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memri
December 5, 2016 No.
1285

Egyptian Economic Crisis Leads To Increased Calls To Reduce The Country's Birthrate

Introduction

Egypt's population is currently some 91 million, and its growth rate over the past two decades, which stands at  48% (2.4% per year), is among the world's highest.[1] This issue has been troubling Egyptian government officials for decades, and in 1975 they established the National Population Council, one of whose main tasks is to work to achieve a balanced population growth rate.[2]

This issue has recently become the focus of public debate again in Egypt due to the severe economic crisis afflicting the country.[3] For example, Abu Bakr Al-Gendy, the head of Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), said that "the problem of Egypt's population growth rate is of supreme importance and tops the list of problems afflicting the country." He even warned that this problem was worse than the threat of terrorism and economic slowdown,[4] adding that "Egypt's high population growth rates have exceeded all limits and passed those of all countries suffering from similar economic conditions." According to him, "every year, 2.7 million [babies] are born in Egypt, compared to half a million who die."[5] He added that Egypt's population growth rate is five times that of China's.[6]

In light of this data, Egyptian officials – including President Al-Sisi, the prime minister, health ministry officials, and even religious institution leaders – warned that the rapid population growth bodes ill for Egyptian society and economy, and cements poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment, and called to reduce birthrates. Similar calls were also made by Egyptian media figures, who warned of the dire consequences of the phenomenon.

Conversely, there were also some journalists who saw Egypt's large population as an asset that the state should and must utilize to its benefit.

This report will review statements by officials as well as press articles on the topic:


Image: Elwatannews.com

Egyptian Officials: Rapid Population Growth Rate Is Worrying, Affects National Security

As said, on the backdrop of the severe economic crisis and rapid population growth rate, many high-ranking Egyptian officials, including President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi and Prime Minister Sherif Isma'il, called to reduce the country's birthrate.

President Al-Sisi: Three Children Are Enough; The Greatest Danger To Egypt Is Population Growth

Back in February 2015, at a cultural conference attended by hundreds of journalists, media personnel, and party leaders, President Al-Sisi addressed the need to reduce the population growth rate. He posed the following question to the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, who was in the audience: "May I ask [Egyptians] who have one child to wait three or four years before having their second? May I ask those who have two children to wait six or seven years before having their third? May I ask those who already have three children to avoid having more?" Al-Tayeb responded that this was permissible according to Islamic law, and Al-Sisi explained that this was crucial to creating a strong and educated nation.[7]

To see excerpts from Al-Sisi's statements at the press conference, click below.

In a September 21, 2016 interview to CNN, on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York, Al-Sisi addressed the population growth rate crisis in Egypt, saying: "The [birth] rate is growing at an annual rate of 2.5%. At the start of this year, there were 90 million Egyptians, and last month there were already 91 million. This population requires education, healthcare, job opportunities, housing, and food..."[8] Al-Sisi addressed the topic once again in an interview with editors of Egypt's official newspapers on October 15, 2016, saying that population growth was the greatest danger facing Egypt. He added: "If we do not halt the [population] growth rate, then development efforts will be wasted. We must reach an [economic] growth rate of over 75% per year in order for people to sense an improvement."[9]

Prime Minister Presents Strategic Plan To Reduce Birthrate: Limiting Families To Two Children

Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Isma'il also addressed the need to reduce the birthrate. In a speech delivered on Egypt National Day, Isma'il announced a new national strategy to reduce the birthrate in coming years. He said: "The first annual National Day [celebrations] by [Egyptian] residents is a special event where both leadership and people celebrate and stress the special importance of the issue of population to the Egyptian government, [for this] is a national security issue, especially in such a crucial time in the history of the ummah." According to him, the government formulated a plan of action that has been approved by parliament, which focuses on the fact that "one of the most important challenges that the homeland [currently] faces is the worrisome increase in the number of residents." According to Isma'il, this plan is based on the fact that countries that succeeded in improving the lives of their citizens employed strict policies to substantially reduce population growth rates, which resulted in a measurable increase in average income and quality of life.

