Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Egypt’s Swine Destruction Threatens Coptic-Run Industry

Government vows to continue slaughter in spite of international criticism.
By Roger Elliott
CAIRO, Egypt, May 5 (Compass Direct News) – Authorities yesterday pressed ahead with the slaughter of Egypt’s pigs – crippling the livelihood of thousands of swine breeders, nearly all Coptic Christians – in spite of World Health Organization (WHO) criticism that the measure was unnecessary for fighting the A(H1-N1) flu strain.
No cases of the so-called “swine flu” have been reported in Egypt, but the government last week ordered the slaughter of the country’s pigs as a precautionary measure, which Copts saw as an attack on the minority Christian population. After WHO criticized the move as unnecessary, the government rebranded the slaughter as “a general public health measure.”
Egyptian human rights lawyer Nadia Tawfiq told Compass the pig slaughter was a form of attack on Christians.
“All of that business is Christian,” she said. “You know that for Muslims, the devil is in the pig.”
An estimated 300 to 400 residents of the Manshiyat Nasr area of Cairo, nearly all of them Coptic, took to the streets on Sunday (May 3) and set up blockades to try to keep government teams from removing their animals. The protest took place in an area where mostly Coptic Christian scrap merchants known as zabaleen raise pigs to eke out a living.
The protesters threw stones and bottles at riot police, who reportedly responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Eight protesters were reportedly hurt, including two that were bloodied as police dragged them away.
An estimated 250,000 mainly poor Christians in Cairo reportedly make their living from collecting garbage and raising pigs in slum areas.
The government’s decision to destroy as many as 400,000 pigs was also lambasted by the United Nations as having little no or warrant, fueling speculation that the directive was motivated by the Islamic prohibition of pig consumption and the fact that Egypt’s pork industry is run almost entirely by Copts.
“They were not so radical against the birds [during the bird flu scare] as they are now against the pigs,” said the president of the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights Egypt, Amina Abaza. “We would like to ask them, ‘Why?’ Is there a special reason?”
A U.S.-based Coptic rights group has condemned the slaughter as a deliberate targeting of defenseless Christians and a continuation of a long campaign of discrimination against the Coptic community.
“Destroying these families’ livelihood without proper compensation is a clear example of discrimination and a violation of human rights, because it directly threatens the existence of an already impoverished population,” the Coptic Assembly of America said in a press statement.
Copts make up 10 to 12 percent of Egypt’s population, and although the community comprises some of Cairo’s richest residents, it also includes some of the nation’s poorest.
Those in the pig industry say that the slaughter cannot be justified on health grounds; they note that their livestock are healthy and pose no hygienic threat.
“Health comes first, absolutely,” said Helena Morcos of Morcos Charcuteries, a delicatessen with four branches in Cairo and its own small breeding farm. “Health comes before business, money, everything. If it had been proven there was a danger with the pigs, we would have slaughtered them readily.”
Animal rights activist Abaza, who is a Muslim, said she has no qualms about protecting pigs and knows likeminded people who are willing to help.
“Why are we so eager to destroy such a fortune and the people who live with their pigs?” she said. “I think we should give them a chance to raise their pigs in better circumstances with better food. I even have persons who are ready to pay for this, and I am one of them.”
Ripple Effect
The government has denied that the swine slaughter is related to Muslim prohibitions against pork, saying that more hygienic pig farming will begin in two years using imported animals.
Confusion over proposed compensation for the slaughtered swine was compounded by the sentiment that any amount would not equal the sustained livelihood that breeding pigs provides.
The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper suggested that pig owners would receive 1,000 Egyptian pounds (US$180) per head, but there were varying reports about how much the government would actually pay and under what conditions.
“I called the chief vet, and he said they were paying 100 pounds [US$18] for a mature pig, and 50 [US$9] for a baby,” said Abaza. “The real cost of a mature animal is 1,000 Egyptian pounds, so look at the loss.”
Egypt’s agricultural minister has suggested that meat from butchered pigs could be sold, thus rendering compensation unnecessary. This idea is impractical, said pig breeder and delicatessen owner Morcos.
“We are not well experienced in freezing this large an amount of meat,” said Morcos. “We are not sure if many storage houses would agree to rent space for the storage of pork.”
As pigs are considered “unclean” in Islam, finding that freezer space outside of the Christian community might be hard work. Were this possible, there would still be the problem of a saturated meat market and the resulting fall in profits.
Egyptian officials have begun killing hundreds of pigs and maintain that they will continue the slaughter in spite of international criticism, including WHO’s statement that pork is safe to eat.
Girgis Youssef Boulis, head of pork producer Ramsis Meats, told The Associated Press that the slaughter will result in layoffs in the largely Christian-run industry, affecting the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands farmers, producers and meat delivery drivers, among other industry workers.
Although the pig keepers will feel the effects of the slaughter most keenly, Morcos told Compass that businesses such as hers, which offers a wide range of pork products, will also suffer.
“How is this affecting us?” said Morcos. “It could ruin our business.”

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