Syndicated News
Cairo's 'Garbage People,' Dumped Again
By Amira Hass

On Tuesday evening, when hundreds or even a few thousand Cairenes attacked a mainly Coptic neighborhood they were not surprised to be met, in the streets and courtyards, and in the homes they invaded, by mountains of garbage. Some was scattered around outside, some was already wrapped up. Cloth, scrap metal, plastic and glass bottles, bits of rotting food. On Thursday morning the same sights greeted the 5,000 or so people - mainly Copts - who attended the funeral for the nine victims of the attack: males from the neighborhood, between the ages of 12 and 35. The cortege of vehicles crawled through the narrow streets and to the stone Samaan el-Kharaz Church at the top of the cliff.

One activist in the Tahrir Square movement, who is not Coptic, reported that the funeral was the first time since the Egyptian uprising began on January 25 that she sensed the revolution might fail.

The cliff is part of the Mokattam Ridge, as is Zabaleen (garbage collectors ), which is the name given both to this neighborhood and to the 66,000 souls (including some 2,000 Moslems ) who live and work here.

A monastery employee told Haaretz that the profession came about "in the days of the British, whose army camps created much garbage. Our families came to Cairo from the south. They gathered waste to feed their pigs, sorting out the food scraps from the paper - the start of waste sorting. The British also liked pork, so gradually our families began to collect garbage from other places, too, and expanded the business."

Another version traces the Zabaleen to a Bedouin tribe that collected waste from Cairo households in the early 20th century. They turned the organic waste into dried cakes that could be burned for fuel, and sold them for use in public baths and private homes. In the 1930s, when kerosene became widely available, they looked for other clients and found the Copts, who were landless and raised pigs. Decades before recycling caught on around the world the Zabaleen were sorting paper, glass, iron, tin, cloth, plastic and bones. At first they bought the waste from the Bedouin, but gradually took over the task of collecting the garbage, eventually collecting about a third of Cairo's waste (now estimated at 10,000 tons a day ), and recycling 80 percent of it.

That, at least, was the situation until 2003, when the Egyptian authorities awarded annual garbage collection contracts in the capital of $50 million to one Spanish and one Italian company. The authorities claimed that the Zabaleen did not operate in the poorer neighborhoods and also cited the health risks of their methods. In spring 2009, at the height of the global swine flu epidemic - despite the fact that no Egyptians were affected - the authorities ordered the slaughter of all pigs in Egypt. Only Copts, who represent about 10 percent of the population, raise pigs and eat pork. The animal played an important role in Zabaleen's recycling enterprise, consuming the organic waste created by Cairo's 18 million residents and tourists.

"Our lives were okay until they executed the pigs," the church employee said. Some people saw a direct connection between this order and that issued by the governor of Cairo in the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser evicting the Copts from their neighborhoods because of their unhygienic lifestyle (raising pigs and collecting garbage at home ). They were sent to the Mokattam, which had neither homes nor infrastructure.

Alternative to despair

For 20 years they lived in the huge garbage dump whose contents they sorted, recycled and sold. Aided by foreign donations, international organizations installed infrastructure and built homes. A young man from Zabaleen relates that the church was built around 20 years ago, as an alternative to the drugs, drink and desperation into which the residents had sunk.

Over time, families built their own small recycling businesses; women wove rag rugs, and connections were made with factories in neighboring Libya as well as far away as China and Finland. More children were sent to school - either state or private - though they still helped their parents sort garbage.

A week before the bloody clash between Muslims and Christians and the assault on Zabaleen, a young woman from the neighborhood shook her head "no" when asked if she were happy about the uprising. Another Copt, a young man from Upper Egypt told me: "We are afraid because we don't know what will happen, because of the uncertainty. At least the previous situation was familiar." The woman and her sisters bent over piles of garbage, removing plastic items for the family shredding workshop, in the ground floor of their home. The shredded plastic would be packed and sold, either to a local agent or one who would send it to China. The family across the street shreds paper and cardboard boxes, while clothes hangers or woven fabrics are made in others.

The recycling activities continue, but at much lower volume than before the European firms were contracted for waste collection. They recycle only eight to 20 percent of what they collect.

