The Egyptian Government has long implemented programs to encourage smaller families and birth control usage. But far more intrusive population control policies—including a two-child cap for welfare recipients and a proposed incentive scheme for one-child families—may soon be introduced by the government if certain Egyptian lawmakers get their way.
In a statement issued on November 22, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli announced that, starting in January 2019, the government will put a two-child-per-family cap on welfare payments in order to reach more families in need and in order to reduce the country’s population growth rate.
“[T]he government has decided not to give any kind of monetary subsidies to families with three children,” Prime Minister Madbouli said in his address, according to reporting from Ahram Online.
“We will target these families, and all should know that the runaway growth of population is a big threat to the economic development in this country,” Madbouli said.
Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world with a population of 94.7 million persons, according to estimates from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the Egyptian Government’s statistical agency.
Currently, Egypt’s welfare program, called Takaful w Karama (Solidarity and Dignity), allows impoverished families to receive financial support for up to three children. Families who qualify for the government subsidies receive a monthly payment of 325 Egyptian Pounds (or about US$18). Families also receive additional payouts per child for up to three children under 19 years of age. The Takaful w Karama program provides poor families in Egypt with a crucial social safety net.
But cutting government subsidies to impoverished three-child families is not the only policy the Egyptian Government is eyeing to control the birth rate. On Sunday, November 25, the Defense and National Security Committee in Egypt’s parliament held a series of meetings to address the country’s population growth rate. Lawmakers proposed a number of policies to impose population control measures.
Kamal Amer, Chairman of the Defense and National Security Committee, told the lawmakers in parliamentary meetings that media campaigns run by the government in recent years to raise awareness about the demographic challenges the country faces are no longer sufficient and that more active measures are now necessary. “[N]ow it is high time for strict measures to be taken to contain this phenomenon,” Chairman Amer told committee members during Sunday’s meeting according to Ahram Online.
Lawmakers offered a number of policy proposals at the meeting, including policies which would offer couples who have only one child with free school tuition throughout the entire course of their education. Only-children also would be given priority when applying for a job when they reach employment age. One-child parents could also qualify for fully subsidized health insurance and free life insurance upon retirement.
Committee members also floated the idea of issuing one-child parents with an honorary certificate, acknowledging their contribution to society by having fewer children. This certificate would then be used to authorize couples to receive one-child-family government benefits. The proposed schema bears more than a passing resemblance to the Chinese government’s “Parents of an Only Child Honorary Certificate.” Under the one-child policy, this is a certificate qualified one-child parents in China to receive pension benefits from the government upon retirement.
Parliamentary defense committee Chairman Amer further argued during Sunday’s meetings that families that fail to use contraception could be disqualified from receiving government subsidies. “Families who refuse to follow birth control measures should not be allowed to receive any kind of cash or in-kind subsidies,” Amer said according to Ahram Online.
Committee members also urged that women should be provided with access to free contraception at government health clinics and that incentive packages should be offered to encourage more women to use birth control.
Couples living in Egypt’s rural or impoverished areas, however, often rely on having more children to help out with labor-intensive farm work or to provide the family with another potential source of income. And for some Muslims in Egypt, it is a common belief that it is unlawful under Islam to limit the number children one has, and, thus, using birth control would constitute a violation of their religious tenets. Approximately 90% of Egyptians are followers of Islam, according to the CIA World Factbook.
“Proposals to withdraw government subsidies from poor Egyptian families simply because they have more than two children or because they refuse to use contraception as a matter of religious belief would amount to coercion and would be a violation of fundamental human rights,” says Steven Mosher, longtime human rights advocate and President of the Population Research Institute, a non-profit organization that exposes abuses in population control programs worldwide.
Additionally, the U.S. Government will be footing at least part of the bill for programs that seek to increase contraceptive use in Egypt. On Sunday, the parliament’s health affairs committee also voted to approve of an $11 million aid package from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to finance birth control programs in Egypt over the next several years.