Isma'il also noted that Egypt's population surged from 61.5 million in 1996 to 91 million in June 2016, which constitutes a 48% increase – among the highest in the world. He added that because of this figure, citizens from all walks of life do not reap the fruits of development "due to a discrepancy between the population growth rate and the country's economic growth rate. This is one of the most important challenges we face." According to Isma'il, while Egypt's population grows rapidly, "Egypt's quota of Nile water remains the same, and the total amount arable land has increased only slightly. Egypt has also increasingly relied on imports to close the widening gap between local production and the consumption rates of several staple food products."

Government To Supply Free Birth Control

The prime minister added: "We are all partners in the country and are in charge of its prosperity and development, and therefore I call on every Egyptian family to correlate the quality of life it wants to provide to its members with the appropriate number of children, so that [families] can enjoy the fruits of their labor." According to him, "indicators show that if we do not suffice with two children per family, Egypt's population will grow to 119 million in 2030, which will make it hard for us to fulfill our goals of reaching desired growth rates and raising the quality of life for [Egyptian] families, and could even negatively impact [the ability] to meet the needs of the Egyptian citizen in food and services."

He added: "Since there is a close correlation between the size [of the population] and its quality [of life]... the call to adopt the concept of a small family is necessary in order to ensure a better future for coming generations, so that every family can provide its members with proper care, and so that the country in turn can provide [citizens] with proper quality of life." Isma'il also said that "in light of all this, the National Population Council has formulated a national strategy for the period between 2015 and 2030, with the participation of all relevant ministries and elements in the country" and that "[the council's] important tasks are: balancing the population growth and economic growth in the country; raising the quality of life for citizens...; and implementing a balanced geographic dispersal of residents and achieving social justice by eliminating gaps between geographic regions." The prime minister said he had ordered government ministries and other elements to include in their plans aspects that address the issue of population growth, and stressed the need for the media to address these matters s well. In addition, he emphasized the government's duty to provide free birth control to those who cannot afford it, and to encourage family planning.[10]

Deputy Minister Of Health And Population: We Will Draft Laws That Will Reduce Birthrates And Incentivize Smaller Families

Dr. Maissa Shawky, the deputy minister of health and population, made similar comments to the Egyptian daily Al-Watan. According to her, "there is no denying that we have an unwelcome increase in the population, which has become a sort of national security problem since our [population] growth rate exceeds our economic growth. Therefore, there is no escaping making decisions that will lead to reduced birthrates." Shawky said that eight governorates currently require intervention on this matter as a top priority, such as Cairo Governorate, which has the highest birthrate in the country.

Shawky revealed that the parliament's National Security Committee has been debating the drafting of laws to help control the population growth rate, alongside laws on family and child heath, child labor, and underage marriage. Asked whether there will be incentives to encourage reduced birthrates, Shawky replied that the Ministry of Social Solidarity is already conducting a program in some governorates involving state incentives in the form of financial aid to poor families with two children or less, and that there are plans to expand this program to other governorates as well. According to her, the good news is that the birthrates were down in 2015 compared to 2014; however, she is not yet satisfied by the rate of the decline and its scope.

Shawky mentioned a one-year program for raising national awareness on this topic, as part of which every week, the press and TV talk shows will discuss a different topic related to Egypt's birthrates. She said that there is also a special authority dedicated to promoting public awareness on the topic and training journalists to do so.[11]

Other Egyptian officials also addressed the need to reduce birthrates. MP Kamal 'Amer, head of the Egyptian parliament's National Security Committee, said that the committee had discussed ways to deal with the problem of population growth and the need for a comprehensive strategy by all Egyptian forces to deal with it using positive incentives and with the assistance of clerics. According to him, it was agreed to provide birth control and raise citizen awareness, with special focus on the countryside and poor villages. The committee also made an agreement with Deputy Minister Shawky to submit a law proposal to address the problem, he said.[12]

