Egypt’s population predicament

The population explosion exacerbated harmful factors into a crisis structure that is damaging the economy, society, security and political conditions.
Sunday 03/03/2019
Demographic challenge. An elevated view of al-Attaba district on the edge of downtown Cairo.(AFP)
Demographic challenge. An elevated view of al-Attaba district on the edge of downtown Cairo.(AFP)

Egyptians remember a phrase often repeated by artist Ahmed Maher: “Don’t judge a man by his word. Judge him by his care for his home and family.”

People recall Maher’s words but don’t pay attention to their meaning. Consider population growth in Egypt. Since the beginning of the government’s family planning campaign in the 1990s, Egypt’s population grew by more than 25 million, a number that confirms that the government’s awareness-raising campaign did not affect the large segment of Egyptians who see procreation as a source of pride and a means of increased income.

Egypt’s population reached 97 million at the beginning of 2019, an increase of 1.5 million from 2018. This population explosion triggered economic and social alarms because it strained state resources and was a hindrance to development efforts.

The Egyptian government has introduced a new awareness-raising campaign — “Two are Enough” — with the participation of actor Akram Hosni. This prompted debates about whether people’s convictions about procreation have changed, about the reasons for the failure of previous campaigns and about whether the government is using demographic changes as an excuse for failing to increase economic development.

Najla Sulaiman, a 40-year-old medical doctor with four children, said she was displeased with the government’s calls for only two children. “The slogans change but the crisis remains the same,” she said. “The government is trying to blame the people for its failure to achieve real economic development.”

“The government always forgets to define the population problem, which is that the rate of population growth is higher than the rate of economic growth,” she said. “So the government focuses on the first part of the equation only and then blames the poor for Egypt’s economic crisis because of their desire to reproduce without paying attention to the cost of raising children.”

“Can’t we think of procreation as a blessing and pleasure for these poor people, to help them forget their painful economic misery? Why should we demand that they give it up if we are unable to provide a better life for them?” she asked.

Ahmed Boraie, a father of four who works in a private company, shares those sentiments and said that as long as birth control campaigns were issued by authorities, no one would pay attention to them.

He said the matter is related to the lack of trust between citizens and the government. Citizens don’t see the value of responding to government campaigns and sometimes refuse to respond to such campaigns as a form of protest about conditions.

“Egyptians have been forced to reduce the number of children in the family because of the government’s austerity measures, which have worsened the families’ ability to provide the basics of life. Some families are worried that their children are going to be leading a difficult life in a miserable society,” Boraie said.

Observers of Egyptian affairs point to China’s success in this area. Chinese officials responded to the overpopulation crisis and underdevelopment conditions by investing in China’s human resources and developing the country’s educational and productive systems.

Mohammed Abdul Jalil, an economist and former adviser to the head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, said population growth in Egypt has reached unprecedented levels.

“The rate of population growth in the past was about 10 million people every 50 years. In 1920, the number of Egyptians was 12 million and by 1950 the population reached 20 million and from 2011 until now the increase was 16 million people at the rate of one child every 15 seconds,” he said.

He said: “Attacking the government as unable to absorb the population increase and comparing the situation with China is unfair because China has a population growth rate of about half the same rate in Egypt.

“Moreover, the economic growth rate in Beijing is 14 times higher than the rate of population increase, so the population increase is not a burden on the economy. In Egypt, however, population growth is a big problem.”

There is a growing debate about the real causes of the deterioration of economic conditions in Egypt and their connection to population growth. Whether connected or not, both issues result from accumulated factors that lead to poverty and ignorance.

Experts point out that population growth in Egypt has become a national security issue. Some call it “the mother of all crises.”

The population explosion exacerbated harmful factors into a crisis structure that is damaging the economy, society, security and political conditions.

The experts estimated that the population growth rate of 2.6% must be accompanied by economic growth of 6% annually. During the past five years, Egypt’s economic growth rate has not exceeded 4%. One of the consequences of this imbalance is a noticeable increase in criminality and violence in society.

Abdul Samad Hamouda lives in the village of Bark al-Khiyam in southern Giza. Sitting amid his nine children, he said: “Children are a blessing from God and a divine order to settle the land. How can we control the matter and put a limit on the number of children? Why do we criminalise what Allah has permitted?”

Hamouda’s words reflect the cohesion between religious edicts and widespread cultural beliefs regarding procreation. Egyptians firmly believe that to have many children is a blessing from Allah.

The government has realised how difficult it will be to change that cultural framework and consolidate the concept of family planning among citizens. The new campaign is being conducted for the first time in partnership with civil society associations.

In addition to the media campaign, the Ministry of Social Solidarity has invited more than 100 associations in all governorates to participate through workshops and door-to-door campaigns in villages and rural areas to reach as much of the population as possible. The government has provided financial and logistical assistance to the associations.

Wafa Said, professor of sociology at Ain Shams University, said poor families, rural populations and inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods tend to have large families because they consider children to be sources of income by having them work in industry and agriculture.

The government has responded to that concept, as shown in television ads. The Ministry of Solidarity chose Hosni, who is widely popular among young people, to be the spokesman for the campaign. It is hoped that the simple content of the ads, as well as their youthful language, may attract the attention of young people.