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ICC NOTE: Good example of the Egyptian government discriminating economically against Egyptian Christians.

June 10, 2006

For Egyptian community, garbage is a way of life

An effort to modernize trash pickup threatens Coptic Christians’ means of survival


San Francisco Chronicle

CAIRO , EGYPT – At a school unlike any in the Middle East , 15-year-old Magdi Shenuda learns how to use a computer to track the number of plastic bottles he recycled in the past month.

The Recycling School, in a Cairo district noted chiefly for its garbage dump, teaches about 100 poor children their ABCs, fundamental health and the arts — and basic training in the collection and reuse of trash.

Magdi lives in Manshiet Nasser, one of seven Cairo neighborhoods populated primarily by Coptic Christians who toil as zabaleen — Arabic for garbage collectors. For more than five decades, city residents have relied on their cheap — less than $1 a month — door-to-door service, which hauls away trash by small truck or donkey cart. The zabaleen spend hours sorting glass, plastic, cardboard, paper, tin and torn clothes in their communities and sell it to local factories that wash, compress and resell the materials.

Many residents of this poverty-stricken settlement of 40,000 in an abandoned quarry are descendants of poor farmers who came to Cairo in the 1950s. They turned to garbage collection because the majority Muslim population — only 10 percent of Egypt ‘s 70 million people are Coptic Christians — considers such work unclean.

“Muslims would never do that kind of work,” Ali Hussein Yousef, a Cairo limousine driver and a Muslim, said dismissively.

The Egyptian government regards the trash collectors as a shameful remnant of the past and wants to put them out of business.

For three years, municipal authorities have tried to replace Cairo ‘s estimated 70,000 zabaleen with sanitation companies from Spain and Italy , which provide their employees with colorful uniforms to wear as they pick up trash placed on sidewalks in shiny, brand-name trash cans. Mechanized trucks crush the garbage and take it to newly created desert landfills. For the full story