Khalaf Al-Zanati, head of the Teachers Syndicate and president of the Arab Teachers Union, also addressed the topic, saying that the issue requires collaboration between the government and NGOs. He called to include the topic in school curricula in order to raise awareness of the dangers and negative consequences it has on societal progress.[13]

Religious Establishment Supports Birthrate Reduction Policy: Islamic Law Permits It

In light of the severity of the phenomenon and its implications for the Egyptian society and economy, the Egyptian religious establishment led by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar expressed support for the regime's policy to encourage lower birthrates.

As said, Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb said at a large conference, in reply to a question from President Al-Sisi, that Islamic law permits family planning. Former Egyptian mufti 'Ali Gum'a also warned of the problem of population growth in August at a groundbreaking ceremony for a project to construct ten thousand affordable housing units in Upper Egypt. He said: "Beware population growth, because it will reduce [the country] to rubble."[14]

The website for Dar Al-Ifta', Egypt's official fatwa-issuing institution, stated that family planning was permissible and even required by Islamic law. In response to a query in January 2016 by an Egyptian mother of two who wrote that she and her husband had decided to postpone having more children due to economic hardship, the institution responded that a man who does not plan his family takes on more responsibility than he can handle, which could harm himself, his wife, and his children. Dar Al-Ifta' also said that "Islam does not require every Muslim to have a certain number of children, but rather urges all Muslims to procreate, a call [aimed] at those who can... As for those who cannot [have many children] due to economic hardship, Islamic law instructs them to be patient and wise... The point of family planning is for both parents to agree to use birth control for a certain period of time, and this in order to limit the size of the family and ensure the parents' ability to provide their children with the best possible care without hardship..."[15]

In fact, already in 2003, the center for Islamic research at Al-Azhar determined that family planning was permitted according to Islamic law and is not considered fetal murder, since a woman who uses birth control does not get pregnant. The ruling stated further that family planning means spacing out pregnancies to preserve the health of the mother so that she can raise her children, and that this is permitted by Islamic law as there are no texts that forbid it in the Koran or the Sunnah.[16]

Conferences And Workshops To Raise Awareness For Family Planning

Over the past year, the Ministry of Health has organized informational conferences and workshops for citizens, especially women, in order to raise awareness for the concept of family planning in Egyptian society. The events took place in various governorates such as Al-Dahlia, Al-Mina and Asyut in the rural areas of Upper Egypt. The workshops also included the distribution of free birth control, and some meetings were also attended by clerics, who explained that the practice was permitted in Islam.[17]

Furthermore, in June 2016, the Ministry of Social Solidarity allocated 30 million Egyptian pounds to societies that promote family planning.[18]


Conference on reducing birthrate in Al-Dakahlia (Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', Egypt, July 19, 2016)

Cleric leads conference in Alexandria titled "The Meaning of Family Planning in Islam" (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Egypt, March 15, 2016)

Egyptian Journalists Call On Government, Clerics To Act To Reduce Birthrate

Concern about the rapid population growth was also expressed by articles in the Egyptian press warning of the severe implications it could have for Egypt and its economy. Many accused the authorities of not doing enough to address this problem, and others called on the clerics to address the issue and reform the religious discourse about it. Some even called to learn from China, which imposed forceful measures to radically reduce the birthrate, thus managing to improve its economic situation.

Egyptian Columnist: Egypt's Birthrate Thwarts Any Development Efforts

Gamal Zayda, a columnist for the official Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, claimed that the people and the government ignore the problem of population growth, which harms any development efforts. He wrote: "It seems that all of us, both the government and the people and– those who support [the government] or oppose it – are living in a grand delusion. We are all deluding ourselves that we can emerge from this bottleneck and achieve [economic] development without restraining population growth... We grow by more than two million people a year, and this statistic ensures that any development efforts will be in vain...

