate, once we have sufficient hindsight, to study the demographic effects on Arab society in three phases rather than two: that of a demographic transition, then that of a counter-transition, and finally that of a return to transition, but this time a poverty-led transition.


Demography and Political Evolution


The idea that correlations exist between demography and political evolution is not new. But it has taken on a fuller meaning ever since the famous American political scientist Samuel Huntington popularised the concept of a “clash of civilisations.” Above all, he located the relationship within the context of conflict, and not just any conflict: opposition between the Christian West and more-or-less Arab Islam. Demographics become a trump card. “The resurgence of Islam has been fueled by spectacular rates of population growth,”[1] he proclaims. The explosive demographic trends of Muslims and Arabs make them appear to be a breed apart, different from the rest of humanity. Racism often appears in the background, such as in the writings of the brilliant Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who wrote that Muslims reproduce “like rats.”[2]


And yet, demography makes it possible to make judgments based on evidence that are free from preconceived notions.[3] This discipline, which could seem dry with its figures and curves, nevertheless allows us to understand the depths of human behaviour, to measure it as objectively as possible from birth to death, to see whether there are fundamental differences between groups, and to become aware of divergences or convergences.


Fertility could be the demographic criterion that best reveals the differences between groups, particularly between Muslims and Christians or Arabs and Westerners. The world map shows enormous variation: if in sub-Saharan Africa a woman gives birth to an average of 7 children during her fertile life, in the Far East she is content with 0.9 children, as is the case in Taiwan and South Korea. A simplistic view would automatically place Muslims and Arabs at the top of the fertility range. But while Muslims in Niger have an average of 7 children per woman, Muslims in Iran—an Islamic republic—have an average of 1.7 children per woman, less than in some European countries. In the Arab world, fertility, far from being homogenous, varies a lot from one country to the next. Manichean ideas must be revised; there is hardly an insurmountable gap between civilisations, Muslim and Christian in particular.


Demographic Transition


Demographic transition is an established reality in the Arab world. Since the 1970s, fertility has been falling sharply. This demographic revolution stems from other revolutions: cultural, mental, and public health innovations that began in Europe (with Martin Luther in the sixteenth century) and spread elsewhere until they reached the Arab world from Morocco to Oman half a century ago. The force of this transition is represented by Figure 1.


Figure 1: Fertility indices in Arab countries before transition (left) and at the dawn of the Arab Spring (right)

Source: National Statistics by Country and United Nations’ World Population Prospects for 2019 and the preceding years. and United States Census Bureau,


Admittedly a late transition, but a meteoric one judging by the average number of children per woman before the transition and around 2005–2010. Of course, the implications of this change, particularly the political ones, are manifold. An example among others: in the wake of Huntington, political scientists have explained political violence in the Arab world as an effect of its “youth bulge,” i.e., the demographic bubble of young people: when the proportion of young people at a “turbulent age,” say between 15 and 24, increases in the societal age pyramid, political violence also tends to increase. Figure 2 illustrates this phenomenon in the Maghreb and the Mashriq. The proportion of young people has indeed increased in some cases from 15–18% in 1965 to 22–24% in 2005. But explanations of political violence with demographic growth fall short as soon as we look at the other part of the curve, where we can see the collapse of this demographic bubble of young people between 2005 and 2050: has political violence disappeared?


Figure 2: The youth bulge in the Maghreb and Mashriq between 1965 and 2050




Source: See Figure 1.


So, in the wake of this new demographic trend one could wager that substantial improvements in living conditions loomed on the horizon. The unsustainable natural growth rates of more than 3% per year were followed by more moderate rates. This was referred to as the “demographic window of opportunity,” or, with a touch of exaggeration, the “demographic miracle,” and, more modestly, “demographic dividends.” In fact, demographic deceleration contributed to an increase in national savings and investments (including so-called “economic” investments, compared with demographic investments). And thus, an increase in Gross Domestic Product and employment opportunities. With less pressure from young people seeking work, it was realistic to expect a decrease in social unrest and political violence. Figure 3 shows how, in the case of Morocco, gross and net inflows into the labour market evolved between 2005 and 2050, an example that can be transposed to other Arab countries.


