CAIRO Egypt's decision to ignore U.N. advice and cull its pigs over flu fears has unintentionally fanned sectarian tensions in the mainly Muslim country.
Pigs in Egypt are primarily reared by Christian garbage collectors who let their animals scavenge on organic household waste in fly-infested slums. They sell the meat, which Muslims consider unclean, largely to other Christians.
"The Christians are Egypt's garbage men, and we are not liked," said Marzouk Badr Adli after taking part in a recent protest against the cull in Cairo's Manshiet Nasser shantytown. "We serve the people and they come and cut off our livelihood."
Egypt, already hit hard by bird flu, ordered the slaughter of all its 300,000 to 400,000 pigs on April 29 as a precaution against the new H1N1 flu virus, commonly known as swine flu, in a move the United Nations said was "a real mistake".
Egypt fears another flu virus could spread quickly in a country where most of the roughly 77 million people live in the densely packed Nile Valley, many in crowded Cairo slums.
But the swiftness of Egypt's decision -- taken without a broad public debate -- has left some Christians feeling bitter, especially as the virus has not yet been detected in the most populous Arab country and has not spread from pigs to people.
Such bitterness adds to a list of popular frustrations facing the government in Egypt, where a fifth of the people live in grinding poverty, workers grumble about inflation and a global crisis has reined in economic growth.
Christians account for about 10 percent of Egypt's population, spanning all social classes. Relations with Muslims are usually harmonious although disputes over land, religious buildings or women occasionally erupt into violence.
It has not helped that truckloads of security forces now stand guard at the entrance to garbage collector slums to help workers enforce the cull order, or that compensation has been low at just 100 Egyptian pounds ($17.79) per adult pig.
"We are starting to get concerned at the strong sectarian tone that is beginning to dominate the public discourse," said Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
"A discourse that implicates Christians with impurity on the one hand and disease on the other could have alarming consequences," he added.
A government minister has described Egypt's pigs as a time bomb, an Islamist parliamentarian appeared at a session in a protective mask, and the Coptic pope has stepped in to assure Muslims that most of his people don't eat pork. The meat is mainly consumed, he says, by foreign tourists and expatriates.
"This is not happening in a vacuum. It is happening in a context of a polarised society and a high degree of sectarian tension," Bahgat said of the cull and response.
But the decision to cull, while it does disproportionately affect Christians, was not taken for sectarian motives, most analysts agree. Rather, it was a chance for Egypt to rid urban areas of pigs -- something the government has long wanted.
Pigs mingle in Cairo with birds, people and livestock in garbage collector slums, slurping up slop from trash brought in from across the city. Egypt has said swine in these areas pose a general health risk because of the unsanitary conditions.
Furthermore, some officials have long expressed concerns that garbage collector areas could create an environment conducive for the more deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, now endemic in Egyptian poultry, to mutate or jump species.
"I don't think that everything originated just to deal a blow to the Christians under the sectarian umbrella," said Youssef Sidhom, editor of a secular Coptic weekly, adding that the government was perhaps overly willing to respond to an H1N1 flu panic in parliament, fed at least partly by Islamists.
"It was irrational and it was foolish and it was rushed," he said of the decision. "I can't understand the rush... So, yes, the government has acted in an insensitive manner."
Egypt, citing concerns over bird flu, had earlier sought to relocate pigs to a desert satellite city, but had not found the political will to do so before the swine flu crisis hit, even as it saw a surge in bird flu cases this year.
Egypt's main state newspaper initially said the state could pay 1,000 pounds per pig as compensation. But the government ultimately decided to hand the carcasses back to owners for consumption along with the much smaller amount of cash.
Christian garbage collectors have since clashed with police in at least one garbage collector area. Meanwhile, some Muslims have expressed fear that an influx of pork from culled pigs could end up in their ground lamb or beef.
Analysts note, however, that the tensions were not purely sectarian in nature. The cull had also ignited class resentments as it dealt a huge economic blow to an already marginalised community, with little apparent sympathy from the state.
"Everything becomes politicised into sectarian stuff in Egypt," said Laila Iskandar, a consultant who has worked with the garbage collectors. "This is just one more of those things."
($1 = 5.6196 Egyptian pounds)