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Malthus predicted that fertility rises with income and that people regulate fertility via regulating marriage. However, evidence on the Malthusian equilibrium has been mostly confined to Europe and East Asia. We employ Egypt’s population censuses of 1848 and 1868 to provide the first evidence on the preindustrial Malthusian dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa. At the aggregate level, we document rural Egyptian women having a high fertility rate that is close to the Western European level, combined with low age at marriage and low celibacy rate, that are closer to the East Asian levels. This resulted in a uniquely high fertility regime that was probably offset by the high child mortality. Next, we provide individual-level evidence on the positive correlation between fertility and income (occupation). We find that the higher fertility of rural white-collar men is attributed to their marriage behaviour, and not to marital fertility. Specifically, white-collar men’s higher polygyny explains 45 per cent of their fertility advantage, whereas their higher marriage rate and lower wife’s age at marriage explains 55 per cent. Therefore, polygyny was an additional factor that led to a steeper income–fertility curve than in Western Europe by enabling the rural middle class to out-breed the poor.