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Livio, fascinating. In some was it would be more meaningful to compare the employment rates or the male unemployment rates across the two countries. In most of the arc of protest countries there is minimal female labour force participation and thus minimal female unemployment, since the unemployed are by definition those who want work but can't find it.

Comparative information on the situation of women and men in different countries can be found in the United Nations Human Development Report, Table 4. The female labour force participation rate in 2008 was 24% in Egypt, 74% in Canada.

It's a deadly combination: traditional gender roles that make men responsible for providing for their families, and widespread unemployment that makes it impossible for men to provide.

Interesting post Livio.

It would be interesting to compare the richer and poorer members of the Arc of Protest on some of these variables, especially on education (or health) as a % of GDP. Egypt, Yemen and Sudan in particular must be dragging down the Per Capita GDP. For the poorest countries not to spend as much as we do on education may be explained in part by resource constraints and the need to address so many competing priorities (e.g. basic health services, infrastructure). However that argument weakens for the richest countries in that group.

For Bahrain (from CIA World Factbook): per cap GDP is ~$40K (est. 2010), and unemployment: 15% (2005). The official gov't stats seem to claim unemployment is something like 3.7%! Hmmm.... I couldn't find a gini coefficient for Bahrain. The factbook also notes that 44% of the population between 15 and 64 are non-nationals. I suspect that means they receive very unequal treatment.

There's also Sunni/Shi'a divide, with the Sunni being a ruling minority - apparently propped-up by the Saudi Royal family. And it wouldn't surprise me if there were underlying tribal tensions too.

It's a brutal irony that Saudi troops with shiny new American equipment and training are murdering protesters from an oppressed majority. Classic example of blowback.


Excellent post. Conrad Winn and I published an Op-Ed 3 weeks ago in the Ottawa Citizen that provided similar economic (rather than political) interpretations to understand the uprisings in the Middle East, "Students targeting the wrong Middle East country": http://www.ottawacitizen.com/story_print.html?id=4283777&sponsor=

It reminds me of my first vist to Poland in March 1991 on behalf of Carleton business school that received a CIDA grant to establish management and business education. I met a professor of economics and demography at the Central School of Planning and Statistics, later renamed the Warsaw School of Economics, then and now a very prestigious university.

She explained in very clear english, using her impressive and very detailed data sets, that contrary to those who explained the collapse of communism in terms of yearning for freedom, the data showed a steady, non trivial decline in food production throughout the 1980s in Poland. She developed a complementary methodology that measured the time or length of the queu, as her mother who lived with her, was responsible for standing in line each day to buy food. The lines grew longer to + 5 hours daily, quantity and quality of the food steadily decreased while prices increased (how can you not pine for the workers' paradise?). She argued, as did other Polish economists, that Solidarnosc was driven by desperation, as they did not have enough to eat, and not by a desire for freedom as such.

I have taught 8 times in last 10 years in Iran. Similar phenomenon. Like the Communist Party apparatchuks in Soviet times, thousands of lower level mullahs assigned throughout the bureaucracy to spy on the bureaucrats, are very corrupt demanding bribes for approval of whatever permit or application requires approval. Consequently, Iran practices major protectionism to "help fledgling industries against greedy foreign firms that would otherwise take their resources" (sounds like Premier Wall and the CLC). Protectionism is the necessary tool to ensure a continued privileged life for the mullahs, bureaucrats and business class.

Needless to say, the economy is very inefficient, inflation averaging 20% p.a., shortages and remarkable poverty for large numbers (GDP per capita is around $7,000) while the elites are incredibly wealthy.

For far greater empirical elaboration, see the devastating UNDP 2002 Arab Human Development Report http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/regional/arabstates/RBAS_ahdr2002_EN.pdf written by Arab experts living in the Middle East.

I appreciate the additional data sources and perspectives mentioned. For those of you who want to compare the Arc of Protest countries I used more explicitly, I have put a table with the data up on Northern Economist at:

"She argued, as did other Polish economists, that Solidarnosc was driven by desperation, as they did not have enough to eat, and not by a desire for freedom as such."

