Egypt Cutting Wrong Wires To Diffuse ‘Population Bomb’
Cairo’s new recommendations to control population growth fail to address root causes of its social and economic strife
Egypt is taking formal steps to address its ticking “population bomb,” as the country’s citizenry expanded from 48 to 95 million between 1986 and 2016. Moreover, a recent study found that the rate of growth is accelerating, citing twice the number of births in the third ten-year period than that of each of the two decades prior. Analysts fear that the resulting demographic changes are imperiling the North African giant’s economic and social stability.
One in three Egyptians is less than 15 years old and another twenty percent of the population is aged 15-24, making the nation one of the youngest in the Middle East. This is concerning given that youth unemployment in Egypt is hovering around 35 percent, a number that could rise in the future due to the country’s ongoing economy difficulties, including a rate of inflation of over 20%.
The Egyptian government has for years been keenly aware of the possible repercussions, with President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi having called the situation “as critical as that of terrorism.” This is partly because idle youths in the Middle East are susceptible to extremist ideologies.
“Egypt has numerous challenges, including a population of young people who may be unable to find work or realize their economic potential,” Allistair Currie of Population Matters, a NGO that aims to promote ethical solutions to population growth, conveyed to The Media Line. “Youth unemployment, a devastated agricultural sector and potentially rising food prices are a dangerous cocktail for any government, especially one that doesn’t enjoy democratic legitimacy among many of its citizens.”
Indeed, the problems are wide-ranging, leading some to believe that Egypt is missing the mark by focusing on population issues rather than implementing reforms to liberalize and diversify the economy.
Mark Rosenberg, Professor of Geography and Planning at Queens University in Canada, explained to The Media Line that “it’s not just simply about economic growth; it’s about the distribution of that growth,” which he contends has not been effectively transferred to Egypt’s poorer classes.
“If countries can’t address these huge inequalities, then other polices are probably going to fail.”
Modern population control in Egypt dates back to the early 1970s, when a related center for research was established at Al-Azhar University. Eventually, the institution’s chief Imam declared that family planning after three children was acceptable under Islamic law.
“This shift eventually resulted in a drop in Egypt’s population growth rate to about 2.4 children per couple—including child mortality rates—before the takeover [in 2012] of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Steven Mosher, President of the Population Research Institute, explained to The Media Line.
“The change in government saw a resurgence in traditional Islamic practices related to reproduction which, when combined with the removal of girls from school and the resumption of early marriage, caused a marked rise in growth rates to about 3.47 children per couple.”
In response, a parliamentary committee set up by al-Sisi to address the matter has recommended setting the minimum age for marriage at 18 and creating positive incentives such as free education and life insurance for those that voluntarily use birth control. On the flip side, punitive measures may be adopted such as withholding government subsidies from families of more than three children. Meanwhile, religious officials are being encouraged to stress the dangers of population growth.
“While policies like setting a legal marriage age and incentivizing smaller families are reasonable,” Mosher affirmed, “denying benefits to couples that have more children becomes difficult because it represents a failure of government. We have to accept that the lack of economic development is the problem. If you have that, the birth rate will go down. The idea that you can fix the economy by reducing the number of children the poor have is nonsense.”
Many experts believe that Cairo’s attempt to curb runaway population growth will also have to involve the extension of democratic and civil liberties to individuals, in addition to a major restructuring of the nation’s infamously corrupt bureaucracy.
Otherwise, proposed policies might result in more social strife and a reduced standard of living irrespective of whether birth rates are lowered.
(Victor Cabrera is a student intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)