Many Zabaleen are unemployed, like the 40-year-old man we found drinking tea at a simple cafe decorated with numerous crosses. He watched the trucks go back and forth, empty or filled with sacks, children jumping on to hitch a ride from school.

"We are all wounded, we have absorbed many blows in recent years. We are attacked, insulted and discriminated against, and the government takes no interest in us. It is as if we are not Egyptians. Once we at least earned a respectable living, but that's been taken away. All we feel is great sadness," he said.

The sadness has turned to wrath. A Coptic church in the town of Sol, south of Cairo, was set on fire on March 4. A romance between two young people sparked a quarrel between the families of the Muslim woman and the Christian man. It turned into an inter-religious battle in which two people died and the church was destroyed. A daily protest vigil that began on March 6 draws hundreds of Cairenes, mainly Copts, to state television headquarters near Tahrir Square. Representatives of the new government have promised to rebuild the church. (Unlike mosques, new churches entail an exhausting bureaucratic process ). The demonstrators say they will keep up their protests until the church is rebuilt.

The attack on the church is considered characteristic of the old regime and in violation of the spirit of the uprising. In the first 18 days of demonstrations and strikes, before Mubarak left office, "not a rock was thrown at any church," everyone remarks - proof, in their opinion, that the old regime fanned the flames of religious friction in order to justify its harsh system of repression.

Therefore, Zabaleen residents blocked the main road west of the neighborhood for several hours on Tuesday, using a method considered legitimate in this period of uprising but which enraged the minibus drivers. It wasn't long before fights broke out. The drivers called in several thousand people from adjacent neighborhoods, as back-up. The army tried to separate the warring sides, forcing the Zabaleen into their homes. But the drivers and their angry supporters followed right behind the soldiers (who later admitted firing, but only into the air ).

It isn't clear how the attackers managed to enter the neighborhood. Newspaper reports offered various versions of the events and even different timelines: from 6 P.M. to 9 P.M., or from 11 P.M. to 4 A.M. The Health Ministry cited 13 victims - thus including four Muslim dead. At the funeral, relatives said some of the victims had been shot in the head or the heart, leading everyone to assume that snipers had been brought in to Zabaleen.

The army has encircled the neighborhood since Wednesday. Residents are forbidden to leave in large groups. (The victims were buried in the monastery graveyard, not in nearby cemeteries. ) Residents are afraid to leave alone or in small groups, fearing attacks.

The media, both liberal and opposition, have tended to present the event symmetrically, with equal aggression on both sides. But they also gave wide coverage to the theory that someone was behind the escalation, initiating it in order to thwart the revolutionary process and the demands for the dismantling of the despised state security apparatus, which under Mubarak's regime controlled political and civil life in Egypt. On this, the Muslim Brotherhood, Arab League Secretary General and Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa, and the entire Tahrir movement agree. The escalation began last weekend, when Mubarak ally Ahmed Shafiq resigned as prime minister in favor of the popular Essam Sharaf. At the same time protesters managed to force the attorney general and the army to prevent the security services from destroying documents and evidence at several of its offices.

What is more logical than to set the weakest communities on each other, the residents of poor Muslim neighborhoods and the Copts? On Tuesday, thugs attacked the International Women's Day protest at Tahrir Square. The army was there but in the end arrested only several male demonstrators. At the Thursday morning funeral, when Priest Ibrahim Samaan announced that an army representative was present, the crowd of mourners stirred angrily. The Zabaleen are convinced that the army not only did not try to prevent the attack, but aided the attackers (an accusation the army has repeatedly denied ). Someone even claimed that he heard the thugs cynically shouting the slogan of the first days of the Tahrir Square uprising: "The people and the army are one hand" - as if to say the Copts are not part of the Egyptian people.

In the first weeks of the uprising the foreign waste companies disappeared, and only the Zabaleen came to clean Cairo's streets. Some even joined the demonstrators and taught them how to sort and clean. Many were convinced that the new government would listen to the people, would right the wrong of abandoning the Zabaleen and include them in a modern waste collection and recycling arrangement. Now this hope has faded again.

Type your comment and click
or register to post a comment.
Bookmark and Share

* required field
User ID*
enter user ID or e-mail to recover login credentials