That has interesting implications for the commonly held notion that China will inevitably transition to democracy. Perhaps this is also what motivated the Communist Party to undertake the economic reforms necessary to keep their people from starving.

When we talk about spending on education as a percentage of GDP, it seems misleading to not adjust for the proportion of of the population under 24 or under 15, as these are the primary consumers of education. The same resources spread over fewer students would imply better education.

Are you sure that education should be treated as %GDP? Are coutries' efficiency comparable enough to say that spending X dollars per capita here in Canada is the same as X Toran in Iran?
I always find direct comparisons like that feel misleading.

Ian Lee, do most student protesters identify as supporters of Arab governments? One line I've commonly heard is that relatively liberal, democratic countries like the U.S and Israel are responsive to international public opinion, while worse regimes are simply shameless.

Male, age 15-35, no job, no income so no wife and family. Also known by sociologists as TROUBLE...
In the 60's , western government were rich enough to eventually buy the young. If you are physically poor (and ever will be,like Yemen) or incompetent (80's Poland), you can't.
Your only hope is that your own troops will kill their own countrymen. Usually they balk and you must use mercenaries or foreign troops who feel no kinship. High level of education, exposure to foreigners through travel, study or culture extend the concept of kinship. Today, no western troops could shoot-to-kill a crowd, even a non-western one.

Most petromonarchies GDP are not growing. So, whatever the level, it is impoverishment that is felt and is often more resented than sheer poverty.
Eric Hoffer,


in The True Believer


noted that the impoverished, not the poor revolt.

Freedom? For most people,having enough food, a decent shelter according to recent local standards and some stability in your general situation is being free enough. Most people don't care about politics and wise dictators concern themselves with the few idealist dissidents and leave the citizenry well enough alone. Up till late 1944 Hitler retained the populace genuine loyalty with Volkswagen on the autobahnen and workers vacations clubs. If you kept to yourself and weren't Jewish, life was fine. Communist? Just go the Nazi Party office, tear up your C.P. card and buy a new one from that nice S.A. brownshirt and all is forgiven.
Soviet Union? Don't meddle in the party's internal wars and avoid being from a restless national minority and there is the worker's paradise. Things changed during the "era of stagnation". as the growth stopped ( call it dynamic or relative impoverishment).


Still today, elderly Russians pine for the stability of Stalin's days.

Is the relative impoverishment of the Western middle and working classes since 1973 enough to trigger a revolt?
Keep unemployment at 6% and see if cancelling the elections will bother a lot in Canada...

People are seeing these simultaneous events and assuming that they are the result of the same causes, situations, and conditions. Correlation is not causation.

In Egypt, the people were responding to low wages and soaring food prices. The left wanted to envision a liberal reform movement. The right wanted to envision the rise of Islamic extremism. The reality is that the Egyptian military was firmly in control before, during, and after the protests and will remain so in the foreseeable future.

In Bahrain, Shi'ites are rising up against the Sunni leadership.

In Tunisia, citizens rallied against corrupt rule.

In Libya, the people are disaffected with a long-ruling dictator.

In Iran, discontent with theocratic rule.

Few of these circumstances hold any opportunities for Islamic fundamentalists or liberal reformers to take control.

The similarities are that the protests were coordinated through social media, fueled by economic hardship, and serially caused by signals from previous protests which coordinated opportunity for action.

Undoubtedly, the demographic factors outlined by Nick contribute to the energy and idealism of the protests, but they are not the cause. Many countries with similar demographics remain quiet.

The media is hyping this as a sea change in order to keep you glued to your news source. Now they have Japan for people to gawk at, so the protests in MENA are passe. Only Libya holds our attention.

Livio, it might be interesting if you plotted the data over time rather than just a single snapshot. I'm not so sure these "economic underpinnings" are new. The hard part, or maybe impossible part, is figuring out why the revolts are happening now, not a decade or two ago, or a decade or two in the future. I remember spending time in Cairo thirty years ago, and hearing exactly the same complaints about Sadat that just recently toppled Mubarek.

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