Egypt Faces a Modern-day Plague: Too Many Egyptians

The country will struggle to economically sustain its growth, and climate change is just adding to the misery

David Rosenberg
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A screen showing the number of Egypt’s population is seen at a news conference at the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in Cairo, Egypt February 11, 2020.
A screen showing the number of Egypt’s population is seen at a news conference at the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in Cairo, February 11, 2020. Credit: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY, Reuters
David Rosenberg

Do you remember the old joke about the doctor who tells his patient, “I have some bad news for you and some worse news.” The patient responds: “Tell me that bad news first,” to which the doctor answers, “You have 24 hours left to live.” The exasperated patient cries out: “24 hours, what could be worse news than that?” The doctor, evidently lacking in bedside manner, answers: “I forgot to tell you yesterday.”

Replace the doctor with a demographer and the patient with Egypt, and you have the same joke writ large and not nearly as funny.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 63

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Last week the Egyptian statistics agency CAPMAS reported that its population clock showed that the country now numbers 100 million people. That’s the bad news. The worse news is that the United Nations estimates that Egypt reached the 100 million mark sometime last year.

Those six or so months make a big difference: As of Thursday, the UN estimate counts 1.3 million Egyptians than CAPMAS does. 

The news only gets worse. The CAPMAS figure only counts Egyptians living in Egypt. But since the Egyptian economy does such a poor job of creating jobs an estimated nine million more live abroad, mostly in the Gulf. Given the sorry state of the Gulf economies and their efforts to wean themselves off foreign labor, Egypt can’t rely on them to keep absorbing its excess population. Some of those nine million may even be coming back.

The UN expects Egypt’s population to reach 120 million by 2030 and 153 million by 2050, which is bad news enough. But the worse news is that it has grossly underestimated the pace of Egypt’s population growth in the past, when it predicted Egypt would hit 96 million in 2026; in practice, that happened in 2017.

Egypt isn’t the only country in the Arab world facing a dystopian demographic future, but its situation looks particularly dismal. Its population is projected by the UN to grow slightly faster than the region as a whole over the next decade.

Egypt’s efforts at containing growth have been going backward. A decade ago its fertility rate was down to 3.02 from 6.75 in the 1950s. But family planning programs have lost momentum, and since 2010 the fertility rate has headed upward to reach 3.33 in 2020. The bad news here is that the government’s programs to reverse it are regarded as ineffective

The worse news is that even if they suddenly were to become effective, it won’t make a lot of difference because the past increase in girl babies will increase the population of mothers in the years to come.

Even if those mothers each have fewer babies, there will be more women giving birth. Those babies face a bleak future for environmental and economic reasons.

The environmental one is pretty obvious: More than 95% of Egypt is desert and the limited supply of arable land is being eaten up by an expanding population grows. The country’s only important source of water is the Nile, but the supply is soon going to be reduced by the construction of a dam upstream by Ethiopia

The bad news from Ethiopia threatens to be compounded by the worse news of climate change. Rising sea levels threaten to flood a good part of the Nile Delta, where Egypt gets grows most of its crops. The rest of the country’s agriculture could see its harvests fell by 15% to 20% due to hotter weather and reduced rainfall.

In theory, population growth is an economic asset. At a time when much of the West is anxious about aging workforces and even population decline, Egypt’s growing working-age population is better able to support its dependent population of children and elderly. A young workforce is ordinarily more productive and technologically savvy than an older one.

It’s a phenomenon known as the “demographic dividend.” However, in Egypt’s case, the dividend is going to be small, maybe nonexistent. The economy is so poor at generating jobs that youth unemployment and underemployment is already very high, and will only get worse as the population of young people grows. The education they get is so poor that more than a third of students entering middle school can’t read or write. The ones who can don’t have the skills required to work in a modern economy.

Far from supporting their parents, boosting productivity and forming high-tech startups to solve their country’s problems, young Egyptians will be struggling to make a living at all.

What will they do? Unlike their parents, they won’t have the option of packing up for the Gulf, where the opportunities are better. Europe and America could use a population boost from immigration, but the current political mood is today far from welcoming, especially of migrants from poor Muslim countries.

It would be facile to boil down the mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon to economic distress, but it is certainly a major element. Large numbers of unemployed have a lot of time on their hands to grumble about their predicament, join rallies and take on governments with zero tolerance for dissent. Egypt could be next.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi has even less tolerance than most Arab leaders. But against the forces of population, climate change and economic distress, that’s not going to count for much.

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