In May this year, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took part in a television phone-in with veteran talk-show host Amr Adib. On the agenda was Egypt’s overpopulation crisis.
“Our efforts to face population growth are substandard, and the issue is not regulated by law, so the media must work with us, and we must act intensively on family planning,” said al-Sisi. “Population growth is a big issue and is a challenge no less dangerous than the challenge of terrorism. Poverty drives people to extremism.”
Egypt’s population surge beggars belief. Its population grew by two million last year, giving it a growth rate double that of other developing countries. It will expand by a further two million in 2017, representing a growth rate five times higher than most European countries. To put that in perspective, Egypt adds the equivalent of the entire population of Slovenia every year.
Within the next 40 years – if current rates persist – Egypt will hit between 160 and 180 million people, leapfrogging Russia and Japan (both of which have falling populations) by 2050. Such increases will only compound and magnify energy, water and food shortages.
And then there’s Cairo. The city’s population will grow by 500,000 this year, more than any other city in the world.
Bill Marsh, writing in The New York Times in June, described the world’s population crisis – not just Egypt’s – as a “slowly unfolding catastrophe”, with overpopulation especially acute in Africa. All of his short but distressing article was quotable. Not only would fast-rising populations degrade economic and agricultural resiliency, but recession and drought would magnify the human consequences.
“Mass migration, starvation, civil unrest: Overpopulation unites all of these,” wrote Marsh. “Many nations’ threadbare economies, unable to cope with soaring births, could produce even greater waves of refugees beyond the millions already on the move to neighbouring countries or the more prosperous havens of Europe.”
Last September, Major General Abu Bakr al-Gendy, chairman of the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), described Egypt’s rate of population growth as a “dangerous virus that we must get rid of”. If left unchecked it could exhaust the country’s depleted resources, heighten an already dangerous level of unemployment, and contribute to social unrest.
“It is indeed a huge problem that is affecting every aspect of Egyptians’ lives – traffic, housing, food security, health, education, employment,” admits Nahla Abdel-Tawab, senior associate and Egypt country director at the Population Council. “What exacerbates the problem is the country’s limited resources. Egypt’s population lives on less than 5 per cent of the country’s land and the rate of economic growth is currently lingering at 3.5 per cent. This rapid rate of population increase is eating up all investments that the government is making in roads, schools, new jobs.
“A crisis could happen if immediate action is not taken at all levels (government, civil society and private sector),” she adds. “If young people cannot find decent jobs, and cannot make money to start their own families, we should [not] be surprised if they become angry and even violent.”
Cairo is the epicentre of this social time-bomb. CAPMAS estimated Greater Cairo’s population to be 22.9 million in July last year, with growth occurring at its highest rates in the Helwan and El Marg districts. Other infamously overcrowded and sprawling districts include Shubra and El Matariya.
The city is immense. Its size impedes, changes, complicates, even ruins lives. And it can do so in the simplest of ways. A recent commercial for taxi app Careem called ‘The Maze’ and directed by Maged Nassar revelled in the grey, grubby, shambolic enormity of Cairo, but it is increasingly a city of claustrophobia, frustration and anger.
“Cairo’s beauty is overshadowed, and has long been overshadowed, by its millions,” says a Cairene who prefers to remain anonymous. “It’s literally like one of those childhood hot and humid days I remember when my mother baked a delicious chocolate cake for my ninth or tenth birthday, and when I came into the kitchen it was fully covered in ants.
“I think about the late nights, card games, outings, Iftar hustle and bustle with friends and family, deliciously stuffed pigeon on mulukhiyah soup at Farahat or at Khan Al Khalili, or Moez Street. Lots of lights and noise, and street dogs woofing, boys standing around kiosks, reasons to be late for work, happiness and patience, and a whole lot of Egyptian soap operas we learn by heart.
“But it takes me a second to remember what comes with that. I think to myself, ‘but wait, how long will it take us to get there? Will we ever get there? Should we postpone it? What if I get sick in the car like that time I was sick and it took us three hours to get home? What if the car breaks down, how will they ever reach me?’
