Two of the most populous Arab countries, Egypt and Morocco, lie far apart in geography, in their histories and in the size of their populations. Egypt has 57 million inhabitants, more than twice as many as Morocco’s 25.5 million. [1] One thing they do share is a dramatic long-term rate of demographic growth. In the nine decades of this century, the populations of both countries have multiplied more than fivefold (from around 10 million in Egypt and less than 5 million in Morocco).

Concern with demographic issues began in the mid-1930s in Egypt, when the country’s political leadership, with the support of the religious authorities, attempted to address population growth. This effort was interrupted, however, by World War II, and not resumed for several decades. [2] In Morocco, French and Spanish authorities viewed their colony as underpopulated and opened wide the floodgates to a half-million European immigrants.

In the 1960s, both countries openly renounced laissez faire policies, adopted less pro-natalist legislation and initiated family planning programs — Egypt with conviction, Morocco more timidly. When Egypt’s population reduction programs began to take shape, its fertility rate was 6.7 children, lower than most of the Arab world and notably lower than Morocco’s 7.2. By 1970, the population policy of the Nasser regime had brought birthrates down to expectations. [3] In Morocco, by contrast, fertility had increased slightly, to 7.4 in 1973. [4] Since then, the level of Egyptian fertility has remained virtually static, oscillating between a low of 5.41 in 1982 and a high of 6.15 in 1979, only dropping below 5 in 1989. Morocco, by contrast, experienced a very fast fertility drop, from 7.4 to 5.9 between 1973 and 1977 and declining below 4 in 1989. [5]

Why have the goals of fertility control programs not been reached in Egypt, while they have been surpassed in Morocco? One would expect, on the basis of available data regarding the two principal determinants of marital fertility, contraceptive practices and breastfeeding, that the opposite would be the case. The use of birth control methods is equivalently widespread — 35.9 percent in Morocco in 1987 compared to 37.8 in Egypt in 1988. (The latest available figures give a contraceptive prevalence of 42 percent for Morocco in 1992 and 47.6 percent for Egypt in 1991.) However, less effective traditional methods represent an appreciable portion of birth control methods in Morocco (6.9 percent as compared to 2.4 percent in Egypt). [6] And Egyptian women breastfeed their babies longer than Moroccan women do (17.3 as opposed to 14.4 months).

Marriage is one factor which differentiates fertility in Egypt and Morocco. Thirty years ago, the average marriage age for women was 20 years in Egypt and 17.3 years in Morocco. Since then it has increased to 25 years in Morocco (in 1992), whereas in Egypt its rise, slower to begin with, reached a plateau of 22 years in 1988. Between the ages of 20 and 24,60 percent of Egyptian women are already married, but only 45 percent are in Morocco.

Indirect Determinants

The different patterns in the two countries compel us to examine indirect determinants, including infant mortality, urbanization, standard of living, literacy (particularly among women), children’s education, and the participation of women and children in the workforce. When indicators of development or standard of living are high or on the rise, we expect a stronger tendency toward lower fertility. But the paths taken by Moroccan and Egyptian families resist traditional explanations of demographic transition.

The child mortality rate had been higher in Egypt (by 40 percent) than in Morocco until around 1986, when the levels converged. From 1960 to 1972, though, Egypt’s fertility declined faster than in Morocco. Since 1972, infant and child mortality declined much more rapidly in Egypt than in Morocco, while the rates of fertility decline slowed down in Egypt and picked up in Morocco. Thus trends in fertility and child mortality patterns are substantially different in the two countries. Egypt has been more urbanized than Morocco for many decades. Cairo and 14 other heavily populated cities, including Alexandria, Aswan and Asyout, comprise 28 percent of the total population of the country. In Morocco, 22 percent of the country’s residents live in the Casablanca-Kenitra axis and in nine cities of comparable rank, including Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes and Tangiers. In both Egypt and Morocco, the majority of the population is classified as rural, but the Egyptian village, or qariya (which number approximately 4,000), has little in common with the Moroccan douar (31,500). The villages of the Nile plain comprise more than 6,700 inhabitants each on average; they are more provincial towns than villages. In Morocco, douars have only 370 inhabitants on average. The distances between these rural localities, and between them and the city, are enormous when measured on the Egyptian scale, where the village is always close to the city.

