From Tahrir Square

I spent ten days or so in Cairo at the start of this month. Here’s the first of a few articles I wrote while I was there, a news piece on the elections for the Scotsman.

EGYPT’S ultra-conservative Islamist party plans to push for a stricter religious code after claiming strong gains in the first round of elections, a spokesman said last night.

Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafists were set to take most seats in the first round of Egypt’s first parliamentary vote since president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February.

The head of Egypt’s electoral commission said 62 per cent of eligible voters turned out for the first round of elections to parliament.

Abdel-Mooaez Ibrahim called the number “the highest since the time of pharaohs”.

More than 13 million people voted in Monday and Tuesday’s ballot across nine Egyptian provinces.

The first round voting will determine around 30 per cent of the 498 seats in the parliament’s lower house. Two more rounds, ending in January, will cover Egypt’s other 18 provinces.

Crucially, the new parliament will select a 100-member panel to draft Egypt’s new constitution. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), which took control of the country after Mubarak was toppled, has said it will choose 80 of those members.

Like the Muslim Brotherhood, the hardline Salafist al-Nour Party – inspired by the Wahhabi sect which Osama bin Laden belonged to – have recently sought to reassure moderate Muslims and Egyptian’s sizable Christian population. Yesterday spokesman Mohamed Nour denied the party would seek a ban on alcohol.

“Maybe 20,000 out of 80 million Egyptians drink alcohol,” he said. “Forty million don’t have clean water.

Do you think that, in parliament, I’ll busy myself with people who don’t have water, or people who get drunk?”

There are indications that a number of Egypt’s liberal and left-wing parties plan to form a broad-based coalition, on the back of their poor performance in the polls.

Many remain sceptical of the Islamists who look likely to dominate the new parliament. “They are closed-minded and reactionary,” said Dina, a 42-year-old office worker from Cairo. “They want to make this country into something it isn’t and will never be.”

Earlier yesterday a 5,000-strong crowd gathered in Tahrir Square to commemorate those killed during the week and to call for a speedier transition to civilian rule. Among them was Aesam Mohamed Fathey, whose son Islam was killed by police in January.

“These elections are just a ruse to get people to leave the square, to get people to forget about what happened,” Mr Fathey said, shouting to be heard over the chants of “we will die in the square” that rang out across the makeshift encampment that sprang up following a military crackdown on protesters last week. “Nothing has happened to the man who killed my son, and nothing will so long as Scaf have power.”

Whether these elections will disrupt the ruling Scaf elite is still unclear. The official explanation for the drawn-out election timetable is that Egypt lacks a sufficient number of trained judges to monitor polling stations and ballot boxes to ensure elections are free and fair.

But critics have accused Scaf of designing an unnecessarily complex and cumbersome system for its own political ends. “Nothing will change as long as Scaf remain,” said Ranza Ali, speaking from a protest outside the People’s Assembly, near Tahrir Square. Wary of a EGP500 fine (£53) for failing to vote, Ali spoiled her ballot. “I wrote ‘glory to the martyrs’ on it,” she says proudly.

Although Egyptians embraced the first election since the end of the Mubarak era, with huge queues at many polling stations, Ms Ali believes that the new government will not spell the end of the protests. “[People] will give the parliament a try but once they see that it can’t do anything they’ll be back out on the streets again. It might take time but it will happen.”

Stormont needs to take a leaf out of Scotland's book to eradicate sectarianism

From Irish Times comment pages, November 16.

OPINION: SCOTLAND’S “SECRET shame” is anything but a clandestine affair these days. Between Uefa’s clampdown on repugnant chanting at Rangers and Celtic’s European nights and First Minister Alex Salmond’s pledge to “eradicate” bigotry, sectarianism in Scotland has never received so much attention.

Speaking at the Scottish National Party’s conference in Inverness last month, justice minister Kenny MacAskill was unequivocal. “These are songs of hate and there is no place for them in a modern Scotland . . . It’s not about the Boyne in 1690 or Dublin in Easter 1916. It’s about dragging a small minority of folk in our country into the 21st century.”

Scottish sectarianism is, thankfully, no longer structural – in 2004, for example, just four cases that appeared before employment tribunals in Scotland had any sectarian connotations – but it lives on as bigotry, particularly inside Old Firm stadiums. A controversial Bill to outlaw sectarian singing at football matches is currently progressing through the Holyrood parliament.

