Egypt's Population Explosion by Oded Yinon

Egypt's Population Explosion


Oded Yinon


The Jerusalem Quarterly

Number 15
Spring 1980

Unless Egypt can implement a comprehensive birth control program in the next decades, her population may double by the year 2000. In June 1979 the population of Egypt was forty-one million, with an annual growth of over a million. Every twenty-four seconds a child is born (babies count for thirty-four per cent of the population in the last fifteen years), and the rate of natural increase is 2.64 per cent, approaching the peak of 2.90 per cent reached in 1965.1 The density of population to inhabited area is estimated at a minimum of 1,082 per kilometre to a maximum of 1,200 per kilometre.2

During the sixties there was a drop in Egypt's birthrate, as in many other Third World countries, but today it appears to be rising, to thirty-nine per 1,000.3 Mortality and infant mortality rates have remained stable for the past decade, at ten to eleven per thousand and 116 per thousand respectively.4

Interestingly enough, the birthrate has risen mainly in families where the wife is over forty, while dropping among younger women.5 While the marriage rate in Egypt has dropped, so have the divorce and widowhood rates, with the result that no significant decline is evident in the overall child-bearing population at any given time.6

If we take into account the fact that the emigration rates from Egypt have risen over the past decade and that 3.7 per cent of the population are at present outside the country — most of them in the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf 7 — the rate of growth is likely to be stabilized in the future without dropping sigllificantly, since the rate of natural increase will be determined by the stability of the mortality rate and the slight rise in the birth rate. While emigration has relieved the pressure on the labour market for the present, if and when the situation in the oil states deteriorates Egypt may have to re-absorb some of the emigrants and the existing problem will be greatly aggravated.

The employment problem today focuses on the existence of a potential labour force from the age of twelve to sixty-four which has already reached 65.6 per cent of the population as compared to sixty-one per cent in 1960. Unemployment rates today are estimated at about ten per cent (not including latent unemployment).8

Greater Cairo suffers from pressing population problems whose grave political, ecological, social and economic consequences are already very much in evidence. While the rate of the natural increase of its population has slowed down considerably owing to poor housing and economic conditions, the increased rate of emigration from the rural areas to that megalopolis — the political, administrative and economic centre of the country — offset any benefits from the drop in natural increase. The annual rate of growth of Cairo's population is today 4.1 to 4.8 per annum, mostly from rural migration. This rate is similar to that of the mid-sixties.9

Egyptian officials estimated the population of greater Cairo at the end of 1978 at 11 million,10 most of them concentrated in the city proper, where population density is one of the world's highest with an average of 35,000 people per kilometre, as compared to 23,000 per kilometre in 1973. In some parts of the city, such as the Kasem al-Gumruq quarter, density reaches 141,000 per kilometre.11 Scarcity of housing and employment opportunities is extreme and has created a political and social powder-keg.

The rate of urbanization in Egypt corresponds in the main to the rate of internal migration to greater Cairo. The government has not succeeded in implementing a policy of population dispersal and imposing restraints on internal migration to the city, nor has it solved the housing problems or relieved the economic distress of its inhabitants.

The area of cultivated land in Egypt today is apparently ten per cent less than it was on the eve of the revolution, or at the beginnjng of the century, due to the rapid rate of urbanization during the revolutionary era. The area of cultivated land per head has shrunk by half from the beginning of the century, dropping to 0.20 acre a head in the seventies.12

There are no exact data available on food imports, but in 1975 Egypt was importing 2.8 million tons of wheat as compared with 1.6 million tons grown at home. The price of food imports then amounted to half the value of investments and equalled the value of Egypt's entire cotton export.13

Nasser and the Birth Control program

Shortly after he came to power Nasser and his colleagues were already aware of the seriousness of the demographic problem. Yet, almost twelve years passed before the adoption of a clear and comprehensive policy aimed at limiting the population. Until then the regime pinned its hopes on various economic and technical programs as part of an overall strategy of economic-industrial (and, at first, agricultural) development.

