As the wave of democracy protests continues its spread across the Middle East, it is not just regimes that are flailing. A cherished shibboleth of modernization theory -- that democratic development is the result of economic growth -- is looking a little more waterlogged, too. It wasn't economic growth, after all, that pushed Tunisians, Egyptians, and now Libyans and Yemenis out into the streets. Rather, what those countries share, aside from autocratic regimes, is quite the opposite: Their recent economic performance was all too stagnant.
At least since the work of American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset half a century ago -- and probably since Karl Marx -- the idea that wealth is the handmaiden of democracy has been a received wisdom of political scientists everywhere. Recently, Harvard University economist Benjamin Friedman has gone a step further in his book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth to suggest that continuously expanding incomes are a key factor in maintaining inclusive democracies.
But is it actually true that countries that get richer get more democratic? In the developing countries of the Middle East and North Africa, it certainly isn't miracle growth rates that lie behind the stunning recent outburst of fervor for political rights. Average GDP per capita growth in the region has limped along at a little higher than 1 percent a year over the past 30 years (though it picked up some in the last decade). And far from the development of a large, independent middle class of entrepreneurs, the region has seen sclerotic private-sector growth, with business opportunities limited to a privileged, increasingly elderly elite. According to the World Bank, the number of registered firms per 1,000 people in the Middle East and North Africa is less than that in sub-Saharan Africa. The average length of time people in the region have to work before being given a management position is 14 years. In East Asia, it's half that.
The much more plausible story linking economic performance to political change in the region is this one: Governments created expectations in a bulging youth population that they then singularly failed to meet. College enrollment in Egypt has climbed from 14 to 28 percent since 1990, and from 8 to 34 percent in Tunisia. Cairo University alone has around 200,000 students. But while educational opportunities abound, the weak performance of the economy ensures that jobs do not. Unemployment among 15 to 24 year olds in the Middle East and North Africa is the highest of any region in the world, averaging more than 25 percent (in Egypt and Tunisia the numbers are even higher). And discontent with limited opportunities will only be spiked by rising food prices. To the extent that economic performance played a role in recent events, it was by fanning a sense of injustice at hardship -- not by creating a class of bourgeois de Tocqueville fans.