Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 January 2004
Issue No. 671
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System trashed

Will an administrative court's ruling against the linkage of garbage collection fees to people's electricity bills wreak yet more havoc on greater Cairo's controversial waste management project? Dena Rashed reports

An administrative court ruling declaring illegal the inclusion of garbage collection fees in people's electricity bills has added yet another problem to an already controversial Greater Cairo waste management project.

People who felt the fees were unfair warmly welcomed the State Council Administrative Court's decision. The government, meanwhile, was flabbergasted. Prime Minister Atef Ebeid said the ruling would be contested at the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC); until then, it was business as usual.

The garbage collection fee system, which was first used by Alexandria, is based on a formula whereby the more people consume electricity, the more they pay for their garbage removal. The idea of subcontracting garbage collection to foreign firms also originated in the Mediterranean port city, and was adopted by Cairo and Giza earlier this year.

Cairo University law professor Fawziya Abdel-Sattar told Al-Ahram Weekly that the decision to make people pay for the service was always illegal. "This is a service that some people might want and others not, so in the first place the governorate imposed the service, which goes against [principles of] personal freedom," she said. Trying to link this service with people's electricity bills, said Abdel-Sattar, is simply unacceptable -- "a twisted way to collect this fee".

The Administrative Court agreed. Responding to a case filed by angry Giza citizens, the court called the imposition of the fees a severe violation of the constitution. The collection of fees has to be approved by the People's Assembly, the court said, adding that citizens already pay two per cent of their rent money to their local municipalities for garbage collection fees.

The court said that having electricity company employees collect the fees was also against the law. Only municipality personnel were mandated for that particular job. Most importantly, the court ruling stated that it was the state's responsibility to provide such services, and that charging an additional fee to that end constituted an additional burden for citizens.

A source at the Giza Cleanliness and Beautification Authority, who requested anonymity, confirmed that despite the court ruling, everything about the scheme was proceeding as scheduled.

According to one of the companies doing the work -- the Italian International Environmental Services company -- the court ruling does not affect them. "We have contractual obligations with the governorate -- we provide a service and we have nothing to do with the way the governorate collects the money," said IES Managing Director Khaled El- Alami.

"[They] only paid us a small amount of our money, although they have been collecting the fees for months," he said. "I had to cut labour, and not expand the company's work as planned. If I can't pay the employees, how can I provide a good service?"

El-Alami also said the confusion over the fee collection was bound to negatively affect other foreign firms who were looking to work in Egypt.

Giza Governorate, especially, was caught by surprise by the ruling. A similar case in Alexandria had ended with a court ruling that linking garbage collection fees to electricity bills was perfectly legal. The Alexandria ruling described the system as "a fair and organised method, whereby the law has managed to take people's socio- economic levels into consideration".

According to Cairo Deputy Governor Abdel-Hadi Gad El-Moulla, the key was in the term used to describe the fees on the electricity bill. "Giza Governorate used the term 'fees', and fees require People's Assembly approval before they can be imposed on people, but in Cairo we used the same term used by the Alexandria governorate -- 'services provided'," El- Moulla told the Weekly.

Abdel-Sattar was sceptical, arguing that "the term 'services provided' is the same as 'fees' -- it's just another way of saying it." For that reason, she said, Cairo governorate would most likely be dealing with a similar legal battle in the near future.

In Imbaba, which has become one of Giza's cleanest districts as a result of the project, shop owners who spoke to the Weekly had mixed feelings about the court ruling. Ahmed Ibrahim, who owns a coffee mill, said that although his shop hardly produces any waste, "I still have to pay LE30 per month for garbage collection." Ibrahim also pays LE12 in garbage collection fees at home based on a LE34 electricity bill. He said that despite the court ruling, he would continue to pay, "so as not to risk my shop being shut down by the governorate."

Others also said fear of having their businesses shut down was the main impetus for their continued payment. Automobile accessories dealer Abdel-Ghani Abdel-Hafez said that even though he was furious at the governorate, he would still pay for the service. "I still pay the zabbal (traditional garbage collector) every month, while I am also forced to pay another LE12 to the governorate." Abdel-Hafez said that even though he felt that "they were killing us with all these bills," he had seen "people threatened with instant shop closure if they didn't pay."

Mechanic Mohamed Hussein, meanwhile, said that based on the court ruling, he would not be paying the LE30 in fees being asked of him this month. "I can't find an official to talk to. I even sent them a written complaint and got no response. If they want to cut the electricity, let them do it," Hussein said. His problem was that the service had deteriorated in the few months since it began.

According to Abdel-Sattar, if the Supreme Administrative Court confirms the lower court's ruling, it would be tough for the governorate to continue charging the fees. They "would have no option but to obey the court ruling. If the governorate does not obey the court's order, then how do you expect citizen to?" she wondered.

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