Since the 1980s, Egypt has struggled to control rapid population growth, with consecutive governments complaining about the resulting economic burden.
In 2016 alone, Egypt saw the birth of 2.6 million babies, the country’s statistics agency CAPMAS said.
The Health Ministry launched Operation Lifeline last month, to educate people in rural areas about birth control and family planning.
Egypt is the most populous Arab country, with 93 million citizens. That figure is set to grow to 128 million by 2030 if the fertility rate of four births per 1,000 women continues, according to government figures.
“Previous government efforts didn’t fail to curb population growth, otherwise we could’ve surpassed the current figures,” Ayman Zohry, a population and migration expert, told Arab News.
The population grew drastically in the wake of the 2011 uprising and subsequent years of social unrest, he said.
“Every birth averted will be very important to Egypt,” Zohry added, citing the serious implications of overpopulation on national development and security.
The Health Ministry aims to reduce the birth rate to 2.4 and save the government up to 200 billion Egyptian pounds ($11.3 billion) by 2030, Reuters reported.
The ministry will deploy 12,000 family-planning advocates to 18 rural provinces, but gave no details about how it will attract more women to the program.
Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology in Cairo, said to attract people in rural areas to family-planning programs, the government has to understand their perception of wanting to have more children, and how they view large families as a sign of economic strength.
“We’ve seen the upper and middle classes of Egyptian society respond to family planning, but we fail to see the effectiveness of government programs in rural areas, where a family could have six children born to uneducated parents,” he told Arab News.
“To address an issue this big, the government needs to reach opinion leaders in those areas who have the power to convince people of the importance of birth control.”
In previous attempts, Sadek said the government sent representatives who were strangers to rural communities to tell them not to have a lot of children.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi last month said the current population growth rate poses a threat to national development.
“The two biggest dangers that Egypt faces throughout its history are terrorism and population growth, and this challenge decreases Egypt’s chances of moving forward,” he said.
Several MPs have recently called for programs to limit the number of children per family. Some say families with more than three children should be deprived of government support for education and subsidized goods and public services.
“People should understand that rapid population growth has serious implications on the country’s economy, and thus will affect the current and coming generations,” Sadek said.
“Only a strong government can apply strict regulations on families that have more children by cutting subsidies.”
But Zohry said the government should not blame parents for having children, and cutting state support for non-abiding families punishes the newborn, not the parents. Such “negative incentives” will not succeed, he added.
Instead, the government should educate people, especially women, and improve reproductive health care, he said.
The Health Ministry runs nearly 6,000 family-planning clinics, where women receive free check-ups and can buy heavily subsidized contraceptives ranging from condoms at 0.10 Egyptian pounds to copper intrauterine devices at 2 Egyptian pounds.
Besides people in rural areas viewing large families as a source of economic strength, there is also resistance to birth control due to a belief that it is unlawful in Islam to aim to conceive a specific number of children.
But Egypt’s Al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old seat of Islamic learning, said family planning is not forbidden.