Religion is the most important and the most ignored factor hindering the Egyptian state's quest to control the overpopulation crisis.
The government's inability to control the population explosion is responsible for a large portion of Egypt's chronic social and economic problems. Large populations are usually valuable assets to their countries because they provide human capital with a young workforce capable of effectively elevating the economy in a short period of time. Several Asian countries, including China, reaped significant benefits and profits from their large population. However, in Egypt, where citizens' productivity is significantly lower than the global average and the state's natural and financial resources are noticeably limited, the large population is a burden rather than an asset.
According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) official statistics, a new child is born every 19 seconds. That equates to approximately three people per minute, 188 newborns per hour, and 4525 new citizens added to the registrar at the end of each day. In just seven months, from February to September of this year, the number of Egyptian citizens increased by one million, bringing the total population to 104 million. About 102 million of them live in Egypt, predominantly on the shores of the Nile River.
The current generation's high fertility rates are the primary cause of this rapid population growth. Most Egyptians (approximately 65%) are young people under the age of 35. The Egyptian culture encourages marriage at a young age for both men and women, particularly in rural cities, which comprise the major part of Egyptian land.
Marriage is illegal for minors under the age of 18. However, in most rural cities, most families allow their girls to marry between the ages of 14 and 16 and boys between the ages of 17 and 19. Then, later, they register their marriage when they reach the legal marriage age. Even in better-educated families living in urban cities, most marriages are convened when the couple is in their twenties.
Per human nature, when young and fertile people marry early in life, they have children. Until the early 2000s, the majority of Egyptian families had 5-8 children. In rural cultures, having more children means having free labor to farm the land and bring in more money for the family. In urban culture, larger families were perceived to have higher social status than smaller ones.
The former first lady, Suzan Mubarak, spearheaded a nationwide birth control initiative in the 1990s to urge families to have no more than two kids. The initiative pursued concurrent campaigns of public education via mainstream media, women's economic empowerment through availing literacy classes, and medical programs that provided free birth control supplies and other contraceptive methods to residents of rural areas. The initiative was effective since it reduced the fertility rate per woman from an average of 5.6 to 3.2 in the 2010s.
Nevertheless, after the fall of the Mubarak regime in 2011, Islamists gained control over the presidency and the parliament. That encouraged most families, who were highly influenced by the Islamist rhetoric, to stop practicing birth control. Mubarak’s state-led birth control initiatives had received harsh criticism from Islamists, particularly the Salafists. They view birth control as interference with Allah's will and have consistently warned the common public that Allah would punish them if they used contraception. Up until the government initiated a push to replace them with moderate imams from Al-Azhar University in 2015, Salafist sheiks had a significant influence on the largely illiterate and pious populace in rural cities.
The typical family today has four kids. More than five children are present in rural families as the population rises. Since 2017, the current political leadership of President El-Sisi has attempted to start a countrywide birth control effort akin to Suzan Mubarak's. As expected, the Salafists were the only group that has been opposing the government initiatives, which they labeled as “haram” (i.e., prohibited by a divine order), through their talking heads in the media and affiliated Members of Parliament.
The undue Salafist rhetoric against contraception must be reined in, and imams from Al-Azhar should be assigned to inform the public citizens, particularly in rural cities, about the advantages of birth control, if the Egyptian government is to succeed in containing the population crisis. Yet, it is still unclear if Al-Azhar would be willing and prepared to participate in such a campaign.
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