CAIRO — Somewhere in Egypt, around lunchtime Tuesday, the country reached a major milestone: its 100 millionth citizen was born.
The birth of that citizen — whom officials identified as a girl named Yasmine Rabi’e, in a village in Minya governorate — was noted in Cairo by a giant counter outside the country’s national statistics agency that has been ticking upward for years.
Hitting 100,000,000 marked human plenty, certainly, but also an uneasy moment in a country gripped by worries about the effects of the demographic explosion on deepening poverty, rising unemployment and a growing scarcity of basic resources like land and water.
Egypt’s cabinet said last week that it was on “high alert” to fight population growth, which President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has described as a threat to national security on par with terrorism. If unchecked, the population could reach 128 million by 2030, officials say.
Mr. el-Sisi tried to push back the tide with a public health campaign called “Two Is Enough” to persuade parents to have fewer children. Like many such efforts, it failed.
Fertility rates have risen since 2008, to 3.5 children per woman, according to the United Nations, and the population is growing 1.8 percent annually — a rate that, in Egypt’s crowded cities and towns, adds one million citizens every six months.
“The kids are coming thick and fast,” said David Sims, a lecturer at the American University in Cairo and author of “Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control.” “What the hell are they going to do?”
Egypt’s population crisis is amplified by its unforgiving geography: 95 percent of the population lives on about 4 percent of the land, a green belt roughly half the size of Ireland that follows the Nile as it snakes through the desert then fans out into the lush Nile Delta.
Fertility rates are highest in rural areas, where a large family is considered a blessing. But their impact is felt most keenly in greater Cairo, where a sprawling megalopolis of about 20 million inhabitants is spilling into the surrounding desert and farmland.
Seen from roof height, the city looms as a vista of flat concrete roofs dotted with millions of satellite dishes. Even at the pyramids of Giza, houses, hotels and golf courses push in from three sides, leaving tourists with just one direction for photographs with a sand-filled backdrop.
On Monday night, Ahmed Abdel-Hadi, a taxi driver for the past 22 years, threaded his battered sedan through a river of traffic in Nasr City, a middle-class neighborhood. A cacophony of blaring horns filled the air. An ambulance inched past, its lights flashing.
Fistfights between irate drivers have been growing more frequent as traffic has worsened, Mr. Abdel-Hadi noted — a problem that peaks during the holy season of Ramadan, when Egyptians rush to break their fast at sunset.
But Mr. Abdel-Hadi is also part of the problem. A father of four children, ages 10 to 19, he scoffed at the mention of government campaigns urging him to restrict his family.
“Human capital is valuable,” he declared. “A man’s family is a reflection of his income, and that’s what should determine how many children I have, not someone trying to dictate to me.”
Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of former President Hosni Mubarak, spearheaded a push during her husband’s rule to reduce fertility rates. It was partly successful: During the 1990s and 2000s, rates fell to 3.0 from 5.2, according to government figures.
But the rate rose again around the time of the Arab Spring in 2011, for reasons that are not entirely clear, but probably stem from economic disruption, government turmoil and a drop in birth control funding from Western governments.
Under Mr. el-Sisi, the government has dispatched thousands of family planning advocates into rural areas and offered cheap contraceptives — as little as 6 cents for a packet of three condoms in a government store and 12 cents for an intrauterine device.
The country’s leading Islamic authority, Al Azhar, has endorsed the government plans and stressed that family planning is not forbidden by God.
But critics say the government mostly talks a good game on population control and that its actions have not matched its slogans. Mr. el-Sisi’s wife has not been a visible force on family planning, while his officials have tried to dent the problem with public health programs.
“We hear every day that the demographic explosion is a threat to the country,” said Dr. Amr A. Nadim, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Ain Ain Shams University. “But I don’t feel the government is working all that hard on it.”
He listed the issues: an erratic supply of contraceptives of variable quality; poor medical training; American government funding that dried up; and no longer obliging new doctors to take family planning courses.
The population crush also affects him personally. “Sometimes I’m called to a pregnant woman in an emergency, but I can’t reach her because of the traffic,” he said.
“Overpopulation is eating everything,” he added. “The problem is that we don’t have a real strategy to combat it.”
Other large developing countries with soaring populations have managed to get the problem under control. Vietnam, where the population grew to 97 million in 2018 from 60 million in 1986, has reduced the rate of increase to 1 percent. Bangladesh, which has a population of more than 160 million, has done the same.
In Egypt, though, the rate of growth is nearly twice as high, at 1.79 percent in 2018-19. More than 700,000 young Egyptians enter the job market every year, said Aleksandar Bodiroza, representative of the United Nations Population Fund in Egypt. “That’s a daunting task for any government,” he said.
Housing them is equally challenging. Mr. el-Sisi has made much of the array of high-profile megaprojects his government is building, like a new summer capital on the north coast and a new administrative capital outside Cairo.
But the overwhelming majority of the population growth is taking place in informal settlements on the edge of Cairo and other cities, where villages are being transformed into dormitory towns and farmland is being swallowed by uncontrolled development.
Experts say the government has a dismal record in providing new housing for the poor. And the poverty rate is rising, hitting 32.5 percent last summer by the government’s own figures — up from 27.8 percent in 2015. The stubbornly high fertility rate may be a reflection of that economic failure, said Mr. Sims, the author. “Egypt is heading back to its rural roots,” he added. “If you’re a poor person, you’ll have more kids.”
The population milestone passed on Tuesday was met with a shrug by many Egyptians, for whom the difficulties of life in a congested city that is bursting at the seams are nothing new.
Ahmed Alaa, 24, a marketing agent, said his desire to avoid congestion often shaped his days, and often that means simply staying home. “It’s become so normalized, this congestion” he said. “You can’t set an appointment to do anything. The traffic is just so crazy.”
Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.