"Less than one" was the phrase used by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in a live speech last week, which prompted a wave of criticism within Egypt and beyond. Having more than two children per family is a problem; "less than one" is better.
Everyone was surprised by this, as it was both shocking and illogical for Egyptians. It was clear that the Egyptian president was dealing with demographic rates and population variables with the same logic he uses to order roads, bridges and infrastructure requiring speedy implementation, which of course the army responds to with approval.
It seems that Sisi and those around him have overlooked the fact that the demographic situation has different determinants and is governed by human, emotional and psychological factors. They seem not to notice that the demographic problem is not merely statistics, but rather an issue of three basic axes: the lack of economic growth to keep pace with the population increase; the decline of human resources; and the imbalance in the geographical distribution of the population across Egypt.
Egyptian society, meanwhile, seems to have overlooked the fact that Sisi used this phrase to announce his wish to curb the population increase in the country, by cutting the average number of children per family to less than one instead of the current rate of 3.4 per family. Sisi was commenting on a chart presented by the Minister of Planning showing the birth rate in four countries from 1960 to 2018, namely Egypt, Iran, South Korea and Malaysia.
While Sisi's wish is ill-considered, the choice of those three countries to compare with Egypt was strange. Although they had similar birth rates in 1960, ranging from an average of 6.1 and 6.9 children per woman, each of these countries had different circumstances; the numbers today are very different, with Egypt at 3.4, Iran and Malaysia both two and South Korea less than one child, on average, for every woman. That's the number that caught Sisi's attention.
In December last year, the director of the World Bank Group in Malaysia explained that the Malaysian demographics are currently facing a decline in the birth rate, and that according to international standards Malaysia has become an elderly society. He added that rapid aging means that Malaysians have to work longer, raising the retirement age to 65 from 60.
Official statistics have shown that the number of births among Malaysians of Chinese descent is declining, which is a worrying indicator and has political and economic consequences for the future of the ethnic group in Malaysia. In a report that was presented on the sidelines of an international conference this month in Kuala Lumpur on the reality and challenges of ageing, it was pointed out that the high rate of aging in Malaysian society poses a challenge to the government in terms of providing care for the elderly, monitoring their needs and empowering them to play their role in building the state by improving the mechanisms used to develop human capital.
It was odd for the minister to compare the birth rate in Egypt with South Korea, which suffers from population decline. Young people are avoiding marriage and childbearing for multiple reasons, including cultural and economic factors. According to a study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, unmarried men and women cited "economic conditions" and "social and cultural values associated with marriage", respectively, as the main reason for choosing to remain unmarried. This means that Korea's population decline is a complex problem, which includes economic slowdown, a low number of job opportunities, housing price burdens, insufficient childcare facilities, and so on.
The most serious consequence of all of this is that a decrease in the working-age population will place a significant burden on the economy and society. On 26 February last year, South Korea announced that it had recorded a new decline in the birth rate for the second year in a row. The country is suffering from a demographic disaster, as it has one of the longest life expectancy rates and one of the lowest birth rates.
As for Iran, in August last year the Financial Times published a report in which it shed light on the problem facing Tehran, with many young people reluctant to marry and the low average birth rate of 1.7 children per woman. According to the Iranians, this is less than the 2.1 births per woman necessary to ensure that the population remains stable.
With regard to the Middle East and North Africa region as a whole, the rate was 2.8 births per woman in 2018, the most recent year for which World Bank data is available. The FT quoted a demography professor at Tehran University as saying that urbanisation, a high literacy rate and the expansion of higher education have all contributed to the spread of family planning in Iran, compared with other countries in the region.
The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, announced last July — after two months of research by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution on the negative population growth in Iran — the failure of the population growth policy in the country. He added that these matters need a law, and that the issue of reproduction should be considered important as he fears an aging population.
As soon as those statements were made, we saw media platforms begin a hasty promotion of the importance of family planning as the only way to solve Egypt's problems. The Ministry of Religious Endowments even began making this the topic of the Friday sermon in all mosques, while the usual silence prevailed in the Egyptian Church.
In his speech, Sisi referred to the idea of issuing legislation to limit fertility, and this is an issue that is already under discussion. It is possible that the House of Representatives may work on laws in this regard and this may add to the waste of human resources in Egypt, which are an effective element in support of the national economy. This is a known fact internationally since the International Conference on Population in Mexico in 1984, which recognised this.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 21 February 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.