In Mokattam, where the Zabbaleen - or garbage people - live, the stench of rotting trash is almost unbearable. Garbage is piled three stories high, pigs play in pens of thick, black mud, and streets ooze with waste.
But at closer glance, the picture is not so bleak. The monstrous piles actually have been sorted into plastics, textiles, and glass. In one nook a young man is granulating sorted plastic in a large steel machine, and in another a man is hanging recycled clothes hangers. In a sunny, concrete building, girls are weaving rugs, while others are laying recycled paper out to dry.
In fact, greater Cairo's 60,000 Zabbaleen, who gather one third of the city's 10,000 tons of daily garbage, have what is considered one of the world's most innovative and efficient models of solid waste disposal. They collect the garbage, sort it, and then recycle as much as 80 percent of it into raw materials and manufactured goods - plastics, rugs, pots, paper, and glass - which are then traded with thousands of businesses nationwide. The Zabbaleen's system has won awards, been applauded at international conferences, and been imitated in other cities, including Manila, Bombay, and Los Angeles.
While it would seem any government would embrace a system that costs the state nothing, recycles so much waste and employs tens of thousands of Cairo's poorest, this is not the case here. Last week, Egypt awarded contracts to private foreign companies to pick up Cairo's garbage using Egyptian workers. Government officials complain that the Zabbaleen weren't picking up all the city's garbage, two-thirds of which was collected by companies or government employees, or not at all. They also say that the Zabbaleen only want the more lucrative high-income trash, not the low-income waste, and that their methods are unhygienic and backward.
Beginning this year, the government will stop renewing the Zabbaleen's licenses, and over the coming months foreign contractors will gradually replace them. For the Zabbaleen and their supporters these new developments are extremely troubling.
"We're at our wits' end looking for solutions," says Leila Iskander, a community development practitioner, who has worked with the Zabbaleen since 1982. "We don't want this to turn into a human tragedy for 60,000 people, who will be cut out of a livelihood - women, children, everybody."
A Coptic Christian community of formerly landless and unemployed peasants, the Zabbaleen began coming to Cairo from southern Egypt around 50 years ago. They settled in slums on the city's outskirts and began collecting garbage in carts. Through their own initiative they started sorting the waste and trading it, eventually manufacturing the garbage in the 1980s with development agency assistance. Over the years they've used their profits from trash to upgrade their neighborhoods, educate their children (all are currently enrolled in school), create jobs for their women, and improve their equipment and methods.
In the ensuing months, three companies (one Italian and two Spanish) will begin collecting Cairo's trash, with the Cairo Cleaning and Beautification Authority (CCBA) responsible for cleaning up the city's southern zone. At a cost of $50 million a year, these multinationals will be expected to collect the city's trash; clean the streets daily; and build landfills, composting plants, and recycling centers. It is estimated they will recycle around 20 percent of the garbage.
Following the international trend to privatize services, including solid-waste management, the government decided that the multinationals, not the Zabbaleen or even local companies, were the only ones who could clean this overpopulated, trash-ridden city of 16 million.
"What are we going to do?" asks Mahmoud Reda, former head of the CCBA, who signed the companies' contracts. "Cairo is a city with an important culture and history. We can't leave it this way."
The foreign contractors have offered to hire the Zabbaleen as collection crews, but for the Zabbaleen, who manage their own businesses, this is unacceptable. "They want to pay me five Egyptian pounds [$1] per day. I make 10 pounds [$2] per day and this is barely enough. How will I live?" says Adl Riyadh Girgis, 40, a garbage collector and sorter with eight children from 6 to 22 years old.
"The government has instructed us to hire people necessary to do our job," says Antonio Canale, general manager of the Italian Ama Arab Environment Co. "If the Zabbaleen want to work for us and have a decent job with a uniform, fine, but we cannot allow them to continue working as they are now, because this contradicts our contracts."
Even supporters of the Zabbaleen admit that the current system has disadvantages. The Zabbaleen bring the garbage to their homes, where women and girls sort it by hand, handling sharp metal, broken glass, and hospital waste, such as syringes. Organic waste that can't be resold is given to pigs that live in smelly, rickety pens beside their homes.
But the Zabbaleen and their supporters would have liked the government to have at least integrated the best of the Zabbaleen's solid-waste disposal services into the new system before signing with the foreign contractors. The government's actions, they say, now threaten to destroy a poor, but thriving community that knows only one trade: waste collection, sorting, and recycling.
"Before signing the contracts with the companies, the government should have studied the situation very well," says Rizk Youssef, a lawyer and Mokattam resident, who is a partner in a plastic granulating workshop. "It should have considered our needs. Now we say maybe we can cooperate with the companies, but the companies can agree or not."