What does Egypt’s new hardline government mean for the Zabaleen (Garbage People)?

The Zabaleen, which translates directly from Arabic as ‘Garbage People’ harvest and hand-sort 15,000 tons of waste every day,. This community of roughly 70,000 Coptic Christians, live and work in the most degrading conditions, sifting through trash and sorting it just to earn a few bucks a day. They face all kinds of discrimination from the Muslim majority, yet without them, Egyptians literally would be swimming in their own waste.

Last March, thousands of irate Muslims attacked Christians in Mokattam. At least 10 Christians were killed and nearly 100 were injured. The Mokattam tragedy was followed by more attacks, including the massacre of Christians last October by the Egyptian army at Cairo’s Maspero Square. “The Christians in the Middle East and in Egypt in general are now facing one of the most dangerous stages in their history,” says Mideast expert Walid Phares.

FOR DECADES, most of Cairo’s trash has been disposed of by the Zabaleen. These mostly Coptic Christian garbage collectors represent an informal economy that recycle up to 80 per cent of Cairo’s non-organic waste with the help of pigs.  

But that all changed when the government slaughtered the Zabaleen’s pigs to stop swine flu.  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. The animal played an important role in Zabaleen’s recycling enterprise, consuming the organic waste created by Cairo’s 18 million residents and tourists. As a result of this, the living situation for the Zabbaleen has become even poorer even if they continue to breed pigs, illegaly.

 Even so, children play in heaps of steaming waste and are at risk of contracting disease while the stretch of land at the base of Cairo’s Moqattam Mountain is an eyesore. Block after block of rubbish accumulates in every direction, on every rooftop, and along every street corner. And the stench is unbearable. It’s like a sickly sort of smell that just gets trapped in the back of your throat and makes your eyes water.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists now dominate the lower house of parliament. Later this year, they’ll likely control the writing of a new constitution that could include elements of Sharia Islamic law. Coptic Christian activist Father Philopateer Gameel suggests Islamists want to deny Christians their rights as Egyptian citizens. 

“They are trying to make us second class citizens,” he explained. “We hear a lot of accusations that Coptic Christians are not Egyptians.”

But Coptics lived and practiced their Christians faith in Egypt some 600 years before Islam. Arabs Muslims invaded Egypt in 640 A.D., forcing many Coptic Christians to convert or be killed. Waves of persecution and martyrdom have come against them ever since.