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Egypt: the population time-bomb


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Egypt: the population time-bomb

Confucius told his disciple Tsze-kung three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can’t have all three, said the Chinese philosopher, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust being by far the ruler’s most precious asset, it should be kept to the end. For without people’s trust, there can be no government at all.

In this mid-July 2013, as the sound of weapons fade away from the streets of Cairo, and muezzins’ voices call the Muslim worshippers to prayers in the holy month of Ramadan, daunting responsibilities confront Egypt’s interim rulers: providing food for the country’s record fast growing population and building trust in a wounded, highly polarised multi-millennial society.

The latter will take some time, spanning over at least a generation, as it requires finding common ground between a multitude of opposing political forces and creating sound, inclusive democratic institutions that serve all Egyptians, regardless of their political and religious orientation. Everything that Mohamed Mursi, the ousted Muslim Brotherhood president did not do in his highly partisan one-year in power. Turkey will serve as a reminder of the fact that democracy is a reachable goal in a predominantly Muslim country. Even with a mighty army in the picture.

As for the former – the provision of food – while it needs to be dealt with on a daily basis, it will stand for decades to come as a haunting question mark for whoever leads the Arab’s world most populous state. Or several haunting question marks, for that matter.

Who will feed the Egyptians, a nation whose population is forecast to grow until 2030 at a break-neck pace of one million people a year? Who will provide jobs for the growing pool of young people of working age in the coming decades? Can the Egyptian state provide them with economic opportunities or at the least sufficient basic goods? Will foreign investment pour in, to make the most of the tremendous opportunities of an expanding, mostly urban market? If left unanswered, these overwhelming issues and their explosive potential can become long term threats to the very future of Egypt.

The most populous country of the Middle East and the third most populous on the African continent (after Nigeria and Ethiopia), Egypt’s fertility rate is currently 2.9 children per woman and is expected to remain above the replacement ratio of 2.1 for at least the next two decades. As a result, the United Nations projects the Egyptian population to exceed 100 million by 2030. Euromonitor forecasts it will reach 105 million by 2030.

Already in 2012, Egypt’s population growth hit its highest levels since 1991, reaching 32 births per 1,000 people and bringing the country’s population to 85 million in July 2013, according to the CIA

This represents an increase of 50 percent from 1990, when the population was just 56 million. Back then, the government of Hosni Mubarak expanded family planning programs and publicity campaigns to curtail population growth that he blamed for crippling Egypt’s development. If Arab socialism failed to achieve tangible results in birth control, it’s hard to believe that Islamist ideology will do better. Islam, as propounded by the Muslim Brotherhood, is hostile to family planning – and (even more!) to the female education and empowerment essential to making family planning successful.

A rapidly rising population is not a sign of trouble per se. But Egypt’s population has grown well beyond the means of the state to support its needs.

High birth rates are creating job seekers faster than the country’s weak finances can create opportunities for them. The bulk of the population falls between the ages of fourteen and thirty-four. Unemployment, one of Egypt’s most persistent ailments, reaches a frightening 77% among people between 15 and 29, even though many are well educated.

More than one-third of the Egyptians who work for wages – that is, who are not peasant farmers – work for government in one way or another. Since the 1950s, the Egyptian government has used state employment as a social welfare program, multiplying especially civil service jobs in order to create appropriately dignified work for its over-abundant university graduates. But those state opportunities are more and more limited and the constant political turmoil turns away private investment.

All this is to say nothing of the environmental impact of the current population growth rates and of the huge constraints on the country’s most basic resources: land and water. All but 4% of Egypt’s 1 million square kilometers is desert. 96% of the Egyptian population lives on this 4% of the land, leading to population densities as high as 116,000/square kilometre in areas of Cairo. The urban population is set to overtake the rural population for the first time in 2030. At current rates of consumption, the Nile River – Egypt’s only significant source of water- may no longer be able to support the population.

Then there is bread, a staple of the Egyptian diet. In a report issued on Thursday, July 11, FAO, the United Nations’ food agency, said that civil unrest and dwindling foreign exchange reserves raise serious food security concerns in Egypt

Once a major agricultural exporter, Egypt ranks now as the world’s largest importer of wheat, half of which it distributes to its people in the form of heavily subsidised bread. Sold for less than 1 $US, the subsidized flat loaf of bread has become a cherished social entitlement. The 2008 unrest, faced by former President Hosni Mubarak when the rising world price of wheat caused shortages, is a stark reminder of the primal responsibility facing Egypt’s leadership, regardless of its ideology.

But some economists consider the biggest concern at the moment to be fuel. Unsustainable fuel subsidies are now taking over eight percent of the country’s GDP and as the Egyptian pound has depreciated to its lowest level in the past decade, they are becoming even more costly.

With an ailing economy and an ever-increasing population, Egypt is kept afloat by vast flows of foreign aid. US foreign assistance to Egypt has averaged about $2 billion a year since 1979, when Egypt struck a peace treaty with Israel. Since July 2012, when the now-ousted President Mohamed Mursi assumed power, Qatar has lent Egypt around eight billion dollars. And on July the 9, 2013, following Morsi’s ouster, Saudi Arabia pledged $5 billion in aid and the United Arab Emirates offered $3 billion.

But foreign perfusion cannot keep pace with the needs of such a rapidly growing population.
While trying to follow Confucius’ advice about putting trust at the very foundation of a democratic Egypt, the millennial country’s rulers should start thinking about how to deactivate the population time-bomb.

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