Figure 3: Gross and net entries into the labour market in Morocco, 2005-2050

Source: High Commission for Planning, the Kingdom of Morocco, author’s calculations based on 2004 and 2015 Censuses and National Employment Surveys, Rabat, various years.


With less pressure from labour market entry, women’s access to working life could only improve. With less competition, women, who are most often relegated to domestic work and childcare, could, in principle, more easily find a place outside the home, except where entrenched cultural reasons prevented it.


This new demographic trend was also an opportunity for Arab countries to catch up in terms of schooling and achieve the levels of some formerly underdeveloped countries (such as South Korea) where the university enrolment rate is now close to 75%. But Arab countries have long suffered from an unprecedented growth in the number of school-aged children; 4% per year as in Algeria, a financial abyss where education costs 10% of GDP and a third of the state budget. The demographic transition also contributed to the reduction of inequalities in countries where it was at its peak. This may seem surprising. It is well known, however, that before the transition (before the 1970s) the poorer populations of society received the smallest share of the national income. Moreover, inequalities were exacerbated by the fact that they had to share this small part of the national income with a large number of people in each household. Indeed, the number of children per household was much higher with poorer families than it was among the well-off, due to a highly differentiated fertility rate. The demographic transition, by spreading to the whole of society, has led to a levelling out of fertility, resulting in a reduction in the glaring gaps between the average number of children among different social groups. Inequalities are still rife among the countries of the region, but they would have been even more acute if the demographic transition had not occurred in this fashion.


Albeit belatedly, the Arab world participated in the universal process of raising the population’s education level. By generalising the ability to read the Bible across society, Protestantism was undoubtedly at the origin of this upheaval, although one of its unanticipated effects was secularisation, which also allowed contraception to become mainstream. The rise in education levels also led to revolutionary ferment, as in Cromwell’s England in the seventeenth century and Robespierre’s France in the eighteenth century. Today, the Arab Spring in 2011 and the protest movements of 2019 are a reminder of the universality of these processes.


Gaining access to primary school education, which had become so commonplace, precipitated the process of change. In this respect, the Arab world is now in a good position: young people aged 15 to 24 are literate practically everywhere, regardless of their gender. Figure 4 shows this well, albeit with Yemen, Mauritania, Morocco, and Sudan lagging behind by a significant measure.


Figure 4: Proportion (%) of youth (ages 15–24) by gender (female on the right, male on the left) who knew how to read and write before the Arab Spring

Source: National Statistics and UNESCO Institute of Statistics, Literacy Statistics Metadata Information Table, 2015.


Instruction induces a, shall we say, “secular” spirit. Procreation becomes a voluntary act, a decision that rests solely with the couple, not something that is dictated by a higher power, the tribe, the “ancestors” (or...  the mother-in-law).


Demographic transition involves a collapse in mortality, without which fertility is unable to fall sustainably. For example, life-expectancy in the Arab world has almost doubled since the 1950s and is now close to 80 years for women in some countries. Among other benefits, the decrease in the mortality rate has certainly contributed to a decline in fatalism, which is traditionally widespread in the Arab world. In particular, before medical progress, the Arab individual was thought to be the instrument of qadar (“destiny”). Everything was maktūb (“written”): sickness, pandemics, accidents, and even death. Now, with a long life expectancy, one feels “immortal.” It is an illusion, but it has the advantage of boosting individual morale.  


