On Sunday and Monday two parliamentary committees held meetings to discuss ways to curb Egypt’s runaway population growth.
The meetings came after Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli said last week that “the problem of population growth in Egypt has reached a critical stage, and it is time to stem the tide.”
Madbouli said the government, in collaboration with parliament, would launch a wide-ranging birth control campaign.
Meeting on Sunday, the Defence and National Security Committee said it would mobilise to support the government’s birth control and family planning plans.
“The population of Egypt is soaring and we need to contain the growth if we are to face the economic challenges that lie ahead,” said committee head Kamal Amer.
Official figures place Egypt’s population at almost 100 million, and it is growing by 2.5 million annually.
“We have discussed the subject in six meetings, and during the latest we discussed measures to defuse Egypt’s population time bomb,” said Amer.
“Media campaigns to build awareness of the consequences of Egypt’s unchecked population explosion have proved inadequate. We need strict measures to be taken to contain the phenomenon.”
“We probably need to criminalise early marriage, which is common in rural areas, and penalise the maazouns [officials authorised to oversee marriage contracts] who supervise such ceremonies.”
“Committee members also recommended a package of incentives to encourage couples to plan their families,” said Amer.
“A nationwide network of clinics should offer women different birth control options. And to encourage families to have fewer children couples who limit their family to one child should be exempted from paying school fees and the child be given free life insurance.”
“Families that refuse birth control measures should also have cash or in-kind subsidies removed.”
On 22 November Madbouli announced that the government would withhold conditional cash transfers, a subsidy offered to families in the poorest villages to encourage them to send their children to school, from families with three or more children.
Amer said MPs had recommended that the ministries of education and higher education play a greater role in implementing birth control strategies by including lessons on birth control and the benefits of smaller families in the curriculum, and stressed that the government needs to seek the help of clerics, both Muslim and Christian, to promote birth control.
Yet in a meeting held by the Social Solidarity Committee on Monday MPs were critical of the attitudes of religious leaders towards birth control.
Mohamed Abu Hamed, the committee’s deputy chairman, said clerics had shown negligible interst in the subject.
“They are not doing enough to reform religious discourse or to face down takfiri fatwas. And they have always been reluctant to support birth control and family planning,” he said.
Talaat Abdel-Qawi, head of the General Federation of NGOs, told the meeting that “clerics have acted to undermine campaigns to curb population growth”.
“Whether moderate or radical, clerics have urged citizens — particularly during Friday prayers — to ignore birth control campaigns, claiming they violate Islam.”
He also argued that “birth control campaigns need to be organised on a permanent rather than seasonal basis and media outlets mobilised to sway public opinion on the issue.”
Amr Hassan, secretary-general of the National Population Council, said that between 2000 and 2008 birth control campaigns had succeeded in reducing population growth from two million to 1.5 million annually.
According to Hassan, “the collapse of birth control campaigns after 2008 was caused by clerics launching a counter-campaign.”
“They told citizens that birth control was a Zionist conspiracy against Islam and Muslims,” said Hassan.
“Now family planning has become a matter of the utmost urgency. It is necessary if Egypt is ever to achieve economic prosperity.”
Meanwhile, the Health Affairs Committee approved on Sunday a grant agreement between Egypt and the US to help fund birth control programmes.
Under the agreement Egypt will receive a US government grant of at $11 million to support and build on existing birth control programmes.
The money will be used to make birth control measures more appealing to families, provide training for staff engaged in family planning at health units, and to help fund a demographic survey to collect reliable data on population and health.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Head count