Tahrir 2011

As Egyptians have kept a watchful eye on President Mohamed Morsi’s first 30 days in office, this past weekend, he was finally able to cross one item off the election promise checklist. Turning an eye on Egypt’s garbage problem, Morsi’s project has been quite reminiscent of a clean-up initiative that took place in February, 2011.

The day after former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, Egypt witnessed a short-lived revolution that had nothing to do with politics. Starting in Tahrir, and slowly spilling out to the rest of Cairo, and Egypt, citizens took to the streets in an impressive clean-up campaign. In what appeared to be a spontaneous and collective effort, we saw Tahrir swept and hosed clean, removing any trace of the 18 day uprising. Throughout the city, children and adults alike took to the streets, cleaning, painting sidewalks, and even misguidedly painting every tree trunk in sight. Bright red, white and black splotches of paint were everywhere, in a sudden display of patriotism rivaled only by the brief outbursts witnessed during major football matches.

This past weekend, newly elected President Mohamed Morsi seemed to be trying to rekindle some of that excitement, along with that newfound sense of ownership of their country that people felt. Morsimeter, a site tracking the first 100 days of Morsi’s presidency had remained dismally bare, with none of his 63 promises fulfilled. The site has finally moved up one notch with the launch of an awareness campaign on littering. The so-called ‘Clean Homeland’ campaign is one which the president plans to make permanent.

The initial stages of the campaign consisted of over 100,000 volunteers taking part in a heavy duty two-day cleaning campaign. Reports from the president’s office state that 203,000 tons of construction debris and 120,000 tons of garbage were cleaned up in 22 of Egypt’s 27 governorates. Mohamed Morsi’s official spokesman, Yasser Ali, stated that the campaign achieved 60% of its goals during those two days.

While the campaign has been met with some ridicule, with many saying that there are far more pressing issues to be dealt with, it has to be said that Egypt’s mounting garbage problem is certainly nothing to be scoffed at.

The problem with Morsi’s campaign, however, is that he is attempting to harness a spirit in the general public that barely lasted a month – one that involves a sense of ownership not only over the decisions made by their president, but also a sense of ownership of the country they live in.

Egyptians, for a brief time, felt that their contribution, no matter how small could make a difference. That sentiment has faded; much in the same way that voter turnout continues to dwindle with each time people make their way to the polling stations.

The second, and more serious, problem with Morsi’s campaign is that it depends on the mobilization of the general public – and is a cosmetic solution at best. After the initial cleanup fervor of post-January 25 wore off, the garbage was quick to pile up again in the streets because these kinds of campaigns are a temporary fix to a very permanent problem.

As Egypt entered months of transition, following the uprising, it did not take long for the paint to fade under the pollution and grime of the city, and for shop owners and caretakers to be concerned only with that small patch of land in front of their buildings and stores. Anything beyond the borders of their personal space became someone else’s problem. The same will undoubtedly happen with Morsi’s campaign.

While public awareness is very much an integral part to solving Egypt’s garbage collection problem, the solution does not lie in weekend-projects, but rather in the implementation of a system that truly addresses the issue at hand, through the implementation of litter laws, and the creation of a nation-wide state-sponsored organization equipped to deal with the problem on a permanent basis.

Photo Credit: Roy Gunnels