Traditional hierarchies have fallen into crisis. In the patriarchal society that was prevalent not so long ago, the father dominated and terrorized his children, especially his daughters. A source of discomfort, the father was often illiterate or poorly educated and faced with increasingly educated children. The husband dictated his wishes to his wife, who was most often illiterate or poorly educated; the sister had to obey her brother. As education has become more widespread, it has given rise to a series of cascading challenges concerning the traditional family structure. But the family is the “micro” scale, and its metamorphosis affects and is amplified at the “macro” scale of society as a whole. Half-voiced developments could hardly fail to find an echo in society: the individual who questions the authority of the father in the home will soon question that of the “father” of the nation (a monarch or president, usually with a lifelong term).


But demographic transition, with all its component parts and ins and outs is not a “long, tranquil river.” In the case of Arab countries, certainly. Contraception, now nearly universal in its modern or traditional forms, allows the couple to choose how many children to have according to their financial means. But contraception, by freeing the wife’s body, allows her to escape the husband’s grip, which does not let go without raising some concerns that sometimes go beyond the husband himself and spread to the entire family.


There has been relatively little mention of a possible relationship between a demographic transition that presupposes a certain amount of empowerment (or even women’s liberation, particularly in terms of sexuality) and the social and political unrest that might ensue from it. There has been a certain form of radicalisation in the Arab world, especially among youth, which is not unrelated to the demographic transition and its presuppositions, in particular the rise of single life. It engendered a certain amount of sexual frustration, which could at best lead to an investment in a return to the past, and at worst to political radicalisation. This phenomenon is not strictly Arab or Islamic, as is evident in the case of Catholic Ireland, where radical movements (Sinn Fein and the IRA) fed on the frustrations of young men.


But these old-fashioned or radical attitudes and behaviours should not be exaggerated too much. The new family model, with a father, a mother, and a diminishing number of children—the nuclear family—has become widely accepted. We can go even further and affirm that the large and hierarchical family structure of the past was congruent with an authoritarian political regime. Consequently, the transition to a small family appears to be a necessary condition, even if it is not sufficient to escape from authoritarianism.


It is common, in Europe and North America, to raise the spectre of demographic ageing, an effect induced by the transition to lower fertility rates. In the case of Arab countries, this risk is largely exaggerated for many reasons, including the relative nature of the concept of ageing: at what age can a person be described as “old?” Above all, the characteristics of the Arab family and the strength of intergenerational ties are such that older persons are unlikely to be abandoned.


Up until the years directly preceding the Arab Spring, demographic transition’s balance sheet was largely positive: societal gains far outweighed any losses. Limiting the number of children means giving them better care, food, education, right up until university, and more affection. A restricted family size also allows for more egalitarian relations between husband and wife and parents and children. A metamorphosis in the institution of marriage, which is no longer the sacred obligation it was not long ago, should also be stressed. On the other hand, there has been a surge in singledom among men and, especially, among women, with a sharp decline in so-called “Arab” marriage, i.e., the compulsion (or strong recommendation) to marry a first cousin or close relative to consolidate the clan. In Morocco, for example, the proportion of endogamic marriages halved between 1995 and 2010, falling from 30 to 15%. Exogamy favours the mixing of populations, which is necessary for the development of a true nation-state. It stimulates the opening of social groups towards each other and induces modernity.


The incorporation into politics of the rise of women in society was evident at the dawn of the Arab Spring. From Daraa to Sanaa, women demonstrated that they had emerged from their age-old banishment. They were visible in the demonstrations, and not just in Tunisia or Egypt but even in faraway Yemen, where they took to the streets just as much as men. Before the pandemic brought down the Hirak protest movement of 2019, they were even more present from Khartoum to Basra via Beirut. One of the main reasons for this rise is that the majority of women now have access to a university education. Figure 5 shows that enrolment rates for women aged 18-24 (i.e., post-secondary education) sometimes far exceed the enrolment rates for men in the majority of Arab countries.


Figure 5: Proportion (%) of youth (female on the right, male on the left) between 18–24 years old by gender who were attending university at the start of the Arab Spring

Source: See Figure 4.


