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Hard Realities: Population Growth and Economic Stagnation

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Stephen M. Humphreys

From Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age
© 2001 University of California Press
Used with permission. Print edition available here.

Part I


First impressions can be desperately misleading, but revisited in the light of longer experience, they often point to basic truths. When my wife and I got off the plane and walked across the tarmac into the Cairo airport terminal for the first time on a hot spring night in April 1966, we were immediately engulfed in a crush of would-be porters, all clamoring for the privilege of carrying our bags to the taxi stand. We chose a likely prospect, who snatched up our stuff and carried it about fifty feet. There he passed it off to a second man and in the same motion stuck out his hand for the customary two-piaster tip. The second porter repeated the same act, and then a third and a fourth. I am happy to say that our first taxi driver took us all the way downtown without a break, but as soon as we stepped out of the cab a pack of boys materialized out of the shadows, all shouting and grabbing for our luggage. It was only about twenty feet to the door of our pension, so this time we fended them off with barking and a bit of pushing. By some miracle the elevator was working (just how rare a miracle it was in the Cairo of 1966 we would soon discover), and we were quickly and peaceably delivered to the door of Mme Seoudi's fifth-story hotel-pension.

Our initial experience was repeated hundreds of times over in the coming weeks. The simplest task required three or four or half a dozen people. What we were dealing with, plainly, was too many people chasing too few jobs.1 The causes for this phenomenon were by no means obvious to the superficial observer, but a bit of reading and talking to the right people told us more or less what was going on. The countryside was jammed and could no longer provide any kind of living wage for agricultural workers, and so displaced peasants were flowing into the cities to find whatever work they could. In spite of a determined push toward industrialization by the Nasser government, there were still few factory jobs. In any case, these rural immigrants were mostly illiterate and utterly without the skills needed even for assembly-line labor; all they could find was pick-up work at minuscule wages. As for the boys who swarmed around us wherever we went, they were supposed to be in school, but that was boring, irrelevant to any purpose they could see, and anyhow, their families desperately needed the pittances that they could scrounge from sympathetic or unwary tourists. Finally, however inadequate the high schools and universities may have been in view of the number of teenagers and young adults who needed an education, they were still producing far more graduates than the Egyptian economy could find room for. To soak up the excess, Nasser had decreed that the government would be the employer of last resort--hence the five sullen tellers and cashiers needed to stamp the sextuplicate forms that authorized us to exchange dollars for Egyptian pounds. 2

To us the Cairo of thirty years ago seemed extraordinarily crowded. People were jammed into the buses, and it was common for a dozen or more boys to hitch a free ride by clinging to the outside of these careening contrivances. The buses were battered and had a perpetual list, and it is amazing they held together as well as they did. From a present-day perspective, however, the city was almost empty. It had a total population of only some 3 million, the medieval tomb cities to the south and east still housed mostly the dead, and the Pyramids stood alone in the bright, clear air, many miles from the small middle-class suburb of Giza on the west bank of the Nile. The streets were mostly narrow and ill designed for modern traffic, but there weren't a lot of cars and most of these were of astonishing antiquity. When I went back seven years later, in 1973, Cairo had 6 million people (many of them refugees from the Suez Canal cities, which were then inside a war zone), the buses were even more insanely packed, the tomb cities had been commandeered by squatters, and urban sprawl had infected the Nile's western bank and was moving up toward the Pyramids. But even this falls far short of the realities of 1997. There are something like 15 million people (though no one knows for sure) in Greater Cairo. The city sprawls across at least three separate governorates, high-rise apartment buildings reach almost to the base of the Pyramids (which are often masked in dense gray smog), and the traffic jams compete with any in the world. Over the last decade Cairo has been outfitted with a good modern infra-structure, at least downtown; there is a complex throughway network and a good subway system, the water runs, the telephones work, the electricity is reliable, faxes and copy shops are ubiquitous. But the schools and universities continue to pour out graduates by the hundreds of thousands, and after four decades of policies aimed at making Egypt into a dynamic modern economy there are still not remotely enough jobs to go around. The university class of 1985, for example, was awarded its guaranteed government jobs only in 1993.

