Egypt fights to stem population growth

Other News Materials 2 July 2008 06:03 (UTC +04:00)

Red and white banners along Nile bridges and Cairo streets this month were Egypt's latest effort to curb an increasingly pressing problem: a population growing faster than the economy can support, the Reuters reported.

Since President Hosni Mubarak took office in 1981, the population has nearly doubled. But most of the country's 76 million people are squashed in urban areas near the Nile, in an area roughly the size of Switzerland, which is home to just 7.5 million.

"Before you add another baby, make sure his needs are secured," ran the slogan, adding to a string of campaigns over 30 years to encourage family planning. Mubarak told a government-sponsored population conference that cutting population growth was urgent.

With about one fifth of the population living on less than $1 a day and food and fuel prices lifting inflation to a 19-year high, discontent is mounting. But beyond domestic concerns, Egypt could become a poster-child for a global trend.

According to the United Nations, the poor are set to be more and more numerous by 2050 and many will be living in towns as the world population climbs to a total of 9.2 billion. Essentially all the growth will be in less developed countries.

Egypt -- where the divide between rich and poor is stark and resistance to targeted birth control common -- shows how that could happen.

"Impossible," said Cairo taxi-driver and father-of-five Mohammed Ahmed, waving a cigarette in the air for emphasis when asked about Mubarak's appeal to slow population growth. "That is for God to decide."

Around 38 percent of Egyptians are younger than 15, and according to the World Bank, women make up only around 22 percent of the labor force, so the incentive for birth control is weak.

Population growth has remained stubbornly high at around 2 percent for the last decade and the fertility rate, at about 3.1 children per woman -- compared with 2.1 in the United States -- has also been stable.

Lacking the oil reserves of their Gulf Arab neighbors to fund investment, Egypt's recent economic growth at around 7 percent has not been steady enough to build a significant middle class.

"The population explosion is a crisis the government doesn't know how to handle," said Milad Hanna, a former member of parliament and a columnist at the state-owned newspaper al-Ahram