Why you should care
The Arab world’s most populous nation is taking dramatic steps to tackle the effects of a surging divorce rate and rising costs of living.
If you cannot afford divorce, don’t get married. That’s the philosophy Egypt is turning to, on the back of skyrocketing living costs and escalating divorce rates. And it’s an approach that could be adopted more widely throughout a region not traditionally known for gender rights.
The number of Egyptian divorces rose by nearly 7 percent in 2018 to 211,500, up from 198,300 in 2017, according to the state-run Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. The divorce rate, meanwhile, has climbed since 2010 from 1.9 to 2.2 divorces for every thousand Egyptians in 2018. At the same time, the marriage rate is falling, from just over 10 per thousand in 2016 to around 9 in 2018. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s government is battling to fix the problem.
Egyptian authorities are now trying to deploy a mandatory divorce insurance for all men looking to marry. The proposed law, drafted by Egypt’s national financial regulator, is aimed at ensuring that men can pay alimony to ex-wives in the event of divorce — whatever their economic condition. The bill, the latest in a set of moves the government is taking to address the spiraling divorce rate, is expected to pass in Parliament later this year.
This amendment … will put some divorced men in a tight corner.
Sabry Abdel Kawy, a lawyer in Cairo
El-Sissi has publicly called for an end to the practice of verbal divorce — whereby a man can end his marriage by simply saying so to his wife — arguing that it’s unfair for women. Ending the practice would help bring divorces down, experts say. Simultaneously, the Egyptian government, the country’s Coptic Church and Cairo-based Al-Azhar University — the most respected seat of learning in Sunni Islam — have launched a program called Mawadda, teaming up professors of law and religion with counselors and having them visit the country’s universities. They’re holding free workshops with young Egyptian men and women on campuses to give them tips on finding the right partner and about the challenges of making a marriage work.
And the Egyptian government is pressing Parliament to toughen the law against those men who don’t pay alimony to their former wives. Men who don’t pay alimony three months in a row face a month in jail, but that could be lengthened to a year and a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds ($30) under the proposed amendment.
“This amendment … will put some divorced men in a tight corner,” says Cairo-based lawyer Sabry Abdel Kawy.
Insurance policies to cover divorces — whether alimony or the cost of legal proceedings — exist in other countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and India. But Egypt could be the first nation to make it mandatory, and since the country is a leader in the Arab world, such a reform could lead to demand for similar policies in other countries in the region.
Egyptians are struggling in the face of rising costs of living that are in part the consequence of austerity measures, such as cuts in subsidies on fuel, and other economic reforms introduced by the government and approved by the International Monetary Fund. Since 2016, when the country’s central bank made the currency float, the cost of living has more than doubled. The currency has halved in value, from about 8 to 16 Egyptian pounds to the dollar. The move to make the currency float, along with cuts in subsidies, came on the back of a $12 billion loan agreement with the IMF.
The growing economic crisis has been blamed for contributing to Egypt’s marital woes. Courts decide on the alimony amount under Egyptian personal status law, but it’s never more than 40 percent of the man’s monthly wage. And both the penalty for not paying alimony — and its enforcement — are widely considered to be weak.
With the steps the Egyptian authorities are now planning, the gender scales could become more balanced. “Without the divorce insurance policy, any default from men would be a misfortune for women and children,” says Sheikh Salem Abdel-Galil, a former undersecretary in Egypt’s Ministry of Waqfs.
At the same time, it could help men pay court-ordered alimony if the value of their wages continues to drop. Sayed Razak is a 32-year-old carpenter — now without a permanent job — who must pay 2,800 Egyptian pounds ($168) every month to his former wife and kids. “I had to sell my motorbike,” says a frustrated Razak. “I don’t want to remarry.”
For sure, unanswered questions and some opposition cloud these moves by the Egyptian government. Regarding the president’s hopes of banning the verbal divorce, Al-Azhar insists that Sharia or Islamic law allows such an end to marriages. Men often stall alimony proceedings in courts using their lawyers, says Saad Badawi, another Cairo-based lawyer. It’s unclear how a tougher law or the mandatory insurance will reduce those delays.
If the cost of living keeps rising, the value of whatever alimony women receive will shrink even with the new laws. When Siham Abdallah, a 35-year-old mother of three children, got divorced four years ago, a court awarded her 500 Egyptian pounds in monthly alimony. But the value of that amount has more than halved since then. She spends the monthly alimony in a week, she says. “I have to work as a salesperson to cover my children’s needs,” says Abdallah, adding that price hikes and schooling costs mean she’s now looking for a second job.
And it’s unclear how the mandatory insurance law would work if a husband skips the payment of his premium amount, says Badawi. “What are the guarantees?” he asks. “These conditions should be clearly outlined.”
But even he concedes that while making alimony insurance mandatory “is not everything,” it is a “good step” in a country with a growing divorce burden. And Galil, the former government bureaucrat, is convinced that the move is also sound under Sharia law — an argument central to whether other Muslim nations adopt Egypt’s approach. “The ultimate objective of Sharia,” he says, “is to protect the weak — who are women and children.”