What Egypt can learn from the “swine flu” scare

What Egypt can learn from the “swine flu” scare

“What Egypt can learn from the “swine flu” scare” by Samuel Rizk

Washington, DC – Now that the scare over the “swine flu” virus (H1N1) has subsided around the world, governments, international organisations and ordinary people are taking stock to determine whether the response was proportionate to the actual danger. There is some concern that certain governments took this potentially grave threat so seriously that their response went beyond what was called for – resulting in tension and discrimination within local communities. Egypt is one of those countries.

Not only did the “swine flu” virus result in school closures, event cancellations and quarantines, but in Egypt – a country that has not registered a single infection – it also increased tensions between Christians and Muslims.

Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country where religion prohibits pork consumption for the majority of citizens. The government of Egypt, supported by an overwhelming number of members of parliament, decided to cull the entire population of pigs in the country and modestly compensate the owners. While this drastic move would have exceeded the call of duty in any country, what made it particularly sensitive in Egypt is that only the minority Coptic Christian community raises pigs and consumes pork.

As a result, Egypt’s Christians read this quick action by the government as an attempt to target them as a religious community.

Much of the swine population is raised in areas where traditional garbage collectors live and work. They collect garbage in their manoeuvrable donkey-pulled carts from across the city and return with it to their home where they sort it, keep or sell what they can, recycle some plastic and glass, and feed their pigs on the organic waste – food and other perishables. As such, they are among the few communities that actually implement sustainable recycling practices, even if the environment in which they live and work leaves something to be desired in terms of cleanliness, decent housing and community services.

In this context, the calls to rid Egypt of the swine population were seen by the Coptic Christian community as directed against their very livelihood.

Media outlets in Egypt and around the world have been buzzing with ways in which this situation could have been handled better. For example, could there have been better communication between the government and the Coptic community over why the cull was necessary and what could have been done to quickly and fairly compensate affected communities?

What is of serious concern is why this seemingly non-religious conflict has again taken a sectarian turn, a dynamic that is becoming more frequent in Egypt.

People’s lives and livelihoods have become so intertwined that economic and social well-being can no longer be separated. It is not enough to continue to hope for good inter-religious relations, which is what most Muslims and Christians in Egypt long for, without discussing the economic, social and cultural welfare of the entire community. Perhaps, rather than focusing on the negative fallout, we need to learn from the tension and conflict generated by this event in order to mitigate future tensions.

Individuals and groups that are already engaged in interfaith circles can use this opportunity to add another item to their agenda: dialogue about economic and social well-being. This could start with the pressing issue of the garbage collection communities, but should also extend to other vulnerable communities in Egypt – such as internal migrants who squat in the many urban slums around the major cities.

One option being discussed is transferring in-town garbage collection communities to places outside the city of Cairo. Not only could this move help relieve an already-congested city, but it could also reduce the serious health hazards related to having mountains of garbage so close to residential areas, and provide space for more efficient, cleaner, and larger scale recycling efforts.

This recent schism also serves as an occasion for Muslims and Christians together to think deeply about the reason why seemingly normal everyday conflicts continuously take on religious under- or over-tones that disrupt an otherwise peaceful relationship. Perhaps standing interfaith committees that intervene when conflict takes place could take preventive action to reduce the number of such incidents in the future.

In Egypt, there will always be fear and apprehension about the source and timing of the next episode of tension, but thinking about conflict as an opportunity for collaborative problem-solving might ensure that Egypt’s government officials give more thought to the local impacts of their response when the next global threat strikes.


* Samuel Rizk is a visiting researcher at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Dialogue and a PhD candidate at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 19 May 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
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