Spiralling inflation has refocused attention in Egypt on overpopulation. But is birth control enough without other reforms?
As in many other parts of the world, inflation is a topic on just about every Egyptian's lips. According to government statistics, food and beverage prices rose by 27% in the year to May 2008. In the same period, transportation went up 20.1%, education 37.7%, and healthcare 12.1%.
In a country where millions of households already lead a hand-to-mouth existence, Egyptians are struggling to cope with the price shocks. In addition to the rioting outside bakeries for subsidised bread that has caught international media attention, Egyptians have also employed their legendary satirical skills to grin their way through yet another crisis. In the al-Akhbar al-Youm newspaper, for instance, a cartoon shows two dejected-looking pedestrians trying to aid an unconscious man while a passer-by suggests: “Don't bother with an ambulance, lads, just let him smell a piece of meat to resuscitate him.”
In another cartoon, a boxing referee is counselling the spindly figure of the prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, not to get into the ring with the heavyweight champion “Prices”.
Soaring prices have also refocused attention on another issue that has never been far from the surface. Massive population growth and inflation (popuflation, if you like) have chipped away, and will continue to corrode, the benefits delivered by Egypt's booming economic growth, which currently hovers around 7% per year in real terms.
“Demographic growth is a major challenge for our generation, and all those to come,” President Hosni Mubarak cautioned at the opening of the National Population Conference last week. “[It is] a serious obstacle to our development efforts and our efforts at raising standards of living.”
And Egypt's rapidly-changing demographic reality is startling to observe. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, its population was estimated to be around three million. The 1947 census recorded slightly fewer Egyptians (19m) than there are Cairenes today. In the quarter of a century he has ruled Egypt, Mubarak has seen the population double to 80m, which means that half of all Egyptians know no other leader. He has truly become the “Father of the Egyptians”.
The population explosion has been reflected in Egypt's growing inability to feed itself. A country that was once the breadbasket of successive empires has been reduced to the status of a net importer of food, which could be dangerous if global food supplies diminish further.
Population growth has also had a radical effect on the country's topography. Cairo used to be one of the world's greenest cities. Today, flying over the megapolis by night is like floating above a crowded concrete galaxy that stretches out beneath you as far as the eye can see. At street level, the country's heaving capital is an endless sprawl of highrise developments where, even in the wealthiest neighbourhoods, there is a marked absence of green spaces.
This overcrowding is hardly surprising when one considers that, although Egypt is about a million square kilometres in size, the inhabited slither of green land is about the size of tiny Switzerland – and it is constantly being corroded by desertification and the cancer of urban growth. And wiggle room could get tighter if global warming causes the climate in Egypt to get even drier, or rising sea levels eat away at the Nile Delta.
With potential catastrophe looming on the horizon (the population could more than double, to reach 160 million by 2050), the government has launched a major information campaign aimed at encouraging Egyptians to have fewer children. Under the heroic slogan “An Egyptian stand”, billboards call on Egyptians to “use their minds” so that everyone can eat, drink and get an education. “Before we add another newborn, we must be sure that we can provide for it,” the posters advise.
Despite its expressed good intentions, many have raised questions about how effective this campaign will be, especially given that the government has been running a birth control initiative for decades, which has succeeded in slowing down population growth, but hardly at the required rate.
“I am not optimistic about this campaign,” Khairi Ramadan writes in al-Masri al-Youm, “because we never seem to learn from our previous experiences.”
One problem is targeting. “How on earth is this campaign going to succeed, if it is unlikely to reach the people who need it most: the poor and illiterate who can't even read the posters, let alone respond to them?” my brother, Osama, wondered. While families in well-to-do urban communities have generally shrunk significantly in recent decades, women in rural areas have on average five children.
Another problem is the entrenched attitudes which the government has not challenged effectively. “The Arab world, and especially Egypt, suffers from destructive concepts and behaviour,” writes Farida el-Shoubashi, also in al-Masri al-Youm. She goes further and accuses the government of allowing itself to be browbeaten into silence by religious conservatives whom it fears.
Many Egyptians believe that having children is a religious duty and that offspring are good security in their old age. “I'm glad I only had one child, but some people I know have so many children they don't even remember all their names,” Am Hussein, a janitor, told me. “Instead of being a help, these children are a burden.”
Parenthood also brings its own pride. “For some people, having children is a status symbol; it is almost like a competition. One woman I know who can barely make ends meet and is in poor health decided to have another child because her sister-in-law got pregnant,” my mother said in disbelief.
Then, there is the question of whether birth rates can fall significantly until the poorest segments of society get their share of the fruits of economic growth and until education levels improve in a country where illiteracy still hovers at around 40%.
Moreover, there is the issue of trust. Although birth control is crucial to Egypt's future, many Egyptians will be sceptical about the government's intentions, given the increasingly poor distribution of wealth in the country. “People are disillusioned with government promises. They believe the government wishes to make them bear full responsibility for the hard lives they lead,” Ramadan maintains. “They no longer believe any promises, no matter how much the media or civil society get involved.”
Popuflation is a major challenge for Egypt, but birth control alone will not save the day. The country also needs to raise education and living standards for the masses, empower poorer women, and make the most of its capable pool of human resources, much of which is currently left to simmer in frustration and idleness.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 19 June 2008.