Generation Assad: The Baby Boom Behind Syria’s Uprising
Each day, for 268 days, there have been the same videos: Syrians coming come out of the woodwork, filling alleys in previously quiescent neighborhoods. They have become experts in the art of protest, employing ornate signs and candles to call for the end of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and, increasingly, the president’s execution. They are killed in steadily increasing numbers — more than 4,000 by last count, according to the United Nations.
Who represents these protesters is a matter of dispute — a Syrian opposition delegation was memorably pelted with eggs in Cairo last month by fellow anti-regime activists who objected to the group’s apparent willingness to negotiate with the Assad regime. But who the protesters are is no mystery: They are the product of an extraordinary demographic boom in Syria that has left huge swathes of the country disenfranchised and poor. And they are very angry.
From the 1960s to the early 1990s, Syria boasted one of the most rapidly expanding populations in the world. The country’s population doubled from 5.3 million in 1963 to 10.6 million in 1986, and then more than doubled again during the past quarter-century, to approximately 23 million. Before birth rates began falling in the mid-1980s, only two countries — Yemen and Rwanda — had higher fertility rates, according to Youssef Courbage, a researcher at the National Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris, in a paper titled “Fertility Transition in Syria.”
At the peak of Syria’s demographic boom, 44 Syrians were born for every 1,000 people, far exceeding the population growth in neighboring Lebanon (30 births per 1,000 people), and dwarfing that in the United States (16 births per 1,000), according to World Bank data. Population growth was also disproportionately focused in the countryside, creating a swelling class of have-nots in the new Syria.
Syria’s birth rates have declined in recent years, but still remain equal to other revolutionary states in the Arab world. Twenty-four Syrians were born for every 1,000 people in 2008 — the same as Egypt, and exceeding Tunisia’s rate of 18 births per 1,000 people.