The Zabaleen, Egypt's traditional garbage collectors, had hoped that the country's new Islamist government would meet their longstanding demands, in terms of both legal recognition of their trade and improved living conditions. But this, they say, has not appeared to be the case.
"Despite hopes for change after the Muslim Brotherhood-led government and President Mohamed Morsi, these have not legitimised our trade, hence the absence of a proper waste-management system," asserts Ezzat Naem, member of the Mokattam garbage collectors community in Cairo and director of the Spirit of Youth Association for Environmental Services NGO. "Everything's still a mess!"
"The state's refusal to legitimise the Zabaleen's honourable trade has forced them to become scavengers, selecting only valuable waste," complained 90-year-old Marie Asaad, development consultant and anthropologist for the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), which has been working with Egypt's Zabaleen for over 20 years.
The consequences have been catastrophic as Cairo’s mountainous waste piles continue to build up, raising the threat of infectious disease along with numerous other health hazards.
The Roots of Cairo’s Sanitation Crisis
According to experts, Cairo's chronic garbage crisis stems from three specific policy-related issues, the first two being the advent of multinational companies in 2003 to manage municipal waste and the culling of Egypt's pigs in 2009 with the ostensible aim of halting the spread of the so-called 'swine flu.'
These two issues – coupled with the Zabaleen's unhappiness about their continued illegitimate status – have led to the current nauseating scene on many of Cairo's streets, which are infested with hazardous garbage piles in numerous districts.
"The problem first began with the government's decision to contract foreign companies to do our job, even though we know the garbage system better than anyone," said Naem.
In 2003, the Zabaleen’s livelihood came under threat when the government awarded annual contracts worth some $50 million to three multinational garbage collecting companies. The three companies included two Spanish firms, FCC and Urbaser, along with Italian company AMA. A domestic company, the Egyptian Company for Garbage Collection (ECGC), was also given a contract.
In spite of their extortionate contracts, the international firms are expected to recycle only 20 per cent of waste collected, while the remaining 80 per cent is deposited in landfills – a poor figure compared to the Zabaleen, who manage to recycle nearly all garbage they collect.
The multinational firms use a different system than do the Zabaleen, collecting rubbish from garbage bins that they have set up in various central Cairo collection points. Many Cairo residents have, however, voiced their discontent with this system, claiming there were an insufficient number of bins and these were often inconveniently located.
In addition, the new system is more costly as residents have to pay a separate monthly bill for garbage collection that accompanies their electricity bill, which already includes a service premium. Most therefore prefer the door-to-door garbage service provided by the Zabaleen, which is more appropriate to Cairo's municipal waste context.
Conversely, the Zabaleen's traditional system involves transporting garbage directly from Cairo residents to their quarters in 'garbage city,' or Cairo's Moqattam. In garbage city, where around 30,000 inhabitants live and work among towering stacks of foul-smelling rubbish, the garbage is sorted and either resold or recycled.
Social services in garbage city are pitiful: disease is rife, illiteracy high and daily incomes for most stand below $1.
According to local inhabitants and experts, living conditions for Zabaleen have not seen any improvements since the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and President Morsi assumed power. The people still lack basic amenities, such as clean water, sewage, and health and education services.
Irrefutably, the introduction of multinationals in the management of municipal solid waste (MSW) had an immediate negative effect on Egypt's already impoverished Zabaleen community. For one, they lost access to a large proportion of garbage, which they rely on for their economic survival, forcing some to work with the multinationals.
Although most Zabaleen identify the great damage caused by the foreign companies' to their trade, they maintain that the biggest catastrophe was the culling of Egypt's pigs in 2009 in response to the much-hyped H1N1 flu pandemic. The pigs had played a vital role in the garbage elimination process, eating much of the collected organic waste. When sold, the pigs also provided a profitable income and had been a main source of protein for the Zabaleen.
"The bottom line is that pigs aren't welcome in Egypt," said Samaan Ibrahim, a priest from the predominantly Coptic-Christian Zabaleen community.
