Experts and politicians seem to agree that the demographic structures of the Arab countries have reached a critical point. They acknowledge that rapid population growth seriously constrains a country’s economy and, consequently, its social and political possibilities. In the relationship between consumption, savings and investment, demographic imbalance imposes an inordinate weight on consumption, thus encumbering development. If a state appears incapable of mobilizing for internal savings or external aid, it can only resort to unacceptable repressive measures to cope with the inevitable demands for bread, jobs and housing. “Demographic folly has contributed to the rapid dereliction of the world and its values,” wrote Rachid Mimouni in a recent essay. “One can ask oneself if it isn’t the origin of all of Algeria’s ills.” [1]

Paradoxically, it is at the moment when contrary tendencies are becoming apparent in the region’s demographic trends that this simplistic and fatalistic vision has become accepted wisdom. Present Arab population structures carry in them the end of the demographic “explosion.” In the Maghrib, for instance, the number of children reaching school age each year has already stopped growing, but the proportion of that group actually attending, or seeking to attend, school continues to increase. This rising demand — not rising numbers — is the source of today’s crisis.

The economy is not the only thing that the region’s changing demographic profile has destabilized. The slowing rates of demographic growth are increasingly tied to a revolution in knowledge and its systems of transmission, under a new consciousness that is inconsistent with traditional values. Domestication of technical knowledge by an elite had initially opened the way to population growth: With the development of medicine, material production and communications, mortality rates fell dramatically. The decline in birth rates will largely be in response to the diffusion of public education — appropriation at a mass level of general knowledge, no longer privately in family circles but publicly in schools. Against the hierarchies of generation and gender which still structure power, in the family and globally, young people now surpass the qualifications of their elders, and women are on the way to overtaking men. The demographic explosion has run its course, and today cedes place to the social rupture.

Demography or Democracy

Just two or three decades ago in the Maghrib, and less than one decade ago in the Mashriq, large families were the rule. [2] The reproductive life of an average couple included the births of seven to nine children. Less than one generation later, at the beginning of the 1990s, young adults construct families which, once complete, will be less than half the size of those in which they grew up. The decline in the Maghrib recalls the experience a quarter of a century ago in southern Europe, from Catholic Italy and Spain to Orthodox Greece and, by its magnitude, that of the Asian “dragons.” But both of these sets of societies emerged against completely different backdrops: burgeoning secularization in Mediterranean Europe and industrial takeoff in East Asia. A similar point of transition is occurring in Arab countries, but there the revitalization of Islam and persistent underdevelopment create an appearance of contradictory conditions.

In all the Mediterranean Arab countries, the rate of population growth has actually started to decline. Egypt, in 1986, recorded some 1,928,000 births; five years later, in 1991, the number had diminished by 10 percent to 1,754,000 births. In Tunisia births dropped from 235,000 in 1986 to 205,000 in 1990, and in Algeria from 845,000 in 1985 to 739,000 in 1989.

The measurable effects of the stabilization of births takes time. Medical and health institutions, which deal with newborns, are the first to feel the effects. One must only wait six years — the beginning of the 1990s in the Maghrib and Egypt — for the primary schools to show the benefit. And it will be 20-25 years later — around the year 2010 — that demographic pressures on labor and housing markets will ease.

But in each of these domains, the stabilization of actual population growth does not signify a leveling of demand. Consider neonatal and infant health: The reduced number of infants per family is accompanied, here as elsewhere, by concern for improved care, and one knows the path that must be followed to provide health care equitably. In education, groups that do not have access will increasingly demand it. In Morocco, for example, there were 4 million children of primary school age (6-11 years) in 1990. The number will be about the same in the year 2000. If school attendance stays at 53 percent, where it is today, the number of students will remain at about 2.1 million. But if schooling is made universal, 4 million places will have to be found. The 90 percent increase will originate not from demography but from the democratization of schooling. In countries where access to mass education is almost universal — Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Gulf principalities in the Mashriq, and Algeria and Tunisia in the Maghrib — the school systems have already reached a plateau.

It will be more of the same in years to come — jobs to create or houses to build. Additional future costs will be less and less attributable to the increase in numbers, and more and more to rising aspirations. Of the diverse phenomena which have converged to produce the present congestion of Arab urban labor markets, the rates of natural increase and rural-urban migration have undoubtedly been the most visible. But rural exodus, in the massive form that it took in the 1960s and 1970s, is becoming part of the past for the whole of the Arab world, with the exception perhaps of Sudan, where civil war and repeated droughts continue to push peasants into the streets of Khartoum. Spatial mobility has everywhere else taken the dominant form of movement between cities, with no effect on overall urban employment. [3] Demographic growth will continue to exert increasing pressure until the no-growth generations reach young adulthood, between 2005 in Tunisia and 2020 in Syria. In the interval, the Arab countries will face very different situations, as the differential birth rates of the 1970s and 1980s make themselves felt.

