Urban Violence Abroad: An Arab Spring and a British Autumn?


Treating urbanisation as some sort of homogeneous movement, a driver of an increasingly interdependent world of shared values, behaviour, and prosperity is to oversimplify.  There may be some common drivers, but urbanisation in the 21st century is likely to be quite different from urbanisation in the 20th century.  Suggesting a universal approaches to governing, managing and planning cities is providing answers without knowing the questions. 

The role of the city has to be considered in recent outbreaks of localised or national violence.  In this post I raise the issue of urban violence with reference to urbanisation in North Africa and the Middle East, and explore possible parallels with recent riots in Britain.

Violence and language

Language, like planning, can be employed to make order out of chaos.  The American invasion of Iraq in 2005 was widely seen as the beginning of an Arab Spring, a label suggesting that people in other Arab nations might rise up in some universal quest for democratic deliverance from oppressive regimes following the expulsion of Saddam Hussein. 

In keeping with this representation, today's images of protest and violence in the streets of Egypt, Libya, and Syria are presented as signs of culture change leading inevitably to western-style democracy.  But it would be premature to assume that out of the current movements will come the end of autocracy, a displacement of authoritarian regimes with multi-party democracy, or a cessation of sectarian conflict. 

Despite deep cultural difference that mean western expectations for Arab outcomes are likely to be flawed, there are parallels between what is happening in North Africa and urban violence in Britain.  Only there, the language is quite different.  The politicians and press are not lauding the people on the streets of London or Birmingham, and the reporting is a lot less optimistic. 

Cities and revolution

Have you noticed how the images of North African protests against autocratic governments are male-dominated, and urban? This is hardly new: think Paris at the end of the 18th century or in 1848.

But today’s turmoil does raise a couple of thoughts.  First, let's remember there is an enduring tradition of inter-tribal struggle for power and long-standing feuds among sects in the Middle East.  Internecine violence predates the colonial borders and post-colonial regimes that seem to be unraveling now.  Despite the increased trappings of modernisation, little may have changed by way of physical struggles for power in a traditionally male domain.

But what is interesting is the way uprisings are playing out today as predominantly urban movements.  Urbanisation appears to play an important part in focusing discontent and making disenfranchisement visible.  Growing cities provide gathering places for growing protest.  They are the terrain for harassment, the platform for violence, and the stage for claim and counterclaim.  The march from city to city, whether in defiance or defence, tracks the progress of civil unrest, suppression, and revolution. 

Social media - uniting or dividing?

Much has been made of the role of social media in mobilising civilians to a common cause, but it can only really give form to popular protest in an urban setting.  Urbanisation may encourage unity among diverse groups opposing a common tyranny. But such unity is likely be transitory, lasting only to the fall of the first tyrant.

Within fast growing cities of the Arab world sectarian divisions still run deep and social media may simply reinforce them, calling brothers to arms to settle old enmities once new protests have finished.

The demographics of growing cities

It might pay to look more closely at urbanisation to better understand the character of today's protests.  Look at the underlying demographics of countries at the heart of unrest and regime change in North Africa, and compare them with, say, the US and the UK.  They:

(1)    Are urbanising rapidly – Syria and Iraq stand out;
(2)    Have large shares of their populations aged under 30 years – 67% in Iraq and 65% in Syria;
(3)    Have higher unemployment – quite possibly much higher given the difficulty of measuring this figure in a consistent way.  Libya appears to lead the way, although some of the unemployment figures are little better than informed guesses.








% Urban








Urban Growth








% Aged<30








% Aged <30 Male
















Sources: US Census Bureau; TradingEconomics.com; CIA World Fact Book, national statistical offices


How far, it might be asked, is the Arab spring founded on the frustrations of Arab youth?  And can we really expect revolution in the streets to resolve issues of deprivation, dispossession, and boredom, without the revolutionaries first finding fulfilment and making real material (or spiritual) progress even if the short term ends of overthrowing incumbent rulers are met?

The road to this Damascus is likely to be long and divided

The mix of rapid urbanisation, youthful populations, and high unemployment is a volatile one.  Add strong religious, cultural or ethnic divisions and inequality within increasingly urbanised societies and the prospect is for prolonged unrest and sporadic violence. 

While globalising communications and the accessibility of social media may feed visions of liberal democratic regimes and the illusion of increasingly connected societies, the result in North Africa and the Middle East may be quite different from any western ideal.  Revolution here may lead to ways of sharing and exercising power other than those associated with orderly, liberal democracies; or it may simply reinforce the fractured nature of these societies.

The road ahead is not clear, nor it is likely to be smooth.

Lessons for the west?

Are the industrialised – and post-industrial – cities of the west insulated from the frustrations of youth?  Recent British experience suggests not.  The numbers are smaller, and the middle aged and middle class more likely to resist, but urban conditions of alienation and relative deprivation are significant, particularly among young people in large urban areas. 

Deprivation is most conspicuous in cities, especially when economic growth is less assured and the fruits less dispersed.  Almost inevitably, the costs of stagnation are distributed disproportionately along ethnic and generational lines when the economy slows and business and governments consolidate. 

Who’s rioting in Britain?

In February 2011 it was reported that youth (16-24 years) unemployment in Britain hit a record 20.5%, compared with a general rate of 7.9%.  The majority of young unemployed are concentrated in urban areas: according to a 2009 Centre for Cities publication, the 63 largest British cities and towns contain 59% the country’s youth population, but 64% of the young who are on benefits.  Not only that, but a 2010 publication by the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that half of Britain’s unemployed youth are black.

The television images of British urban riots show a high proportion of youth, and a disproportionate representation of black youth.   While the riots were characterised by the level of damage to property and theft, attributing them simply to criminality (or moral weakness) misses the role of divisions within large cities.  When distinctive groups of people within cities sit outside prevailing economic and political structures, their collective lack of respect for property - or lives - should not be so surprising.

There are obvious differences between the urban domain in Britain and that of North Africa, though.  For a start, dispossessed youth are a minority in Britain, where a strong middle-aged middle class will rally to support government efforts --- or even to advance their own -- to quell disorder.

So, in urban settings that are figuratively a world apart a common contributor to street violence is an alienated youth.  But perhaps that’s as far as commonality goes.  In the Arab world, youth is a near or even absolute majority; in the western world it is minority.  In the Arab world it appears to be seeking a share of the power in rapidly urbanising communities; in the western world it is seeking its share of the good life in a long-urbanised society. 

Phil McDermott is a Director of CityScope Consultants in Auckland, New Zealand, and Adjunct Professor of Regional and Urban Development at Auckland University of Technology.  He works in urban, economic and transport development throughout New Zealand and in Australia, Asia, and the Pacific.  He was formerly Head of the School of Resource and Environmental Planning at Massey University and General Manager of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation in Sydney. This piece originally appeared at is blog: Cities Matter.

Photo by Syria-Frames-of-Freedom