With the initiation of the Five Year Plan in 1961, the subject of family planning was introduced for the first time as an integral — though secondary — part of the economic program. The aim of economic planning in the sixties was rapid industrialization and growth of GNP. Population planning was intended to serve these goals, and was never envisaged as an independent goal in its own right.

Practically speaking, the family planning program was implemented only at the end of the period covered by the Five Year Plan, in 1966, when it was already clear that the plan had proved an almost total failure. Only then did the government decide to go ahead with the population planning program, as a last resort in the attempt to save its economic policy. In a speech on the eve of the anniversary of the revolution in July 1965 Nasser stressed the urgent need for the implementation of the family planning program if economic catastrophe was to be averted. From the end of 1965 to the middle of 1966 the first official, centralized drive to reduce the birth rate took place in Egypt, on a large scale and utilizing the maximum resources available to the government at the time. After a few months, however, the program was discontinued.

After this hasty and short-lived episode no further attempts were made to implement birth control programs from above and no active steps have been taken to encourage the public to make use of the family planning facilities made available by the government. Ever since the middle of 1966 the main factor working to reduce the birth rate in Egypt has been that of individual motivation, especially in Cairo and among the middle classes most hard-pressed by the housing shortage and economic difficulties.

Early in 1966, 2,281 birth control clinics were set up all over Egypt, staffed by medical teams and offering a variety of contraceptives as well as educational material on the subject. A comprehensive propaganda campaign was undertaken by the media, as well as in the mosques where the clergy preached (not all too wholeheartedly) in favour of birth control. The scope of the campaign was impressive, but it came to an abrupt halt due to lack of funds and a lack of massive positive response from the public. The government was obliged to withdraw its support. From mid-1966 to June 1967 government activity in the field came to a virtual standstill, and the birth control centres were forced to close. At the end of 1967 there were only 157 of these centres left in the whole country.14

In a speech in August 1966, when the lack of public response to the birth control campaign was already apparent and the general economic crisis was at its peak, Nasser spoke of population problems in a despairing tone, ending with the remark that he did not know what the next president of Egypt would do about the problem.15

The 1966 program did not fail because of its content or goals. At the same time similar programs were introduced in a number of other Third World countries with a considerable measure of success. The major cause of the Egyptian failure must be sought in the government's inability to cope with the economic situation, as well as internal and external pressures (the war in Yemen, cancellation of the U.S food assistance program) which did not allow it the maneuverability vital to the success of such a large scale project. From the outset the program was not independent, but part of an overall economic strategy which was itself on the point of collapse when it was decided to finally implement the birth control program. It was further hampered by the top-heavy bureaucracy, lack of coordination and organization, multiplication of overlapping authorities, and absence of a central guiding hand.

Even if the program had not ground to a halt after six months, there is little reason to suppose that it would have been able to make up for the decades of neglect and passivity preceding it. The dimensions of the population problem were already severe in 1966, with the rate of natural increase reaching nearly three per cent per annum. A relatively minor sector of the public were included in the project and immediately affected by it. The traditional Muslim society of Egypt has not yet undergone the social, economic, and cultural processes necessary for receptivity to a reform as radical in its implications as birth control. Furthermore, the government did little if anything to prepare the public in advance or clarify the importance of the subject in more than a sporadic and haphazard way. The program was carried out as if it were a technical bureaucratic exercise, imposed on the public from above as if it involved no more than the enforcement of any other routine administrative measure rather than a process of such crucial importance and sensitivity.

The extent to which Islam as a religion, culture and value system interferes with the implementation of a program based on essentially modern and Western values is difficult to determine. While some analysts claim that Islam is not more against birth control than any other religion, others tend to disagree. The experience of other Muslim countries seems at first sight to confirm the latter view, since less has been accomplished in this field in such countries than in the rest of the Third World. At the same time, however, the impressive achievements of the populous Muslim states of South Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh, and especially Indonesia) in the field of birth control stand as a stark contrast to almost all the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa (with the notable exception of Tunisia).