The group aged 20-24 gives an approximate idea of the potential demand for first jobs. Tunisia will experience only 30 percent growth in this category, whereas Syria will pay dearly for the delay in mastering its birth rate by an increase four or five times greater. Between these two extremes, Algeria, Egypt and Morocco will have to respond to a growth of around 50 percent in potential demand for first-time employment in the course of the coming 30 years.

The active population does not comprise only new arrivals on the job market, but all those who have already entered it over the last 40 years. Its total number will thus continue to grow until the time when the age groups which exit (60-64 years) surpass the number of those who enter (20-24 years). This moment is not far away in Tunisia (2015) but it is well beyond the horizon in Egypt (2025) and even further off in Syria. In the interim, the jobs to be created each year will range from 40 percent above the 1990 level for Tunisia to 125 percent for Syria.

Employment does not depend on demography alone. Two tendencies modulate its evolution, with contrary effects. Increasing schooling levels and professional qualifications tend to moderate the growth of the active population by delaying entry into the job market. Conversely, the appearance of women on the urban job market (in Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt, for example) tends to accelerate that growth. If demographic projection can quickly give us an order of magnitude for future male employment, it tells us nothing about female employment. If, in the year 2025, women were to reach the level of economic activity of men, total demand for employment would rise by 70 percent in Tunisia and by close to 300 percent in Syria. Population growth would play a modest role in this scenario.

Roughly 60 years pass between the birth of a person and his or her exit from the labor market. Job markets will be subject to demographic pressure to the extent that the generations trying to enter it outnumber those leaving it: This will continue for another quarter or half a century, depending on the country. But over the course of this period, social factors that slow demographic growth — education and changes in the status of women — will themselves increasingly determine the rise in demand for jobs and the like.


In family matters, as in others, innovation starts with deviation: The replacement of large families by small ones has proceeded gradually, affecting certain strata of society without touching others. Located midway in this process, Arab populations are today more heterogeneous than they were in the past and probably more than they will be in the future. The average Arab couple, who today produce four children, are no more “normal” than the family with seven or more children, or the family with just two or three.

During this transitional phase, almost all identifiable distinctions within the population reflect different levels of fertility. Geography sketches the most visible lines of difference. In the countryside, fertility remains almost unchanged, whereas city dwellers have, in one short generation, made a leap that took a century in Europe. Average fertility is now scarcely greater than the norm in Europe — 2.3 children per woman in Morocco and Tunisia, 3.0 in Algeria, in 1992.

Partially obscuring the town-country differential are other, regional differences. Contact with modernity, or with the outside world, has centered on the metropolitan regions and the areas opening on the Mediterranean. In Algeria in 1988, for example, women still gave birth to more than six children in the south but less than four in the north. Lebanon, despite its small size, likewise harbors strong regional contrasts: From Beirut (2.3 children per woman) to the north (4.3), two different stages of demographic transition coexist. The gradient everywhere orients itself from the interior toward the coast — in Morocco, Tunisia or even in Egypt, where the average family numbers only 3.6 children in Port Said but 8.2 in Fayyoum. The cultural models confronted by migrants reinforce this geography of demographic transition.

Economic cleavages also leave their demographic traces. The reduction in family size for a long time was an affair of the well-to-do. For the poor, children remained the ultimate wealth. Today in the towns — those of the Maghrib in any case — the difficulties of material life have raised new barriers to high fertility. Destitution appears to be dissociating from prolific reproduction.

The greater or lesser fall in birth rates, its rapidity or its slowness, its diffusion throughout the society or its confinement to certain groups — all are responses to diverse causes. Politics is one: In the Arab countries where public action in favor of limiting births is the most vigorous and longstanding, fertility is the lowest. But the campaigns to popularize contraception were most efficient where segments of the population had already begun to practice it, often with difficulty. Egypt and Tunisia in 1964, and Morocco in 1966, were the first to adopt official population programs. These countries saw their fertility rates decline ten years ahead of Algeria and 15 years ahead of Syria, Jordan and Iraq. At the beginning of the 1970s, Algerian President Houari Boumedienne declared that “our [birth control] pill is development” — in order to affirm the priority of developing the productive apparatus over restructuring the family. After 1982, President Chadli Benjedid attempted a complete reversal — indeed the most neo-Malthusian campaign in the Maghrib. But the fertility rate had not waited for him: Three or four years earlier it had begun its decline.