In response to the harmful environmental effects of the organic waste clogging Cairo’s streets – a chronic source of infectious diseases and rat infestation – the government formally outlawed pig breeding in May of this year.
To date, progress under the Muslim Brotherhood-led government has been limited, according to the Zabaleen. The initiation of the FJP’s 'Homeland Cleanup' campaign sparked hope that the Zabaleen's predicament would finally improve. Yet hopes were soon dashed following a futile meeting last month between campaign head Waleed El-Fanoosi, Laila Iskander, founder Manshiyat Naser’s recycling school, Naem, and other stakeholders.
According to Iskandar, despite the provision of documents for the Zabaleen’s 40 grassroots companies, Fanoosi voiced his reluctance to terminate the multinationals' contracts, while conceding that they were doing a poor job. Fears of legal and financial reprisals by the foreign companies, contracted until 2017, were cited as the primary reasons.
Fanoosi emphasised that it would "not be viable" to offer the Zabaleen a second contract, since this would be illegal. He did, however, raise the possibility of subcontracting, should foreign companies agree. A sum of LE2 per flat (LE0.9 after taxes) was proposed, which Naem asserts is not in proportion to the earnings realised by the multinationals and is insufficient for the Zabaleen to work efficiently.
Moreover, the head of the 'Cleanup Homeland' campaign made reference to the FJP’s proposal to import machinery that would burn waste and convert it into energy, in hopes of solving the garbage crisis.
"This would be a disaster, as it will increase carbon emissions and exacerbate global warming," Iskander warned at the meeting, threatening to inform the UN and international environmental bodies should this occur. This led Naem to question the FJP’s intentions, as such equipment would cause 160,000 Zabaleen to lose their jobs and damage the environment.
"Is the FJP planning to destroy jobs – instead of creating them – while hurting the environment?" Naem asked. He went on to warn of another revolution, this time by the Zabaleen, should such a development occur.
Following Iskander’s warning, Fanoosi agreed to give the Maadi district to the Zabaleen as a pilot project, paying them LE3 per household and LE5 per shop. He promised that, if they succeed, they could take the rest of South Cairo and then, eventually, replace the multinationals once the latter's contracts expire.
However, more than four weeks have passed since this promise was given, and yet no substantial progress has been made. Naem claims to have tried unsuccessfully to contact Fanoosi to formalise and commence the pilot project, leading the activist to stress his distrust of previous pledges.
Admitting defeat in terms of state recognition, the Zabaleen nevertheless have realised numerous noteworthy accomplishments, establishing 40 cleaning companies and obtaining four contracts outside Cairo in Qalabeyya-El-Kosos City, Ahmed Orabi Compound in Obour City, Kheir Zaman and Metro supermarkets and the Darb El-Ahmar district. They are also working in 11 Cairo neighbourhoods to raise awareness about garbage segregation, in terms of food and non-food items.
"We need the public's help to pressure the government into awarding us formal legal contracts. Egyptians should use Egyptian companies to clean Egypt – not multinationals," Naem emphasised.
A Long History
Historically, the Zabaleen were farmers from Assiut in Upper Egypt who migrated to Cairo in the 1940s to escape poor harvests. The Wahiya, people of Egypt's Western Desert, had asked the Zabaleen to join forces with them in Cairo's garbage-collection trade, in which they have successfully carved a niche out for themselves since the early twentieth century.
Accordingly, the Zabaleen established informal settlements on the outskirts of the capital, where they continued their tradition of breeding pigs while forming a collaborative relationship with the Wahiya. The Zabaleen collected and sorted the waste, while the Wahiya became middlemen between the Zabaleen and Cairo residents.
This partnership proved to be so lucrative for the Zabaleen that many more migrants from Upper Egypt relocated to Cairo to take part in the trade. Today, the Zabaleen are spread among seven settlements in Greater Cairo, with a predominantly Coptic-Christian population of some 70,000.