These optimistic remarks may seem naïve, judging by the political setbacks that followed the Arab Spring almost everywhere, particularly with Islamist or authoritarian parties seizing power in Tunisia and Egypt and countries like Syria and Yemen plunged into civil war. These ebbs and flows are not easy to explain, but it is clear that societal progress did not find favourable echoes at the political level, where opposition to the regime in power is most often fragmented into a cloud of small groups. It should also be noted that Arabs have only known the most repulsive aspects of “secular parties”: despotism, repression, and corruption.


Trend Reversals


Did trends reverse after this salutary phase? Have Arab countries back-pedalled demographically and, consequently, politically? As we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring (which began in Tunisia in December 2010), can we say that developments have met expectations? To measure the course of demographic transition, specialists favour the fertility index, rather than indices of mortality, marriage, or civil unions (consanguineous or not). Fertility is the indicator that best reflects the current state and aspirations of a society, a kind of collective psychoanalysis. After the observed rapprochement between the Arab world and the West, have recent years marked a standstill, or even a reversal of trends, which could be rich in implications? And is the increase in fertility a harbinger of a change in mentality, a shift regarding the most essential things in life?


Countries undergoing a demographic “counter-transition” (a rise in their fertility index after a significant decrease) are spread just about everywhere in the Arab world. In view of the heterogeneity of their respective contexts, it is therefore necessary to individualise these cases.


Let’s begin with Egypt, or Umm al-Dunya (“the mother of the world”), as Egyptians and other Arabs often call it, the most populated and for a long time the most influential of the Arab countries. With more than 102 million inhabitants and ten million expats spread throughout the world, Egypt has one of the highest population densities in the world when only non-desert areas are included: nearly 2,600 inhabitants per square kilometre.


Figure 6: The decline and rise in the crude birth rate (per thousand) in Egypt around the time of the Arab Spring (2000-2012)

Source: CAPMAS, Egypt Statistics, Demographic Birth Rate,, 2019.


For a century or more, the country’s leaders (political and even religious), imbued with modernism, have been concerned about high population growth and aware of the urgent need to reduce fertility rates. Without much success under both the Khedivate and up until King Farouk. Only Gamal Abdel Nasser with his charisma (and not without a touch of humour) succeeded in starting a family planning programme and convincing Egyptians to have fewer children. But since his untimely death in 1970, the results in this area have been very tenuous. Increases in birth rates and the fertility index show this. Paradoxically, the Egyptian Spring in particular slowed down the decline in fertility. In 2015, the fertility index exceeded 3.6 children per woman (according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number is a little smaller according to the Population Division of the United Nations). This is enormous. Given the material resources of the country in comparison with Morocco, 60% more, or twice as much as Lebanon.


In Algeria, the second Arab country by population, fertility is constantly rising, independent of the Arab spring: from 2.38 at the end of the civil war in 2000–2005 to 3.05 in 2015–2020.


Figure 7: The irresistible rise of the fertility index in Algeria (2000–2013) 

Source: National Office of Statistics, Changes in the main indicators, Algeria, 2019.


As for Tunisia, which since Bourguiba has been the “model child,” a champion of demographic transition in the region and the precursor of the Arab Spring, fertility started at a “European” level in 2005, with 2.02 children, and increased to 2.27 in 2010 and 2.47 in 2014, leading a Tunisian journalist to say “Help, the fertility rate is on the rise again!” and appalling the country’s demographers, as if the resumption of fertility were a bad omen for the Tunisian Spring. Since 2014, however, the movement has been on the decline. But with 2.17 children in 2018, fertility is higher than it was 10 years earlier.


Figure 8: The rise and fall of Tunisian fertility rates (2008–2013)

Source: National Institute of Statistics, Total Fertility Rate, Tunisia, 2019.


Morocco remains the only country in North Africa to have continued its demographic transition, with a fertility index of 2.21 children per woman in 2014. But a recent survey calls this figure into question and places it significantly higher, at 2.38, in 2018. This has not gone without raising some concern in the country, where there is a strong awareness of the close link between fertility and modernity.


