In its efforts to boost the Egyptian economy to meet the nation’s aspirations for a place among the world’s economic powerhouses the government has been entirely focused on economic growth statistics and has overlooked one of the major causes of the economic woes of the past seven decades — over-population.
Reaching a staggering 97 million in 2018, Egypt’s population has grown at an alarming rate over recent decades due to improved healthcare, uncontrolled birth rates and a lack of awareness of the escalating problem.
Subsidies provided by the state in the form of free healthcare and education to all Egyptians, along with subsidised foodstuffs for larger families, have been major elements in the development of the crisis.
There has also been a surge in birth rates in rural areas owing to agricultural land reforms that have redistributed land to farmers and taken it away from larger landlords.
Such measures have provided incentives to farmers to bring more children into the world to assist in farming work, and the result has been families of five children and above.
Many of these children have then found themselves to be unemployed because of the modern agricultural equipment that has been introduced into the countryside, reducing the need for manpower.
But by then the die has been cast as many of these larger families have found that they cannot survive on the plots of land allocated to them by the government, and they have therefore either sold it so that it can be used for illegal building or have migrated to the country’s larger cities in search of better job opportunities.
Many of these new migrants to the cities from rural areas have not had the funds to afford proper housing, and they have therefore resorted to living in the unplanned informal housing areas that have grown up around the cities as a result of unplanned migration.
Housing has been built without permits and has lacked proper infrastructure and sanitation.
In the wake of such developments, Egypt’s population has grown from 18 million in 1952 to 97 million and counting in 2018.
Moreover, with about 23 million people living in Greater Cairo alone, the area of the capital has a larger population than the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.
The huge efforts required by the state to maintain living standards in Greater Cairo alone can be readily imagined, let alone those required to maintain them in the rest of the country.
The Cairo governorate thus finds itself with the task of maintaining a metropolis that has a larger population than many Scandinavian countries.
Historically, Egypt was a major producer of agricultural products and was self-sufficient in terms of food until the mid-1950s when the population started to increase.
From there, things have been on a downward slope, and today Egypt imports some 50 per cent of its food from other countries.
This led the government to initiate its Million Feddans Project to develop further agricultural land in Egypt, but even this hugely ambitious project will only serve to put off the crisis if the over-population problem is not tackled.
The Islamists have played a major role in the over-population crisis facing the nation and jeopardising its economic growth.
A significant section of the Egyptian population is unfortunately still under the spell of radical clerics who encourage them to have as many children as possible.
This instruction is based on a hadith (saying) of the Prophet Mohamed that encourages Muslims to marry and to multiply for the glory of the Islamic nation.
It disregards the fact that the entire Muslim population when the Prophet Mohamed issued his hadith was probably no more than 140,000 and perhaps only half of that.
There were nowhere near the estimated 1.8 billion Muslims that there are in the world today, and as a result the prophet’s hadith, on which fatwas (legal rulings) have been based, should not be taken literally in the 21st century.
Egypt’s still-growing population is putting immense pressures on the country’s dwindling water and food resources, and drastic measures must be taken to ensure that this ticking population bomb is defused and is not allowed to threaten the nation’s future prosperity.
Such measures may include limiting the number of children per family to a maximum of two (excluding twins or triplets) and imposing hefty fines on people who disregard this rule while limiting free education and healthcare to the first two children.
Incentives to use birth control must be provided to more people, and awareness programmes must be expanded, especially in rural areas.
Such drastic measures may help stave off the impending doom threatened by the current birth rate. If they are not implemented and the population continues on its present upward path, Egypt’s population will reach 151 million by 2050.
This has all the elements of a future catastrophe if it is not dealt with drastically from the present moment onwards.
Egypt’s arable land remains limited, and even with the most ambitious of programmes it will hardly be sufficient to cater to the needs of such a population in the next 30 years.
Even though efforts have been made to construct new cities away from the Nile Valley, the majority of the population still lives on a narrow strip of land on the banks of the Nile, and there is every reason to believe that this will remain the case for at least another generation. It is nightmarish to think of the country’s projected population of 151 million still living on the banks of the Nile.
The great Egyptian nation cannot be comprised of the impoverished, the sick and the needy as a result of the uncontrolled birth rate that is threatening to wipe out the results of economic progress.
It should be among the most developed, educated, and healthy nations in the world in order to live up to the name established by its great ancestors.
Yet, focusing solely on economic progress and overlooking the ticking population bomb would be as futile as pumping water into a leaky pipe.
Egypt’s over-population problem must be dealt with as it is the mother of all its other problems. Defusing the ticking population bomb is the key to a much brighter future for all Egyptians.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Defusing the population bomb