President Abdel Fattah El Sisi on Saturday warned that major development and infrastructure projects undertaken in the country would have little positive impact on the life of Egyptians unless they have fewer children, but he rejected proposals to make family planning compulsory.
In a wide-ranging speech, the Egyptian leader also urged critics of his government’s human rights record to step back from passing uninformed judgments and urged Egyptians to accept and tolerate their country’s religious and ethnic diversity.
On Egypt’s rapid population growth, which is roughly 2 per cent annually in a population of 100 million, El Sisi said an annual increase of 400,000 was optimal.
“Population growth is the real challenge,” he said, but rejected the idea of adopting a legislation that denies food subsidies, free education and other state perks to children beyond the first two.
Such legislation, he said, would clash with religious beliefs, put many children at risk and could prove difficult to implement.
“It is better if the culture of having just one or two children takes root,” he said. “If it is just a question of legislation, we would have done it years ago, but an unimplemented law is worthless.
“Who in this world can create jobs for the million man and woman who enter the labor market every year?”
This is not the first time the Egyptian leader has publicly commented on the thorny topic of population growth, which he says threatens to undermine his ambitious program to overhaul the economy, upgrade infrastructure, build new cities, create jobs and help the most vulnerable cope with rising prices.
But Saturday’s comments were his most candid to date on the subject.
Egypt, he said, needed to run on a trillion dollar a year to adequately meet the needs of its population.
“Only when this sum of money is available can you hold me and my government accountable,” he said.
In Saturday’s televised remarks, Mr El Sisi also defended his focus since taking office in 2014 on protecting women’s rights.
He said he wanted to eradicate the marriage of underage girls and continued to believe oral divorce, a man’s prerogative under Islam, should be banned despite of the opposition of top clerics.
He also questioned whether critics of Egypt’s human rights record at home and abroad were aware of the “challenges” his government was facing; and renewed his commitment to the creation of a “civil, modern and democratic state that respects its people and strives for their benefit.”
President El Sisi has overseen a large-scale crackdown on critics, mostly supporters of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, jailing thousands of them and putting them on trial. A smaller number of secular critics have also been detained.
The government denies it has political prisoners, saying everyone in detention is facing due legal process and receives a fair trial by an independent judiciary.
The crackdown has gone in tandem with bringing media outlets under state control, significantly curtailing the activity of rights groups and slapping an effective ban on streets protests.
But Mr El Sisi, speaking after his government on Saturday unveiled an ambitious “national strategy” for human rights, was unapologetic as he catalogued the risks of unfettered freedoms in a region bedevilled by Islamic extremism.
“I must caution those tempted to think they have special cultural privileges and want to impose them on other societies. I say to them ‘careful this is the route of dictatorship’,” said President El Sisi, alluding to frequent criticism by western governments and rights groups of Egypt’s rights record.
"’What you think is flawless may be so for you and your society but not to me and my society’.”
“Why don’t they want us to evolve normally and take our time to progress,” he argued, saying that while it took the West three or four centuries to evolve, it has only been 200 years since the creation of the modern-era Egypt.
President El Sisi has repeatedly stated that he embraced a broader definition of human rights that places the same emphasis on the right to housing, education and health care as that given to political rights and freedoms.
He has, meanwhile, taken big strides in protecting the rights of minority Christians - about 10 per cent of the population – championing tolerance and moving swiftly to protect members of the Egyptian diaspora when needed.
On Saturday, he made uncustomary candid remarks for a Muslim leader, saying he did not think non-believers should be penalised and urged Muslims in Egypt not to be offended or angered by the sight of churches or synagogues in their country.
“If someone says he is not a Muslim, Christian or Jewish or does not believe in any other religion on the planet, I will say to him ‘suit yourself’,” he said. “I must respect his choice because the basic principle in this respect is freedom. The freedom to worship.”
Turning to the Arab Spring uprisings of a decade ago, he said they allowed the masses “intentionally or unintentionally” to destroy their countries thinking that this would yield better political systems.
Egypt’s uprising took place in 2011, when longtime autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down after 29 years in power. A year later, an Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood was elected president.
Morsi’s year in office proved divisive. He was removed from power in 2013 by the military, then led by Mr El Sisi, amid street protests against his rule.
“I can say this now because enough rime has lapsed and things changed: 2011, in my own assessment, was tantamount to the death certificate of the Egyptian state,” said Mr El Sisi, who has in the past said the uprising was the wrong remedy for the country’s ills and vowed never to allow it to happen again.
On Saturday, he said the spread of religious extremism in the region was one consequent of the Arab uprisings and warned that unfettered rights could lead again to the collapse of the state.