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Dustbins I Have Known

January 27th, 2011 - 11:08 am

A friend in Egypt sent the following assessment of the situation there yesterday:

1. Most commentators tend to make it [the unrest in Egypt] a “western oriented strongman” v. Islamist thing, whereas the Islamists are already very well placed within this regime, including the military and the security services.

2. Recent Pew poll shows one-in-five Egyptians support Al-Qaeda. Egyptians I spoke to thought this as understatement.

3. The MB [Muslim Brotherhood] seems certain to emerge on top at some point, only question is when. That will give them state-resources for their sophisticated agitprop and penetration efforts in the West.

There is a possibility that if Mubarak falls, it will have an effect analogous to the collapse of the shah during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The same friend with Egyptian connections noted that very extreme poverty depicted in the “Happyland” post could be found in Egypt. He sent a link to pictures, showing garbage scavengers in Egypt, called the zabbaleen, who consist almost exclusively of Coptic Christians. They have traditionally used pigs to recycle trash. But these porcine aides have been outlawed by the Mubarak government.

This governmental decision poses a major setback to the Zabbaleen because pigs are an essential component to their recycling and sorting system, in which the pigs eat all of the organic waste. Immediately after the culling of pigs, observers have noticed a visible increase of trash piles and piles of rotting food on the streets of Cairo.

That Egyptian government’s decision to clamp down on scavengers should lead to rotting piles of garbage should be no surprise. I remember Marcos-era efforts to ban garbage scavengers for cosmetic reasons resulting in the same thing. One thing the scavengers knew that the leaders in their palaces didn’t was that garbage could not be wished away. But you could, with some effort, make something out of it.

The idea was alien to the dictators. The rot, you see, was not in the heaps but elsewhere; less in the scavengers than in the heart of the dictatorial system.  Failing systems are sumps of bad ideas, which have for a long time been subsisting on rent-taking and cronyism. Regimes which are about to fall can never get rid of all the toxic ideas circulating in their memory space, like a bad operating system that is full of memory leaks and dysfunctional background processes. At some point you either reboot or face the Blue Screen of Death.

Until then such regimes are happy to occupy themselves with irrelevant trivia. The Egyptians were determined to get rid of the Nilotic version of Happyland’s Smokey Mountain. Why? Probably because they were easier to get rid of than the Muslim Brotherhood. “There are also worries that the Egyptian government is seeking to remove the Moqattam Village, also known as ‘Garbage City’ entirely and relocate the Zabbalean further outside of Cairo 25 km away to a 50-feddan plot (1 feddan = 1.038 acres), in Cairo’s eastern desert settlement of Katameya.” That would not only pointlessly oppress the Copts, once the inhabitants of Egypt before the Islamic conquest and now reduced to scraping the streets clean of trash, but probably produce even higher piles of trash in Cairo. But that’s how it goes. Given the enormous security challenges facing the country, a Google search on “gays in the military” yields 2.5 times more hits than “Mubarak Egypt.”

As Marie Antoinette was reputed to have said, “if people can’t eat bread, let them eat cake.”

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