Published on Arab Voices

Egypt’s Quiet Existential Crisis: Overpopulation

ImageEgypt faces a number of challenges but there is one in particular that is rarely discussed: overpopulation. A couple of  decades back, the country had a good family planning system, but the recent surge in the population is a crisis of potentially epic proportions.  
Since the 2011 revolution, the population has increased by 3 million, bringing the total to 80.7 million, and is estimated to likely double to 160 million by 2050. Already plagued with energy, water and wheat shortages, as well as dwindling foreign currency reserves and high unemployment, the situation could massively affect the Egyptian people. So why isn’t there an outcry?
In a piece in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, population control in Egypt was said to have been relatively successful during the 1980s and 1990s “but started to fall off the agenda during the last years of Hosni Mubarak's government—and was largely ignored in the chaos that followed his removal in 2011.”
The old family planning policy had brought the country’s total fertility rate down from 5.3 children per woman in 1980, to 3.4 in 1998, and finally to 2.8 in 2011—a remarkable drop from the 1960s when most Egyptian families had, statistically, 7.2 children.
While some hold the country’s difficult transition since 2011 accountable for “the lack of public discourse” on the issue, the Egyptian government has continued to finance programs that focus on voluntary family planning.
Egypt is in need of a new strategy to tackle its population time bomb. There are lessons to be learned in the region, even if from countries that Egypt has not always seen eye to eye with.
How Iran dealt with overpopulation
Iran’s population control programs could perhaps serve as an example of how to combat the risks of overpopulation. In the earlier years of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini encouraged people to have larger families. But it wasn’t until after the Iran–Iraq war ended in 1988 that the Iranian regime realized it was necessary to adopt policies to stop the country’s population from rapidly doubling to about 120 million. An article in the Los Angeles Times describes how Iran experienced the largest and fastest drop in fertility ever recorded, from about seven births per woman to fewer than two today in the space of about 30 years. Through fatwas (religious edicts), Khomeini made contraceptives available for free “at government clinics, including thousands of rural health centers[:] Health workers promoted contraception as a way to leave more time between births and help reduce maternal and child mortality. Couples intending to marry were required to receive counseling in family planning.” The government also provided free vasectomies.
The fertility rate in Iran fell so much that, in 2011, the then Ahmadinejad administration decided to scrap Iran’s family planning system, introducing financial incentives to encourage Iranian families to have more children. Despite this drastic change in the government’s approach, many Iranians were skeptical that ending the country’s free family planning system would affect the number of children most Iranians families were choosing to have. There was another factor that had affected Iran’s fertility rate: an investment in education. From 1976 to 2011, the literacy rate among the country’s young people had doubled to 98%.
With Iranians more educated than they were 35 years ago, it appears that they were able to make informed decisions about the size of their families. The government appeals to procreate could be weighed against the challenge of raising a large family at a time of inflation and economic instability.  
Thus it seems, education played a role as one of the most effective tools in family planning.
Many international bodies, including the World Bank Group, maintain the correlation between education and family planning to be direct. Educated women tend to have smaller, and healthier, families. Similarly, fertility rates decline when women have at least seven or more years of education. While family planning is paramount in preventing health risks in pregnant women, it is education that further empowers a population to make wise decisions.
To address its rapid population growth, Egypt could focus first on the quality of its public education.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank.


Holly Dagres

Analyst and Commentator on Middle East affairs

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