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Cairo’s Zabbaleen. (Dis-)entangling the urban and social geography of informal livelihoods in a globalized megacity

Les zabbâlîn du Caire. (Dés)emmêler la géographie urbaine et sociale des moyens de subsistances informels dans une mégapole mondialisée
Maike Didero and Sarah Eldefrawi
p. 91-110


This article looks into the changes having impacted on the livelihoods of Cairo’s zabbaleen since the beginning of the Millennium and discusses future avenues for research. Based on our fieldwork (2006, 2011, 2017) which followed an actor and household centered methodology we expose the different interwoven factors which have been influencing the functionality of this livelihood sector. These factors range from local competition to national policies and international economies. Our research revealed that in order to understand dynamics around the livelihood of waste and recycling workers in Egypt it is crucial to connect individual actions and strategies to a multi-level analysis of different social fields. Bourdieu’s theories provide a rich research background in this respect which we have used adapted to broaden and substantiate the sustainable livelihood approach used in development studies. In line with other empirical research projects (see eg. Debout, Furniss, Du Roy, Desvaux) our analysis provides convincing evidence that recent research on the zabbaleen has contributed significantly to understand a variety of interrelated and interweaving topics such as waste management, sustainability, national and international policies, globalization and vulnerability. We therefore end our article with some concrete recommendations for future research questions that should be explored.

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Full-text article available to subscribers or on a "pay per view" basis. It will be available on this URL in January 2022.
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Informal livelihoods and development geography: Lessons learned from the zabbaleen
Waste as a lifeline? Significant turning points for the zabbaleen since the new millennium
Theoretical framework
Shock events, reactions and outcomes
Changing structures and processes
Discussion – Future avenues for research or enough of the same?

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The first scientific articles about the zabbaleen having been published more than 35 years ago, with many others following (see e.g. Heynes and el-Hakim 1979, Meyer 1987, Volpi 1996, Ghazi El Dahan 2004, Iskander 2005, Desvaux 2009, Fahmi and Sutton 2010, Debout and Florin 2011, Didero 2012, Kuppinger 2013,Debout 2012, Furniss 2012, Du Roy 2014), one might raise the question if this is not a topic that has been sufficiently dwelled upon by researchers from different regions of the world. While “ordinary” middle or upper class residents in Cairo believe that researchers and “foreign TV stations should not report about our landfills when Egypt has so many beautiful aspects to show”, this article will show that from a scientific point of view neither the zabbaleen nor the waste and recycling system in Egypt should be considered an over researched topic.

During the past 15 years a number of major structural changes have shaken the zabbaleens’ livelihoods, thereby asking for ...

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Electronic reference

Maike Didero and Sarah Eldefrawi, « Cairo’s Zabbaleen. (Dis-)entangling the urban and social geography of informal livelihoods in a globalized megacity », Égypte/Monde arabe,Troisième série, 19 | 2019, Online since 01 January 2021, connection on 05 August 2020. URL :

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About the authors

Maike Didero

Maike Didero is a social geographer interested in migration studies and urban geography with a focus on North Africa and the Middle East. She is currently working as an assistant professor at RWTH Aachen University.

Sarah Eldefrawi

Sarah Eldefrawi is a research assistant in urban studies at the Housing and Building National Research Center (HBRC) in Cairo, Egypt. She is currently a candidate at LAVUE and preparing her PhD at university of Paris 8 in urban sociology, concerned with the question of informality and popular practices in the contemporary city.

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