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Lebanon's Young People Power.

Young demonstrators this week in Lebanon have continued to urge the complete removal of Syrian presence in Lebanon, demanding free and fair elections (click images for larger versions):


The Associated Press notes:

Lebanese opposition protesters hold portraits of slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri as they march during a pro-opposition demonstration in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday March 28, 2005. More than 5,000 women belonging to pro-opposition groups walked about one kilometer (0.6 mile) from the bombing site near the seafront Saint Georges Hotel to Martyrs' Square a few meters (yards) from Hariri's grave, shouting anti-Syrian slogans, singing patriotic songs and waving Lebanese flags and Hariri's pictures.



In response:

Syria has cut back its troops in Lebanon to the lowest level in three decades as 2,000 more soldiers returned home in recent days, the Lebanese military said Monday.

The move put Damascus on track to have all its forces out of Lebanon before parliamentary elections in May, meeting a key U.S. and U.N. demand.

In The Daily Star, Samir Khalaf writes that "Lebanon's youths are now writing their own future":

For almost four decades of my active life as a social scientist and humanist I have been documenting Lebanon's enigmatic and contested existence; this is the first time I feel more than just a flush of elusive enthusiasm....

By acquiring a life of its own the uprising was "Lebanonized" into a mélange of seemingly dissonant elements: it became a rock concert, a triumphal post World Cup soccer rally, something of a carnival. Youths observed candlelight vigils, created human-chains, scribbled artistic manifestos and graffiti and held up posters demanding that Syria "get out." Little children offered flowers to stunned soldiers. Christians and Muslims prayed in unison over Hariri's grave site....

Generations too young to have participated in or to remember earlier episodes of national emancipation, are receiving overdue tutelage in national character building. They are giving notice that the future architects of a sovereign, free and independent Lebanon have just made their entry into public life. The country will not be the same again.

Indeed, a great deal of the story of Lebanon's recent democratic rumblings is a story of youth. Much of the coming story of freedom in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa will be written by youth, as well.


The median age of a Lebanese citizen is 26.9 years (25.9 for males, 27.9 for females).

Other Middle Eastern countries-

Iran's median age is 23.5 years (23.3 for males, 23.7 for females), coinciding with the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In Bahrain, the median age is 29 years (31.9 for males, 25.3 years for females). Egypt's median age is 23.4 years (23 for males, 23.8 for females). Saudi Arabia's, meanwhile, is 21.2 years (22.8 for makes and 19.1 for females).

Africa, Asia, and the U.S.-

In Zimbabwe, the median age is 19.1 years (with both males and females at 19.1).

In Taiwan, with a median age of 33.7 years (33.3 for males, 34.1 for females) the recent demonstrations were unique and not dependent on youth. The Taiwanese have been living as a free society for decades now, and their recent pro-freedom demonstrations were a reaction to unnecessary rhetorical belligerence on the part of China.

Comparatively, the median age for the United States is 36 years (34.7 for males, 37.4 for females).

Median ages in the nations of the former U.S.S.R.:

In Kyrgyzstan, the median age is 23.1 years (22.2 for males, 24 for females). In Tajikistan, the median age is 19.5 years (19.2 for males, 19.8 for females).

Belarus, meanwhile, faces another potential hurdle (other than brutality on the part of its government against democratic opposition), as its median age is 36.9 years (34.2 for men, 39.5 years for women).

However, Ukraine's Orange Revolution last year proved that a country can achieve democracy with a more mature populace. Yushchenko's victory was all that much more astonishing, given Ukraine's high median age (38.1 years overall, 34.8 for males, 41.1 years for females). Ukraine's situation had been building for more than a decade, as it struggled to find its identity following the Soviet era. Ukraine also was never as culturally oppressive as certain countries in the Middle East, and its Orange/Chestnut movement was largely spurred by religious groups.

Too Youthful?

The median age is just one way of measuring the youthfulness of a country. Sometimes age is an indicator of low or high birth rates, wars, disasters/famines, demographic bulges, while sometimes it is just a harbinger of wealth. A high median age can simply mean a society is prosperous and its citizens generally survive childhood and live into old age.

