Call it a bomb, regard it as an explosion, turn a blind eye to it or consider it as a blessing that cannot be stopped, but the end result remains the same: Egypt’s population is getting out of hand.
This is a bomb that has not just been detonated. On the contrary, it has exploded, causing fatalities, injuries and noise, but apparently not enough attention or significant worry.
Someone somewhere seems to have been whispering in the ears of millions of Egyptians that more is better, planning is bad and contraception is haram or forbidden.
“It is forbidden to stop God’s will. Having children without interference from humans who try to organise, minimise or even sometimes end the process of giving birth to children is what a good Muslim should do.”
This is what sheikh Mohsen, the imam and preacher in a small mosque in a deprived area near Al-Thawra Street in Heliopolis, told Manal, a 26-year-old vegetable seller who already has four children and is expecting her fifth. Her frail body and sunken eyes say a lot about her health and economic situation. Her husband, who works as a freelance builder, says he is a devout Muslim who does everything sheikh Mohsen preaches.
This is despite the fact that sheikh Mohsen has neither studied the Quran nor Sharia Law. His 15 years of work in Saudi Arabia as a plumber have made him a highly respected imam and mufti for many, it seems.
Despite the fatwa (religious ruling) that is almost killing her with a pregnancy every other year, Manal still prays with all her heart for sheikh Mohsen, who was stopped from leading prayers in 2013.
When Minister of Religious Endowments Mokhtar Gomaa became minister that year, one of his first acts was to ensure that mosque pulpits be open only to graduates of Al-Azhar University who had passed the required tests to preach and lead the prayers.
Egypt’s mosques had previously been left unsupervised for some three decades, and some of them had been sabotaged by ultra-conservative ideologies ranging from those espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood to different Salafi groups.
According to these groups, family planning and birth control are not allowed for religious reasons, and those who use family planning methods will either burn in hell or be punished for interfering in God’s will.
They say that those who adhere to family planning are following disbelievers in the West who only do so to enjoy their lives and worldly goods without the responsibility of children.
A good Muslim, these groups say, is not only one who gets married and starts a family, but also one who makes sure he marries a child-bearing woman.
Having as many children as one can – in the physiological sense of the word and not in terms of health or financial abilities – is necessary, they add. After all, it is God who is the true provider of mankind.
The latter is true, of course. But when quantity supersedes quality and finally undermines it, giving birth to more and more children becomes a war against logic and common sense, both of which are vital pillars for any belief to flourish.
As a result, perhaps the only thing that has been flourishing in Egypt over the past few years has been babies. What Egypt has been witnessing has not been a baby boom exactly, however. It has been more like a baby bomb and, in other words, a social time bomb.
This has been simmering for many years. Government attempts to raise awareness and provide birth control have had to struggle against a deep-rooted culture that strongly believes in the necessity of big families.
Even so, these official attempts have remained alive and kicking, and there have been some successes as well as many failures.
Nevertheless, one of the results of the 25 January Revolution in 2011 was the regression of family planning. The rise of Political Islam made the situation worse, as those who used to preach that family planning was haram behind closed doors were in power after the election of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi.
The power of God, the sole provider of a chain of births as long as a woman’s body can produce mature eggs that can be fertilised by a sperm cell, is the same power that has bestowed the gift of intellect and the ability to think.
And when one thinks that almost 30 per cent of the Egyptian population lives below the poverty line, one wonders why anyone would decide to over-produce more children.
This over-production in a country that is suffering from the depletion of its natural resources, the deterioration of its education and healthcare systems, high rates of illiteracy, a poor economic situation, regional instability and various other internal needs has made the population time bomb explode.
In a 2017 report from the UN children’s agency UNICEF entitled “Understanding Child Multidimensional Poverty in Egypt,” the authors state that children under five and the most deprived children as a whole represent 37 per cent of the total in Egypt.
The situation requires timely actions across the spectrum, ranging from healthcare and nutrition to education, to break the vicious circle of child poverty, the report says.
Almost daily one stumbles across a taxi-driver, a teacher, a security guard or a government employee in Cairo complaining about the hardships of their lives, adding that taking more than one job in order to be able to sustain their homes is damaging their health.
But when one asks, “how many children have you got,” the answer, said with a big smile and after the necessary sayings that protect against envy, is “four,” “five” or “six” and sometimes more.
More and more, the effects of ultra-conservatism, left unattended together with education and culture for decades, are beginning to materialise.
The ready-made excuses for having many children that are recited by many involve the idea that more man (and sometimes woman) power is a major source of strength and prosperity.
Yet, even though this is true, it is rare to hear anyone tackle the quality of this manpower, including the quality of education, upbringing, critical thinking and the ability to create, innovate and produce.
Many Egyptian children living in multidimensional poverty are involved in marginal yet dangerous work, ranging from driving illegal tuk-tuks to working in workshops, cleaning the streets, homes and restaurants, or even in working in the building sector.
This is not to mention the country’s street children who number anywhere between one and two million, and child marriages in which girls as young as 10 or 11 are forced to marry for financial reasons. Many children have also been forced to become illegal migrants hoping to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Nevertheless, millions of families still over-produce children in Egypt, waiting for God to support them or for the government to feed, house and educate them.
Even education is no longer a top priority for many families, and extra children have become in many cases simply opportunities to improve the livelihood of families. Each extra head means extra income.
At the same time, incomes overall, particularly of middle-class Egyptians, are increasingly becoming a main source of worry and the origin of the demand for greater social justice.
Yet, when one criticises the current situation, saying that Egypt already has more than enough children, one is often met with a frown and the murmuring of verses and sayings that have been misinterpreted for so long.
Egypt needs fewer children, more political will, the end of ultra-conservative dominance, and more attempts to raise awareness and come up with innovative ideas to wean people off the habit of producing more and more babies.
* The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The need for political will