Peter Hessler wrote some extraordinary books and articles about modern China, and then moved to Egypt. Thanks to my friends and colleagues Joan Acosta and Azza Sedky for sending me the link to his latest report in The New Yorker: What the Garbageman Knows. It's superbly written and will teach you more about Egypt than you ever thought you needed to know. And it has this passage:
In the thirties and forties, a new wave of migrants began to come from Asyut, in Upper Egypt. They were Coptic Christians, which meant that they could raise pigs that ate organic garbage. The Christians subcontracted from the Muslim wahiya [garbage collectors], who evolved into middlemen, managing access and collecting fees. The actual hauling and sorting was done by the Christians, who became known as zabaleen, and who made much of their income by selling pork, mostly to tourist hotels.
The government played no role in establishing this system, which worked remarkably well. Social scientists often cite it as a success story among developing-world megacities, and in 2006 an article in Habitat International described it as “one of the world’s most efficient resource recovery” systems.
It was estimated that the zabaleen recycled roughly eighty per cent of the waste that they collected. But the system became a victim of dysfunctional national politics under the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
In 2009, during the worldwide epidemic of H1N1 swine flu, the Ministry of Agriculture decreed that all Egyptian pigs had to be killed. There was no evidence that pigs were spreading the disease, but the government went ahead and slaughtered as many as three hundred thousand animals. Some Egyptians believe that the decision was driven by a desire to appease Islamists, who had become outspoken critics of the regime, and supposedly hated pigs even more than they hated Mubarak.
But the policy backfired, with hundreds of furious zabaleen taking part in protests. They also started tossing organic waste into the streets, because it had no value without pigs. The declining hygiene of the capital and the unrest of the zabaleen were part of the general unhappiness that culminated in the revolution, in January, 2011.
I posted a lot about the pig slaughter back then, and about the consequences Hessler describes.