The Egyptian government said its slaughter of pigs was to stop any possible outbreak of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. When international health officials, including the WHO, said the virus was not being passed to humans through pigs, the government changed its tune, saying the cull was to clean up the garbage collectors' neighbourhoods.
According to government figures, about 300,000 pigs have been slaughtered since the culling began in May, and now streets in Cairo are filled with the rubbish that had previously been collected by the city's zabaleen, or garbage collectors, to feed to their pigs.
Too late, the government has seen the problem. In fact, everyone has seen the problem, literally, as piles of garbage accumulate on the streets. The zabaleen had been the country's main clean-up crew for decades, living in shantytowns on the outskirts of the city. But with their pigs gone, there is no need for them to pick up the organic waste they had fed to their animals.
The government has admitted that it overreacted. The environment ministry says there is a concerted effort to clean up the streets before other illnesses occur. But tell that to the millions of Egyptians who open their windows daily to the rotting stench of old food and throwaways.
The vast majority of pig owners were Christian. Islam prohibits the consumption of pork products, but Christians and secularists in Egypt have long enjoyed the meat. When the government announced the cull, Copts were quick to denounce the move, claiming that the government was looking to "Islamicise" the country, according to Ashraf Ramelah, the president of the Voice of the Copts – an American-based Coptic organisation. Copts like Ramelah accused the government of stoking the fires of sectarianism.
There was much Christian anger over the culling; as it left the community without their savoury meat for some months, although now, despite the slaughter, pork is back on the menu. But the Coptic community who became outraged over the cull missed an important point: the Egyptian government simply didn't know what to do.
Following the initial outbreak of the "swine flu" in Mexico and the US, the government felt the best solution would be to kill all the pigs. Then, when the WHO reported that the virus was not being transmitted by the animal, it chose to announce that this was an effort to clean up the country's slums. It had to save face and avoid looking weak.
There were rumours that the government would transport a number of the pigs to "hygienic" farms outside the city limits, but Medhat, one of the rubbish collectors, doesn't know anyone who had their pigs moved. "They were simply killed and destroyed. Along with it, much of who we are," he said, pointing to the area just outside his small home where the pigs used to lie, basking in the sun.
Promises of farms for pigs came and went. The government did what it always does – whatever it wanted, regardless of facts on the ground.
Shortly after the cull, in Alexandria, a group of Coptic and Muslim workers who had been laid off sat in a cafe wondering what their next move would be. One of them said: "The killing has left a lot of Muslims cheering, but we know who is the real perpetrator: the government, who simply cannot admit they were wrong."
That is the crux of the matter. It wasn't a sectarian move to entice Christians toward Islam. In the end, the culling of Egypt's pigs reveals a stark truth that has haunted the Egyptian state for nearly three decades: progress is impossible as a result of the government's inability to plan and work for its people.
Like the pigs, people can be easily rounded up by the government. In 2006, after the bombing in a resort town in the Sinai Peninsula, the government was quick to react, rounding up hundreds of young Bedouin men after initial reports indicated that the Bedouin were responsible, at some level, for the bombings that left more than 20 dead in Dahab.
These men, nearly all of whom had no relation to the bombers, were carried away by the government's soldiers in an attempt to put a face to the destruction. Many of their wives were also rounded up and held by police to extract confessions from the men. It was an attempt to lay blame and find the murderers, but it failed miserably.
The government was wrong. These men had nothing to do with the attack. But, much like the fate of the pigs, the government did not back down, arguing that Bedouin men were responsible for the attack, even after Human Rights Watch reported that the continued detention was unwarranted. Scores of Bedouin remained in jail for weeks without charges, then slowly trickled back to their families when the media frenzy withdrew.
The government was unwilling to apologise and to this day, government officials have repeatedly told me that the arrests of the young men were based on well-founded facts. As go the pigs, so go the humans.