Demography responds to political economy as much as it does to the overt politics of population policy. Classical theory tells us that children progressively lose their role as producers, i.e., their economic utility, and come to represent a cost in strictly material terms. In diverse parts of the world, and notably in the Arab region, one observes today, in contradiction to the model, some demographic transitions that are accelerated by economic crisis and non-development, and others that are curbed by wealth.

Among the Arab countries, the greatest material differences are between underdeveloped economies endowed with relatively diversified productive sectors, and economies organized completely around plentiful petroleum rents. In countries without oil wealth, families confront, without state support, the costs of raising children and the need to mobilize their work force — including women — in order to assure adequate family incomes. These are the countries where fertility rates have dropped. The oil countries, by contrast, have encouraged fertility rates to remain at the highest possible levels. The state assumes many costs of child rearing, and imports workers to preempt the entry of women into the national labor market. These states have effectively suspended all evolution in fertility, deactivating factors that motivate demographic change — female education, most notably — at the precise moment when the need for them starts to manifest itself.

Tunisia and Morocco illustrate the first type of experience; Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and perhaps Libya typify the second. Algeria and Iraq, despite their wealth in hydrocarbons, are too populous for the state to assist families substantially. In Algeria, the collapse in oil and gas receipts in the mid-1980s coincided with falling birth rates. Similarly, Egypt lived a period of rentier reproduction at the beginning of Sadat’s infitah. One can partially transpose the rentier explanation with the fertility record of the occupied Palestinian territories: Dissociating procreation from its costs, Palestinian and international solidarity (in the form of UNRWA) permits families to raise numerous children independent of their own resources, in synergy with the political will to mobilize the “demographic weapon.”

Gender Convergence

More than state policies and economic systems, it is transformations in society and in the status of women that are at work in the gradual spread of the small-family model. [4] Continued progress in the schooling of girls over the last quarter-century is the most significant of these transformations in all the Arab countries. If average fertility is still high in Syria and already low in Tunisia, one observes a correlation with levels of female illiteracy and schooling. In Tunisia and Morocco, and for some time now in Lebanon, women who have attended high school or university have no more children today than do Europeans.

The opening of a public space long reserved for boys — i.e., the school — has been a powerful motor for demographic transition. It is towards the age of 7 that one emerges from illiteracy, at age 11 that one enters high school, and at age 15 that one becomes part of one of three strata distinguished here: illiterate, primary education, and secondary education or higher. The average age of procreativity is around 30. The students of 1993 will be the mothers of 2008. Current school attendance figures suggest that in 15 years the educational level of these women will be much higher than that of mothers today. Consider a census of the population where a generation is designated not by its date of birth but by that of its thirtieth birthday. In Algeria, for instance, illiterate women will be only a small minority among those of child-bearing age. Thus the structures of today’s population carry within them a future decline in fertility.

The admission of women into the professions and formal labor markets is the second component of differential fertility. The Arab countries, like most of the Muslim world, have surprisingly low rates of urban female work force participation — from 5 percent in the Arabian Peninsula to hardly more than 25 percent in Tunisia, while the world average is around 50 percent. Are women absent from the world of work, or simply from the statistics compiled by men? (It is men, not their wives, who generally reply to census questions, thus attesting to the fact that, at least in the minds of the men, women do not or must not work.) The rate of female work force activity is in perfect negative correlation with average fertility.

There is nothing exceptional about this. In all societies, domestic responsibilities which weigh upon women increase with the size of the family and, past a certain point, impede them from practicing a profession or occupation outside the home. Another mechanism, more specific to Arab societies, also seems to be operating. It appears that a large proportion, sometimes a majority, of Arab women working outside the home before marriage leave their jobs upon getting married — even before they have children. Husbands, not children, seem to be responsible for removing women from the job market. The correlation is thus not one of high fertility and the invisibility of women in the urban work force, but between these two phenomena and a third, the strength and relevance of the patriarchal family. The erosion of this structure has allowed a diversification of women’s roles by reducing their domestic responsibilities (a decrease in children) and facilitating an increase of their activity outside the home. The demographic transition thus accompanies the erosion of a masculine monopoly on public space, not only in schools but also in the job market.

The convergence in the status of men and women is not limited to the different gender mix in public space, if one judges by the revelations that the statistics contain. In the recent past, marriage adhered to certain rules which formed a coherent system. A man married a young woman or girl an average of ten years his junior, belonging to an age cohort more numerous than his own. The resulting excess of marriageable women was reabsorbed by remarriages, more frequent for men than for women, whether by polygamy or by second marriages. The inequality of ages underlay in some ways the inequality of rights. Polygamy, which seems not to have been very frequent in the Arab world, has diminished everywhere: According to country, it only represents between 2 and 10 percent of marriages (in Tunisia, it is prohibited). Divorce, according to Egyptian and Algerian statistics, has greatly declined since the first part of this century, when it terminated more than one third of marriages. The age differential of married couples (a form of male domination) has declined in proportion to the disappearance of these regulators, polygamy and repudiation. In most Arab countries, the difference now no longer exceeds five years.