The recent deceleration of urban growth in Egypt is partly the result of a slowdown in rural exodus. [7] The head of a rural household now is able to find work in the city without necessarily living there. The transportation network and the narrowness of the country’s habitable area facilitate daily migration. In Morocco, the rural exodus of entire families persists, and the fertility of migrants soon aligns itself with that of city dwellers. [8] Moroccan urban-rural fertility differentials are more marked than those in Egypt: 55 percent in Morocco to only 30 percent in Egypt. Conditions in the Egyptian countryside — dense population, pressure on agricultural space, proximity to the city, rapidity and intensity of communications — could be expected to lead to reduced fertility. And yet a rural Egyptian woman today gives birth to one more child on average than does a similarly situated Moroccan woman.

Fluctuations in income and fertility in Egypt and in Morocco do not tally with the economic theory of fertility. [9] Until the middle of the 1970s, fertility fell in Egypt and stayed approximately the same in Morocco, although the rhythms of economic growth were similar. Since then, Egyptian economic growth has been particularly rapid, without bringing down fertility, while in Morocco slow economic growth and a diminution of fertility have gone hand in hand. [10] Similarly, GDP per capita, adjusted for parity of purchasing power, is higher in Egypt ($2,440 in 1991) than in Morocco ($1,993). During the last two decades, vigorous economic growth in Egypt exceeded demographic growth by 3.9 percent per year. In Morocco, on the other hand, economic growth and demographic growth allowed only a modest 1.9 percent increase in GDP per inhabitant. Finally, inequities in the distribution of wealth appear to be less marked in Egypt than in Morocco. [11]

Women, Work and Taxes

Increases in female school attendance and literacy began earlier in Egypt than in Morocco. In 1960, only 16 percent of Egyptian women and 4 percent of Moroccan women could read and write; today 45 percent of Egyptian women and 32 percent of Moroccan women are literate. The decrease in illiteracy parallels the decline in fertility in Morocco, whereas in Egypt illiteracy has diminished but without a concomitant decline in fertility. Among women of child-bearing age (15-49 years old), Morocco’s handicap is even more marked: 65 percent illiterate as opposed to 53 percent in Egypt. Furthermore, among educated Egyptian women, seven out of 10 have attended secondary schools or higher, as opposed to five out of 10 in Morocco. One might then expect that fertility would be 20 percent higher in Morocco than in Egypt. In reality, the ratio is exactly reversed. A few years in primary school for Moroccan women appears to correlate with a diminution of fertility of over 50 percent, but the comparable decline for Egyptian women is only 11 percent. Access to secondary education inflects fertility by nearly 60 percent in Morocco, where female students are still rare. In Egypt, however, where the female presence on the secondary level is stronger, the corresponding figure is only 33 percent. Today, Egypt has close to universal school attendance for children under 16 (89 percent), while Morocco is far behind (50 percent). Furthermore, there is less gender inequity in Egypt, where 82 girls are in school for every 100 boys, than in Morocco, where there are 69 girls for every 100 boys.

One normally finds a correlation between high fertility and the employment of children under 15. In agriculture especially, children can be mobilized for certain jobs starting at the age of 6 or 7. When family resources are limited, school attendance and the number of children normally vary inversely. In order to educate all children over the long term, to give them the possibility to rise on the social ladder, parents must give up quantity (many children who remain illiterate or receive little education) for quality (fewer children who stay in school longer). Child labor is on the decline in Egypt, where only 5 percent of the working population is between 6 and 14 years of age (7.4 percent in rural areas), but remains more significant in Morocco at around 9 percent (14 percent in rural areas). Still, rural fertility has fallen off in Morocco but not in Egypt. In Egypt as in Morocco, large numbers of women work in the agricultural sector, where there is no split between the home and the workplace. Budget-time surveys demonstrate that unpaid family workers work as long and as hard as do men working for wages. These female agricultural workers, however, have the same reproductive behavior as other housewives. The absence of child care constraints (with children entrusted to sisters or to other family members), and limited exposure to the “outside world” beyond the family, encourage continued high fertility.

Since 1960, the proportion of women in the paid work force has increased slowly in Egypt but quickly in Morocco. Women now make up 14 percent of the non-agricultural work force in Egypt, and over 25 percent in Morocco. Wage work is associated with a 50 percent decline in fertility in Morocco, but only a 37 percent decline in Egypt. Differences between the participation of Egyptian and Moroccan women in non-agricultural labor account for 5 percent of Morocco’s lesser fertility.

