Egypt's trashmen look to next president to ease traditional hardships

Sarah El-Rashidi, Tuesday 15 May 2012

On eve of elections, zabaleen - Cairo’s informal garbage collectors - keep fingers crossed for leftist president sympathetic to their ongoing plight

(Photo by: Sara Rashidi)
Living and working amongst the rubbish (Photo by: Sarah El-Rashidi)

On the eastern edge of Cairo, situated under the cliff tops of Mokattam, resides the largest segment of Cairo's infamous garbage collectors, the zabaleen (singular, zabaal). Descendants of farmers who migrated from Upper Egypt in the 1940s, the zabaleen now constitute a population of around 70,000, the majority of whom are Coptic Christian.

Fears of Islamist political ascendancy

In post-revolution Egypt, levels of trepidation have risen within this Coptic community, given the recent Islamist political landslide.

"We are scared of the Islamists; we do not want to go back to the ignorant days of the past," said Adham Latief, a local zabaal working for the NGO Spirit of Youth for Environmental Services (SOY) in the area of Mokattam where the zabaleen live, commonly known as 'Garbage City.' 

“Even though he is a remnant of the old regime, I would prefer Amr Moussa to be president, more than any Islamist!” Latief told Ahram Online, echoing a common viewpoint among zabaleen.  

Islamists won 67 per cent of the vote in Egypt's first parliamentary elections after the overthrow of Mubarak. The votes were divided between the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which won 38 per cent, and the hard-line Salafist Nour Party, which attained 29 per cent of the votes.

“Egyptians are nice, kind people, but they have been brainwashed. God never interferes in politics,” declared local garbage collector Remon Armaious.

With the presidential elections scheduled for the end of May and the second phase in mid-June, the zabaleen are closely examining each of the candidates' electoral programmes.

This is not obvious from the surroundings, where few campaign posters or political slogans are visible; instead, religious icons and images of late Coptic Pope Shenouda III are displayed throughout the area.

The fact that two of the current frontrunners are Islamists – Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s official candidate – adds to their concern.

“We zabaleen do not trust Abul-Fotouh,” affirmed Ezzat Naem, founder and director of SOY.

Distrust towards the Islamist candidates – even Abul-Fotouh, who for the zabaleen is the more favourable contender of the two, given his more liberal stances – appears to be widespread.

“Abul-Fotouh was part of the Brotherhood for over 25 years, and still is; I don’t believe he has left them,” stated 35-year-old mother of two Mervat Nadi.

“As a former member of the previously militant Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, Abul-Fotouh most likely has ties with Al-Qaeda and notorious characters like Ayman El-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s mentor,” Nadi said.

A history of sectarian strife

The rise of sectarian violence after the revolution in the area and its environs has further amplified fears of an Islamist president seizing power. 

Moses, a 27-year-old zabaal, told a heartrending story linked to the clashes between members of his community and the Salafists, which took place in February of last year. Moses claims that, since the ousting of Mubarak, Salafists often enter the zabaleenneighbourhood to instigate conflict. 

“In one of the worst sectarian clashes, nine people from our community were killed, one of whom was my brother,” he told Ahram Online.

The sectarian violence occurred last year almost immediately after the fall of the Mubarak regime, when hundreds of Copts demonstrated near the Egyptian state television building against the burning of St Mina’s Church in Cairo's Imbaba district.

Hundreds of zabaleen from Garbage City were on their way to join the protests when they were met by hundreds of Salafists. Armed clashes between the two groups led to 12 deaths and hundreds of injuries.    

Since the tragedy, security in the area has increased; Islamists who visit the district are no longer welcomed without a valid reason for coming.

The desperate need for security is often reflected in the zabaleen’s political affiliations.

“When Omar Suleiman entered the political race, people cried from happiness, as they believed he would restore calm. Shafiq is our next best hope: he, too, is a strong man who can reinstate peace and security,” said Moses.

Similar sentiments were echoed by many others.

“We need someone to control the country with an iron fist and Shafiq is the best candidate in this regard,” remarked Nadi.

Another female resident, Laila Zaghloul, shared the same perspective. “Shafiq is a proud man who cares about his reputation and listens to the people. If asked to leave, he would resign at once to safeguard his pride,” said Zaghloul.

Shafiq’s evident popularity among zabaleen is based on his army background and ostensible sympathy with the underprivileged masses.

“He's an army man who empathises with people in slum areas; he pays heed to their demands,” asserted 40-year-old Armaious.

Economic hardships

According to Armaious, zabaleen often postpone marriage due to economic constraints. Therefore, it is vital that Egypt's next president understand their plight and their socio-political situation. 

The abysmal living conditions in Garbage City are inescapable, since residents work – even reside – amid the rubbish. Housing is overcrowded, social services are inadequate and public health conditions remain a grave concern given the nature of their work.

Furthermore, the zabaleen belong to Egypt's lowest socio-economic tier, with average household incomes usually around LE70 (roughly $11.50) per month.

The zabaleen’s economic livelihood was adversely affected by the introduction of foreign companies to their trade in 2003. The culling of the nation's pigs in April 2009, however, had the deepest socio-economic impact.

The government sanctioned the mass slaughter of some 300,000 pigs in Egypt in response to the possible spread of the swine flu (H1N1), despite copious scientific evidence that pigs did not, in fact, transmit the virus. The effect was devastating, as the pigs had played a fundamental role in the lives of the zabaleen by eating organic waste and providing a source of both protein and income. 

Yet, regardless of the evident benefits associated with the zabaleen’s recycling system, many believe that the government is pursuing a covert vendetta against them as Coptic Christian garbage collectors who eat and breed pigs.

“Simply put, pigs are not welcome in Egypt,” stated local priest Samaan Ibrahim.

Zabaleen look to the left

This notion further reinforces the zabaleen’s fear of an Islamist presidential candidate, who they feel may condemn them for their beliefs and practices along the lines of the former regime. The devastating economic impact of the slaughter has thus led many to support leftist candidates, such as Hamdeen Sabbahi, who they believe sympathise with their destitution.

“Sabbahi is a man of the people from an average middle class family, so he understands poor people’s daily struggles,” said 27-year-old zabaal Kamel Saad Akhnoukh.

Akhnoukh believes a Nasserist thinker like Sabbahi will return Egypt to its former glory, highlighting the leftist politician’s focus on education and slum areas. “We need someone like Nasser!” he exclaimed.

Like many voters, Akhnoukh also has a contingency plan: should Sabbahi fail to make it to the runoff poll, he will vote for Moussa, based on the latter's extensive political experience.

Moussa, a respected politician amongst the zabaleen, appeared to be a popular alternative for most, despite reservations about his age and association with the former regime. Taking a decisive stance, Akhnoukh asserted that, if neither candidate makes it through to the runoffs, he would simply refrain from casting a ballot. 

Sabbahi is a popular and well-respected figure among zabaleen, especially due to his leftist, humanitarian disposition.  

“He goes into the street with the people; he is close to us and was part of the revolution,” said 24-year-old Michael Hanna.

According to Nadi, human rights lawyer Khaled Ali and Sabbahi represent "the only candidates who will care about us zabaleen.” This opinion was also shared by Naem, an influential community figure and the founder of a major NGO. 

“I will vote for Ali or Sabbahi,” he said, basing his choice on their secular, humane approach.

Evidently, despite intrinsic fears about Islamist candidates, the zabaleen are pinning considerable hope on the upcoming presidential elections to ease their longstanding hardships.

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