Many observers of the current turmoil that has gripped the Arab world agree on one thing: It was largely unexpected.
While currents of dissatisfaction against the incumbent strongmen have always been swirling, few foresaw that such an uprising was imminent or predicted the scale of the demonstrations. But several visible factors, related to education, demography, and the lack of economic opportunities, had been pointing for some time to an increasing degree of political instability in the region.
While much of the narrative about the uprising in Egypt has been about a “youth revolution,” it seems to underplay the critical impact that the rising level of education among young Egyptians played in prompting harsh criticism of the entrenched regimes.
We have little doubt that the participants in the large protests represented a broad swath of Egyptian society. But one cannot but notice that engineers, doctors, university students and even management executives figured prominently in the opposition movement.
This actually dovetails with one of the most widely documented facts in political science — educated people are more likely to participate in all forms of political activities, ranging from the basic act of voting to demonstrations.
The precise reasons for this are not always well understood. Perhaps educated people are more critical observers of political developments and less willing to accept the mistakes of an unaccountable autocrat.
Our own research has emphasized how this connection between education and political participation is often influenced by the availability of opportunities in the labor market for educated people. Put simply, the skills acquired through education lead to an increased willingness to engage in politics, as well as the effectiveness of this involvement (think about how the tech-savvy can marshal Facebook and Twitter to their cause).
If the educated are well-rewarded and remunerated in their professional pursuits, they are naturally less inclined to use their time and energies for political purposes. Countries where economic opportunities for the skilled are abundant tend to exhibit less political engagement on the part of educated people.
The Arab world has not been a model of economic dynamism. The region’s economies are not geared to labor activities that effectively leverage human capital acquired through education.
Less recognized is the fact that several of these Arab countries are among those that have invested the most in education. Recent data compiled for 104 countries show that between 1980 and 1999, Egypt was the fifth fastest-growing country in the world in terms of average years of schooling, more than doubling them, from just 2.3 years to 5.5. Tunisia is not far behind, with an increase from 2.5 to 5 years of schooling on average for the population.
There is thus a scenario in which large numbers of Arab youth have become much more educated than their parents and grandparents. In the absence of promising job prospects, they are more likely to devote the skills they have acquired to political activities, from maintaining political blogs to organizing protests in Tahrir Square. Since they find no democratic outlet, they can eventually destabilize regimes that until very recently appeared in complete control.
Investing in educating is a good thing in its own right. Ironically, though, by investing in education without providing sufficient economic opportunities, the Arab autocrats contributed greatly to the situation that now afflicts them.
We can surely hope that the democratic transition now underway can deliver the growth and jobs that are needed to realize these countries’ full economic potential.
By Filipe Campante, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and Davin Chor, assistant professor at Singapore Management University.