Post-Sadat team battles tide of population, expectations
Few spots on earth are as filled with simultaneous contrast. Unforgiving desert abuts the ever-fertile Nile Valley. Many of the magnificent marvels from the dawn of civilization are treated with indifference. Napoleonic palaces, suburban skyscrapers, sprawling slums; streets crammed with Mercedes sedans, donkey carts, and three-on-a-bicycle - all exist side by side in Egypt.Skip to next paragraph
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Overcrowding seems hopeless. Yet there is a calm dignity among Egyptians and unbelievable patience with the problems they endure. Violent crime is extremely rare. Prices are reasonable. There are quiet neighborhoods and noisy ones.There are mosques, cathedrals, and discos.
Day in and day out, despite the chaos at rush hour and in the ramshackle souks, or open-air markets, Egypt seems to work.
In the thin green line of life that stretches through the vast African desert - from Aswan to Alexandria - live 45 million Egyptians. This is the central economic and political problem of Egypt.
The present rate of population growth is 2.7 percent a year. There are more than 3,000 people on each square mile of land on which life can be sustained - one of the highest population densities in the world. Birth control is being encouraged by the government. But if the birthrate does not slow, by the year 2000 the population will reach 90 million. Urban sprawl will gobble up more and more of the precious farmland that Egyptians treasure as ''the gift of the Nile.''
Population enters every economic and political decision made in Egypt:
* Agriculture. The land is incredibly productive, and can be cropped year-round. But the burgeoning population crimps exports and actually makes Egypt an importer of wheat and other basic foodstuffs.
* Oil. Egypt is approaching a productive capacity of 1 million barrels a day. But the population projections indicate that, even if new finds are made, by the year 2003 Egypt will be an importer of oil.
* Revenues. The government's longtime policy of subsidizing basic foods squanders each year the entire earnings from the Suez Canal and tourism, as President Mubarak pointed out publicly last summer. Yet removing subsidies could cause riots similar to those experienced in 1977, when former President Sadat tried to raise the price of bread.
* Employment. About 85 percent of Egypt's work force is employed by the government - 2 million in the government bureaucracy alone. And 400,000 new workers are coming onto the job market each year. The political and economic pressures Egypt will feel in the years ahead will come primarily from trying to accommodate these new workers without allowing the public sector to get out of control.
Low-keyed and determined, the Mubarak government is trying to hold the line in every economic area.
''We cannot overlook the present rate of population growth,'' Mr. Mubarak told the parliament last year. ''It obstructs development efforts. It stands in the way of realizing our hope to improve the living conditions for all Egyptians. It makes our ambition confined to preventing further deterioration of present conditions.''
Rather than making exciting or popular moves to distract the public from its manifold problems (as his predecessor was wont to do), Mr. Mubarak plans to work on these problems systematically - encouraging productive foreign investment, not just the importation of consumer goods; improving the water and sewer services, mass transit, telephones, electricity; stimulating private enterprise; freezing the government's subsidies of food and other basics at current levels (
''The President is committed to economic problems in ways Sadat and (former President Gamal Abdel) Nasser never were,'' says Mustafa Kamal al-Saeed, economic and foreign trade minister. ''And never have the problems been so clearly identified and targeted. I believe that Egypt has a real chance now. All the prerequisites for serious, sincere work exist now.''
Egypt's costly military concerns with Israel have been decreased through Camp David. The Sinai Peninsula, with its oil and tourist potential, is back in Egyptian hands. Rapprochement with the Arab world is proceeding smoothly. Consequently, since coming into office, Mr. Mubarak has directed the country's attention to economic problems.
For the first time in recent history, Egypt has drawn up a serious five-year plan. The plan, basically, calls for keeping Egypt's rate of economic growth where it has been the past five years - at 8.5 percent a year - by investing 27 percent of the national income each year.