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Leonid Bershidsky: Is democracy coming to Iran? The demographics say yes

A theory that predicted the recent transition to democracy in Tunisia may offer some clues on the future path taken by Iran

In a country as repressive as Iran, it’s difficult to gauge where the current countrywide protests are leading. But a bold theory that predicted the recent transition to democracy in Tunisia may offer some clues.

In 2008, U.S. demographer Richard Cincotta predicted that Tunisia — then under a well-established authoritarian regime — would probably democratize before 2020 based on the age structure of its population. When Cincotta aired the forecast at a meeting of Middle East experts sponsored by the U.S. State Department, the audience burst into laughter.

“One well-known Middle East scholar laughed until he was in tears,” Cincotta recalled in a 2017 paper explaining his age-structural theory of state behaviour. “Because the laughter did not subside, the session’s chair ended the question and answer session.”

Today, Tunisia is the one success story of the Arab Spring chain of revolutions that began there in 2010. It is classified as “Free” by Freedom House, whose rating system Cincotta uses in his analysis.

The reason Cincotta picked it out among regional neighbours — including those that would soon live through revolutions, too — was that thanks to a sustained near-replacement fertility rate, the Tunisian population’s median age was rapidly increasing, moving the country along Cincotta’s age-structural scale. The scale has four stages: youthful (median age under 25), intermediate (under 35), mature (under 45) and post-mature (higher than 45).

In “youthful” countries with high fertility rates, schools are usually crowded, investment per student is low and competition for jobs among young people is intense. That raises their propensity to protest and increases the chance of a revolution. According to Cincotta, the probability that a regime controlling a population with a median age of 15 is free from civil conflict is about 60 percent. It goes up to 80 percent at an average age of about 27, and civil conflict becomes almost unthinkable when half the population is older than 40.

While a country is in a youthful phase, however, an uprising is highly unlikely to result in sustainable democratization. Cincotta has shown that most such countries revert to authoritarianism; that may help explain why the Arab Spring didn’t end up democratizing Egypt (median age 24) but established a functional democracy in Tunisia (median age 32).

Today, Iranians are getting older. Thanks to successful fertility-control policies of the 1980s (now regretted by the country’s religious leadership), Iran is rapidly going through the intermediate age-structural phase, just as Tunisia did. This, according to Cincotta, is a window for economic growth and political change favouring the middle class.

Countries in this phase usually have just enough resources for a workable education system, and there are plenty of young workers and consumers — and few enough dependents, both young and old — to ensure increases in prosperity, as well as demand for democracy. In the 2017 paper, Cincotta published his model’s predictions of the probability of certain Middle Eastern countries’ being declared “Free” in the current year by Freedom House. Iran came out near the top.

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