Hosni Mubarak is a dictator who has to go — that’s obviously the animating force behind the protests in Egypt. And more power to the protesters!

But Egypt’s problems run much deeper than its autocratic regime, and one of its biggest problems is unsustainable population growth.

Here’s a 2009 Al Jazeera report on population pressures in Egypt:

The country’s populace has soared from 44 million when Mubarak took power in 1981 to more than 80 million today, making Egypt by far the most populous country in the Middle East and the Arab world. And Egyptians are densely concentrated, living in a narrow band along the Nile, as the rest of the country is dry and largely uninhabitable. If Egypt’s current growth rate continues, its population could hit 160 million by 2050.

The Mubarak regime has promoted birth control and smaller families, and helped to slow the birthrate. In 1981, the average woman had more than five children; now that figure is down to three — better, but still unsustainable. Yet the regime’s family-planning efforts have been inconsistent and at times seemingly inept, perhaps undermined by distrust of the government, as The Media Line reported a few months ago:

Abd Al-Salam Hassan, a researcher at the Demographic Center of Cairo, said government attempts to curb birth rates are failing because the general public wasn’t involved in policymaking. “The attempt to dictate policy from the ivory tower isn’t working,” he told The Media Line. “To influence people you must involve them in policy.” … He added that the Egyptian population was generally suspicious of government policies dictated from above. “People here don’t believe the government is working for them,” he said.

protesters in CairoProtesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo.Photo: darkroom productionsOne result of Egypt’s fast-growing population is massive youth unemployment and disenchantment, as Oye! Times reports. There’s a surge of young people trying to enter the job market and failing to find work; more than 90 percent of unemployed Egyptians are between the ages of 15 and 29. Troublingly, young women are much less likely to work or even look for work than young men — another bad sign for the country’s demographics, as economic opportunity for women is one factor generally correlated with lower birthrates. 

The country is also struggling with food shortages, exacerbated by population growth, climate change, and high oil prices. The Oil Drum reports:

As [Egypt's] population grows, the amount of land needed for housing and businesses rises, and the amount of land for agriculture falls. So Egypt can produce less of its own food, as time goes on.

Egypt is reported to be the world’s largest importer of wheat. In 2010, the oil minister stated that Egypt imports 40% of its food, and 60% of its wheat.

After Mubarak is sent packing, Egyptians will have cause to celebrate, and I’ll be celebrating with them. But one of the many challenges they’ll have to confront in the post-Mubarak years is getting their population growth rate down, so there will be more chance of a decent life for the many Egyptians already in the country. 

It’s a challenge that’s not unique to Egypt, as Susan Kraemer writes at Green Prophet: “Put together Egypt’s crop failure due to climate change, and oil depletion due to peak oil, and stir in too many people — Egypt’s population is rising at 2 percent a year — and you have the exact problem that the rest of world will soon face in microcosm.”

This is the latest in a series of Saturday GINK videos about population and reproduction (or a lack thereof).