It would thus appear that the determined and active involvement of the government has a far greater impact on the success or failure of birth control programs than Islam per se, despite the importance of religion in the daily life of traditional Muslim societies. The revolutionary regime in Egypt must thus take the lion's share of the responsibility for the failure in this field, which can be attributed mainly to its lack of interest and involvement. The regime did not do everything in its power to further the cause of birth control — either in the light of all the institutional means which it had at its disposal, or in the light of its accomplishments in other fields. Ironically enough its successes in preventive medicine and public hygiene lowered infant mortality in a significant way and extended longevity — thus aggravating the demographic explosion. We must conclude that the government did not see population planning as a top priority as compared with other problems calling for drastic measures — such as the nationalizations of 1961, or the liquidation of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954. These issues were seen by the regime as vital to its own survival, and it accordingly took the appropriate measures to deal with them — unlike the population problem which held no immediate threat to the regime or to its economic plans.

Like all governments everywhere, the government of Egypt gives first priority to issues which are seen as urgent and crucial in the short run, and tends to put off solutions to long term problems, however important. Even the opposition of the clergy to birth control could have been overcome if the regime so wished, since the Egyptian clergy are state employees and their power and authority stem directly from the regime. Religion is dependent on the state in Egypt, and not the opposite, but nevertheless the government refrained from exercising its power and authority over the clergy in this crucial matter.

From the point of view of propaganda and public education the government could have done far more and over a far longer period than it actually did, since all the mass media in Egypt are state controlled. The enormous efforts invested by the government in indoctrination in the administration, army and schools on political, ideological and other subjects of importance to it are a clear indication of the extent of the possibilities which were barely tapped in order to further the cause of birth control. In the Muslim states of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, which resemble Egypt in the military and authoritarian nature of their regimes, far more has been attempted and with a great measure of success. The rulers of these countries have taken an active personal interest in the implementation of birth control programs and given them priority treatment in the allocation of public resources.

A more instructive case is that of Tunisia, the first Arab state to embark upon a family planning program, in 1964. The (crude) birth rate declined to thirty-seven per thousand in 1975 (as compared to fifty in 1960) with contraception accounting for thirty to forty per cent of this decline. The regime gave the program high priority and employed a wide variety of means to promote it: legislation aimed at improving women's status (outlawing polygamy, raising the legal age of marriage, equal rights in matters of divorce, change in waqf laws giving women property rights); legalization of abortion for health and economic reasons; a propaganda campaign making judicious use of religion to justify the latter as well as the birth control campaigns. The emphasis given by the regime to internal change is best exemplified by the fact that one-third of the budget is earmarked for education, which by itself helps reduce birth rates.

The impact of the campaign is felt mostly in the urban middle class but begins to filter down to other classes. Since 1976 there is a deliberate effort directed at the countryside. The resolute commitment of the regime is undoubtedly the key to the success of the campaign while religion is not a significant impediment. Why has it been otherwise in other Arab countries?

Very little has been done in Egypt to make use of significant economic and social processes stemming from rapid urbanization in order to further the cause of birth control. The worsening situation of Egypt's urban population has certainly contributed of late to a decline in the birth rate, but (in contrast to countries like Indonesia) the government has done very little to encourage this trend by providing those in need of it with the appropriate guidance and assistance. Paradoxically, the main source of the Egyptian regime's strength may also be the greatest obstacle to reducing the birth rate in that country. We are referring here to the domination of all spheres of life in Egypt by the central government, a historical characteristic which was reinforced after the revolution. While many voluntary organizations were active in pre-1952 Egypt, such organizations constitute a negligible force today, and the powerful central regime, by opposing the emergence of any intermediary forces, prevents any initiative from below from taking hold in many spheres — including that of birth control — where much could be accomplished by private initiative and voluntary frameworks.

