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In Manshiet Nasr, the largest of six garbage cities in Cairo, whole families work at recycling and thousands of workshops produce everything from plastic mats to shoe heels and clothes hangers.

But the zabbaleen couldn’t keep up with population growth. So in 2003, the Mubarak government, as part of a failed bid to host the soccer World Cup, contracted international companies to take up garbage collection.

However, it threw the system into chaos.

The companies worked with Dumpsters, but Cairo residents didn’t use them, having grown used to the zabbaleen coming to their doorstep. Many resented paying both the companies and the zabbaleen.

And the zabbaleen resented being squeezed out by the companies. Fights broke out over collecting schedules and routes. Many Dumpsters disappeared.

Then came the swine flu panic of 2009. Deprived of their pigs, the zabbaleen no longer had any interest in collecting organic waste.

The end result: The government waste department can’t cope, the companies don’t have dumpsters or the zabbaleen don’t come through.

So on any given day — or stretch of days —a given neighborhood becomes a “no-man’s land” of garbage.

Instead, there are the diggers, who take what can be recycled and sell it to the zabbaleen, leaving the food scraps strewn on the streets.

The zabbaleen still collect about 8,000 tons — more than half the daily output — and the companies about 3,000, leaving much of the remaining 6,000 tons on the streets, a lot dumped in the canals and some in the Nile River that flows through the capital.

The surrounding desert makes a useful trash bin, and the government operates a half-dozen dumps which anyone can use for a fee.

The private companies have their own landfills next to composting plants in outlying cities around Cairo. But only about 3 percent of the trash they gather is recycled, according to a government study cited by Ms. Iskandar.

So far, the zabbaleen say, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi, like the Mubarak regime, show every sign of ignoring them in favor of developing a new garbage system. They say Mr. Morsi’s administration didn’t consult with the biggest community of zabbaleen about the volunteer clean-up campaign or ask them to be part of it.

“We only heard talk of it,” said Mr. Romani, a Christian collector in the Manshiet Nasr garbage city, who requested partial anonymity because he fears his community’s livelihood is threatened.

“It seems they want to take my bread and butter,” he said. “This would kill me.”