Egypt’s population: Boom then bust?

A general view of the traffic on a crowded road in Cairo October 26, 2010. Smog-ridden Cairo's gridlock shows investment in roads, railways and ports is failing to keep pace with economic growth, menacing public health and threatening economic asphyxiation. Around 12,000 deaths occur every year in Egypt because of road accidents, the highest rate in the world per head of population bar Eritrea and the Cook Islands, according to the World Health Organization's most recent report in 2009. The capital's congested roads come to a standstill daily as infrastructure fails to support population growth of 2 percent a year and as thousands of new cars hit the streets every year. Picture taken October 26, 2010. To match Feature EGYPT-BUSINESS/       REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany (EGYPT - Tags: BUSINESS SOCIETY TRANSPORT) - GM1E71R08F001

Egypt’s worrying population boom fails to generate the same headline attention as terrorist attacks, the impact of economic reforms on the poor, the country’s hyper-constrained politics, or accusations of human rights violations. Yet, the very real dangers it poses were highlighted when the head of the country’s statistical agency, Abu Bakr el-Gendy, called this seemingly irrepressible tide a “catastrophe.” To Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, it is a “challenge as critical as terrorism.” 

The numbers are certainly daunting. In 2000, the United Nations estimated that Egypt’s population would hit 96 million in 2026. They were off by about 10 years. In 2017, there were some 104.5 million Egyptians, of which 9.5 million lived outside the country. The 2006 census counted 73 million people, an annual increase of 2.6 percent since then. Unless the fertility rate of 3.47 changes, by 2030, Egypt’s population is expected to grow to 128 million. This growth, with 2.6 million babies born in 2016, comes at a time of unprecedented challenges on the climate front with serious implications for loss of arable land (also under pressure from housing), rising sea levels, and depletion of scarce water resources. The Nile faces upstream challenges as Ethiopia builds Africa’s largest dam and pollution eats away at the river’s usability for agriculture and other needs.

This growth has grave implications. The number of primary school students grew by 40 percent from 2011 to 2016. One can imagine the impact on a system where 35 percent of students entering middle school cannot read or write. Employment is another challenge, with 700,000 new entrants annually into a labor force where over 25 percent of those 18-29 years old—one-third of whom have university degrees—are unemployed. The International Monetary Fund projects a labor force of 80 million by 2028. Reminiscent of the 2011 revolution, in which youth played a major role, 61 percent of the current population is under 30 years old and 34.2 percent is under 15 years old.

According to Egypt’s statistical agency, the population growth rate must be one-third that of economic growth to prevent living standards from deteriorating. Even if one accepted GDP growth of double the population growth rate, a more realistic 5.2 percent, the challenge remains that GDP growth in Egypt averaged 4.07 percent from 1992 until 2017. Yet, Egypt has done better on both accounts: It has sustained growth rates of well over 5 percent and lowered the birth rate to less than 2 percent—all within recent memory.

There is a preconception that Egypt’s family planning successes were undone by the 2011 events, with the Muslim Brotherhood blamed. While these events exacerbated the situation, the reversal of Egypt’s family planning success started years earlier. Population growth rates fell from 3.5 percent in the 1970s to 1.7 percent in the mid-2000s. By 2008, however, the rate increased, reaching 2.11 percent in 2011. The government eased its support, perhaps complacent in their success, and external partners re-deployed their resources, including the U.S. Agency for International Development’s family planning program in Egypt.

USAID identified the major drivers behind Egypt’s fertility reversal as “decreased exposure to family planning (FP) and reproductive health (RH) messages in the media and to FP/RH information and counseling; limited contraceptive method mix and shift in method choice by women, from intrauterine devices to oral contraceptives; discontinuation of methods due to mismanagement of side effects; trend toward earlier marriage, having the first child sooner and having shorter birth intervals; and fewer young women using contraception.” Earlier marriages and fewer women using contraceptives may also point to increased conservatism. Egypt is not the only country to have prematurely relaxed family planning—among others one can cite Pakistan and in roughly the same period.

The government has launched a family planning campaign with the slogan “two are enough.” The Ministry of Health’s Operation Lifeline aims to reduce the birth rate to 2.4, targeting rural areas where many view large families as a source of economic strength and resist birth control believing that it is un-Islamic. Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, one of the world’s foremost sources of Islamic learning, supports the ministry.

The plan is to deploy 12,000 family planning advocates across 18 governorates and enhance services in the country’s 6,000 family planning clinics where women receive free checkups and buy subsidized contraceptives. Details on the program and its budget are unclear. Large family planning campaigns using broadcasting are out because of the cost, which is well over $100,000 for private television stations. Campaigns are instead held in women-only social clubs or youth centers—drastically limiting effectiveness.

But the challenge is clear: Between 2009 and 2014, the desired number of children among young couples increased from 2.5 to 3, while contraceptive usage dropped. Unless this challenge is met, all the hard reforms and aid could prove inadequate to pull Egypt into a rapidly growing economy with a well-educated and globally competitive work force. USAID is back in the family planning business and other development actors like the World Bank are likely to join. The private sector, including private clinics who dispense over 20 percent of the contraceptives used in Egypt, and nongovernmental organizations also need to be part of the solution, as do examples of successful community driven approaches from elsewhere.

As the largest Arab and Mediterranean country, this problem could arguably be a regional if not a global one. Unless Egypt curbs its population and develops an economy that turns its youth into an asset, the liability resulting from failure is unlikely to be contained within Egypt.