The Six Day War and After

The June 1967 war was a watershed not only in the political history of Egypt but also in its internal development, including the population problem. From 1967 on it has been almost impossible to separate Egypt's grave internal problems from its external ones. Although the internal economic crisis which began before the war worsened immediately after it, from then until 1973 all Egypt's national resources were geared not to internal rehabilitation but to the war against Israel. Together with other internal problems, the population problem, too, was shelved and disappeared from the public consciousness and the govemment's agenda. The stagnation in this field, as in others, only exacerbated problems which were bad enough already and all the government's efforts to make up for lost time after the 1973 war could do very little to improve the situation. Furthermore, the government did nothing to exploit processes which were outside its direct control, such as the drop in the birth rate from the middle sixties and the deterioration of housing and economic conditions in the cities during the period between the wars, to promote a comprehensive birth control program. Sadat himself, in striking contrast to Nasser, has shown no interest whatsoever in the problem, and until the war never even mentioned it in his speeches. His attitude towards the population problem did not really change after the war either, and to this day references to it in his many speeches and interviews are few and far between, even though he regards the present era as one of internal rehabilitation.

Sadat's only serious attempt to date to relate to the population problem was in the "October Paper" in which he proposed solutions focusing mainly on population dispersal and the construction of new towns in the desert. The subject of birth control was not mentioned at all, and it seems that the present government does not regard this problem as within the province of government concern, or of sufficient importance to warrant government interference.16 This attitude is widespread today at every level of policy-making in this field, as shown in the interviews held by John Waterbury with central figures in the regime in the years before and after the 1973 war. In the interviews held during 1972 most of the interviewees spoke in terms of economic-technological rather than demographic solutions to the problem. Most of them saw rapid social and economic change as the main mechanism of population reduction, due to the changes which would take place in individual behaviour and attitudes and in the structure and functioning of the Egyptian family. Birth control seemed to most of them a marginal factor in the realization of this long term process, and it was not seen as having much importance in the short term either, with social and economic changes still in their initial stages. Most of the interviewees were extremely pessimistic with regard to the population problem, echoing the words of Nasser in the summer of 1966.

Some of them saw no constructive solution to the problem at all, both because of its own dimensions and because of Egypt's many other problems at the time, especially the conflict with Israel. One of them argued that the example of what had been accomplished in China in the field of birth control was of no practical relevance to Egypt, while others said they saw no possibility of Egypt's coping with its heavy economic burdens in view of the rapid population growth.

Isma'il Sabri 'Abdalla, former Minister of Planning under Nasser, said that the decade ending in 1982 would be the most critical for Egypt's future, determining whether the country would extricate itself from its problems or sink back into the dark ages. Most of those interviewed spoke of the economic expectations entertained by the regime with regard to foreign investors and the oil states, who would be sure to invest large sums in Egypt after the war with Israel. Such an attitude could only encourage passivity and a refusal to think about independent solutions to immediate problems, and in the event that the regime's expectations of outside investments failed to materialize the damage caused by their own inaction would already be done.17

This is exactly what happened. The war did not bring about a basic change in Egypt's economic situation, or realize the pre-war expectations of her economic planners for large-scale investments, development and economic growth. Nor, in spite of the lively public debate, did it lead to a new attitude towards the population problem, where government inaction has continued, despite the new programs which keep on cropping up. Every few years there is a fresh spurt of media interest in the issue, but it quickly disappears from the public consciousness.18 In any case, it is not the public but the government with its power and authority, which must take the lead in dealing with the population problem — and the government has not shown any signs of taking the initiative as yet. The remarks made by the Prime Minister's Adviser on Technology, Dr. Hilmi 'Abd al-Rahman in an interview in 1975 with Waterbury, are instructive in this context:

The development of the population for the next twenty-five years has already been determined and can only be changed slightly through family planning efforts. Our population will double in the next twenty-five years. Family planning policy, whether by political or voluntary action, will only show results after being applied for twenty to twenty-five years, the normal length of women's fertility. Therefore for the next twenty or twenty-five years the problem in Egypt is mainly to meet the requirements of an increasing population, and if industry and technology develop quickly this will help reduce the population as happened in all advanced societies . . . industrialization is said to be the best contraceptive.19

