Is Egypt’s Population Growth a Blessing or a Curse?

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Egypt is the most populous Arab country with a population currently estimated at over 98 million, making it the 14th highest in the world. Its population density is problematic, however, since about 95 percent of Egyptians occupy less than 5 percent of the country’s total land area. They are heavily concentrated in the very narrow strip of land on both sides of the Nile river, known as the Nile Valley, leaving vast areas of land that are mostly uninhabitable, underpopulated, and underdeveloped. The poor geographical distribution of Egypt’s inhabitants is a principal reason for problems in the allocation of resources, availability of services, and quality of life.

This reality exacerbates the challenges of overcrowding, congestion, traffic jams, deteriorating public services, and high environmental pollution in Egypt’s major cities, especially the capital city, Cairo. The metropolitan area known as Greater Cairo, which also includes parts of Giza and Qalyubia governorates, is currently home to around 22.8 million inhabitants. Consecutive Egyptian governments, including the current one, have referred to Egypt’s rapid population growth as a threat to the national economy and an obstacle to the country’s prospects for development and prosperity. This culminated in an official discourse that describes Egypt’s population growth as an “explosive population bomb.”

The Hosni Mubarak administration took on this issue forcefully and framed it comprehensively, paying attention to women’s and children’s health by reducing the risks of unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and maternal and infant mortality. These are usually more prevalent in rural areas that suffer the most from the three interrelated hardships of poverty, illiteracy, and disease, while simultaneously having the highest birth rates. The policies were supported by international organizations, such as USAID, which offered financial, material, and professional assistance. It is worth noting that this aid has not been matched in other sectors that pose critical challenges to Egypt’s economy and development, such as education, health, employment, and agriculture,

Mubarak’s Ministry of Health and Population instituted some important policies including providing training workshops to local community leaders, traditional health practitioners such as midwives, and Muslim and Christian religious leaders to overcome the religious stigma related to birth control through reframing it as “family planning.” Extensive media campaigns especially on television, using popular actors, actresses, and singers, were launched to alter the Egyptian people’s attitudes and behaviors on reproduction by linking having less children to preserving a woman’s health and beauty. But despite these big undertakings, the outcomes were not as satisfactory as hoped because the population growth rate continued at a fast pace. In fact, when Mubarak assumed office in 1981, following President Anwar Sadat’s assassination, Egypt’s population was estimated at around 44.5 million. When he was ousted from office in 2011, Egypt’s population had increased to nearly 84 million—i.e., the increase averaged 1.3 million per year, despite all of these governmental efforts.

Three Puzzling Population Paradoxes

The foregoing highlights interesting paradoxes. First, despite significant investments in family planning efforts and campaigns, these initiatives did not translate into a reduction in overall population growth, which continues to rise steadily at an annual rate of 2.51 percent. This could be attributed to Egypt’s adoption of an official, top-down, state-sponsored position on the issue of family planning, which didn’t resonate with—and therefore didn’t trickle down to—wider segments of the Egyptian public. Thus, the policies did not succeed in altering people’s attitudes or behaviors regarding the desired number of children and the use of contraception. For example, the Egyptian government portrays “the two child family” as an ideal family size, clashing both with the predominant values in a conservative, rural culture that emphasize large families as sources of status and authority as well as with the economic reality and belief that large families are needed to alleviate poverty among the neediest households.

The discrepancy between the government and citizens is illustrated by the limited effect of the government’s aggressive family planning campaigns. Some of them were misunderstood and even backfired. For example, some rural women perceived the young couple on television with one boy and one girl as representing an ideal family model, but this made them surmise that they should have “one of each gender” and that the mother’s responsibility was to keep trying until she has both boys and girls. Likewise, the theme of the “small family equals a better life,” which was presented in some of these campaigns, was confusing because most rural women believed that a healthy, young couple who live in an urban, comfortable apartment and enjoy a high standard of living should certainly have more than just two kids!

Yet so far, no sufficient consideration of a comprehensive, alternative strategy has been put in place to fill gaps and overcome cultural challenges, which rendered many of these governmental, top-down programs and campaigns, both on the ground and through the media, largely ineffective and out of touch with the intended recipients and the targeted audiences.

The second paradox is that although the fertility rate per Egyptian woman dropped from 6.63 children in 1960 to 3.47 in 2017—which could be directly related to increased urbanization, women’s education, women’s employment, and the shift from the extended to the nuclear family household structure—the overall population growth rate still continues to be high. This paradox could be best explained by a phenomenon known as “population momentum,” which takes place when a significant proportion of females in a certain country are in their childbearing years. This is very much the case in Egypt, since the number of adolescent girls under 20 years of age constitute about one fifth of Egypt’s population in 2015 and are expected to increase steadily. With such a momentum in place, the total number of births will continue to rise, even if the rate of childbearing per woman drops. This powerful demographic force is likely to account for about half of Egypt’s population growth over the next 100 years. Even if the country achieves the desired replacement level fertility (the rate at which a population replaces itself over a generation) of just over two children per woman, Egypt’s population will still continue to grow for a number of years to come.