For example, Ukraine's under-15 population is 15.9% of its population, while in Iraq that age group is 40.3% (in the U.S. it is 20.8%; in Lebanon, that figure is 26.9%; for the entire world population, that number is 28.2%).

In most African countries, the under-15 segment of the population is over 40%. Zimbabwe is a relatively old African country, with 39.4% of its population under 15.

A variety of factors contribute to this bulge, found mostly in the third world, including high childhood mortality, diseases like AIDS, high birthrates, wars and other violence, and inadequate adult health care.

When too many of a society's citizens are under 15, the youth become a burden on families and on the state. There are simply resource procurement and allocation issues when such a large part of the society is under 15 and mostly not able to earn a living.

In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the proportions of 0-14 year-olds are 43.8% and 49%, respectively. These enormous youthful bulges are undeniable sources of instability.

Other countries of note (under 15 proportion of population):
Russia- 15%
Belarus- 16.3%
Georgia- 18.7%
Armenia- 22.7%
Azerbaijan- 27%

Kyrgyzstan- 32.3%
Uzbekistan- 34.1%
Turkmenistan- 36.2%
Tajikistan- 39.2%

Iran- 28%
Bahrain- 28.4%
Egypt- 33.4%
Saudi Arabia- 38.3%

Japan- 14.3%
Taiwan- 19.9%
China- 22.3%

We might conclude, then, that a country with a young population, but not too young, is good. A little stirring of the stagnant pot happens with a youthful population; serious instability, and indeed very real hurdles to democracy, come from a too-youthful population.

Youth have the power to lead the next great wave of democratization, but they also have the potential to become a ticking time-bomb of disgruntled resentment, diverted away authoritarian regimes by skillful government propagandists toward the U.S. (or Israel, or "the West"). The demographic bulge of youth many nations have today has very real power to breed instability. Whether democracy and freedom arises from the instability will depend on many factors, and the United States can only control a portion of them.

Ultimately, everyone in the world wants the same basic things. They want peace, stability, and prosperity. They want to be able to raise and provide for a family. Rampant unemployment among the youth populations in the third world can undermine the achievement of these basic goals and serve as a font of fundamentalism, even outright terrorism.

Extremist-fomenting imams and clerics can turn their mosques into factories of anti-Americanism, channeling the youth into a destabilizing force. Sometimes it is not a religious group doing the indoctrination, but the government itself. As Natan Sharanky explains in The Case For Democracy, authoritarian regimes must create external enemies "to slow down the natural process of alienation within fear societies."

We see this kind of deflection of internal problems and youthful angst onto external enemies, in Saudi Arabia and Egypt today.

As we can see from the positive example of Lebanon, however, youth movements have the power to transform a society for good. The key is directing the energies of the youth toward the right solutions. As technology proliferates around the world, including cell phones, satellites, and the internet, the youthful populations in even the most repressive countries are discovering that they want a piece of this democracy they are observing in the United States and elsewhere. These same young people also want the prosperity and stability that flows from democracy.

More from Samir Khalaf on Lebanon's recent youth-driven democracy movement, describing the March 14 rally:

Lebanese youths, often berated as quietist, disaffected and wedded to ephemeral pleasures and consumerism, reawakened with a vengeance. They are emerging as the most recalcitrant opponents of those undermining the sovereignty and wellbeing of their country. On their own, without the support of political parties, blocs and mainstream voluntary associations, they are forming advocacy and emancipatory grass-roots movements to shore up national sentiments and sustain modes of resistance. Most refreshing is the new political language they offer, which is in stark contrast to that of bombs, the intelligence services and the lethargy of family and tribal dynasties that continue to beleaguer the region's political landscape.

Bravo to Lebanese youth power. While the growth of democracy still has a long way to go, with much yet to overcome, Lebanon has proven that the power of young people can be put to work for good. Reformers in other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, with similar demographics (hint, hint, Iran), may learn a thing or two from the course of events in Lebanon.

Posted by Will Franklin · 29 March 2005 05:30 AM