“I get angry. Really angry. I remember angry faces. Frustrated faces of people who have similar memories and thoughts to me, and who look back at me in hatred because I’m just another car wasting their lives away in traffic so they’ll never make it to that late night card game on time, and the kanafeh will be gone by then, and the ants will consume the cake.”
The country’s population increase is the result of a multitude of demographic, social, economic and political factors. Firstly, Egypt currently has the largest proportion of young people in its history. Those aged 15 to 29 comprise nearly 30 per cent of the total population. This so called ‘youth bulge’ is associated with an increase in the population as those young people get married and have children.
“Cultural norms in some parts of the country, especially rural Upper Egypt, still value large families and give preferential treatment to male children, thus women are pressured to have more children until they have a son,” says Abdel-Tawab. “Early marriage continues to be a problem especially in rural Upper Egypt, where one third of married women aged 25 to 29 get married before the age of 18. When women get married early they end up having large families. We also need to keep in mind that children are a source of income to many families, especially those poor families that do not place a high value on education. A child with no education could work in a workshop or in agriculture for 50 Egyptian pounds a day.”
The number of women in the workforce is also an issue. The more women work, the less they have children. “But what is the percentage of working women in Egypt?” asks Abdel-Tawab. “Only 18 per cent of women aged 15 to 35 are in the labour force.”
The political unrest that followed the revolution in 2011 must also be considered, not only because it led to a disruption in health services, including family planning, but because the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood was “associated with the stalling of activities pertaining to family planning and women’s empowerment”.
Religion adds to the complexity. Fatwas are frequently issued in response to government attempts to tackle the population issue, with Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, an Egyptian educational institute and government body, previously stating that “Islam does not impose a certain number of children on a Muslim. Islam urges all able Muslims to reproduce and multiply.” The Coptic church’s stance on birth control is not dissimilar.
As a result of all of the above, the country’s fertility rate stands at 3.5, far higher than 2.1, the level at which a population remains roughly stable. Therefore efforts to control the population centre on a number of different strategies, not least the promotion of education for girls and family planning.
“Many international bodies, including the World Bank Group, maintain the correlation between education and family planning to be direct,” wrote Holly Dagres, an analyst and commentator on Middle East affairs in an article for The World Bank. “Educated women tend to have smaller, and healthier, families. Similarly, fertility rates decline when women have at least seven or more years of education. While family planning is paramount in preventing health risks in pregnant women, it is education that further empowers a population to make wise decisions.”
“So far the brunt of the work has been done by the Ministry of Health and Population (MOHP). But MOHP cannot do it alone,” says Abdel-Tawab. “We need to encourage the NGO and private sector to provide family planning services. We need pharmaceutical companies to import new contraceptives so women would have more methods to choose from. We need to strengthen public/private partnership, whereby the private sector would support training of public sector providers in contraceptive technology and family planning counselling.
“We need to enforce laws that forbid child marriage and that punish parents who take their children out of school. We need to do everything that we can to keep girls in school and to prevent them from getting married before the legal age. Build a secondary school in every village. Make the school environment more friendly to girls. Encourage women to go out for work. Help them start their own businesses by simplifying procedures and regulations. Provide incentives to business owners who make the work environment more friendly to women.”
Is she optimistic for the future? “I’m certainly optimistic,” she replies. “I believe the government has taken a few steps in the right direction.”
Abdel-Tawab cites the fact that, for the first time, the Egyptian constitution now acknowledges the population problem and confirms the commitment of the Egyptian state towards addressing it. Egypt’s Sustainable Development Strategy 2015-2030 also commits the government to providing free services to those who cannot afford them.
“There are some successful safety net programmes that link cash transfer to poor families to keeping their children in school,” says Abdel-Tawab. “There is a new investment law that makes it easier for young men and women to receive loans and to start their own business. Last but not least, the country’s president is highly committed to addressing the population problem and repeatedly declares publicly that uncontrolled population growth is a threat to national security. I only hope that other senior officials in the government as well as public and private sectors share the same sentiment and make responsible decisions, each in their own domain, to address various aspects of this problem.”