Another factor has to do with the financial relations between citizen and state. To a certain extent, Egypt after 1973 went through a process comparable to that which took place in the oil-producing countries. “Far from questioning the structure of society, namely by the accession of women to the labor market, oil wealth brought, on the contrary, the financial means to realize traditional goals, mainly the large family.” [12] In the beginning of the 1980s, household taxes contributed a third of Egypt’s GNP; this dropped to 24 percent in 1989. [13] Morocco, by contrast, lost one of its main sources of non-fiscal revenues, phosphate exports, just when it raised military expenditures to confront the POLISARIO in Western Sahara. State non-fiscal revenues, which counted for one third of the budget when Morocco used to rely heavily on phosphate exports, have fallen to 17 percent now. Taxes, which constituted less than 14 percent of GDP, increased to 20 percent in 1975 and remain at this level today. The reversal of the economic and fiscal condition of Moroccan households between 1973 and 1975 is consistent with the sharp drop in fertility, from 7.3 to 5.9 children in only four years. For Moroccan families, most educational, social, health and military expenditures now had to come from their own personal budgets, rather than from windfall state rents.


During the 1960s in Morocco, and a decade later in Egypt, migration abroad for work became a major force shaping the two societies. [14] In each country, migrants have come to represent almost 5 percent of the total population, and approximately 10 percent of the working population. The savings which migrants send home are astronomical: $3-4 billion a year in Egypt; $2-2.5 billion in Morocco.

But exchanges between the Egyptian and Moroccan diasporas and their countries of origin are not simply monetary. The Egyptian or Moroccan emigrant is a decisive agent of social, familial and demographic change. The emigrant has a profound effect on consumption habits and, consciously or not, encourages aspirations toward upward mobility and a reevaluation of the costs and benefits of having a child. In villages and urban lower-class neighborhoods in Egypt or Morocco, a change in consumer habits can transform family choices.

There are important implications to the geography of migration. Among Egyptian emigrants, 95 percent went to Gulf states, Iraq and Libya, while 87 percent of Moroccans emigrated to Europe. The countries where Egyptian emigrants have gone possess vast resources and small populations; governments either consider their rates of population growth too low (Saudi Arabia, Iraq) or satisfactory (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Libya). By contrast, Moroccan emigrants became immersed in European society where small families are the norm. There appears to be adaptation to the norms and values of the host society: In the 1960s Moroccan migrants continued to have large families (6.5 children, almost as many as in Morocco during the same period), but by 1990 the figure had dropped to 3.5 children. This change in the fertility of Moroccans abroad preceded the acceleration of the transition in Morocco.

We would expect the transfer of demographic values to increase with the coming of age of a second generation of Moroccan men and women born and educated in Europe. There is no equivalent group of Egyptians raised abroad. Furthermore, Moroccan international migration has brought with it an acceleration of rural-urban migration. The emigrant’s family often leaves the village for the city in order to benefit more quickly from the money sent from abroad. Contact with the city tends to bring them more into line with urban reproductive behavior. In Moroccan cities, as opposed to the countryside, all or almost all children of both sexes must go to school, and in order to send all their children to school, these parents must limit the number of children. [15] The enhanced educational opportunities for girls, moreover, will influence their later reproductive behavior.

The experiences of Egypt and Morocco demonstrate the uncertainty of demographic projections. Twenty years ago, the UN predicted that fertility today in Egypt would be at 3.91 children, while that of Morocco would still be higher than 5. [16] Actual fertility has evolved in almost exactly the reverse manner. The limited effect of education on fertility that we have found in Egypt seems to apply to other countries of the Mashriq as well. In Syria, for instance, fertility stabilized for three decades or more (until 1986) at a plateau of nearly 8 children per woman, despite substantial educational achievements and reduced illiteracy.

In contrast to the Mashriq, the Maghrib countries of Morocco, Tunisia and, since 1986, Algeria, are undergoing fertility reductions as a result both of the restructuring of the female population of reproductive age and of fertility decreases specific to each educational stratum. In Morocco, educated women had an average 3.83 children in 1981-1983, but only 2.36 in 1989-1991. Higher levels of education are now associated with fertility lower than replacement level (2.03). This small family model is rapidly spreading. The fertility of illiterate women has diminished by one child, from 5.84 in 1981-1983 to 4.86 in 1989-1991. In Tunisia, which shares many features with Morocco, fertility reductions are likewise occurring across all educational strata.

