As bad as terrorism? Egypt’s population crisis

Too many people living in poverty without a chance to improve their situation means migration.

2017/10/29 Issue: 129 Page: 20

The Arab Weekly
Tom Regan

Here’s how to create a crisis when you don’t need one: Trash a successful government pro­gramme, combine it with a religiously conservative environment, mix in economic problems and garnish with an unhealthy dose of nation­alism. Voila! You have a serious overpopulation problem in Egypt.

While other Arab countries in North Africa face a similar sce­nario, it’s Egypt’s population boom that has attracted attention.

In May, the head of Egypt’s Cen­tral Agency for Public Mobilisa­tion and Statistics announced the country’s population had reached 93 million. A few days later Egyp­tian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, on a television talk show, com­mented that the population crisis was “no less dangerous than the challenge of terrorism.”

Last year, Egypt’s population grew by 2 million. There is a good chance it will grow by that much again this year.

Egypt has not always had a population problem. Until about 2008, it was the model for other developing countries in terms of controlling population growth. Government programmes, assisted by national and foreign NGOs, played a significant role in keeping the fertility rate low.

Then, for some reason, the government stopped most of those programmes and put that money into other areas. The fertility rate began to grow slowly. In 2011, Egypt removed sex education from school curricula. Teachers were ex­pected to just bring it up sometime during the year. Sadly, few did.

Religious conservatism played a role in keeping the discussion of sex education out of the class­room. A more traditional form of conservatism, men’s reluctance to wear condoms, did not help either.

The situation worsened un­der the year-long presidency of Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose message to women was basically “have more babies.” The economic crisis of the last couple of years made the situation worse. Women have had an increasingly hard time finding birth control pills and growing poverty meant that economically hard-hit families were inclined to increase their numbers as a hedge for the future.

Another blow came when for­eign NGOs that might have helped with this health issue were kicked out of Egypt and local NGOs were forbidden from accepting money from outside sources.

Egypt is not the only country in the region with a growing popula­tion problem. Algerian Minister of Health, Population and Hospi­tal Reform Mokhtar Hasbellaoui recently announced that the country’s population would hit 51 million by 2030. He said the gov­ernment would realign policy ob­jectives to find a balance between the growing population and social and economic growth. Easier said than done, unfortunately.

Other countries in the region, such as Morocco, also face dramat­ic population surges.

Western countries fear this population growth as much as Egyptian authorities do. Too many people living in poverty without a chance to improve their situation means migration. It’s a situation that could play into the hands of far-right groups in Europe, the United States, Australia and Canada.

The far right has denounced the influx of immigrants caused by the Syrian crisis. A far-right anti- Muslim, anti-immigration party in Germany won federal parlia­mentary seats for the first time in decades.

Egypt is trying to fix the prob­lem. It launched “Two Is Enough,” a programme primarily aimed at women 35 and younger who have one or two children. The goal is to drive Egypt’s fertility rate down to 2.4 from its current 3.5.

Whether it will work is an open question. Government programmes based primarily on persuasion don’t work as well as those that come with money to help a family.

Egypt doesn’t have much time to turn the situation around. If the population continues to grow at its current rate, about five times the rate of other developing countries, it could reach 180 million by 2050, which would make a very bad situ­ation much, much worse.

Tom Regan, a columnist at, previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is the former executive director of the Online News Association and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1992.

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