CAIRO — It is unlikely anyone has ever come to this city and commented on how clean the streets are. But this litter-strewn metropolis is now wrestling with a garbage problem so severe it has managed to incite its weary residents and command the attention of the president.
“The problem is clear in the streets,” said Haitham Kamal, a spokesman for the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs. “There is a strict and intensive effort now from the state to address this issue.”
But the crisis should not have come as a surprise.
When the government killed all the pigs in Egypt this spring — in what public health experts said was a misguided attempt to combat swine flu — it was warned the city would be overwhelmed with trash.
The pigs used to eat tons of organic waste. Now the pigs are gone and the rotting food piles up on the streets of middle-class neighborhoods like Heliopolis and in the poor streets of communities like Imbaba.
Ramadan Hediya, 35, who makes deliveries for a supermarket, lives in Madinat el Salam, a low-income community on the outskirts of Cairo.
“The whole area is trash,” Mr. Hediya said. “All the pathways are full of trash. When you open up your window to breathe, you find garbage heaps on the ground.”
What started out as an impulsive response to the swine flu threat has turned into a social, environmental and political problem for the Arab world’s most populous nation.
It has exposed the failings of a government where the power is concentrated at the top, where decisions are often carried out with little consideration for their consequences and where follow-up is often nonexistent, according to social commentators and government officials.
“The main problem in Egypt is follow-up,” said Sabir Abdel Aziz Galal, chief of the infectious disease department at the Ministry of Agriculture. “A decision is taken, there is follow-up for a period of time, but after that, they get busy with something else and forget about it. This is the case with everything.”
Speaking broadly, there are two systems for receiving services in Egypt: The government system and the do-it-yourself system. Instead of following the channels of bureaucracy, most people rely on an informal system of personal contacts and bribes to get a building permit, pass an inspection, get a driver’s license — or make a living.
“The straight and narrow path is just too bureaucratic and burdensome for the rich person, and for the poor, the formal system does not provide him with survival, it does not give him safety, security or meet his needs,” said Laila Iskandar Kamel, chairwoman of a community development organization in Cairo.
Cairo’s garbage collection belonged to the informal sector. The government hired multinational companies to collect the trash, and the companies decided to place bins around the city.
But they failed to understand the ethos of the community. People do not take their garbage out. They are accustomed to seeing someone collecting it from the door.
For more than half a century, those collectors were the zabaleen, a community of Egyptian Christians who live on the cliffs on the eastern edge of the city. They collected the trash, sold the recyclables and fed the organic waste to their pigs — which they then slaughtered and ate.
Killing all the pigs, all at once, “was the stupidest thing they ever did,” Ms. Kamel said, adding, “This is just one more example of poorly informed decision makers.”
When the swine flu fear first emerged, long before even one case was reported in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak ordered that all the pigs be killed in order to prevent the spread of the disease.
When health officials worldwide said that the virus was not being passed by pigs, the Egyptian government said that the cull was no longer about the flu, but was about cleaning up the zabaleen’s crowded, filthy, neighborhood.
That was in May.
Today the streets of the zabaleen community are as packed with stinking trash and as clouded with flies as ever before. But the zabaleen have done exactly what they said they would do: they stopped taking care of most of the organic waste.
Instead they dump it wherever they can or, at best, pile it beside trash bins scattered around the city by the international companies that have struggled in vain to keep up with the trash.
“They killed the pigs, let them clean the city,” said Moussa Rateb, a former garbage collector and pig owner who lives in the community of the zabaleen. “Everything used to go to the pigs, now there are no pigs, so it goes to the administration.”
The recent trash problem was compounded when employees of one of the multinational companies — men and women in green uniforms with crude brooms dispatched around the city — stopped working in a dispute with the city.
The government says that the dispute has been resolved, but nothing has been done to repair the damage to the informal system that once had the zabaleen take Cairo’s trash home.
The garbage is only the latest example of the state’s struggling to meet the needs of its citizens, needs as basic as providing water, housing, health care and education.
The government announced last week that schools would not be opened until the first week of October to give the government time to prepare for a potential swine flu outbreak, a decision that could have been made anytime over the past three months, while schools were closed for summer break, critics said.
Officials in the Ministry of Health and other government ministries said they had not made this decision — and that they had counseled against pre-emptive school closings.
It appears to have been ordered by the presidency and carried out by the governors, who also ordered that all private schools, already in class, be shut down as well.
“We did not propose or call for postponing schools, so the reason is not with us,” said an official in the Ministry of Health who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak to the news media.
The heads of three large governorates, or states, in Egypt announced Wednesday that their strategy for keeping schoolchildren safe was to take classes, which on average are crowded with more than 60 students, and split them in half and have children attend school only three days a week, another decision that was criticized. There have been more than 800 confirmed cases of H1N1 in Egypt, and two flu-related deaths.
“The state is troubled; as a result the system of decision making is disintegrating,” said Galal Amin, an economist, writer and social critic. “They are ill-considered decisions taken in a bit of a hurry, either because you’re trying to please the president or because you are a weak government that is anxious to please somebody.”
Cairo’s streets have always been busy with children and littered with trash.
Now, with the pigs gone, and the schools closed, they are even more so.
“The Egyptians are really in a mess,” Mr. Amin said.