From terrorism to population growth; from the January Revolution to the Muslim Brotherhood; and from the coronavirus pandemic to the Russia-Ukraine war, the regime led by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has an array of arguments to justify the major economic failure of Egypt since the army seized power in the coup on 3 July, 2013. Al-Sisi wheels out population growth from time to time and claims that it is a disaster that is devastating the country’s resources and wasting its finances. He ignores the failure of his economic policies and his flashy vanity projects from which the Egyptian people have gained nothing.
The Egyptian president himself has four children. He warns of a disaster unless fertility rates decline in the country, where the population stands at 105.5 million, according to data from the state-run Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics.
During the World Population Conference which concluded in Cairo last Friday, Al-Sisi praised the family planning policy adopted by China over the decades, which limited births to one child per family. He called for childbirth in Egypt to be “regulated” to keep the number of births below 400,000 per year.
Numbers and meanings
Egypt leads the Arab region in terms of population, is third in Africa, and 14th in the world. The birth rate was 2.85 children per woman last year, with 2.2 million children born, according to official statistics. Egyptian Minister of Health Khaled Abdel Ghaffar says that 5,683 children are born in Egypt every day, at a rate of 237 per hour, four per minute, one every 15 seconds. This, he believes, is a challenge that hinders economic growth and devours development revenues.
However, according to the statistics, there has been a decline in population growth in Egypt since 2012 up until last year. The natural population increase — the difference between the number of births and the number of deaths — actually fell from 1.822 million in 2018 to 1.583 million individuals last year, according to data from the official statistics agency.
Experts and observers hold the Egyptian government responsible for the failure to manage the country, which is rich in natural resources; possesses one of the most important waterways in the world in the Suez Canal; has valuable natural gas fields; and is a major tourist destination with its wealth of antiquities and museums. This is in addition to the River Nile, coastlines on both the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and a strong demographic, which is mostly young people.
In his interview with Middle East Monitor, economic expert MA insisted that the pressure on the country’s resources is mainly due to the lack of planning, the neglect of feasibility studies, and randomness in decision-making. He criticised the disregard for the importance of human wealth as one of the most important components of any country’s economic strength. In this regard, we can cite the model of Japan, which lacks natural resources and relied for its revival on its human wealth. In the Arab world we have the model of Jordan, which benefited from its human wealth making it the main factor in the economy both internally and externally.
The Egyptian regime, backed by a well-oiled media machine, usually resorts to “reasons” that are just excuses to justify the delay in the fruits of development, including the crisis in Libya, the war in Sudan, and the situation in Sinai. It even went so far as to accuse the January 2011 revolution, and those it describes as “evil forces” and external parties, of working to abort the country’s revival.
Years ago, the interior ministry in Cairo accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being behind the dollar shortage crisis, and a number of exchange companies were closed under the pretext of having a relationship with the group that has been officially banned in Egypt. The movement is described by the regime as a “terrorist” organisation, and was also accused of being behind the chaos of leaking high school exam papers and a number of basic education certificates. Stranger still, the ministry accused the same movement in November 2015 of blocking drains and sewage pipes with cement to prevent rainwater from draining away, and thus caused the flooding of Alexandria Governorate in the north.
The Egyptian authorities have accused opponents of stockpiling sugar to create a crisis in the markets. At the time, former Attorney General Nabil Sadiq accused wanted persons of “establishing a cell affiliated with the Brotherhood organisation, whose mission is to collect sugar and other strategic goods from the markets, with the aim of provoking public opinion.”
For most ordinary people, a hanger is a plastic or wooden implement to keep clothes in an organised state inside a wardrobe. In Egypt, though, it is a political tool used for someone or something else to carry the failure of officials, presidents and successive regimes.
Al-Sisi’s call to move out of the impasse of overpopulation by facilitating “legal migration” from countries with high population densities — such as Egypt, for example — to countries with low population densities — in Europe, for example — is interesting. He added that legal migration is the solution to confront the labour shortage in any country, and would be coordinated between governments, providing labour for pre-determined periods.
Minister of State for Immigration Soha Gendy announced plans to implement Al-Sisi’s proposal, through the “Lifesaving boats” presidential initiative, within the framework of a programme aimed at training Egyptians and qualifying them to work in the European and Western market.
Hundreds of Egyptians, Syrians and Pakistanis were killed in June in one of the worst drowning incidents off the Greek coast. A fishing boat heading to Italy sank, with more than 700 people on board.
Egyptians topped the list of irregular migrants heading for Europe during the first five months of 2022, when more than 3,500 Egyptians attempted to cross the Mediterranean. This was four times more than the number of Egyptians who did the same thing in the same period in 2021 according to the EUobserver website.
Egyptian political researcher HA has pointed out that population growth is not the reason for Egypt’s suffering; it’s down to the current economic crisis caused primarily by Al-Sisi’s policies. The president has allocated money, aid and loans to vanity construction projects and building a new capital, instead of agriculture, industry and the diversification of the economy, which ultimately led him to sell assets to Gulf investors to provide dollars and service external debts. He then warned of waves of illegal migration, in a scandalous attempt at blackmail to obtain aid and loans, then commodify people and call for their export abroad via “lifesaving boats”.
“Al-Sisi’s policies have thrown millions of citizens into the swamp of poverty, and the number of young people, teenagers, and even children departing on death boats has increased,” added HA.
Experts say that evading economic problems by proposing to regulate migration to Europe and blackmailing the West financially in exchange for stopping illegal migration boats will not work. Other solutions must be sought, such as strengthening small and medium industries, operating closed factories, increasing private sector participation, ending the state and army’s monopolies on business affairs, removing obstacles to investment and high taxes, controlling imports, and adjusting government spending.
Political researcher Abu Anas Al-Masry told Middle East Monitor that the dense population numbers are one of the components of a successful economy, such as material resources. The greater the population, the greater the experience and the diversity of experiences; if they are invested well, they increase the pace of expansion and horizontal growth.
“In many countries, this increase was exploited in the competition for the list of major economies, as in India, China, Indonesia, Japan and others; even countries with shrinking populations opened the door to immigration to benefit from foreign labour in order to maintain their global economic position,” explained Al-Masry. “Take Germany, for example. It opened the door wide to immigration in recent years to remain among the five richest countries.”
Underdeveloped countries do not appreciate this economic advantage, he added. “Rather, some of them consider it a burden on their corrupt regimes, and they begin to develop plans and strategies to slow down the increase in population. They do so to use it as a hanger on which to hang their own failure.”
Egypt is adopting a presidential initiative targeting women between 18 and 40 years old. The aim is to reduce the number of births by granting savings certificates worth 60,000 Egyptian pounds (about $195) on condition of committing to a maximum of two children. There are also calls to grant additional benefits to families with no more than two children, and to impose a tax on those who have three or four.
Will this work? Only if the regime accepts that the population increase actually indicates its failure to manage the country and the economy effectively, for the benefit of all citizens, not just a privileged few.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.