Egypt’s embarrassing baby boom

Birthrate unexpectedly takes a jump, as critics fault top-down family-planning policies.

cute baby 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
cute baby 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Egypt's birth rate dramatically increased in 2009 compared to the previous year, casting doubt on the effectiveness of government-led birth control policies.  "A high birthrate isn’t good for Egypt," Maye Kassem, a political scientist from the American University in Cairo, told The Media Line. "The Egyptian government is unable to provide jobs and education for so many people."
According to the Annual Bulletin of Births and Deaths Statistics 2009, Egypt's live birth rate increased 8.1% in 2009 from 2008. The bulletin, published by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAMPAS), also noted that Egypt's crude birth rate, an indicator referring to the total number of births at midyear, reached 28.8 per 1,000 population in 2009, compared to 27.3 in 2008.
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Most of Egypt’s estimated 79 million people live crowded along the two banks of the Nile River. The most populous country in the Middle East, millions live in shanty towns and squat in tombs as the government strains to provide homes and jobs for its people. Experts warn that uncontrolled population growth will stifle efforts to boost standards of living. If the current growth rate continues at the current rate of one baby every 23 seconds, or 1.3 million every year, Egypt will be home to at least 160 million people by 2050.
Since coming to power in 1981, President Hosni Mubarak has urged Egyptians to have smaller families and population growth has fallen from extremely high levels. This makes the latest statistics mark an embarrassing setback. 
In 2008, the Health Ministry launched an $80 million family planning campaign called "Two Children per family – a chance for a better life." While Mubarak himself has only two children, the average Egyptian woman gives birth to 3.01 children. Commercials broadcast on public television juxtapose a family with two well-dressed, clean children in a groomed house, with a noisy, unruly family with multiple children living in squalor in a dilapidated home.
"Through these commercials, the government is telling the public: every child born is your responsibility, so don't have more children than you can afford," said Kassem.
With parliamentary elections occurring in two weeks’ time, the new data are being used by Egypt's opposition as political currency to slam the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). A headline in the Al-Wafd opposition newspaper claimed that "CAMPAS announces the failure of government planning policies."
Abd Al-Salam Hassan, a researcher at the Demographic Center of Cairo, said government attempts to curb birth rates are failing because the general public wasn't involved in policymaking. "The attempt to dictate policy from the ivory tower isn’t working," he told The Media Line. "To influence people you must involve them in policy." Hassan said poor, often illiterate, rural families depended on large numbers of children as a source of revenue. He added that the Egyptian population was generally suspicious of government policies dictated from above. "People here don't believe the government is working for them," he said. "The government does whatever it wants, and presents optimistic statistics to please the West."
Hassan said that policymaking must take religion into consideration, as it is a key element in the life of most Egyptians. He added that most religious scholars agreed with the principle of family planning, as long as the method of birth control used is reversible. "There are scholars who support family planning and those who don't," he said. "The problem is that less educated clerics live in rural areas, where the challenge is bigger. These clerics need to be convinced by more enlightened ones."
Maye Kassem, the political scientist, said that although government provides free birth-control pills, Egyptians traditionally view children as a blessing from God and a source of wealth, not an economic burden. She added that in a society with no real welfare network, large families are regarded as insurance policy for parents’ old age when they can count on multiple children to support them.  "This is a cultural concept that will take a long time to change," Kassem said.