In Waterbury's opinion, the above is characteristic of the attitude of the political elite and the fact that little if anything has been done to improve the situation should therefore be no cause for surprise. When people do not believe in the possibility of a solution to a problem, their failure to act is ineluctable. According to another source, Egyptian officials responsible for demographic problems have become accustomed to the idea that Egypt's population will be doubled in the next generation, i.e., by the year 2000, and all their hopes are pinned on rapid economic development enabling comprehensive social and cultural change and leading to a solution of the problem by a drastic reduction of the birth rate, especially in urban families.20

Birth Control Today

While there is no lack of agencies dealing with birth control they are inefficient and bedeviled by bureaucratic muddle. There are at least fifty birth control agencies in the Cairo area alone, and in the whole of Egypt there are about a thousand bodies, almost all of them government controlled, dealing with the subject. In the absence of any central guiding hand these bodies are run at the local level and on the initiative of local functionaries without, it appears, any backing from above.

Research into the Egyptian population problem has become growth industry over the past decade, but there is an enormous gap between theoretical writing and practical application in the field. The statistical data is inaccurate, and there is overwhelming evidence to show that for the most part it isdistorted and biased in a downward direction, This makes it very difficult to obtain the minimum information necessary for an understanding of the situation, as well as influencing the attitude of the regime itself to the problem, since those in authority tend to believe their own distorted statistics. Supplies of contraceptives are inadequate, and instruction, especially in the villages, is insufficient. The government bureaucracy neglects the remoter centres, failing to supply them with the information material they require, as is shown by the fact that the demand for the government manuals exceeds the supply. Delivery itself has remained largely in the hands of practical midwives rather than of professional obstetricians in hospitals, and very little has been done to improve the situation. Little or no progress has been made in the field of birth control instruction in the schools, including universities. Text books published in recent years contain only a superficial treatment of the subject.

What is the extent of public participation in the existing birth control frameworks in Egypt? According to the data published by John Waterbury, about fourteen per cent of Egyptian women of childbearing age used contraceptives in 1974. But, as Waterbury states, "the absolute number of married couples not practicing family planning may have been increasing".21

Official Egyptian statistics in this area are biased in an upward direction and should be treated with circumspection. According to their figures, birth control begins from the third child in the towns and the fifth child in the rural areas. Married couples using contraceptives are estimated at 23.5 per cent of the total married population, with the percentage in the towns approaching forty five per cent and in rural districts only thirteen per cent. But, states the Egyptian official responsible for the program, forty-five percent of the women object to the use of birth control methods.22

Taking into consideration the fact that up to now the predominant users of contraceptives have been women rather than men, the discrepancy between the figures given by Waterbury and the government statistics is very wide indeed. In any case, even if we split the difference and estimate the number of those using contraceptives at fifteen per cent of the total population of women of childbearing age in Egypt, this will still be a very low percentage.

The high figures quoted for contraceptive use in the towns indicate the extent of the pressure exerted on urban family life by socio-economic conditions, as well as by the process of cultural change. Despite the considerable drop in the birthrate in Cairo, however, unless migration to the city is limited and steps are taken to disperse the population, the dimensions of the problem as a whole will not be significantly affected.

In the sphere of legislation the regime could do much to improve the situation by raising the minimum marriage age, which has remained low at sixteen and eighteen for women and men respectively. Today, the average age for marriage is twenty-two and twenty-six for women and men respectively. Despite the existence of socio-economic pressures on young people in Cairo to postpone having children, the very fact that they are permitted to marry at so early an age encourages those who can afford it to start having families immediately.

Another area in which legislation could have a positive effect is that of abortion, which is today illegal. The abortion rate has, in fact, risen despite the legal obstacles, but a change in the law would certainly encourage this tendency. The regime, however, has refrained from abolishing the anti-abortion law, due both to pressure from religious circles and to budgetary difficulties. The present situation, in which abortions are performed in government hospitals (accounting for half the hospital budgets), has come in for strong public criticism. (Every year 267 ,000 abortions are performed and nine per cent of pregnancies end in abortion.23) The arguments most frequently put forward in the media and by the clergy are that abortions endanger the health of Egyptian women and lead to a waste of money in the public health system. The regime could, of course, counter these arguments by explaining that without the abortions which are being performed at present the population problem would deteriorate even further, and the cost in terms of both health and money would be no less, if not far more, than the continuation of the present situation.