"In the developed industrial countries the population is not growing but rather shrinking, and the mean age of the population is [therefore] rising, while we have allowed anyone who wants to have five, six, or seven children to do so easily, and the plain truth is that this population growth will devour any development effort."[19]

Egyptian Writer: The Clerics Are To Blame For The Crime Of Bringing Many Poor Children Into The World

Ibrahim Hejazi, a columnist for the official daily Al-Ahram, claimed that the construction of new schools, hospitals, and roads will not suffice so long as the problem of population growth is not properly addressed. He stressed that the key to this problem, like other problems, lies in renewing the religious discourse, a process which President Al-Sisi asked clerics to launch over a year ago.[20] According to him, clerics are the authority figures that should explain to the people the implications of large families, which perpetuate the cycle of poverty. He wrote: "Overcrowding in the classrooms will continue until the end of time so long as this frightening rate of population growth persists, keeping Egypt and its citizens from living normal lives. Whenever a school is constructed, the population growth in the area requires three new ones in addition to the one already constructed. When we finish [paving] a road to solve some problem, we are shocked to [discover] it is overcrowded and we need a new road... This is also true for hospitals and other services. There is no tool that can help us uproot this problem, since [babies] being born as you read these lines can fill every school and every hospital and swallow up every last inch of good land. If you doubt my words, read the report from the Central Statistics Bureau from July 2016: In 1882, Egypt's population was 6.7 million people... In January 2016, it was 90.1 million.

"These are hard figures, not personal opinions or conclusions. Clearly these numbers did not cause anyone to lose sleep throughout these years, otherwise they [the officials] would have acted [to deal with it]! We have allowed the population growth to become like a wild animal that tramples everything! Realize that we have tripled our population in only 50 years! In 1966 there were 30 million of us and in 2016 there are 90 million... China is the most populated country in the world, [but] Egypt's population growth rate is five times that of China's!...

"Over a year ago, the president demanded to renew the religious discourse. Some of us did not realize that renewing the religious discourse was the solution to all problems, chief of them terrorism. [But] armed terrorism is [just one] kind of terrorism. Misguided fatwas that divide the homeland [are also a form of] terrorism, and saying that family planning is forbidden [in Islam] is the greatest form of terrorism. Yes, it is horrible terrorism because the ongoing [situation] where a baby is born every second prevents us from solving any problem in any field – education, healthcare, development, unemployment, and [civil] services. Why? Because our population is doubling at an alarming rate. No matter how many factories we build, we cannot solve the problem of manufacturing or job opportunities; no matter how many schools we build, we cannot solve the problem of overcrowding; no matter how many teachers we hire, we cannot deal with the deficit in quantity and quality [of teachers]; no matter how many roads we pave, we cannot solve the [traffic] problem.

"The solution to these problems can be found if the religious [discourse] is renewed, and this is convincingly simple with regards to family planning... If clerics only explain to the common [people] that, in coming generations, the Prophet [Muhammad] will be proud of nations that are strong, vigorous, and educated rather than ignorant, poor, and sick. If they [only] explain that having many children so that they work from a young age and give the money to their father means that these children are denied an education, they are denied a present and are denied a future, for which they are unprepared. [They have] neither education, profession or employment, and thus the cycle of poverty continues and expands... The poor give birth to the poor... when paychecks are meager and sporadic. If [a man] has only two children, their situation is surely be better than if he has eight... Two [children] can possibly be kept in school... where they can learn a profession. But eight children will have no shot at anything...

"Oh, clerics, the crime against these children, and moreover, the crime against all of Egypt, is on your shoulders."[21]

Egyptian Writer: Impose Sanctions On Families With More Than Three Children, Incentivize Small Families

Muhammad Al-Herawi, a columnist for the official daily Akhbar Al-Yawm, criticized the government for not stepping in to halt the rapid population growth rate by engaging in informational activity or establishing mechanisms for family planning. He called to incentivize small families and sanction ones with more than three children. He wrote: "I do not know why the government is not stepping in to stop the population growth that consumes all and weakens the state's ability to meet [the challenge of] construction. The government closed the population ministry and rolled it into the health ministry; thus, all plans to stop the population growth have failed, especially among poor families, and there are no campaigns to raise awareness or for family planning...