Access to education reveals yet another dimension of the statutory convergence of the sexes. The Arab generations born at the beginning of the century remained primarily illiterate. Schools, therefore, did not introduce inequality between the sexes. Reserved for the children of the elite, not surprisingly they attracted more boys than girls. Among the masses, boys as well as girls never entered them. The later diffusion of education benefited only boys at first, constructing a new type of gender inequality. The entrance of women into schools toward the middle of the century progressed at first less rapidly than did the longer duration of studies for the boys. The gender gap increased up to the generation born between 1950 and 1960, the most unequal of all. The modernizing pressures to increase girls’ enrollment were worldwide, transmitted chiefly through international organizations such as UNESCO. In Algeria, for example, thanks to the progress in primary education in the early post-independence period, young women today are no more illiterate than the men they are going to marry. Inequality between the sexes created by educational institutions today affects the generation between 40 and 60 years old — the age of power.

Double Hierarchy

Just as gender hierarchy is losing little by little, the hierarchy of generations, the foundation which gave a triple advantage to the manage, education and economic activity is likewise offset by the diffusion of education. This is particularly acute in the Arab world, where the phase in which mortality declines lasted a bit longer than elsewhere — almost a century in Egypt, for example. People born around 1960 grew up in the largest families, more than those of the past, which had been thinned out by child mortality, and more than those of the future, which were and will be limited by birth control. Reaching adult age, this generation has confronted a situation of relative scarcity in work, housing and even marriage. The weight of young adults (20-29 years) in the population is greater than it has ever been — and will ever be.

The second result of the decline in mortality has been to compel the generations to live together for an ever longer period of time. Today, one still lives with one’s father at an age where, in the past, one would have already succeeded him. In a distribution of family roles still strongly imprinted with patriarchal rules the father conserves family authority for a longer time. In Algeria, for example, the number of married men responsible for families but living under the authority of their fathers has grown considerably in the 1970s. Demographic shifts have thus set the stage for horizontal competition among peers and vertical competition among generations.

This conflict is playing itself out in a period of rapid and large-scale diffusion of formal education. The relationship of the literacy rate of sons to fathers gives a good indication of the generational disparity in knowledge. The equality of generations will be reestablished when the fathers themselves have all become literate — around the year 2030. Because schooling has spread quickly and on a base of preponderant illiteracy, it is in Algeria and Tunisia that the conflictual potential is strongest. Everywhere the generational dissociation of knowledge and power is too strong not to have some disruptive impact on the political systems.

The patriarchal order of the family has been seriously shaken, and with it the neo-patriarchal order of the entire society. [5] On this canvas there is a contest which, in the name of religion, extols the restoration of a distinction between the sexes, one codified by shari‘a but frustrated by social evolution. One may think of the competition among peers and the generational conflict which accompany the transition from one state (the widespread illiteracy of yesterday) to another (the universal education of tomorrow) as reinforcing this contestation. When they become adults, the young generations will no longer face the same pressures from their brothers, because birth rates will have declined. When the students of today are themselves fathers, the dissociation of knowledge and power will have become blurred.

In its extreme form, this demographic disequilibrium will have lasted only one generation. It takes on the character of a crisis because, short-lived as it may be in the broad time frame of demographic evolution, the imbalance of these existing population structures is nevertheless sufficiently strong to provoke disorder in the much more immediate time frame of politics.

Translated from the French by Bryce Giddens and Joe Stork.


[1] Rachid Mimouni, De La Barbarie en general et de l’intégrisme en particulier (Paris: Les Preaux clercs, 1992).
[2] Philippe Fargues, “Un siècle de transition démographique en Afrique méditerranéenne: 1885-1985,” Population 2 (1986).
[3] Robert Escallier and Pierre Signoles, Changement économique, social et culturel et modifications des champs migratoires internes dans le monde arabe, 2 vols. (Tours: URBAMA, 1992)
[4] C. Makhlouf Obermeyer, “Islam, Women and Politics: The Demography of Arab Countries,” Population and Development Review 18/1 (1992).
[5] Hisham Sharabi, Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

How to cite this article:

Philippe Fargues "From Demographic Explosion to Social Rupture," Middle East Report 190 (September/October 1994).

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