Although contraceptives are available in the rural districts, most of the women do not know how to use them for lack of local instructors or manuals. Most of the rural birth control centres ceased functioning effectively after 1966. Abortions are thus widely performed despite the existence of contraceptive measures, and this too is an indication of the inefficiency of the present birth control system. Although Egyptian men too have begun to use contraceptives there are many laws in existence which restrict or prevent the spread of this tendency. The legal situation also hampers women from inserting IUDs, a method which has been adopted with impressive results in other Muslim countries (Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh). There is no reason why the Egyptian rulers could not assert their authority in the same direction. (Recently the regime made a change in the 1929 law regulating divorce, by which a woman is now entitled to ask fo divorce from her husband if he has taken another woman.) Sterilization, on the other hand, is legal and could be performed since the medical skills and manpower are available, but it is not encouraged by the regime and there is, of course, no public demand for it. The downfall of Indira Gandhi's government in India due to her son's failed sterilization campaign is apparently the reason behind Sadat's hesitation to encourage sterilization. While vasectomies have been performed for a number of years now in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh with considerable success, the subject has not even come up for discussion in Egypt.

Most of the clergy in Egypt are against birth control. But much more important is the revival of Islamic popular movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and emergence of extremist Muslin terrorist groups. Independent of government and having a broad popular base they help deter the regime from taking serious steps to deal with the problem — even if it were ready to do so in the firs place (e.g., by legislation).

No less crucial is the impact of the revival of Islam on women. More and more women, especially in the villages, are taking to wearing the veil in public. Women are no longer encouraged, as they were in the past, to go out to work — a factor which had a veil positive influence on reducing the birth rate. There is a growing tendency for women to stay at home and become increasingly dependent on their husbands economically: almost eighty per cent of Egypt's married women are economically dependent on their husbands, especially in the rural sector, and the rate of growth of the female labour force has slowed down considerably, remaining stable at about ten per cent.24

Existing Birth Control programs

The goal of the existing birth control program, covering the years 1973 to 1982, is the reduction of the birthrate to 2.4 per cent, which would result in a gradual growth of about 1.1 per cent pel annum. The strategy at the core of the program is to create new social and cultural attitudes towards the problem by giving preference to small families and imposing economic criteria on the public in accordance with this preference. This strategy resembles the policy which has been followed in China, with considerable success, for over a decade.

Little if anything has been done, however, to implement this program and, although the target date is only three years off, the realities bear little resemblance to the predictions on paper. The government bureaucracy at all levels does not appear to be carrying out even a part of the program, which is financed not only by Egypt but also by the Ford Foundation, the Population Council in New York, and the World Bank, among others. Responsibility for the program is divided among no less than five different ministries, and there are dozens of senior officials in charge of every stage of its implementation.25

The central solution to the problem envisaged by this program lies in population dispersal and the construction of new towns in the desert, as outlined by President Sadat in the "October Paper" published in May 1974. A number of these towns are already in the process of rapid construction, but their absorption capacity will be limited from the outset by the lack of employment opportunities and serious investment. Motivation to settle in the new towns does not seem very high; except for the Canal towns there is no real move in their direction, and even in the Suez region population figures will apparently not regain pre-June 1967 levels.

Other hopeful programs speak of an impressive large-scale agricultural development project in the Aswan region, which will include the reclamation of three million acres and diminish the need for food imports and absorb 26.5 million people from other parts of Egypt by the year 2000.26 Up to now, however, the only thing that is actually happening to ease the population problem is the emigration from Egypt, with about 100,000 Egyptians leaving the country every year, mainly to work in the oil states. Although this figure is considerable in itself, it amounts to almost ten per cent of the natural increase in Egypt, while at the same time drawing on the best of the country's professional and technical manpower reserves — a heavy price in terms of brain drain and long term development.

