A desperate call to lower the Egyptian birth rate… from an Egyptian

There have been several attempts in the past at lowering the birth rate in Egypt and they continue today with no great success.

A police officer patrols the Giza Pyramids on his camel on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt December (photo credit: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS)
A police officer patrols the Giza Pyramids on his camel on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt December
Professor Wassim Al Sisi, a distinguished Egyptian professor of medicine, took the unusual step last week of publishing in the popular Al Masry al Yom daily a desperate appeal to his fellow citizens: The birth rate, which stands today at 2.5 % and is among the highest in the world must be reduced because it is spiraling out of control and endangering efforts to reform the economy.
Loosely translated, here are some of the main points in what he wrote under the provocative heading, “What the main theme of my sermons would be if I were an Imam.”
“Dear fellow countrymen, you know that numbers can tell an important message. We Egyptians number one hundred million today, and there are two million and three hundred thousand new births a year. You certainly know that no economic growth can keep the pace with a population growing exponentially. We could be two hundred million in a few decades.
“You will argue that the Prophet – peace be upon him – told us to multiply so that he may boast that you are the greatest people on resurrection day. Caliph Omar Al Khatib said that then Muslims were few, but today they are many; and the Prophet – peace be upon him – also said that he fears the man who acts in a way to bring disaster upon himself. When asked what he meant, he replied, “Little money and many children.
“My fellow countrymen, you say that family planning is forbidden by the Sharia. I tell you that spilling your seed outside the womb is the only way open to Arabs to plan a family. While discussing the subject the companions of the Prophet – peace be upon him – one of them said that spilling the seed – perish the thought – was like burying a baby girl alive [an ancient Arab practice predating Islam]. Another replied it was not so, since that ancient practice was accompanied by ritual blessings. According to the Sharia, before a human being is created there is a lengthy process beginning with clay, and seed is a very early element in the process, so that spilling it is not killing a human being. A third person then said, you are right, Islam does not forbid it.”
The professor goes on, “Dear fellow countrymen, Islam does permit family planning through spilling seed outside the womb and today there are other easier methods for that purpose. Why not use them? The Prophet – peace be upon him – wants to be proud of us as a quality nation and not as a populous one. Look at Israel – only eight million and they have defeated three hundred million Arabs.
“In 1950, there were four million inhabitants in Denmark and in Egypt. Today there are eight million in Denmark and a hundred million in Egypt. Singapore stops child allowances as of the third child and China from the second. Indira Gandhi ordered men to be sterilized after two children. In England, the population has remained stable for 50 years. In France, population is dwindling. If we keep on reproducing like rabbits we shall die like rabbits, inconscient, poor and sick.
“It is very sad that those who have access to education and money have only two or three children at most while poor people who have no education and no money increase at a fast rate.”
Al Sisi ends his plea with a demand for laws to regulate family planning, even though they are harsh, because what appears to be cruelty towards an irresponsible individual is in fact compassion for society as a whole.
There have been several attempts in the past at lowering the birth rate in Egypt and they continue today with no great success. In 1975, president Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat set up a Family Planning Committee and his wife Jehan devoted herself to advancing it – initiating a massive information drive through the media, traveling throughout the country, talking to village elders and to Islam clerics. To no avail. The latter united against her, arguing that it was a Western ploy to harm Islam and declaring that family planning was forbidden. Though there was a slight drop in the birthrate, it did not last. Today the sheer number of new births each year is defeating the government’s efforts to modernize and develop the economy.
President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who is focused on economic reforms, knows only too well how acute the problem is. Immediately after his election, he launched a new drive to lower the birth rate. During a conference on internal problems in 2015, he stated that one had to stop at three children; he even got the tepid support of Sheikh al Azhar, who said that Islam did not prohibit family planning. The prime minister and his colleagues do their best to explain the situation to the population and repeat that it is imperative to limit family size, holding talks with mosque imams, setting up courses and distributing contraceptives free of charge. So far to no avail: there is no change among the populations concerned. The religious establishment is not cooperating and Sheikh Al Azhar refrains from acting because he is afraid to be seen as going against the Sharia and opening the door to far-reaching reforms in other fields.
Sisi can boast of impressive economic results since he implemented fundamental financial reforms and adapted economic laws to modern markets. Egypt saw a 4% growth in the past two years and 5% is expected in the coming years. Nevertheless, with no reduction of the birthrate, those reforms will not change the situation. The country needs a 7% growth for the next 15 to 20 years to make up for the lack of economic progress in the past and the high birthrate. An impossible target. Hence, the urgency in reducing the number of births.
This is why Al Sisi took such a public and dramatic step. He focused on the Egyptian way of life, which is still based on the Sharia, to try to demonstrate that there are practical and relatively easy means of family planning that are not forbidden in Islam. Will his call be heard? It is far from sure.
European countries that are quick to judge Egypt on the basis of Western values without considering the core of Muslim Arabic culture which has shaped Egypt for the last 1,400 hundred years would do well to take a leaf out of the book of the professor and make their demands more palatable to Egypt.