Egypt Is Inflating Not Flourishing

"A Scholar's Take" in white text above a white pen outline

Egypt Is Inflating Not Flourishing

With the most recent attacks on an Egyptian church, it is becoming clear that there is an increasing gulf between the ruling party’s priorities and national agenda in Egypt. One other example of failure of the ruling elite is the issue of uncontrollable population growth.

Most of the severest critics of the ruling National Democratic Party agree with its leaders on prioritizing some issues on the national agenda. One of these urgent issues is population growth. This is a field in which successive governments failed. Officials try to explain the increasing number of air conditioners, cell phones, and cars bought by Egyptians as an indicator of Egypt’s progress and development. However, such explanation is methodologically unsound. If we want to be more precise, we should take these as indicators of the extent to which we became consumerist beings especially with the rising rate of foreign and public debt. So, Egyptian consumption increases as its debt grows. The leaders of the ruling party should have used indicators about the number of patents acquired by Egyptians, the number of university departments which made world-class scientific achievements, and the number of air conditioners, cell phones, and cars (or at least parts thereof) produced in Egypt.

I am afraid that if reformist elite rules Egypt at some point in time, we would discover then that “it is too late.” If Egypt was ruled by by Tayyip Erdogan, Mahathir Mohamad, and Lula da Silva together, the problems Egypt faces would be deeper and greater than what they could handle.

An American scholar who studied in Egypt in early 1980s came to visit Egypt a couple of months ago. He told me when he came back: “You cannot be unaware of the magnitude of the demographic problem and its impact… Everything in Egypt is as it is but it takes longer to reach it… This wastes the collective energies of society.”

A 2007 UN report on demographic growth in Egypt shows that many phenomena cannot be understood if we don’t take demographic growth into consideration. Egypt suffers from the rising rates of dependency, poverty, crime, unemployment, incest, homelessness, and familial disintegration because of the incapability of parents to raise an average of seven kids in slum areas and the country side. An Israeli expert once said that Israel is lucky that it is sounded by “insensible enemies” and used population growth in Egypt as an example of how Egyptians do not understand that they are actually weakening their own country by excessive reproduction. Dr. Gamal Hemdan meant something similar when he wrote in his Character of Egypt that Egypt witnessed one of the largest demographic revolutions in history. However, population quality deteriorated making them a burden on the resources no matter how good they utilize them.

This issue has many dimensions. From a religious point of view, some people plead that there is a prophetic saying that encourages us to get married, and conceive many children for the prophet shall take pride in our number on the Day of Judgment. However, this saying of the prophet should be interpreted in light of other sayings that include: “the greatest sin of all is for someone to carelessly waste and let down their kids,” and “everyone of you is a guardian and responsible for those in one’s charge.” Thus, we should have as many children as we can adequately support.

Pope Shenouda said that God would not ask anyone about the number of his children but He will ask how good he raised them.

From a social point of view, the principal component of this problem is not population growth per se. It is the fact that the increase comes from those who are least capable to raise and educate their children. For example, there are 18 million people living in Upper Egypt which amounts to 25% of the Egyptian population. Newborns in Upper Egypt are about 41% of the total newborns in the country (around 2 million). I remember very well that when I used to live in a 12-story building and the number of children living therein below ten years old was four, while the doorman who lives in a couple of rooms on the building’s roof had eight children, two of whom were already beyond school age and cannot return to school.

From an economic point of view, each pound spent on family planning results in saving approximately 134 pounds from (direct and indirect) public expenditures, and in saving 44 pounds from direct spending. The share of each newborn in subsidies, grants, and social benefits amounts to 4500 pounds.

So, Egypt is in a “demographic” danger that is not less severe than the other dangers that surround it and boiling inside it. The population of Egypt in 1980 was 40 million people, and now (30 years later) the population increased to 80 million people. If population growth remained at the current rate, it is expected that the population will reach 160 million after 30 years.

So, in 30 years we will need to double the number of schools, hospitals, roads, and universities just to prevent more deterioration rather than to develop. It must also be made clear that Egypt is not as rich in natural resources as China and India.

The political dimension is even worse. The ruling and opposing elites are more concerned with issues of “inheritance” of power than this cancerous dilemma. From a political point of view, the state does not seem ready to make use of the experiences of other countries which achieved better results in this field. There are positive incentives that can be given to citizens in order to make them have as much kids as they can adequately support and educate. These incentives include decreasing taxes paid by the head of the household depending on the number of his children (as in Tunisia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Vietnam), and retirement grants given to government employees who have a limited number of kids. In the latter case, these grants are not given when the employee exceeds a certain number of kids, and may even turn into penalties. Some countries facilitate grants and loans as far as the number of children in the family is controlled (e.g. Bangladesh and Indonesia), and help small-sized families have houses. In addition, some countries – like India – give financial incentives to families which abide by the legal marital age for females. In India as well, societal incentives are given to the neighborhoods which abide by family planning and achieve low infant mortalities, as well as higher rates of literacy and primary education.

Likewise, there are negative incentives (penalties) that may be imposed on those who conceive too many children because it is not a matter of personal freedom. Individuals are socially obliged to have as much children as they can raise and educate in an adequate way. Parents who don’t enroll their kids in primary schools or make them drop out before the age of 16 while they are capable of continuing are punished. These measures are taken because education is one of the main factors for improving the demographic properties in any country, and one of the main components in solving the demographic problem (e.g. Tunisia and Thailand). Remedies include financial and administrative penalties on violators like reducing financial incentives.

To the Egyptian people: the demographic problem is a dilemma that transcends party affiliations because the coming challenge is not who will govern Egypt for the number of Egyptians increased to an extent that it will impossible for whoever governs them to deal with.

Moataz A. Fattah is an associate Professor of Political Science, at Cairo University and Central Michigan University. He is also a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

This article was originally published by Middle East Online.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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