Pick it up, switch it off
Voluntary campaigns may raise awareness over electricity consumption and rubbish collection but they cannot replace the role of the state, writes Reem Leila
Within 100 days of his election, promised Mohamed Mursi, and Egypt would be a much cleaner place. The piles of garbage that disfigure villages and towns alike would be a thing of the past.
On 27 July a two-day rubbish clearance campaign began. Volunteers -- many of them young Muslim Brothers -- began to pick up the heaps of mouldering rubbish in Cairo and Giza. In Suez, a city that has long seemed on the verge of disappearing beneath drifts of garbage, hundreds of young people swept the streets with brooms and piled refuse in plastic bags. Meanwhile, the governor of Fayoum, Ahmed Ali, announced a competition for the governorates' cleanest town.
More than 10,000 volunteers took part in the rubbish removal, backed up by 95 lorries. Many have commended the clean-up campaign though few suppose one-off voluntary actions can solve the endemic problem. What may help is the consciousness raising element of the exercise: the rubbish that is being picked up was, after all, thrown down by someone. In an attempt to raise awareness more than 10,000 garbage sacks have been distributed to drivers in the hope they will deposit trash in the bags rather than throw it from the window. Cairo governorate has also launched a hotline -- 114 -- which people can use to report incidents of garbage being thrown into the streets.
While solving the problems that have dogged rubbish collection was on President Mursi's 100-day hit list, ensuring a continuous supply of electricity to homes was not. The latter, though, has become a major issue with power-cuts -- in some areas lasting several hours -- now a daily occurrence for millions of householders.
The president's response has been to call for yet another voluntary campaign. Householders have been urged to switch off electricity in their homes for two hours a day in an attempt to reduce demand.
"People can choose any two hours of the day, one in the morning and the other in the evening, or both hours in the morning or evening. This will help reduce the number of power cuts during peak hours," said presidential spokesman Yasser Ali.
The attempt to solve major national problems by voluntary initiatives has been attacked by the Socialist Popular Alliance Party which on 26 July called on residents of the Cairo district of Imbaba to withhold payment of electricity bills in an attempt to force the governorate to regularly clean streets and improve electricity supplies. The party used its Facebook page to blast attempts to pass on government responsibilities to the public.
"These decisions," railed former MP Mustafa Bakri, "reflect current inability to even begin to tackle the problems. The president promised to rid the streets of garbage and now he is calling on the public to do the cleaning. He wants to rationalise electricity consumption by asking people to live in darkness for two hours each day. No doubt soon he will ask the public to fill the security vacuum that has made their lives a misery by going out to police the streets themselves."
"People can participate and help the system," says Bakri, "but they cannot be a replacement for it."
Mohamed Mustafa, professor of electrical engineering at Cairo University, disagrees. He argues that Mursi is setting an important precedent by asking people to take responsibility for at least some of the problems they face.
"Cutting electricity consumption for two hours daily will save 20 per cent of domestic usage," he says, though he points out that private households consume just 10 per cent of the electricity overall.
Hala Hani, 32, says she has agreed with her husband to withhold electricity payments. "As long as there is no power we will not pay the bill. We don't have children and we both work. We never return home before 5pm and we sleep early. I've got no idea when I'm supposed to switch off the lights for two hours."
School teacher Abeer Afifi agrees. She and her husband are determined to withhold bill payments until services improve.
Cairo University professor of political science Hassan Nafaa thinks people should give Mursi's initiatives a chance. "There is no harm in asking the public to help as long as the government plays its own role," says Nafaa.
"Hopefully the public will realise that what they do is important, and as a consequence will stop throwing their garbage in the street, and think twice before switching on electrical appliances, asking themselves whether they are really necessary. If everyone in Egypt cleaned the front of their houses and put garbage in its proper place the country would be clean."