The third paradox is that Egypt does not only suffer from a shortage in basic infrastructure, such as education, housing, and health facilities, but also confronts a shortage in contraceptive pills, the very weapon it promised to use in its war to curb rampant population growth. Indeed, the supply of contraceptive methods, including pills and contraceptive services such as family planning clinics, is almost always less than the need or demand. This irony speaks to the inefficiency of current development strategies on a number of fronts, including addressing the current “population crisis”—or the “population bomb,” as successive Egyptian governments prefer to label it.

Rethinking Egypt’s Population Growth: A Curse or a Blessing?

This leads us to the most crucial questions: Is Egypt’s steadily growing population a curse that is profoundly hurting the country’s economy and draining its resources? Or is it an unmanaged blessing that has not been sufficiently or wisely utilized to benefit the country’s economy, development, and prosperity?

A number of important issues influence the answers. First is the continuous failure of successive Egyptian governments to develop adequate development policies that can truly address the serious challenges facing the Egyptian people, especially youth, in education, employment, housing, and health, to mention only some of the most important areas. This led some analysts to predict that controlling Egypt’s population growth will not stop its increasing poverty levels, since the issue of poverty, or more broadly economic development, is certainly much more complicated and multi-faceted than the size of a country’s population. China, the most densely populated country in the world, is certainly an excellent example in this regard.

Second, Egypt is blessed with a youthful population, with approximately 61 percent under age 30. This demographic should be viewed as a vital resource that needs to be cultivated to build a better future. Most European countries, for example, are suffering from slow population growth rates, and this, coupled with increasingly aging populations, leaves them in need of labor and short of human capital. Germany, in particular, has been accepting refugees not solely for humanitarian purposes, but also out of dire need for human labor, due to its aging population.

Third, the Egyptian government’s current priorities in allocating resources and spending money point to a discrepancy between its claims and its actions. On one hand, it asserts that there are no resources available in the country mainly due to the fast population growth rate, which it blames for eating up the country’s wealth and impeding its development. On the other hand, however, the patterns of governmental spending do not always reflect the situation of a country suffering from a severe economic crisis. While Egyptians are being asked to accept tough austerity measures, such as reductions in subsidies, they were astonished to see the lavish celebrations in the opening ceremony of the World Youth Forum, which was recently held in Sharm El-Sheikh resort and hosted 3,000 guests from all over the world—with Egypt also covering the costs of the guests’ travel and accommodations. In addition, the Egyptian government is allocating a huge budget to establish a new administrative capital, a plan that many Egyptians find to be both inexplicable and/or unnecessary in the midst of the current economic challenges.

Moving Forward: A Vicious Cycle?

Successive Egyptian governments have blamed the Egyptian citizen for having more children than needed, or desired, by the state, but the average citizen’s response was to control one of the few aspects of life that does not fall under the direct control and hegemony of the state and is not regulated by it. Therefore, this provides him/her with a unique sense of autonomy in decision-making and individual choice, which could not be exercised in many other domains in Egyptian society, including the political sphere.

Looking into the future, it would be safe to predict that, on the one hand, the Egyptian people’s reproductive beliefs, attitudes, habits, and behaviors will remain intact, and therefore, the population growth rate is also likely to continue. This is thanks primarily to Egypt’s youthful population, despite the drop in the fertility rate per woman—which is also likely to continue to diminish as more receive education, women join the workforce, and families move to the cities and shift from the extended to the nuclear family household arrangement. In fact, Egypt’s population is projected to reach 128 million by the year 2030.

On the other hand, the Egyptian government’s attitude toward the issue of population growth is also likely to remain the same, and it will continue to blame the country’s severely struggling economy and pressing developmental challenges on such growth.

The Egyptian government would be wise to change its perspective on this important issue by reconsidering the average Egyptian’s needs and wants, attitudes and beliefs, hopes and challenges, and, most importantly, Egypt’s demographic realities. It must readjust its own priorities, policies, and decisions regarding key developmental issues and come up with an alternative vision for the country moving forward. Unless these changes take place, we will continue to witness a recurring, vicious cycle of mutual blame, reciprocal dissatisfaction, and shared frustration between the government and citizens, which will only add to Egypt’s burdensome challenges.

Some of the important aspects that need to be addressed in these new strategies include fighting governmental corruption and regulating its spending as well as investing in eradicating Egypt’s high illiteracy rate and improving the quality of its deteriorating educational system, which are among the main impediments to progress and development. The government would also do well if it secured more employment opportunities for Egypt’s youth so they can be more productive rather than a burden on the economy. It also could devote resources to improve the overall infrastructure and quality of services in the country, including health care, which can provide needed reproductive health care and advice and invest in increasing the area of arable land to reduce the damaging consequences of high population density in the narrow Nile Valley.

Unless, and until, the Egyptian government succeeds in developing new strategies and an appropriate vision, there will be no winner in this tug of war between the government and its citizens. There will likely always be, however, one prime loser: the average Egyptian citizen.

Dr. Sahar Khamis is a member of the Academic Advisory Board of Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Dr. Khamis click here