30 April, 2009

Crisis management, Egypt style

Much can be said about the row about the pig flu and mass slaughter of pigs. I just want to say this: it is a prime example of how important decisions are taken and implemented in Egypt, amidst a disastrous interaction of authoritarian rule and sensationalist media.

As I approached the garbage-collectors settlement and pig farms in Ezbet el-Nakhl yesterday, I encountered a police checkpoint where I was stopped by an officer in plain clothes, who called a superior before finally allowing me to pass (but with strict orders not to take pictures of the pigs - uhm, sorry... police). While the officer was busy checking my papers, a group of journalists and photographers took the opportunity to simply walk by, after apparently being held up for some time at the check point. Very efficient.

In one of the small streets a crowd had assembled, chanting angry slogans in front of a TV-crew. The cameramen didn't chose the location randomly however. Instead, they directed the crowd so as to be able to capture the small church in the background, thus emphasizing the religious identity of the pig farmers - as if this wasn't obvious enough to everyone anyway.

Actually, no one I spoke to brought up this issue or portrayed the decision to slaughter the pigs as an attack on christians as a religious group. Instead, one of them offered another theory concerning the motives: "This is nothing new. Some people have been propagating against the pig farms for a long time. The reason is that there is influential people who want our land, to build expensive appartments. They take this opportunity to get rid of us once and for all."

One of the farmers even refered to the UN to support his view that there was no need for slaughtering his pigs. Another pointed out that this measure had not been taken even in countries were people died because of the virus.

I'm not a health expert, but two things seems clear to me: 1) it's not totally unreasonable to regard the pig farms and the sanitary conditions in these settlements as a long-term threat to public health - but as such it's just one among many others that Egyptian citizens are exposed to. 2) there is absolutely no connection between the mass slaughter of pigs and preventing the on-going spread of the "pig flu." Conclusion: whatever measures are taken they should be based on a careful consideration of facts and long term sustainability.

This, however, is something that just won't happen in Egypt. Instead, whoever who screams loudest will win in the end. The zabaleen and pig farmers in Ezbet el-Nakhl are fully aware of this, which is why the willingly take part in those "spontaneous" protests in front of the TV-crews, that end as soon as the cameras are turned off. It's easy to be cynical and say they are being used by sensationalist media - but they are in fact acting rationally, since this is their only way of communicating with the people in power.

Finally: During a "health crisis" like this, you would except officials from the health ministry to actually be present on the ground and talk to the affected people. Instead, the only representatives of the state most of them have met recently is members of the security bodies. As they tried to go on their usual garbage-collecting rounds yesterday morning, many were stopped by police who simply said it was mamnou3, forbidden.

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