Comparisons between Arab countries show that education, when it is the prerogative of a certain social class, is associated with a reduction in fertility, but has a lesser effect once it becomes generalized throughout the population. In Jordan, where 70.3 percent of women are literate, differences in fertility between educational strata are much smaller than in Morocco, where 27.9 percent of women are literate. Thus factors other than education are also operating to differentiate fertility in the Maghrib and in the Mashriq. Greater female labor-force participation, state-citizen fiscal relations and foreign migration appear to be among the most prominent.


[1] Morocco’s population is now slightly surpassed by Algeria and Sudan.
[2] Sheikh ‘Abd al-Magid Salim of al-Azhar authorized the faithful to resort to contraception in 1937.
[3] A birth rate of 30 per thousand in 1978. See Youssef Courbage, “L’imprévisible fécondité égyptienne,” Population (in press).
[4] According to the CERED survey of 1973. The Moroccan Fertility Survey of 1980 records a somewhat lower estimate of 6.9 for the period 1970-1974. For Egypt we have relied upon civil registration and estimates of intercensal population to compute fertility. Surveys generally tend to underestimate fertility. For a methodological comparison see Fargues’ discussion of Egypt in Youssef Courbage and Philippe Fargues, L’avenir démographique de la Rive Sud de la Méditerranée (Plan Bleu: 1992).
[5] In 1994, according to all sets of projections, namely those of the last 1992 DHS survey, the comprehensive fertility rate is now close to 3.4 children. Ministry of Health, Enquéte Nationale sur la population et la santé: Rapport préliminaire (Rabat,1992).
[6] The level of education has greater impact on the practice of contraception in Morocco and in Egypt: 30.8 percent among illiterate women, 57.4 percent among women with primary education and 65.6 percent among those with secondary education. In Egypt, we find respectively 27.5 percent, 42.5 percent and 52.6 percent.
[7] Between 1971 and 1986, the rate of annual growth in major cities fell to 28.5 per 1,000 and that of greater Cairo to 26.9 per 1,000, a rate close to that of natural growth.
[8] Between 1971 and 1986, the rate of growth of major Moroccan cities was 32.7 per 1,000, and that of the Casablanca-Kenitra axis 34.5 per 1,000. There is insufficient data to compare precisely the respective situations of middle-sized and small cities. It is certain that Morocco has experienced an explosion in cities with less than 100,000 inhabitants (4.7 percent average growth between 1960 and 1988) while in Egypt the growth rate has diminished (1.6 percent). However, these cities include only a small proportion of the population (9 percent in Egypt, 14.8 percent in Morocco).
[9] See, for instance, Julian Simon, “Income, Wealth and Their Distribution as Policy Tools in Fertility Control,” in Ronald Ridker, ed., Population and Development (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976); and Robert Repetto, Economic Equality and Fertility in Developing Countries (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979).
[10] Between 1973 and 1988, GDP per capita doubled in Egypt and increased only a third in Morocco.
[11] The standard of living of the upper 10 percent of the population was 14 times higher than that of the poorest 10 percent. Direction de la Statistique, Niveaux de vie des ménages 1990-1991: Premiers resultats (Rabat, 1992). Comparable recent data on Egypt are not available.
[12] Rafik Boustani and Philippe Fargues, Atlas du monde arabe: Géopolitique et sociétés (Paris: Bordas, 1990).
[13] Since then the contribution of household taxes has increased again.
[14] Youssef Courbage, “Demographic Transition Among the Maghreb People of North Africa and in the Emigrant Community Abroad,” in Peter Ludlow, ed., Europe and the Mediterranean (New York: Brassey’s, 1993).
[15] For ages 7 to 13 in 1990, the rates of school attendance were 88 percent for boys and 85 percent for girls, as compared to 58 percent and 30 percent in the countryside.
[16] United Nations, World Population Prospects as Assessed in 1972 (New York, 1977).

How to cite this article:

Youssef Courbage "Demographic Change in the Arab World," Middle East Report 190 (September/October 1994).

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