“Economic growth in Egypt is dependent on creating a more business-friendly climate, which in turn will produce more jobs for Egyptian citizens,” Mosher says. It is also critically important to protect the rights of girl children not to be pressed into early marriages, and ensuring that both boys and girls receive a complete education. The notion that economic development will somehow be fixed by preventing births of poor Egyptians is simply nonsense.”
In addition to enacting strict penalties such as withdrawal of government subsidies, the Egyptian government at Sunday’s meetings at the same time proposed passing reforms to protect teen girls from early marriage. The government is considering setting the minimum age of marriage for girls at 18 and enacting criminal penalties for Mazouns—officials who officiate over marriage ceremonies in Egypt—who authorize underage marriages. According to the results of Egypt’s 2014 Demographic and Health Survey, approximately 6% of girls under the age of 18 in Egypt are already married, divorced, or separated.
Defense committee members at the meetings also recommended that the government should frame population growth as a threat to economic development. Chairman Amer called on religious leaders to encourage couples to use birth control and to tell women that the government is not seeking to prevent births, but rather is seeking to increase economic growth. Lawmakers also recommended that the ministry of education change school curriculums to incorporate birth control messaging, including messaging on contraception, the harms of early marriage and the benefits of smaller families.
“Government programs that respectfully encourage and educate citizens about the need for responsible parenthood are reasonable and licit ways that the Egyptian government can encourage smaller families for the sake of development,” Mosher says. “Programs that are information-based, rather than incentive- or penalty-based, leaves the ultimate decision on whether or not to bear children in the hands of parents, who should be able to decide for themselves the number and spacing of their children,” Mosher commented. “Pushing morally objectionable forms of birth control on women who do not want it, or resorting to inaccurate alarmist messaging, is not respectful of their dignity as human persons.”
Egyptian lawmakers in parliament stirred up considerable controversy earlier this year when similar population control policy proposals, including a proposal to prevent government subsidies for third children, were introduced in parliament. The measure drew significant resistance from some lawmakers who blasted the bill as unconstitutional while others expressed support for the measure.
Efforts to stem the rate of population increase in Egypt have garnered support even from the highest levels of the government. In a 2014 address to the National Youth Conference, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi remarked that “[t]he two biggest dangers that Egypt faces throughout its history are terrorism and population growth.”
Last summer, the el-Sisi administration introduced a campaign called Operation Lifeline to encourage women to use contraception. Using the slogan “Two is Enough,” the campaign aims to decrease the country’s total fertility rate to 2.4 by 2030. The Egyptian ministry of health has indicated that it plans on sending 12,000 birth control advocates into the country’s rural governorates.
The Egyptian government has long implemented population control programs to promote smaller families and contraceptive use. However, the government has never implemented anything on the scale or degree of coerciveness as the policies recently proposed by lawmakers.
Since the mid-20th century, fertility in Egypt, as in most countries around the world, has declined considerably as infant mortality rates declined and life expectancy improved. While fertility has declined consistently in most developing countries for decades, fertility in Egypt over the past decade has reversed and has been on the rise.
In 2006, total fertility in Egypt had bottomed out at 3.0 children per woman, according to population estimates from the United Nations Population Division. But during the mid-2000’s the government significantly downscaled its family planning messaging and from 2011-2013, under the administration of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, population programming was temporarily paused entirely. By 2015, the fertility rate had climbed up to 3.31 children per woman, according to U.N. estimates.
Approximately 95% of Egypt’s population is concentrated within 20 kilometers of the Nile River and the Delta region, according the CIA World Factbook. The vast majority of the country’s land area consists of sparsely populated or uninhabited desert rangeland. According to the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), less than 4% of Egypt’s land area is used for agriculture.
Egypt’s fast-growing population combined with high unemployment, scarce water resources, and a young population structure is poised to create significant challenges for the North African country. This all as the Egyptian economy continues to recover from the aftereffects of the upheaval following the 2011 uprising and the consequences of accepting a $12 billion loan deal from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2016 which has forced the government to raise taxes, implement austerity measures, and to float its currency, leading to record-high inflation and a devaluation of the country’s currency.
