Cairo: It was cleanup weekend. The Muslim Brotherhood led a nationwide campaign to clean the streets suffering from a dysfunctional garbage collection system.
Citizens taking matters into their own hands is an endearing concept. In a way it’s reminiscent of Feb. 12, 2011, when Egyptians took to the streets after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster to clean the aftermath of the uprising.
At least this romanticism was the goal, the dream.
There’s nothing wrong with popular initiatives, until they become the state-sanctioned alternative to its role that continues to be financed by tax-paying citizens – the same citizens unwittingly expected to fill in for the state.
President Mohamed Morsi promised to solve the garbage problem in his first 100 days in office. Twenty-nine days after taking oath, only one out of eight goals listed under cleanliness is marked as “in progress”, according to Morsi Meter, a website measuring the president’s performance. None of the points relating to increasing the efficiency of the employees and the system registered any improvement; only the part about raising public awareness.
The point of making promises as president is the expectation that he will have the ability to directly influence the performance of state institutions. No one imagined that it will be citizens fulfilling these promises while the government watches idly from the sidelines, relishing its continuing malfunction.
Again there’s nothing wrong in citizen participation. In fact, part of the people’s frustration with the stagnation of Egypt’s revolution is their expectation for it to come to their doorstep. They wanted to be surprised by its rewards in their daily lives without any contribution of their own, say for example by refusing to pay a bribe.
Apathy is a malady Egypt is too familiar with. Often people justify their lack of positive contribution with the malfunction of the state. Advised to cut consumption in the face of prolonged and recurrent power cuts, some say that the state fails to cut consumption or fix the crumbling power grids and argue against doing something as simple as turning off the lights.
Apathy, however, isn’t the issue in the ongoing debate about the cleanup campaign. It’s a debate concerned with political assessments, government performance and sustainability.
Some Egyptians could learn a lesson or two about garbage disposal in public areas, but that’s only one small factor in a years-long problem. Private garbage collection companies contracted by the government are often accused of not doing the job they are paid for. Some of the lower-income districts, where garbage piles block the streets or where waste is embedded in paved roads, are not even on the state’s map.
The garbage problem is spread across a hierarchy of municipal councils and government offices and a network of local and foreign collectors and contractors. Those who refused to participate in the campaign argue that a weekend-long campaign will do little to fix the garbage problem. Without drastic changes in the system, the piles will return by the following weekend.
Had this popular campaign been organized in parallel with a plan to fix the state departments responsible for the problem, the outlook would have been different. Instead many believe it’s a stunt to tick a box on Morsi’ 100-day plan without substantial and sustainable change.
When the state gives in to and promotes the concept of citizens taking the role of its institutions, not only is this an admission of failure but also a dangerous declaration of its lack of resolve to fix anything on the institutional level. The state effectively renders its bureaucratic, hierarchal institutions useless.
States are the invention of people to organize their lives. If the state fails, then a new invention — or restructuring at the very least — is due.
A counter campaign urging citizens to refuse to pay electricity and garbage collection bills is already underway.
Photo via http://spartanoverseas.blogspot.co.uk