The below are excerpts from an article originally appearing in World Politics Review.
The conditions for revolt or revolution to spread throughout society are reasonably well established: First, the national government must be closed to broad participation or popular control. Second, the government must be weakened by some sort of crisis. This crisis may be a material one, such as a military or development failure, fiscal distress, sustained inflation or sharp spikes in food prices. Or the crisis may be ideological, as when a government seeks to impose an ideology that is widely opposed by its own elites, or when a government is seen as compromised by identification with foreign enemies. Or it may be a succession crisis that leads elites to shift allegiances and contend for power in a coming leadership change. Several of these items may combine to create a widespread sense of uncertainty and anxiety about the future.
In such periods of social anxiety, a great deal depends on which groups are willing to support the regime and which groups still perceive the leadership as legitimate. Governments that are perceived as just and effective generally retain the support of key elites and thus popular groups; they are therefore quite resistant in the face of . . . challenges. On the other hand, states that are widely considered ineffective or unjust by their population rapidly lose key supporters and can succumb with astounding quickness in the face of challenges — as in the Philippines in 1986, the Soviet Union in 1989 and Tunisia and Egypt in 2010-2011.
In some cases of state crisis, such as military defeat or fiscal distress, the reaction of elites is to try to reinforce the existing state through reforms. This reaction is more likely if the elite is relatively united and not feeling threatened. However, if elites are divided into competing factions or feel threatened with regard to maintaining their position, crises of this sort are likely to produce a polarization of elites into factions for and against the state. Thus a third condition for widespread rebellion or revolution is that there are divisions or tensions among the elites. These conditions are generally brought about by a change in patterns of social mobility that produces greater uncertainty and competition for elite positions, or by changes in state policy that attack certain elites, producing the same results. Elites can also be divided as a result of corruption or privileges that create “in” groups and “out” groups, with the “in” groups enjoying enormous and disproportionate rewards.
Finally, the expansion of higher education may threaten traditional elites while creating large numbers of new aspirants for elite positions. In fact, it has typically been the case that revolutionary youth movements have been preceded by a vast expansion in secondary or higher education that exceeds the expansion in opportunities for further upward career mobility. In these cases, the expansion in the percentage of educated youth often far exceeds the increase in the “youth bulge.” . . .
Revolutions of the late-20th century and the Arab revolts of the early 21st century have similarly been preceded by expansions in higher education. It was recent university graduates, often educated abroad and then returning home to find limited avenues for their ambitions, who led revolutionary movements in many Asian and African colonial states and dictatorships.
Universities are also significant in the formation of radical youth networks because they physically bring together young people, predominantly males, often in close proximity to major political or cultural centers. . . .
However, student and youth rebellions by themselves do not generally produce widespread violence or bring down regimes. For that, a coalition between students and other social groups — such as workers, peasants and rebellious soldiers or sailors — is crucial. Thus a fourth condition for youth movements to trigger major revolts is the development of conditions favoring broader popular mobilization. These conditions include grievances that could motivate various groups in the population to seek remedies — cumulative declines in wages for workers or in access to land for peasants — plus networks that facilitate collective action in seeking remedies. Such networks may be informal neighborhood groups, autonomous village organizations, religious associations, more formal revolutionary parties or ethnic or nationalist liberation groups.
The rapid growth of cities, which generally cluster workers in working-class neighborhoods where they can contemplate their common condition in close proximity to political or industrial targets for protests, is frequently a factor in popular mobilization. Cities often concentrate precisely that demographic group most available and inclined to rebellious action: unattached young males. When rapid urbanization is accompanied by rapid economic growth, such expansion is not necessarily destabilizing, but problems arise when urban concentration grows in conjunction with a lagging economy.
Clearly, this is a long list of necessary factors: a closed state, a growing state crisis, elite divisions or tensions — frequently coupled with rapid educational expansion — and popular grievances aligned with mobilization networks. For this reason, the connection between youth bulges and revolutionary movements is hardly simple. . . .
What we have seen in the Arab uprisings of 2011 is a confirmation and repetition of this pattern: When large youth cohorts combine with rapid growth of higher education, rapid urbanization and a closed authoritarian regime, they can create conditions favorable to revolt. While that potential may be held in abeyance by strong economic performance and elite unity, revolt is likely to erupt in the presence of lagging real wages, unemployment and elite divisions.
There is reason to be sanguine about youth conditions in major emerging market countries such as Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, India and Indonesia. In these countries, governments are increasingly open. Markets are increasingly transparent. Economic opportunities are opening for educated and ambitious youth. Finally, economic growth is strong, while population growth is slowing down. Corruption is still a major threat to stability in these nations, but other factors are moving to offset risks of rebellion. However, the opposite is true in much of sub-Saharan Africa and many nations in the Middle East and South Asia. In these regions, many countries still have fast-growing youth cohorts, combined with authoritarian or highly corrupt regimes, rapid expansion of higher education, yet uneven political growth and significant elite divisions based on ethnicity or religion. . . .
For the full article, see World Politics Review.
This paper is based on work prepared for the John M. Olin Center for Strategic Studies at the Harvard University Center for International Affairs.