"It is not enough that officials say 'we suffer from population growth' and [then] do nothing [to confront] this problem, which cannot be solved without constant media campaigns to spread [the concept] of reducing the rate of population growth, which suffocates any true development efforts...

"We must incentivize a family of up to three children or sanction families with more than three, especially among the unemployed, the poor, and those who are responsible for the population growth afflicting the country. We want strong and skilled generations that protect Egypt, its treasures and its culture, and work to continue its development."[22]

Columnists Call To Use Egypt's Large Population To Benefit The State

Conversely, some columnists argued that Egypt's large population is an asset that can be leveraged towards developing various sectors in the country, such as the economy and the military.

This Wealth Of Human Capital Should Be Utilized To Attain Progress, As Many Large Countries Have Done

Al-Ahram columnist Nasser Gweida wrote that Egypt should learn from countries around the world such as India and China that have derived benefit from their large populations: "The claim that Egypt's population has reached 100 million is stubbornly repeated again and again. Opinions are divided: there are pessimists who believe that the population growth [rate] will swallow up the development efforts before anything else... and there are optimists... who believe that this wealth of manpower puts us in first place in the region...

"But reality shows that there are large countries such as China, India and others, whose populations far exceed one billion [each], and have managed to utilize this human resource to achieve growth and attain leading positions among the powers of the developed world, in terms of their industry,  agriculture and military [power].

"As for Egypt, the [high] population growth [rate] is not a disgrace, as people try to depict it... We have a human resource that is the envy of the world. If we recognize [the benefit it holds]  and harness it, as is done in other large countries around the world, Egypt's [population of] 100 million will yield world-renowned politicians, scientists and athletes, as well as atomic and technology experts..."[23]

Egypt's Government Should Formulate Strategy For Deriving Benefit From The Large Population

A similar opinion was expressed by Al-Ahram columnist Nasser Za'louk, who likewise mentioned India and China as countries with large populations that are highly developed. He wrote: "This [population] growth [rate] must be transformed into an asset by formulating a strategy for improving the standards of education and technological training and creating jobs, so as to boost production, development and progress... China, India and the U.S., the world's three most populous countries, have used their large populations to the best possible advantage by becoming advanced in all domains and attaining immense economic development. In Egypt the situation is different. Although we possess valuable natural resources, the population growth [rate] has become a burden in a period of severe economic crisis. The government must give top priority to [formulating] a program and strategy for deriving benefit from this huge population growth rate..."[24]

 

*H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI; C. Meital is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

 

[1] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 31, 2016; Elbalad.news, August 26, 2016.

[2] Npc.gov.eg.

[3] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1265 Three Years Into Al-Sisi's Rule: Difficult Challenges At Home And Abroad, August 14, 2016.

[4] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), July 30, 2016.

[5] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), August 26, 2016.

[6] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), June 14, 2016.

[7] Copts-united.com, February 2, 2015.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 25, 2016.

[9] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 16, 2016.

[10] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 31, 2016.

[11] Al-Watan (Egypt), July 31, 2016.

[12] Al-Watan (Egypt), August 22, 2016.

[13] Al-Watan (Egypt), August 29, 2016.

[14] Al-Wafd (Egypt), August 19, 2016.

[15] Dar-alifta.org, January 17, 2016.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 11, 2003.

[17] Dotmsr.com, May 8, 2016; Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), April 12, 2016, July 19, 2016; Elbalad.news, July 20, 2016; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (Egypt),  March 15, 2016.

[18] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), June 21, 2016.

[19] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 24, 2016.

[21] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 26, 2016.

[22] Akhbar Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 22, 2016.

[23] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 26, 2016.

[24] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 27, 2016.