Is it wise to kill the capital’s rubbish-ridding pigs?
IN A city not much noted for efficiency, Cairo’s traditional rubbish collectors, or Zabbaleen, have long been something of a paragon. While failing to keep Egypt’s teeming capital very clean, the Zabbaleen, nearly all of them members of Egypt’s 6m-plus Coptic Christian minority, do an excellent job of processing waste. Trucking refuse to the half-dozen rag-picking settlements that ring the city, they carefully sift out recyclable glass, paper and plastic. The rest is fed to pigs.But in response to the global threat of swine flu, Egypt’s government has decreed that the pigs, perhaps 250,000 of them, must go. Teams of surgical-mask-wearing pig-hunters were met at first with a barrage of rocks, bottles and manure hurled by the angry Zabbaleen. Now, backed by riot police and promising compensation, they are systematically hauling the beasts off for slaughter, a process expected to take several months.
With no cases of swine flu reported in Egypt to date, officials from both the UN and the World Health Organisation have condemned Egypt’s porcicide as a drastic overreaction. Some disgruntled Copts, who have long complained of petty discrimination and fear the influence of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, say the move unfairly targets them. Others, noting that Egypt’s minister of health consulted Coptic clergy before announcing the cull, see it as a plot by wealthy businessmen to uproot the Zabbaleen and seize their valuable land on the edge of the city. Still more rumours explain the government’s swinophobia as a ploy to distract attention from other failings, such as not paying a promised salary bonus.
Yet most of the 80m-odd Egyptians seem relieved. While Muslims shun pigs as ritually unclean, many Copts also fear them as disease-carriers, with panic over swine flu heightened as Egypt has suffered at least 26 deaths from avian flu since 2006, the most in any country outside Asia. Besides, the crowded pig pens, surrounded by mounds of self-combusting biodegradable slime and hemmed in by dense human settlement, are a stinky eyesore. But the question no one seems to ask is, if pigs are no longer there to munch away at them, where will Cairo’s giant piles of leftovers go?