Egypt is now and has always been a peculiar place, even within the Middle East. But its employment problems are quite typical of most countries in the region--Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, to name only countries that have not been directly afflicted by war or political revolution in recent decades. Istanbul (which has grown from about 1.5 to 10 million people over the past quarter century) and Casablanca are just as overgrown and congested as Cairo. These problems are no doubt partly the result of bad policy: wanting a modern economy will not create one, especially if the goal is pursued through contradictory, constantly shifting, and ill-administered policies. (Americans familiar with the anomalies of their own health and welfare systems will surely understand how situations like this can come about.) But Middle Eastern policy makers have been the victims of paradox; some of their greatest successes--building comprehensive albeit desperately overcrowded systems of higher education or lowering the infant mortality rate by more than 50 percent in a decade--have only intensified the economic problems they must contend with. So we must ask, with genuine humility, how and why they have fallen into their present quandary.

It is very common, and very misleading, to say that the modern Middle East suffers from overpopulation. In fact the Middle East and North Africa as a whole possess approximately the same size population as the United States and a considerably larger land area--300 million people in about 5 million square miles. The largest and most populous countries in the region--Egypt, Iran, and Turkey--each have some 60 million people. That is, they have populations equal to those of France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, all of which are much smaller in area. So we cannot talk about "overpopulation" in an absolute sense, as if a given parcel of land could absorb some fixed number of people and that barrier had now been breached. The real problem is not the number of people in the Middle East but how rapidly and recently they have appeared on the scene.

The first thing one needs to know about the contemporary Middle East is that the average age of the population is about sixteen--half the average age in the United States. That one fact tells volumes about the intractable problems confronting the governments of the region, and why their record in solving these problems is such a spotty one. To begin with, it means that the majority of the population (taking both the very young and the aged) is a consumer of expensive services, especially education, housing, food, and medical care, while producing little wealth. It also means that the labor markets are flooded with young adults, increasingly well educated and equipped to participate in a modern economy, but also increasingly frustrated in their efforts to get even a low-paying entry-level job. That is why university graduates in law and engineering and philosophy, some with advanced degrees, serve as night clerks in luxury hotels or as tourist guides. I retain vivid memories of a wonderful précis of contemporary trends in philosophy in the Arab world, which I heard from a concierge in Fez in 1990; he held an M.A. from Muhammad V University in Rabat, and he delivered his disquisition impromptu in fluent and sonorous Classical Arabic (akin to speaking Latin off the cuff), but he could have told me the same things equally well in French or English. This represents, I believe, a standard that few American hotel clerks could match. (There are Ph.D. taxi drivers and waitresses in the United States, I know, but only as a temporary expedient; in the Middle East there is nothing temporary about it.) On a different level, young people everywhere are impatient with authority and in search of meaning for their lives--hence the magnetism of ideologies that explain and solve everything. When two-thirds of the population is less than twenty-five, the search for meaning and alienation from the stifling established order inevitably become a defining element of the whole society.

Each of the points in the preceding paragraph raises crucial questions. Why is the average age in these countries so low? Why have Middle Eastern economies failed to provide enough jobs for their people? Are there any positive prospects for the future, or must we expect worsening economic stagnation and involution? Finally, what are the ideologies that have most appealed to the restless (or desperate) young, and how can we account for their appeal?

We begin with the reasons for the very youthful median age. Sixteen is not in itself an astonishingly low figure--before the mid-nineteenth century it was in fact probably the norm in most of the world. At the time of the first U.S. census some two hundred years ago (ca. 1800), for example, the median age in this country was sixteen. However, that was due less to a high birthrate than to the very low life expectancies of that era--only some thirty-five to forty years. But in the contemporary Middle East the same figure reflects a very different phenomenon--namely, a massive population boom.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Middle East, as it is in the rest of the world. In 1830 (a date I choose because it marks the first efforts at a modern-style census in the region, and also the earliest phase of the European colonial era) the population of the entire Middle East and North Africa from Morocco to Iran, including modern Turkey but not the Balkan possessions of the Ottoman Empire, did not exceed 34 million. (This number is admittedly only an educated guess.) By World War I the region's population had reached 68 million--which is to say that it had doubled in eighty-some years. (In this case the numbers are based on fairly good censuses, except in Iran and the Arabian Peninsula.) The current population of 300 million--again, after an interval of eighty years--is four and a half times the World War I figure and more than eight times the original number. This represents an average growth rate over the past one hundred sixty years of just about 2 percent per annum--a rate that allows a population to double in less than forty years, and a startling demonstration of the long-term impact of even moderate population growth. 3

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