Unemployment in 2017, even four years after the exit of the Morsi government, sat stubbornly high at 12%, according to the World Bank. More than a quarter of young adults aged 18-29 years of age are unemployed in Egypt, even as nearly a third of the unemployed youth have college degrees. And since 2011, the number of primary school students in Egypt has increased by 40%, placing stress on the country’s education infrastructure.
Worse still is Egypt’s impending water crisis. Egypt’s current water needs are only 97% satisfied and the country has one of the world’s lowest unit volume of water per capita. The Nile River provides Egypt with approximately 85% of its fresh water. The Ethiopian Government, grappling with dire energy shortages and drought conditions, has endeavored to build over the Nile the largest hydroelectric dam on the African continent, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Once the GERD is completed, it is anticipated that the dam will reduce Egypt’s available supply of water from the Nile by approximately 25% over the next 7 years.
Development, Not Coercive Population Control, Is the Solution
Still, the challenges that Egypt faces, like many other developing countries around the world, are not insurmountable. Rapid population growth can make tackling unemployment more challenging as job creation is not always able to keep pace with rapid population increases. Nevertheless, population growth is a crucial factor that plays into a healthy developing economy and it need not be a hindrance to the country’s future development.
Unemployment in Egypt, while persistently high, is unlikely to remain so indefinitely. Egypt continues to recover from the global Great Recession and the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprising. From 1991-2010, the unemployment rate in Egypt averaged at about 9.6% per year, according to International Labour Organization (ILO) modeled estimates provided through the World Bank. From 2010 up until last year, unemployment fluctuated between 11-13%. However, in the first quarter of 2018, unemployment dipped down to 10.6%, following a trajectory of steady decline over the past three years.
High unemployment among Egypt’s young adults is in part due to an education system that too often fails to prepare youth with the proper skills needed to be successful in the workforce. Many Egyptian young adults pursue careers in academia or jobs with high education credentials with too few positions for those jobs available. In former years, a graduate with a PhD could expect to be hired by one of the country’s public universities, a dynamic which has continued to foster the expectations for employment even as far more candidates today compete for limited positions at the country’s public universities.
Many young Egyptians simply forgo jobs they feel are beneath them. A 2012 survey from the ILO found that a stunning 30% of unemployed young adults in Egypt had refused a job offer because they felt the job did not meet their qualifications.
Meanwhile, too few laborers entering the workforce pursue entrepreneurship. Excessive government red tape, lack of access to investment capital from lending institutions, a shortage of government contract opportunities for small businesses, and a lack of access to information or training on entrepreneurship best practices makes starting a business extremely difficult for young people.
With a surplus of unemployed yet highly educated young workers, international companies should look to Egypt for lucrative investment opportunities, particularly in high-tech or research-based industries.
Egypt’s relatively small amount of agricultural land relative to its population need not be a cause for concern either. Many countries import much of their food and many countries, particularly land-poor countries, are not able to produce even enough food to feed their own populations. None of this matters however as international trade makes this point irrelevant.
As for Egypt’s water crisis, the problem is largely a political one. Like other Middle Eastern countries, Egypt may be able to abate its water shortage by tapping into the oceans through construction of desalination plants. Furthermore, the vast majority of the Egypt’s fresh water is used for agriculture. According to the FAO, approximately 86% of Egypt’s water withdrawal was used for agriculture in the year 2000. Much water could be saved if farmers switch to drought resistant crops or crops that require less watering. Less water could also be used on marginal agricultural lands if they are properly managed to prevent desertification.
 FAO (2018), FAOSTAT, Land use, http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/RL (accessed Nov. 29, 2018).
 FAO (2018), FAOSTAT, Water withdrawal for agricultural use, http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/EW (accessed Dec. 4, 2018).