Egypt's Demographic and Environmental Time Bombs

It doesn’t really matter what ideology Egypt’s leaders claim to espouse. Addressing the fragile economy must be their priority.

It may take many months for Egyptians to learn whether the Muslim Brotherhood and its newly elected President Mohamed Morsi have achieved meaningful power or whether the Egyptian Army remains the true broker in the country. Either way, whoever emerges as the de facto leader of Egypt will be faced with the awkward reality of more fundamental indicators—Egypt’s demography, geography, economy and environment. These pose predicaments that threaten to overwhelm the country.

Egypt’s current population is around eighty-two million, with an annual growth rate of about 2 percent. The population could reach nearly 115 million in about fifteen years. Most of the population resides in the lush Nile Delta and along the narrow strip of greenery along its banks that runs through the center of the country. The actual land area occupied by this huge population is small—larger than Maryland, smaller than the Netherlands.

The bulk of the population falls between the ages of fourteen and thirty-four. People of this age group historically have been much more active in seeking social change, and at present they have a tough lot—unemployment among people between twenty and twenty-four is at 47 percent, even though many are well educated. Opportunities, especially the secure government jobs that many across the Middle East dream of, are limited. High birth rates are creating job seekers faster than Egypt’s weak finances can create opportunities for them.

Egypt depends on foreign food supplies and is the world’s largest importer of wheat and second-largest importer of maize. These commodities, which have seen sky-high prices, must be paid for in foreign currency. The latest figures suggest Egypt’s foreign reserves are down to the equivalent of $15.5 billion, scarcely surpassing those of Bolivia or tiny Croatia. This amount covers only about three months of vital imports. To make matters worse, two of its major sources of foreign income—natural-gas exports and tourism—have seen a precipitous decline since the Arab upheavals. Egypt increasingly relies on Suez Canal revenues and remittances from foreign workers, but many of the latter no longer contribute since the problems across North Africa have cut job opportunities.

Without loans from world financial institutions, Egypt will go bankrupt unless it instigates rigorous reforms. But any austerity measures will be extremely unpopular with the underclasses, which expect to see their lives improve now that the Mubarak regime has been removed. In the past, Egypt’s autocrats have bought off the poor population—a quarter live on less than $500 a year, 40 percent on less than $2 a day—with subsidies on fuel and bread. These subsidies are now worth almost 10 percent of Egypt’s GDP and do as much to create black markets as they do to help those in need.

And then there are the environmental challenges. The Nile, without which Egypt cannot survive, is under pressure from both south and north. To the south, the river rises in Ethiopia (the Blue Nile) and Uganda (the White Nile) and flows through the two Sudans. These primary upper-riparian states are home to a combined 168 million people, a number that continues to grow. They need more water from the Nile for hydroelectric projects and irrigation schemes. At the same time, higher levels of evaporation and lower rainfall due to climate change are reducing the amount of water feeding the great river. These developments are slowing the flow and altering the quality of water reaching Egypt, thereby reducing agricultural yields. There are no multilaterally binding water agreements among all the states that share the Nile. Until such agreements on water sharing are reached, serious incidents including violence over water rights are possible.

To the north, the Nile Delta faces the challenge of rising sea levels in the Mediterranean. This is increasing the salinity of its soil, in some cases making land uninhabitable. It has made farming more costly. Farmers have taken to buying bags of sand and spreading them over their land to isolate their plants from the salty soil. All the while, growing populations are reducing the land available for farming. This phenomenon is not unique to Egypt. Similar environmental challenges face low-lying coastal regions from Southeast Asia to the southeastern United States.

Thus, it doesn’t really matter what ideology Egypt’s leaders claim to espouse. Addressing the fundamentals of the fragile economy must be their priority. This will require cooperation with their neighbors, Europe, the UN, major financial institutions and other world players such as the United States, China, Japan and South Korea. This suggests that any Egyptian government that gets distracted by other issues—whether a messy fight with Israel over the Sinai or domestic quarrels over Islamic traditions such as headdresses and alcohol consumption—will reap a whirlwind of discontent as basic challenges go unaddressed and the economic situation goes from bad to worse. Vigorous, swift action is essential to avoid a disaster.

Geoffrey Kemp is the director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Center for the National Interest.