Egypt jolted into future shock

The earthquake toll highlights the perils of over-population, says Sarah Helm in Cairo
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FROM THE earthy floors of the Souk, the future for Egypt's growing millions looks bountiful. Production this year has been better than ever and there will certainly be plenty of food, say traders who clatter into Cairo's massive fruit and vegetable market with their produce from Suez, Alexandria and Upper Egypt.

Hundreds of tons of mangoes, peppers and tomatoes are piled up, waiting to be taken for sale at fixed prices in government stalls or to be bought by private traders: 50 piastres (10p) a kilogram of potatoes; two Egyptian pounds (50p) a kilogram of apples.

'We have enough food and more than enough for the future, and we will fix the desert to grow more,' said Abdul Rahman, who had driven his mangoes from the Alexandria area.

But from the top floors of the city's World Trade Centre, where foreign economists, United Nations planners and foreign aid agencies sit, the view is bleaker. 'You might think that is the result of the earthquake,' said one official, pointing to the rubble piled on tilting roofs. 'It's not. It always looks like that.'

The foreign experts glance across to the polluted haze that cloaks the Pyramids in the distance, as they juggle statistics about the effect of population growth, free-market incentives and 'structural adjustments' on the requirements of the 'end users' down in the streets below.

Monday's earthquake brought new demand for such data about Egypt's future needs, highlighting Cairo's acute over-population. The big death toll from a relatively small earthquake (541 and rising) is a reflection of the vast number of poor people crammed into appalling housing.

According to the seismologists, Egypt can expect to have its next big earth tremor in 30 years. But by then the population will have already doubled and the simple problem of feeding everyone will outweigh fears of natural disaster.

Whatever they say in the Souk, figures show that Egypt is already importing 80 per cent of its food, including three-quarters of its wheat, on which most Egyptians subsist. 'Egypt will have to increase its imports of food by 40 per cent over the next eight years,' said a Western economist.

Compared with the more immediate crises in nearby African countries, Egypt's population problems have received little attention. The country seems well- equipped to deal with its problems, and proudly asserts its ability to do so. The close international attention after the earthquake was not always welcome, and no global appeal was launched.

Furthermore, Egypt is a large country, which should have room for its growing population. But it has not. The Netherlands, covering 40,000 square kilometres, supports a population of 15 million. Egypt has one million square kilometres, but 96 per cent of this land is unusable. That means 60 million Egyptians live on 4 per cent of the land: an area the size of the Netherlands.

The rate of population growth is falling slowly, but is still one of the highest in the world. By 2020, 120 million will live on the 40,000 square kilometres. 'To maintain the pupil-teacher ratio, Egypt must build two schools a day,' said one aid expert. Another envisaged an Egypt that might have to go to war with the Sudan for use of water. The question is whether anyone in the Egyptian administration is listening.

In a country that proclaims its pro-Western policies and curbs Islamic fundamentalist dogma, the religious message has changed: the Egyptian Grand Mufti and the Coptic Pope have sanctioned contraception.

But the real problem, it seems, lies with the government, which has so far refused to allocate the resources to get this message across. Despite the dollars 4.7bn ( pounds 2.8bn) it receives in aid, Egypt allocates almost nothing to family planning, and places a low priority on education and health generally.

What the aid experts hope is that the earthquake may at least have forced the government to focus on the population problem and its associated pressures. Certainly President Hosni Mubarak looked a worried man as he toured the streets of Cairo after the earthquake, under heavy guard. He knows that the dangers of public unrest are constant, particularly with half the population aged 15 or under.

Hundreds of riot police sealed off a large area of central Cairo last night and fired tear-gas at a crowd throwing stones at them, Reuter reports. Plain-clothes police waved revolvers at the crowd. There has been widespread discontent in Egypt over perceived government slowness in responding to the earthquake.