Egypt’s garbage crisis bedevils Morsi
To understand why garbage is piling up on Cairo’s streets, it helps to pay a visit to Atel Shenouda’s clandestine pigpen.
Ensconced on the rooftop of his five-story apartment building in the predominantly Christian Zaraib district of Cairo, the 43-year-old trash collector’s hogs rummage through a smattering of discarded vegetables and other organic waste.
Pigs used to play a central role in this city’s rudimentary waste management system. But since a 2009 health code outlawed the practice of owning pigs that feed on garbage, just a few illicit pigs like Shenouda’s have been doing their work in hiding — and the trash has been stacking up, a problem that has worsened since the 2011 revolution.
The country’s new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, has vowed to tackle the mess during his first 100 days in office. The ambitious agenda he set out in June also includes easing Cairo’s anarchic traffic, improving the quality and quantity of bread and restoring security.
But the country’s first democratically elected president inherited a country with a tanking economy and dilapidated infrastructure — problems that are magnified by Egypt’s suddenly empowered electorate. His early promises have become a trial by fire for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that propelled Morsi to victory, as it seeks to transition from an oppressed political underdog to the nation’s ruling party.
“Citizens are observing and waiting for things to change,” said Amr Sobhy, 24, one of the founders of Morsi Meter, a nonpartisan Web site that is tracking progress on the 64 issues Morsi vowed to address during his first 100 days on the job. “It’s definitely a good sign.”
More than 50 days into Morsi’s term, the Web site’s owners give him credit for meeting just one of the 64 promises: launching a media campaign urging Egyptians to litter less. They say 14 promises are in progress but proffer little optimism about the prospect of gleaming streets in six weeks’ time.
“I don’t see a very tangible change on that issue,” said Sobhy, who voted for Morsi and said he takes pride in keeping his president accountable.
Those who have been hauling trash in this mega-metropolis for decades are less diplomatic in their assessment.
“One hundred days?” scoffed Shehata Iskandar, the head of trash collectors in the Motamadeya neighborhood of the capital, where ordinary residents sort through mounds of trash in search of recyclables they can trade in for cash. “Not even 100 months.”
A ban on trash-eating pigs
Garbage in Cairo has traditionally been collected by the Zabbaleen, Coptic Christians who for decades made the city’s waste their livelihood. After sorting organic waste from glass and plastic, the trash collectors sold the recyclable goods to national and international companies. Pigs, once omnipresent in predominantly Christian neighborhoods, would eat the rest. When the animals were fat, they were sent to slaughterhouses that catered to hotels.
In the spring of 2009, alarmed by the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico, Egyptian authorities ordered the immediate slaughter of all pigs in the country. Under the watchful eye of police officers, Shenouda and thousands of other pig owners had to drive their animals to slaughterhouses.
“I felt like they were taking part of my body,” he said. “They were my livelihood.”
The ban on trash-eating pigs removed a major method of disposal, sparking a crisis in the city of 19 million people. Trash cans are often overflowing and garbage is routinely left on sidewalks and empty lots, resulting in a nauseating smell and attracting rats and flies.
Shenouda said he recently purchased a couple of dozen pigs on the black market. He keeps them on the covered rooftop of his dingy building and makes no apology for violating the ban, saying he needs to make a living somehow.
“I’m doing this for my children,” he said on a recent morning in a sparse apartment decorated with a poster of the Last Supper. “The law is not feeding me.”
The entrance and staircase of the building — like much of the rest of the neighborhood, where much of the city’s trash is sorted — are carpeted by a thick layer of garbage. After the revolution, he said, Christian trash collectors asked the Health Ministry to lift the pig ban. So far, it has not. After Morsi’s election, Shenouda said his hopes were dashed because most Muslims don’t eat pork and many view pigs as dirty animals.
“The Salafis and Muslims don’t accept having pigs in the country,” he said with resignation. “Ever since the Brotherhood took over the government, nothing more has been said.”
Garbage in Egypt that is not recycled is often burned or sent to landfills. But, compounding the problem, trash workers employed by companies with state contracts say their wages have been late or incomplete in recent months, as Egypt’s economy has been reeling from the 2011 revolt and its aftermath.
Mamdouh Riyad, the head of a waste collection company that serves the Giza district of Cairo, said the government has been paying his firm half of its monthly fee.
“Am I supposed to take money out of my own pocket to give to them?” he said. “Of course, I will work at half capacity. All companies are like that, so things have to be a mess.”
The government’s plan
Osama Suleiman, a member of the executive bureau of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said Morsi’s government has a comprehensive plan to clean up the cities. The first step is to change behavior that has made littering common. Long-term infrastructure solutions are also in the works, he said.
“How can we ask for an increase in tourism and investment while trash is piled everywhere?” he said.
Suleiman said the party does not have a position on whether pigs should become a cornerstone of waste management again, saying health authorities should be able to decide whether the animals pose a health risk. The government’s trash plan, which includes incentives for companies that excel at collecting garbage, makes no mention of pigs.
Amgad Adly, 41, a former trash collector in Zaraib, said Morsi’s plan is doomed without the animals. After the pig slaughter, he was among the many residents in the slum who found another line of work. As a baker, he now makes slightly less than he did as a trash collector, he said.
“We have left the business because there is no benefit for us,” Adly said on a recent morning. “If they let us keep pigs again, that would take care of half of the city’s garbage.”