It would be tedious to review all Arab countries in order to gauge the reality of their demographic transition in the wake of the Arab Spring. Upon first analysis, it appears that ten have continued their transition, six have experienced a reversal or halt in their transition, and two are experiencing more complex ups and downs, while the state of one country (Libya) is totally unclear. The majority of Arab countries are still in the process of modernisation, as demonstrated by their demographic transition. Paradoxically, it is often the countries that appear to be the least disposed to demographic modernity where the transition continues, such as Saudi Arabia or the small Gulf emirates: UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain (with Lebanon as an exception). The fertility rate in these countries among nationals and foreigners has continued to decline, despite their unequalled wealth, their policies in support of large (national) families, and their desire to replace foreigners with nationals.


Syria, prior to the Arab Spring, had maintained a very high fertility rate, especially among its large Sunni majority, while religious minorities continued to reap the benefits of the demographic transition. Yemen and Iraq (with the exception of autonomous Kurdistan) still had high fertility rates of more than 4 children per woman in 2015 and more than 3 in Syria, despite massive poverty; wars seemed to stimulate fertility, rather than reduce it. In Jordan, “native” Jordanians and Palestinians from the exodus of the 1948 and 1967 wars cohabit rather peacefully, though this does not exclude differences in fertile behaviour. On the other hand, in Palestine, Palestinians live—badly—with more than 700,000 Israelis who have forcibly settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Their fertility exceeds that of sub-Saharan Africa and the Jewish population of Israel, which is increasing with metronomic regularity, and will soon equal (if not exceed) the fertility of Palestinians in Israel and in the West Bank.


Rather than countries, it would be better to look at their populations. The findings would be quite different, because countries with a “failed” transition like Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, and Syria weigh heavily in the balance, due to their demographic size: it would be misleading to put enormous Egypt and tiny Bahrain on the same level. In short, a minority of the Arab populations—40%—continue to benefit from demographic transition.


These findings on demographic transitions in Arab populations may appear severe and suggest a step back from modernisation, with a return to the traditional family, rigid social structures, and—at the end of the day—authoritarian regimes. But insisting on fertility as the primary criterion for modernisation risks overlooking other criteria that have continued to make gains in society, such as mortality (of children, women of childbearing age, adults, and the elderly), paired with ever-increasing life expectancy. The metamorphoses of average age at time of marriage, consanguinity, divorce, and repudiation must also be taken into account, as these are all criteria whose evolution reflect a certain form of modernisation. We should also consider the “ratchet effect,” beloved by economists, which postulates that a phenomenon like demographic transition can continue even if one of its initial causes is (temporarily) at a standstill.


If there has indeed been a reversal of trends, or even a demographic counter-transition, the explanation is complex. The “return of Islam” is often evoked as a reason for a rise in fertility. It is true that in Morocco, for example, an Islamist prime minister advocated the necessity for women to return to the home, and that adjacent to the Arab world, in Turkey, Erdoğan implored Turkish women to have at least four children. Returning to Egypt, a country which is officially anti-natalist but where the fertility rate has risen sharply, it is striking that popular culture is pro-natalist, and the desire to have many children is prevalent.[4]


But without totally ruling out explanations that are based on mentality or the collective unconscious, we must also take into account the material realities that bend the fertility curve in one direction or the other. In Egypt, but also in other Arab countries, the labour market that had previously opened up for women, who were increasingly educated and eager to leave the home, has tended to close in on itself. For the most educated subset of Egyptian women, those who attended university, the employment rate has literally collapsed, from 56% in 1998 to 41% in 2012. For those with only a secondary school education the results are not much better, with a decrease from 22% to 17%. For the illiterate and those with only a primary school education—a small proportion of the population—employment activity rates have remained at a very low level. The effect in terms of fertility is immediate: the abandonment of working life and the return to the home favour a resumption of fertility, while female economic activity, especially when combined with education, is the most efficient agent of birth control. This demographic, even civilizational, fault line affects the entire Arab world. The labour market is ground that is increasingly crumbling under the feet of women. The following figure shows that, on a global scale, the Arab world is well behind other regions of the world.