The government's program is aimed at keeping Egypt's population down to about sixty million by the year 2000.27 It speaks of turning Cairo into a closed city, diverting the flood of internal migration to new cities and development areas, and creating 11.4 million new jobs by the year 2000.

While the program sounds impressive, it is hard to know just how much of it has a chance of being implemented by the target date of 2000, or thereafter. It should be pointed out that the initiative for the program did not come from the regime itself, but was the result of pressure from outside bodies responsible for the lion's share of investment in Egypt such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and large banks in Europe and the U.S. These bodies regard the existing situation in Egypt and the neglect of the population problem with grave concern and are taking steps to make the bestowal of banking credit and large financial assistance to economic projects conditional upon the implementation of the birth control program. In a meeting which took place in June 1977 in Paris after the food riots representatives of the bodies investing in Egypt demanded that the regime begin carrying out its promises in the sphere of birth control.28

Prospects for the Year 2000

Predictions about the size of Egypt's population in the year 2000 vary from a minimum of fifty-four to fifty-six million to over seventy million.29 Government estimates tend to be low and never exceed sixty million, usually centering around fifty million — although Egypt's population today has already passed the forty one million mark and there are still two more decades to go to the end of the century.

In any event, the minimum estimates all take into account a significant and comprehensive government birth control program, without which there would be no chance whatsoever of keeping population growth to the rate planned. In the light of present government inaction it does not seem possible that Egypt's population will remain within the bounds of the minimun estimates.

In relation to the high figure of seventy million in the year 2000 the future problems of Egypt take on a frightening dimension. While it is difficult to predict the exact proportions of urban in relation to rural population in the future, it is clear that the rate of internal migration will not remain static, with the result that more than half the population of Egypt will be living in towns, especially in greater Cairo. All the population dispersal plans and projected new towns combined will not be able to absorb this internal migration, and Cairo will continue to grow rapidly despite the continued decline in the rate of natural increase of its inhabitants. Estimates of Cairo's future population vary from a minimum of fourteen to sixteen million to a maximum of twenty million.30 Cairo is already one of the world's ten biggest cities, and in the year 2000 it will be even higher up on the list. The grave urban and ecological consequences of the growth in population threaten to bring the already overcrowded city to an economic and urban standstill.

Predicted unemployment figures do not augur well for the future economy of Egypt. Government plans do not appear to be founded on a realistic appraisal of the country's economic possibilities in the foreseeable future. It is not at all that clear where the eleven million jobs the government intends to create are going to come from, or how the fruits of the high birth rate of the sixties and seventies will be absorbed in Egypt's economy when they begin to enter the labour force in the eighties. Much depends on the expansion of employment opportunities in the Gulf states, but in the light of the instability of these states and their hostility to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, it is not at all sure that they will be able to continue absorbing Egyptian labour even at the present rate of emigration. The rate of growth of the labour force in Egypt has risen steeply since 1960, as have the unemployment and latent unemployment rates. While the size of the labour force will grow, there will be both a relative and an absolute rise in the number of those who are under fifteen and not working. If in 1970 there were 14.5 million children under 15 in Egypt, by 1985 we can expect this number to rise to 22.4 million, constituting a heavy burden on that section of the labour force which is actually employed, and which today forms no more than twenty per cent of the Egyptian population.31

There is every indication that the already severe problems faced by Egypt's agriculture and the crisis in food production will grow worse in the future. One forecast predicts that by the year 2000 the area under cultivation in Egypt will actually shrink to about four million acres, due to the rapid rate of urbanization and internal migration and the taking over of existing agricultural land for housing construction.32

By the year 2000 Egypt will be importing most of its food supplies, especially wheat and other grains. Unless revolutionary changes take place in local food production, these imports will swallow the lion's share of the national income by the end of the century. Egypt's present food imports are estimated at about half of the country's grain consumption in general and almost all of its wheat consumption. By the year 2000 Egypt will be needing fifteen million tons of grain a year, only half of which, if not far less, will be produced locally. 33

In the light of the above, it is hardly surprising that most observers of the Egyptian scene are pessimistic. Robert McNamara, President of the World Bank, summed up the general feeling after his last visit to Egypt in the following words: "Some progress has been done (sic), and there are chances for progress, but population growth will eat up seventy-five per cent of all investments until the year 2000." 34

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About the Author

Oded Yinon is an analyst of Middle Eastern Affairs.

