Cairo's rubbish collectors - and pig breeders. Picture posted on Flickr by vagabondblogger

Ten days on, Egypt’s decision to slaughter its entire pig population in an unlikely bid to keep influenza A H1N1 out of the country is still a matter of heated debate. First slammed as religiously-motivated – given that most breeders are Coptic Christians – the decision has since taken on an economic hue. One pig breeder tells us that behind the flu cover-up lies a lucrative deal.

The government announcement on April 29 that the country’s 350,000 pigs would be culled has sparked clashes between security forces and the rubbish collectors, known as the Zabbaleen, who traditionally breed Egypt’s hogs. For this largely Christian population, pigs are the primary means of subsistence, required both to recycle organic waste (see our previous post on this topic) and to sell in the form of ham.

Egypt, which reported 69 cases of bird flu last year, is yet to announce its first case of swine flu. Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have called the pig cull a “mistake”, given that influenza A H1N1 cannot be transmitted from swine to humans.

Anti-pig song

As this hugely popular song goes to show, the crowds are largely in favour of the government’s decision. The popular singer Shaaban Abdel Rahim, also known as Shaabula, has whipped up the hysteria by giving the “go-ahead to slaughter the pigs”.

Mina Zekry is a blogger and human rights activist. He has been following the pig cull affair from the start.

People are afraid the harassed rubbish collectors will eventually rebel. In the meantime, the media campaign to denigrate them has borne fruit. Shaabula's song has also helped influence public opinion and discard the opposition of the FAO and the WHO."


"The government wants to grab the breeders' land"

Magdi Abdel Fatah is a pig breeder in Manchiyet Nasser, a shantytown north-east of Cairo.

The government has been clamping down on rubbish collectors for the past two years. Why? Because the value of their land has rocketed in recent years, with new roads leading up to them. For instance, my town, Manchiyet Nasser, has become a destination for tourists. The government now wants to recover these lands. They first tried to get rid of the collectors by transferring them to the desert city of May 15 (the city’s name), which has neither water pipes nor public services. That enterprise failed, so they are now trying to wipe out their livestock.

Since 2000, two companies, one Spanish and the other Italian, have been licensed to handle rubbish collection. But they’re short of qualified workers. The Zabbaleen, on the other hand, have a long experience, but they are self-employed. The government was thus hoping to kill two birds with one stone: to take hold of the Zabbaleen’s land and force them to work for foreign companies as regular rubbish collectors.

The economic consequences of the government’s decision are already all too obvious. In normal times, 20 tonnes of pork meat would reach the Egyptian market every month. But with the supply now falling short, prices have shot up, forcing people to shift to other products. As a result, these products have also got dearer. Fish, for instance, has jumped from 12 Egyptian pounds (roughly 1.5 euros) to 20 pounds, bearing in mind that the average Egyptian state employee gets a monthly wage of between 500 and 800 pounds.

The decision to cull the country’s pigs has sparked a general psychosis. Nobody buys pork meat any longer, and people have even stopped walking past shops that sell it for fear of catching the flu! This paranoia grew further when Pope Shenouda [the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church] instructed followers not to eat pork. But it’s the rubbish collectors who have been stigmatised most. In some wealthy neighbourhoods, residents refuse to let them in, or tell them to cover up with plastic bags as a precautionary measure. They are treated as though they had the plague.