By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
CAIRO, June 10 -- Egypt's big problem? Too many Egyptians, President Hosni Mubarak said this week, launching a new family planning campaign as his government grapples with long bread lines and riots over flour rations.
Mubarak has urged Egyptians to have smaller families since coming to power in 1981, when the country's population was slightly more than 40 million, about half of its estimated population of 81 million today. Many Egyptians see large families as a source of financial security.
Mubarak has renewed such efforts at times of economic difficulty, such as the current one, when rising food prices, stagnant wages and an inefficient and corrupt distribution system have led to hours-long lines for subsidized bread. On Saturday, thousands in the Mediterranean town of Burullus burned tires and battled police to show their anger over a government plan to distribute flour rations to bakeries rather than the public.
At least 10 Egyptians have died in incidents at bread lines this year.
"Egyptians built history and culture and the Pyramids when they were no more than 2 million," Mubarak said Monday at a national conference on family planning, according to the Cairo daily al-Masri al-Yom. At current growth rates, the country's population will double by 2050, he said.
Health Minister Hatem el-Gabali announced an $80 million family-planning campaign Tuesday, with the slogan "Two children per family -- a chance for a better life."
Egypt is the 16th most populous country in the world, and the most populous Arab nation. Its fertility rate, 2.7 children born per woman, places it 88th among nations, according to 2008 estimates in the CIA World Factbook. The United States ranks 126th with 2.1 children per woman.
In a store selling baby products in Cairo's crowded working-class neighborhood of Boulaq on Tuesday, 71-year-old Abu Mahmoud read the Koran at the counter under a rack of pink baby T-shirts printed with the English words "Beautiful life of niceties."
Abu Mahmoud, who wouldn't give his full name for fear of trouble from the government, said he had five children and wished for 12.
"Every time the president speaks to the people, it's like he's looking at us and saying, 'Where am I going to get the food to feed you all?' " he said.
"God is feeding us," he added.
"If the government took the money it spent on birth-control campaigns and used it to buy us food, it would be much better," said Abu Mahmoud, who has seen four of his children find jobs as accountants, with the fifth still in school.
At a watermelon stand, Nagib Mohammed Ahmed, 60, leaned in the shade of a street kiosk. He said he had five children and went out each day to look for odd jobs to pay for their food and education.
"It's not our fault for having the kids," Ahmed said. "It's the government's fault for not providing. This country is full of resources, but the government takes it all."
He said he hoped his children would have two children per family at the most. "It's too expensive," he said.
Islam does not prohibit contraception, and Egypt has had aggressive birth-control campaigns in the past. TV ads in the 1990s urged condom use, showing a small family ascending into prosperity and a large one descending into poverty.
Egypt's economy has grown by 6 to 7 percent annually in recent years, and the nation has received billions of dollars in foreign investment. At least 40 percent of the people remain in poverty or close to it, according to international institutions.
Child labor is a fact of life for Egypt's poor, and the wages children earn can determine whether families eat or go hungry.
"A man who is poor and who is possibly married to one or two or three or four wives, for him it is a very prosperous plan to get five, six, a half-dozen, a dozen children. It is a source of income," said Milad Hanna, an urbanization and population expert in Cairo.
"People listen to the president, but they don't follow his recommendation, because it is an absolute social and economic necessity for them to have children," Hanna said.
How does Egypt solve the problem? Under current conditions, it doesn't, Hanna said.
"The problem is unsolvable."