Egypt's population juggernaut approaches 100 million mark

Egypt's population juggernaut approaches 100 million mark
Egypt's population juggernaut approaches 100 million mark

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Ragab Gamal’s very pregnant wife is due to deliver their third child later this month. Throughout her pregnancy, she had seen a gynaecologist only once.

“Too expensive! The doctor’s visit cost us 150 pounds [about Dh37],” said Mr Gamal, a street sweeper who supplements his monthly 1,200-pound income by working as a guard at an unused apartment block in Cairo’s middle-class Abdeen district.

“She will deliver our baby wherever God chooses for her to do so,” said Mr Gamal, wearing the yellow uniform of the private company that hired him two-and-a-half years ago.

Mr Gamal, his wife and two children – Ziad 6, and Gamal 2 – live in the building’s basement, occupying a space without doors or windows. To fend off the bitter Cairo winter, they light up a fire every night.

Mr Gamal came to Cairo six years ago, one of the millions of Egyptians who have migrated to big cities in search of jobs.

But in a country where an exceptionally high birth has for decades offset economic growth, his plans for his family belie both his social status and his conservative background in Minya, a province south of Cairo. Like most rural regions in Egypt, in Minya the notion of married couples having as many children as possible in the belief that God will provide for them is not uncommon.

“No more!” Mr Gamal declared when he was asked whether he planned to have more children. “Three are enough!”

He himself is one of eight siblings whose father supported the family by doing odd jobs.

“Three are enough because my dream is to buy a home back in Minya and we are saving for that," he told The National. "We need to have our own home there. When we do, I will send Umm Ziad and the children there to live. They have suffered enough with me here in Cairo.”

Mr Gamal's insistence on referring to his wife only as Umm Ziad, or "mother of Ziad", is in keeping with the enduring practice in rural Egypt of not divulging the name of an adult woman to an unrelated male.

Mr Gamal's determination to have no more than three children would likely endear him to Egypt’s government and its president, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who does not mince his words when talking about the most serious challenges facing his country.

“Terrorism and population growth,” says the general-turned-president who has been in office since 2014. “We have equated the people who try to kill us with the population growth as our main challenge.”

Egypt’s population is expected to hit the 100 million mark this week – a digital population counter mounted outside the State Statistics Bureau showed 99,982,39 at 8pm on Sunday – a figure that frames the formidable challenges facing the most populous Arab nation.

Egyptians add 2.5 million to their numbers each year. Compounding the negative impact of such a high birth rate, 97 per cent of Egyptians live on less than eight per cent of the land, and six out of every nine is under the age of 29. Such growth adds nearly 1 million people to the work force each year, a number that requires GDP growth of about 8 per cent to create jobs for them all.

At the current rate, Egypt’s population will increase by nearly 70 million in 2050.

“If you think the idea is just to feed your children, then you are improperly abbreviating the relationship between you and them,” Mr El Sisi said recently, addressing parents. “This is the big challenge that’s facing the future of Egypt.”

Successive governments have made curbing population growth a key objective, with varying degrees of success. The problem has reared its head again in recent years to coincide with the introduction of long-delayed and far-reaching economic reforms that have hit the middle class and the poor the hardest.

Under Mr El Sisi, Egypt has embarked on an ambitious and costly drive to build new cities and upgrade infrastructure. Fourteen cities are under construction, including a new capital in the desert east of Cairo where ministries, parliament and the presidency will move by next year. The new capital, which has yet to be named, is meant to ease the pressure on Cairo, which has a population of about 20 million.

The 13 other cities, which are spread across the length and breadth of the mostly desert nation, are intended to ease a chronic shortage of affordable housing and absorb the population growth.

The state has long argued that such efforts, as well as job creation schemes, improvements to the economy, education, health care and food production, are undermined by a rapid population growth.

Amr Hassan, head of the National Population Council, says the most difficult challenge the state agency faces is the “mindset” of Egyptians, many of whom equate large families with better income.

“Changing these concepts will take time. It’s a war that is fiercer than the war against terror. I call it the war of awareness,” said Dr Hassan.

But the council's campaigns for a limit of two children per family are starting to show results, he said.

“Indicators have improved over the last three years, and we are still working hard. But we need to double our efforts. If we do that, then we can bring down by 50 per cent or even 75 per cent of the forecast population growth between now and 2050.”

Prominent sociologist Ammar Ali Hassan believes the population growth is only an impediment to development because of the poor state of health and education services, which have been on a downward spiral for decades.

“It all depends on the way the population is dealt with. There are countries with tiny populations and massive resources and still live in misery because of poor management,” Mr Hassan said.

“A potent example is Libya under the rule of Muammar Qaddafi: a corrupt and failed regime that squandered wealth. In contrast. There is China which is viewed as a role model for taking advantage and putting to good use its massive population,” he said.

“Those who constantly speak about population growth as a burden tend to forget that people are the primary resource for development.”

Updated: February 9, 2020 11:00 PM

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