The addition of 11 million people in just seven years will weigh on government budgets and the economy for a generation.
By Marc Champion and Tarek El-Tablawy
Sabah Fouad was pregnant with her fourth child when a neighbor beat her up on a Cairo street in a dispute over money she owed, and she miscarried. Even with the pain, the 32-year-old confesses she felt relieved. Fouad, who works part time as a maid, can’t remember the last time she was able to buy meat or chicken for the children she already has. “Secretly I was happy,” she says. “God forgive me.”
Higher birthrates may prove the most lasting of many unforeseen consequences of Egypt’s Arab Spring. Egyptians took to their bedrooms after the February 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, a period in which joyfulness soon gave way to chaos. The country added about 11 million people—the population of Greece—in a span of just seven years, as fertility surged to 3.5 children per woman rather than continuing its gradual decline to the government’s target of 2.1, the so-called replacement rate.
The demographic trends don’t bode well for President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who’s certain to win a second term in elections that begin on March 26. Youth discontent over the lack of opportunities for new entrants into the labor force was among the key drivers of the revolt against Mubarak’s 30-year rule. It’s a persistent problem: More than a quarter of those ages 18 to 29 are unemployed, according to Egypt’s statistical agency, while about one-third of the jobless have university degrees.
Egypt’s recent baby boom guarantees rising numbers of job seekers for at least a generation to come. In 2016, there were 10.3 million Egyptians younger than 4, up from 8.8 million in 2008. “It’s scary a little bit,” says Tarek Tawfik, an epidemiologist who is Egypt’s deputy minister of health and population. Failure to reduce birthrates will lead to scarcities of water and food, as the productivity of agricultural land degrades, says Tawfik, speaking in his Cairo office, where he can track the demographic trend in real time on a computer screen as names of the newly born and newly deceased scroll past in columns. “It would lead to the deterioration of everything.”
Tawfik says the trouble began before the revolution, when the U.S. Agency for International Development, an arm of the American government that funds development initiatives abroad, began winding down generous funding for family planning programs in Egypt in 2005. The decades-long decline in the fertility rate stalled at a low of 3.0 children per woman, in 2008. Then came a collapse of services amid the chaos of the revolution. Nine months after Mubarak’s exit, the fertility rate spiked.
A resurgent Islamist movement that encouraged early marriage and large families also contributed. Mona Khalifa, professor of demography at Cairo University, found that by far the biggest contributor to rising rates of contraception disuse was women, particularly in rural areas, simply choosing to get pregnant.
In 2000, the United Nations was projecting that Egypt’s population would hit 96 million in 2026. It passed that mark last year, a decade early. The government now projects a population of 127 million by 2030, if the fertility rate isn’t brought down. “It’s the bomb of the Middle East,” says Khalifa, speaking next to the children’s play area at a cafe terrace in Cairo’s elegant Maadi suburb.
There was also a jump in the birthrate in Tunisia, where the 2011 uprisings began, before it dipped again. There, fertility already had fallen below the replacement rate in the 2000s, and has already tapered off again.
The beehive-style charts used by demographers show how Egypt’s age distribution will change if birthrates aren’t tamed. The country risks moving further into the category of youth-heavy nations that are less likely to democratize and more prone to authoritarian rule and political violence, according to research carried out by Richard Cincotta, who runs the political demography program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
The Egyptian economy is at last recovering after the collapse that followed the revolution, but budgets remain under strain. Between 2010 and 2015, the proportion of Egyptians living below the national poverty line rose by almost a third, to 28 percent. The government cut a deal with the International Monetary Fund in 2016 under which it received a $12 billion loan in exchange for making an array of policy changes, including devaluing the currency, slashing the public sector payroll, and rolling back some subsidies. Whether this prescription will eventually produce the growth and quantity of jobs Egypt needs remains unclear.
Most of the women who come to see Hayam Almeligy at the family planning clinic she heads in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, are poor. She tries to teach them about the health benefits of using contraception to space births out. Flyers on the walls offer free literacy classes, a nod to the strong correlation between female education and falling fertility rates. It’s much more difficult in the countryside, where family planning centers are scarce and “they only have the mosques to tell them what to do,” says Almeligy.
El-Sisi’s government now identifies population control as a top national priority together with fighting terrorism. Mobile family planning teams travel from village to village, borrowing the homes of local elders to fit women with IUDs. Regional authorities run training programs for countryside imams and female preachers known as waizad to explain the downsides of high birthrates.
The government has been sending so-called mystery clients into mosques to test whether the training is changing what actually gets preached, according to Tawfik. “We planted some people to ask the preachers about spacing, whether it is halal or haram (permitted or forbidden),” he says. The effort may be starting to pay off. The number of new births fell to 2.55 million last year, from 2.6 million in 2016, according to data released last month.
Nevertheless, Fouad’s plight shows the scale of the challenge facing a country where the number of primary school students grew 40 percent from 2011 to 2016. Her eldest daughter, Mae, now goes to school in a class of 140, with four students seated at each two-person desk. She had her third child, Hamsa, about a year into El-Sisi’s first term, when life seemed more hopeful. Then money started to run short.
Her job turned part time. Her husband, a minibus driver, was hospitalized after an accident. Pushed deeper into debt, Fouad sold off the contents of the family’s one-bedroom apartment, starting with the refrigerator. All that remains is a 14-inch TV, a small washing machine, and a stove for which she can’t afford butane. By the time Fouad became pregnant a fourth time, she was already desperate. “With Hamsa, I was beaming,” she says. “With this one, all I could feel was fear.”