CAIRO - Census workers going door to door in Egypt's teeming neighborhoods and crowded towns are discovering a new country - of more than 20 million people born in the last decade alone.
Family planning efforts have lapsed over the past decade, particularly during the chaotic years following the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Today the government is mainly focused on combatting Islamic militancy and repairing the tattered economy.
But the staggering growth rate in the most populous Arab country, already home to more than 93 million people, could worsen both problems by giving rise to yet another bulging generation with few job prospects and widespread reliance on dwindling government assistance.
“In 10 years, we've made what can be considered an entirely new country,” said Hussein Sayed, the coordinator of the national census. The results will be finalized and released in August.
Census workers have been traveling the country for months, documenting not only population growth but also household wealth, data that might help the government to better target its costly subsidies for bread, fuel and other basic goods.
They have found that Egypt's population is growing by around 2 million a year, which would strain resources even if the country were able to stand on its own feet. As it is, Egypt has received billions of dollars in aid from Gulf nations in recent years. When that began to dry up last year, Cairo secured a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to support a package of reforms.
The fear is that if runaway population growth continues, the aid will be spread too thin. The economic reforms, including a float of the local currency and the slashing of fuel subsidies, have caused the price of many local goods to soar in recent months. The further erosion of subsidies could heighten the risk of social unrest.
The challenge was laid bare in a recent visit by census workers to Giza, a packed Cairo district that sprawls from the west bank of the Nile to the Pyramids.
There they went alley by alley through one of Cairo's many informal neighborhoods, unplanned communities where most of the city's some 20 million residents live, and where distrust of authorities runs deep.
“We say to every family, workshop, business, or factory owner, please cooperate with us by giving correct information, so we can make decisions that are in their best interest,” said Yasser Hussein, the coordinator for the census in Giza.
The census workers don't ask about income, instead using other tactics to determine a family's economic status. At one home, a census taker asked whether the family owned an air conditioner, a microwave, or a car. They had none of these, only a ceiling fan.
There was no detective work needed to discern a population boom.
Egyptians are known for having large families, a legacy of the country's not so distant agrarian past. Especially in rural areas, children are seen as providing vital labor and an insurance policy for old age. Couples with daughters will often continue trying for a boy, due to a cultural preference for sons and their greater earning potential.
Egypt's population has tripled since 1960, with the annual growth rate peaking in 1987 at nearly 2.8 percent, creating a youth bulge that the country has struggled to come to terms with. Family planning efforts under Mubarak brought the growth rate down to less than 2 percent, according to World Bank figures, but it has since rebounded to 2.5.
Sayed says the government succeeded in lowering the average birth rate from seven children per woman in the 1960s to three in the 1990s. But as of 2005, the number began to climb, according to Sayed, who blames the backsliding on a general “deterioration” in national family planning services.
One family in the Cairo neighborhood of Madinat al-Salaam more than doubled in size overnight.
Sarah Hassan and her husband Youssef Shaaban had their first child, a girl, not long after they were married.
Shaaban, a construction day laborer, said they started trying for a boy two years later. To the disbelief of a string of doctors, Hassan, who did not receive fertility treatment, became pregnant with quintuplets.
Now, they are a family of eight, with three girls and three boys, of whom five are under the age of five.
“The most difficult thing is to buy just food. How can I get enough food for eight people?” Shaaban said. “Not to mention clothes, or a doctor's fee if someone gets sick.”