This document is presented as a companion piece to Yinon's "A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties" which Israel Shahak translated as The Zionist Plan for the Middle East to further showcase this author's shrewd analytical skills.

What I find myself taking away from this paper, as it is written by a military analyst, is that due to its growing population problems Egypt is unlikely to present a strategic threat to Israel in the coming years.


1. Akhbar al-Yawm, June 16, 1979; al-Ahram, January 25, 1979; February 2, 1979; Thomas Lippman, Washington Post, quore by Ma'ariv, Seprember 18, 1978.

2. The Economist lntelligence Unit, The Arab Republic of Egypt, Supplement 1978 (London); al-Ahram, January 25, 1979; February 4, 1979.

3. Thomas Lippman, art.cit.

4. Anthony McDermot, The Financial Times, Special Supplement on the Economy of Egypt, October 1977.

5., Al-Ahram, January 25, 1979.

6. Loc. cit.

7. Eliyahu Kanovsky, "Major Trends in Middle East Economic Development", in Colin Legum (ed.), Middle East Contemporary Survey, Vol.I. 1976-77,New York (Holmes and Meyer Publishers) 1978, p. 227.

8. Loc. cit.; al-Ahram, January 25, 1979; July 1, 1978.

9. McDermot, Financial Times, October 1977.

10. Loc. cit.

11. Al-Ahram, January 25, 1979; John Waterbury, Egypt — Burdens of the Past, Options for the Future, (Indiana 1978), p. 180.

12. The Increase of Population in the UAR [Arabic], 1966, p.143; McDermot, art.cit.

13. John Waterbury, op.cit., pp. 120-1 ; al-Ahram, November 17, 1974.

14. John Waterbury, "Manpower and Population Planning in the Arab Republic of Egypt", Part IV, American University Field Staff Reports, 1972, pp. 4-8.

15. Speech on August 6, 1966, al-Ahram, August7, 1966.

16. Anwar al-Sadat, In Search of Identity (New York 1977); October Paper, Supplement to al-Ahram, May 1, 1974.

17. John Waterbury, Egypt — Burdens of the Past, pp. 40-62.

18. Al-Musawwar,March 1, 1974; al-Ahram,March 26, 1975.

19. Egyptian Gazette, February 9, 1975 as cited by John Waterbury, op. cit., p. 68

20. Loc. cit.; McDermot, art. cit.

21. John Warerbury, op, cit. pp, 74-75.

22. Al-Ahram,July 1, 1978; February 4, 1979.

23. Al-Ahram, August 28, 1978; February 4, 1979; Thomas Lippman, art.cit.

24. McDermot, art. cit.; al-Ahram, February 4, 1979.

25. Loc. cit.

26. Al-Ahram, July 10, 1978; al-Akhbar,February 21, 1978.

27. Al-Ahram,January 5, 1978.

28. Special supplement to the Financial Times, July 31, 1978.

29. Al-Ahram, July 1, 1978; McDermot, Financial Times, October 1977; Warerbury Wages of Dependency (draft paper, December 1974), p. 14.

30. Warerbury, Egypt — Burdens of the Past, p. 127; al-Akhbar, June 29, 1978 McDermot, art. cit.

31. Waterbury, "Population Review 1971", AUFS Reports, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, p. 13.

32. Waterbury, "Wages of Dependency", op. cit., p. 45.

33. Waterbury, Egypt — Burdens of the Past, p. 121.

34. The Times, January 24, 1978; Cf. Hansen, op. cit.,p. 24-26; Eliyahu Kanowsky, "Recent Economic Developments in the Middle East", The Shiloah Centre, Occasional Papers, June 1977, p. 12.

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