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Predicting the Next Egypt

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, he set off a chain of events that would lead to the overthrow of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, and more unrest across the Arab world. But Bouazizi’s suicide, and the subsequent reaction across social networking sites, only defined the timing and texture of this most recent wave of revolutions. The base cause of the unrest lay in the volatile mixture of repressive governments, largely urban populations and a remarkable increase in the poor and unemployed youth such as Bouazizi himself.

Local culture and the harshness of regime security forces certainly influence the scale and success of revolutions, and no mix of factors can guarantee rioting. However, a number of countries have a combination of authoritarianism, urbanization, unemployment and demographic age imbalance that positions them as the next Egypt or Tunisia. These powerful societal forces may not ensure revolution, but the trend suggests that leaders in these countries need to either address those problems, crack down as hard as they can or start packing their bags.

“I have seen things from Central Intelligence that large numbers of young men, who aren’t gainfully employed, are a bomb waiting to go off,” said Linda Waite, the director of the Center for Aging, and a professor of sociology, at the University of Chicago. “This is well known in the intelligence community. It’s the makings for a bad situation.”

By themselves, no one of those issues can lead to a regime crumbling. Some European countries, such as Spain and Portugal, have large scale youth unemployment, but don’t have the repressive government that provokes citizens to see violent overthrow as the only viable option, said Sydney Tarrow, a professor of government and sociology at Cornell University. Many countries in Africa, such as Zimbabwe and Mali, have the economic and demographic problems, but not the high urban density need to produce a critical mass of protestors.

For repressive governments starring down large crowds of unemployed urban youth, the easiest solution may simply involve giving those young people an economic reason to leave the country. In Mexico during much of the 20th Century, and the United Kingdom during the 19th Century, emigration to America provided a release valve for societal problems revolving around economics and governance.

Of course, the Middle East doesn’t have an America to send its angry, unemployed young men to. Without that safety valve, a history of urban living and repressive rule mixes with economic fallout from the financial crisis means the next country to fall will most likely come from that region.

“Algeria and Morocco look very similar to Tunisia, just looking at the national demographic and economic profile. Syria looks similar, but they have a much more effective and ruthless security service,” Tarrow told InnovationNewsDaily.

Overall, the experts who study how economic inequalities and birthing trends influence the behavior of entire societies rarely venture definitive predictions. After all, population growth, economic depression and urbanization exist in plenty of countries that haven’t seen a recent revolution, said David Patel, a professor of government at Cornell University.

“These protests didn’t pop up of nowhere. For people who have never paid attention to Egypt or Bahrain, these things happen, and they seem to come from nowhere. But most of these protest movements are fairly old,” Patel told InnovationNewsDaily.

“It’s easy to come up with explanations and say, ‘these are the five things that matter.’ But we need to be cautious about what we say. There’s a lot more that we don’t know than me know.”

This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.

Stuart Fox currently researches and develops physical and digital exhibit experiences at the Science Liberty Center. His news writing includes the likes of several Purch sites, including Live Science and Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries.