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Egypt stymied by population explosion. Mubarak backs family planning but finds it politically risky to push issue too hard

Zena Imam Muhammad was born in a cemetery, married there, and is now rearing seven children among the tombs and sarcophagi of Cairo's City of the Dead. ``It is good here, better than in some of the other neighborhoods, because there is more room,'' Mrs. Muhammad says. ``I have a kiosk. I sell cigarettes and Allah provides.''

No one knows how many Cairenes are living in the City of the Dead -- but they number in the thousands. They live there because there is nowhere else to go. Egypt's 48 million people are crowded onto just 4 percent of the land, because 96 percent of the country is desert. One-quarter of Egyptians live in the Cairo area, and about 44 percent of all Egyptians live in urban areas. Every 26 seconds, another Egyptian baby is born and the population grows by 1 million approximately every 9 months.

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A huge gap exists between experts' dire predictions of the future if Egypt fails to control population growth and Egyptians' perception of the crisis. Perhaps no other issue more clearly illustrates Egypt's cultural and political inability to act on its most serious problems.

``Even if Egypt made peace on its southern and western borders, controlled the headwaters of the Nile, eliminated bilharzia [a parasitic disease], and solved its economic crisis, none of it would matter,'' a discouraged Western diplomat says, ``because it still would not have solved the population problem, and the population explosion here will overwhelm any other accomplishment a government might make.''

Some fundamentalist Islamic leaders hold that Western interest in population control here is part of an imperialist plot to limit the number of Muslims in the world. Male and female prestige is closely tied to the number of children a couple has and there is an entrenched belief that the answer to a growing population is in increased development rather than limited family size.

Government efforts to change attitudes toward family planning have been ongoing since the 1960s, and have been largely unsuccessful. Surveys show 30 percent of married women use some method of contraception, but only after having an average of seven children. Ten percent of married women in rural areas use birth control.

Studies show that Egyptian awareness of the government's interest in family planning is high, according to Gamal Rashidi, director of the government's Information, Education, and Communications Center. Translating that awareness into action is another matter.

``We realize that it is high time for us as a center to move from the awareness phase to the motivation phase, but it is a gradual process,'' Dr. Rashidi says.

By far the largest expenditures on Egyptian family planning come from outside institutions and governments. Since 1974, Western nations and international agencies have contributed more than $132 million to the Egyptian government for family planning projects, says a US Agency for International Development (AID) report. The United States has contributed about half that amount. The AID report notes some funds were withdrawn due to Egypt's failure to use them, and about $5 million of a World Bank loan to Egypt remains unspent.

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Each year, AID allocates between $1 million and $2 million to Rashidi's office, which works to publicize family planning programs. Each year, the agency manages to spend only about $800,000 of its budget.

Some critics blame the intense American involvement in family planning programs for widespread resistance to birth control. ``US AID has pushed too hard,'' says an analyst at a private Western agency. ``It has become politically more difficult for the government to push family planning because it is linked with the Americans. US AID has not attempted to understand this culture. They've taken the approach that if you limit [family] size, there will be more material benefits to go around. Muslims are very offended by that approach.''

President Hosni Mubarak is the first Egyptian leader to publicly declare population growth a priority issue. He is titular head of the National Family Planning Council, which oversees other family planning organizations.

``We are hopeful that because the President is there and convening the NFPC, things will happen more expeditiously,'' says Timothy Seims, acting director of AID's population office here. ``There is a lack of coordination . . . between and within [family planning] organizations.''

If AID's goals are met, Mr. Seims says, 15 million fewer Egyptians will have been born by 2010 than projected. Few believe they are attainable, but the numbers are so disturbing that the government seems to be paying more attention to the issue. The explosion of people has severely taxed the nation's water supply system, its housing, schools, and the ability of the government to govern. Egypt imports about 60 percent of its food, and there is little prospect of increasing farm acreage.

``I'm sure that if I thought long enough, I could think of an Egyptian problem that doesn't relate to the population explosion,'' Seims says. ``But one does not immediately come to mind.'' Second of four parts. Next: Rising fundamentalism 9 facts about baby boom

1 million new Egyptians are born approximately every nine months.

25 percent of Egyptians live in Cairo.

44 percent live in urban areas.

Egypt's population has more than doubled in the last 30 years.

The average Egyptian mother has seven children.

43 percent of the Egyptian population is less than 15 years old.

Even if the birth rate declines slightly, it is estimated that the population will rise to almost 70 million by the end of the century.

30 percent of married women use some method of contraception, but only after having had several children.

10 percent of married women in rural areas use birth control.

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