While humans find it a challenge to wander Cairo's busy streets, thousands of homeless cats and dogs are also struggling through, on the lookout for food and shelter.
Animals in Egypt were once glorified, but are now mostly mistreated. Egyptians historically maintained exceptional relations with their animals, as shown by the huge number of animals decorating Ancient Egyptian temples and tombs.
“Animals were deeply connected with everyday life in ancient Egypt," said Gamal Eissa, professor of pharaonic history at Cairo University.
“They were necessary for food and drink, and were helping with agricultural work,” he said. “Ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses were often depicted in the form of animals, sometimes as chimeras, a combination of animal and human body parts.”
Eissa added that in addition to gods appearing as animals, the ancient Egyptians did not see humankind as a superior creation over the animal kingdom. They considered humans and animals partners, both created by gods and both with the power to bear life. Therefore, animals were entitled to respect and care.
"Although the love for animals was taken to an extreme, in that in the late era an unintentional killing of a cat became a crime punishable by death, it didn't preclude animals from being farmed or hunted, as the ancient Egyptians were not in any way vegetarians. They ate pork, goat, fish, cattle, sheep, geese and ducks, and also used animals’ skin as leather," said Eissa.
Now the picture is completely the opposite. From exploited farm animals to abused street animals, the situation seems to be going from bad to worse. It is not unusual to find children chasing or throwing stones at a dog or cat, or handlers harshly whipping underfed mules or donkeys pulling heavy carts.
“Compared to other governorates, Cairo is an animal heaven,” said Dina Zulfikar, one of the most renowned animal welfare activists in Egypt. She said Egypt has 11 animal rights organizations and they are all located in the capital.
“There is Brooke, an international organization dedicated to improving the lives of working animals in poor countries, the donkey sanctuary, and the Egyptian Mau Rescue Organization (EMRO) for Mau cats, which also encourages adoption,” she said. She explained that there are also sanctuaries concerned with cattle welfare, and three animal shelters: the Egyptian Society of Animal Friends (ESAF), the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt (SPARE) and the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals (ESMA), which currently shelters 632 cats, dogs and horses.
Although seriously lacking funding and wider public support, several animal welfare organizations have flourished in Egypt recently, increasing public awareness and promoting animal protection. SPARE is one of the most active organizations, having been operating for 11 years.
In a unique location overlooking the Saqqara pyramids, Amina Tharwat Abaza and her husband Raouf Mishriky founded SPARE, one of the first fully Egyptian non-profit charity organizations for the protection of animals.
Along with medical services, mobile clinics and animal shelters, SPARE dedicates a large portion of its work to campaigning heavily for better treatment for animals in Egypt, which won them the German Hans-Ronn Foundation award for humanitarian work with animals in 2008.
Abaza is very critical of the way the government deals with stray animals. “Egyptian authorities take brutal measures to eradicate the stray populations of dogs and cats. Dogs are poisoned and endure agonizing and slow deaths caused by seizures and respiratory paralysis,” she said.
More recently, the Egyptian authorities have been responding to citizens’ complaints by shooting stray dogs. Some die slowly, and others survive with broken bones and permanent paralysis.
On paper, Egypt has severe punishments for animal cruelty perpetrators. The law requires that anyone who deliberately kills or badly beats any domestic animal should be jailed or fined. But the law is rarely observed or enforced, and so it falls upon private organizations and individuals to provide care for wayward or abused animals.
Many campaigns have used various Islamic teachings as a proof of Islam’s strong injunctions to treat animals with compassion and not abuse them.
Mohamed al-Sayed, professor of theology at Al-Azhar University, told Egypt Independent that the Qur'an and Hadith (recorded sayings and deeds of the Prophet) emphasize respect for animals and all creatures of god.
“In the Qur'an alone there are over 200 verses dealing with animals, and six chapters of the Qur'an are named after the animals. The Prophet Mohamed gave many examples and directives about how Muslims should treat animals. In a famous Hadith, the Prophet told his companions about a woman who would be sent to Hell for having locked up a cat — not feeding it, nor even releasing it so that it could feed itself," Sayed said
There is still much to be done, and many local and international animal charities and NGOs are pressing for better treatment of animals.
With an increasing number of reports of severe neglect after the 25 January revolution, an international response team was organized last year by the Human Society International, the Marion Norsbury foundation and the Marchig Trust and Worldwide Veterinary Service to assess the situation on the ground and come up with a report with recommendations that could be implemented to improve the condition of Egyptian animals.
The report, prepared by the Worldwide Veterinary Service and Dr. Hassan Abdelrahim from Humane Society International, raised concerns after field visits to the Giza Zoo and numerous animal shelters and pet shops in Cairo.
The report spoke of the unpleasant conditions of Giza Zoo, with 80 acres one of the largest in the world. “There is a high likelihood that during the initial stages of unrest, the animals were not fed within the zoo. However, the poor condition and welfare of many of the animals is not a result of the revolution, it is attributed to the chronic neglect and inadequate husbandry in which they are kept.”
The report praised the reaction of some Egyptians to a radio announcement expressing concern about Giza Zoo on the fourth day of the revolution. Many people came to the zoo to ensure that food and water were in ready supply.
Although it is home to the oldest animal protection group in the region — the Egyptian branch of the international Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established over a century ago by British expatriates — Egypt still has a long road ahead.