Figure 9: Employment rates, by gender, in different regions of the world

Source: ILO, The gender gap in employment, what’s holding women back? 2017.


While employment rates for men have more or less remained the same, the employment rate for women has fallen considerably to almost 20% in the Arab world. For example, it is about 70% in the Far East and more than 60% in sub-Saharan Africa. Even the Indian subcontinent, with 30%, is better off. It should be made clear that this is an Arab, not a Muslim problem. Indonesia, with an enormous Muslim population of 90%, enjoys female employment rates of 51%, which is 2.5 times higher than those of Arab countries, and which largely explains Indonesia’s demographic transition and enviable economic performance.


At the end of this journey into post-Arab Spring demographics and its socio-economic and political correlates, the picture is mixed. The stagnation of demographic transition, even counter-transition, does not bode well. It evokes a winter that succeeded the Arab Spring: perhaps an early forecast of its twilight?


An Annus Horribilis


2020 will certainly be the annus horribilis of the Arab world. Perhaps less so than the rest of the world in terms of the health crisis, with 43 deaths per million in the Arab world, compared to 119 per million in the world as a whole. But the data only covers a few months.


Table 1: Coronavirus deaths as of 13 May and 13 September 2020, and coronavirus mortality rate (per million inhabitants) in Arab countries (ranked by size)






Deaths per 1 million






































Saudi Arabia












































































































Source: John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre, 13 September 2020 and United Nations, World Population Prospects, by population.


Figure 10: Deaths due to coronavirus on 13 September 2020 per 1 million inhabitants

Source: Table 1


The heterogeneity of Arab countries’ experiences of the pandemic is notable. The Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia, and the principalities of the Persian Gulf are the most affected. North Africa and the Arab Middle East are the least affected. But it would be presumptuous to take this data on the coronavirus pandemic, its incidence, and the excess mortality induced by the disease and draw conclusions about its effects on marriage: male and female celibacy, average age, divorce, repudiations and separations, and above all, fertility are the privileged demographic indicators of the destiny of societies.


For complex reasons, therefore, Arab countries account for only a small portion of the nearly one million deaths that have occurred on the planet this year. This is weak satisfaction, however, because the social and economic damage—from Iraq to Morocco—is already enormous and will certainly escalate. On this point the scientific community is unanimous. Gross Domestic Product, national savings, and investments (especially so-called “economic,” rather than demographic investments) will fall sharply for many months—if not years—to come. Economic activity will also shrink in all areas of society and unemployment will strike with an iron fist. Tourism, a significant job provider, will remain anaemic for a long time. Numerous immigrant workers in the Gulf countries and in Europe will have great difficulty sending home their shrinking savings. Rich countries will provide less and less economic aid to Arab countries that will badly need it.


A third, less glorious phase in Arab demographic transition—poverty-led transition—could thus begin. There will be fewer and fewer children because young people will be less able to marry and will have to think much more parsimoniously about bringing children into the world.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[1] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, p. 116.
[2] Oriana Fallaci, La rage et l’orgueil. Paris: Plon, 2002.
[3] Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd, Le rendez-vous des civilisations. Paris: Seuil, 2007.
[4] For example, the famous Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam’s song “Sabah El-Kheir” celebrated how the procreation of Egyptian women will allow the Egyptian sun to continue to shine, with lyrics by the poet Ahmed Fouad Negm. Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm were left-wing and secular, but their pro-natalism rivaled that of the Muslim Brotherhood.


To cite this article

Printed version:
Youssef Courbage, “Demography, Family and Politics: The Three Stages of Arab transition”, Oasis, year 16, no. 31, pp. 66-83.

Online version:
Youssef Courbage, “Demography, Family and Politics: The Three Stages of Arab transition”, Oasis [online], published on December 2020, URL: /en/demography-family-and-politics-the-three-stages-of-arab-transition