Egypt’s population is set to hit 100 million around the start of 2020. In 2013, this was 86 million. Projections estimate the population will grow to 120 million in 2030 and 150 million in 2050. Moreover, over half of the population is under 25. Government programmes introduced in 2018 to stem population growth have started to take off. Although there is still a long way to go, recent figures released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) suggest there is reason from cautious optimism.
With the vast majority of Egyptians living in a fertile strip along the Nile and a labour market already stretched to absorb youth entering the workforce, population growth is putting tremendous strain on government services such as clean drinking water, sanitation, education and health care as well as already limited amounts of water and arable land.
Between 2011 and 2016, the number of children in primary schools rose by 40 per cent, leading to overcrowded classrooms and children only coming to school for exams. The water share per capita is already below the international minimum, and the country ranks as the world’s largest wheat importer.
According to experts, population growth can be a maximum one third of economic growth for living standards not to deteriorate. Yet while drastic austerity measures taken since 2016 as part of a $12 billion loan deal with the International Monetary Fund have led to higher economic growth of 5.5 per cent, this is not enough to keep pace with the population growth of around 2 per cent a year.
Indeed, living standards have been deteriorating. A survey released by Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) in July 2019 showed that 32.5 per cent of Egyptians lived below the poverty line in 2018, up from 27.8 per cent in 2015. The poverty line CAPMAS follows stands at 737 Egyptian pounds per month, roughly equal to $1.50 a day.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acknowledged in 2017 that curbing population growth is a priority, describing it as a “threat as big as terrorism”. Several programmes have since been introduced, aimed at creating awareness about the benefits of smaller families and contraception as well as providing financial incentives to have fewer children.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity announced the ‘Two is enough’ campaign in 2017, which encourages people to limit family size. The main message is that birth control can lift people out of poverty. This is not an easy sell, as poverty can be an important driver for having more children. Children, especially in Upper Egypt and Cairo’s slums, are sent to work on the land or in workshops at a young age and represent an important extra source of income for poor families.
The campaign also includes billboards, the provision of cheap birth control and setting up neighbourhood clinics and mobile clinics for remote areas.
Another initiative is the five-year Egypt Family Planning Programme (EFFP), launched by the Ministry of Health in 2018 in cooperation with USAID. It encompasses reproductive health education for medical workers, poster campaigns, television advertisements and clinics providing information about and support for family planning.
In addition, the ministry will distribute free contraception and reproductive health services across peripheral cities and villages in December 2019 as part of the European Union-funded campaign ‘Your right to plan’.
In late November 2018, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly announced that cash support for poorer Egyptians would not reimburse families beyond the second child. It is unclear whether this plan has actually been implemented.
The involvement of international organizations and in particular the European Union is clear: an overpopulated, impoverished Egypt could well become a major source of migration, which European countries want to avoid. In 2016, a boat carrying mostly Egyptians capsized off the coast near Alexandria. Egypt’s borders have been firmly closed since, but the potential for a large exodus remains.
However, the latest UNFPA numbers suggest there is reason for cautious optimism. In 2018, the fertility rate declined for the first time since 2010 to 3.1. The year before, the fertility rate was 3.4 and in 2014 it was 3.5.
Nahla Abdel-Tawab, Egypt director of the Population Council, believes this is related to greater awareness. “I would assume that the [Two is enough] campaign has helped remind the public of the population problem, as the media had stopped discussing it for several years,” she told Fanack. “Also, President al-Sisi frequently talks about the rapid population growth and hence public awareness has probably increased.”
However, she added that there has not been an evaluation of Two is enough or EFFP, so hard data to prove their effectiveness is not yet available.
Some experts believe the current campaigns do not go far enough, arguing that proper sex education at schools is necessary to change a deep-rooted mentality among many Egyptians that having more children is by definition better.
“We have seen many couples saying that they do not prefer to use family planning until they have had enough children [i.e. at least one son],” Abdel-Tawab said.
Fertility rates are traditionally highest in Upper Egypt, but the UNFPA study shows that especially in this area it has declined. In Cairo and Alexandria, on the other hand, fertility has increased. Hence, the EFFP focuses on Egypt’s two largest cities in addition to Upper Egypt, which despite the decline still has the highest number of newborns.
According to Abdel-Tawab, research suggests that financial sanctions proposed by Madbouly “are not the best way to encourage families to lower fertility”. Raising awareness about the risks of multiple and closely spaced pregnancies and improving the quality and quantity of family planning services available would be more effective. She also advocates empowering women socially and economically “so they have other venues to prove their worth”.
The government aims to reduce the fertility rate to 2.4 by 2030. The coming years will show whether the campaigns are delivering the much-needed results.