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.
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.
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.
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.