Since 2006, Scotland is the only place on the planet that possesses both a sizeable Irish Catholic and Protestant population and an anti-sectarian strategy. The contrast with the situation across the Irish Sea could not be starker.

Northern Ireland’s devolved government has no anti-sectarianism policy. More than 13 years since the signing of the Belfast Agreement and the ending of a conflict that cost more than 3,000 lives, Stormont has yet to agree a formal strategy to address the sectarian division.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act the Executive must formulate a policy for encouraging “good relations”. This requirement led, in the early years of the last decade, to A Shared Future, essentially a blueprint for a post-sectarian society based on reciprocity and reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the document was published in 2005 into a political vacuum. When Stormont was finally reinstated two years later, the policy, which cost millions to formulate but was tainted by association with direct rule ministers, was shelved by the DUP and Sinn Féin, and a draft of a new strategy, Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, offered in its place. Silence followed.

Finally put out for public consultation last year as a condition for the devolution of policing and justice powers, the document is lightweight, insubstantial and implausible. Responses, which can be accessed on the web, are almost universally critical, accusing the strategy of relying on an unhelpful, static view of identity, failing to build on existing work and lacking a clear vision for moving beyond sectarianism.

Forget cordite, the whiff coming off the Stormont administration smells more like bromide. Time and again First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness reiterate their commitment to working together to improve Northern Ireland’s lot, but the results belie the rhetoric.

There is still no agreed programme for government and little indication of how a public sector-dependent economy will weather Westminster-enforced austerity, which saw £500 million lopped off Stormont’s block grant this year. Meanwhile, the Executive has established an all-party working group to advise on revising the strategy. An action plan is due by Christmas – but so far the working group has met just three times.

The cost of the North’s failure to address sectarianism is colossal. According to Alastair Adair of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, duplication of services, particularly segregation in education and housing, costs about £1.5 billion.

But the financial implications pale into insignificance compared to the social damage caused by tribal division. As Robin Wilson pointed out recently, violence declined from 2002 to 2007 but has risen since the reinstatement of the Assembly. The annual Northern Ireland Life and Times survey attests to deteriorating public optimism about community relations, and the sectarian “Other”, since 2007.

Despite the peace process successes, the possibility of resectarianisation remains. Belfast is still by far the most residentially segregated city in Europe. This legacy of division won’t disappear of its own accord.

The Executive needs to take a leaf out of Scotland’s anti-sectarian book. Tackling Northern Ireland’s shame requires a robust, thought-out policy with coherent objectives and political will.

Zambia's young people want to work

My article on joblessness among young Zambians, which was commissioned for the Guardian development journalism competition 2011.

Dickson Kakoma has been sober for 10 months – ever since the night he almost lost his family, and his life. “I went drinking with a friend. He was driving us home when we started arguing. I grabbed the wheel and we crashed,” the 26-year-old says, shaking his head ruefully. “When I finally got back home, I wanted to burn my house down. Next morning my wife left me.”

That day Kakoma vowed to give up Tujilijili, a highly potent, locally brewed spirit sold for as little as 600 Kwacha (about 8p) for 60ml. In time, his wife and two children returned to their thatched home in rural Muka Lashi, about 30km from Kabwe in central Zambia. But the main reason this articulate man drank six days a week remains unchanged: like so many young Zambians, Kakoma does not have regular, salaried employment.

Forced to leave school prematurely when his parents divorced, Kakoma cultivates okra, kale and watermelon on a narrow, arid strip of land near his home. Farming earns the household barely £260 a year – and occupies just four or five hours of his day. “We used to have a local football league and that helped because it gave us something to do,” he says. But in February the league disbanded due to lack of funds.

Zambia is often held up as a southern African success story. After three decades of stagnation, the economy has grown by an annual average of 6% for the past five years, thanks largely to rising global prices for the country’s main export, copper. Per capita GDP has risen steadily since 2000. But the headline figures mask another reality. According to official statistics, 88% of 18-to 35-year-olds have no reliable source of income. In rural areas, four out of five depend on subsistence agriculture.

Kabwe, a once-prosperous town of 300,000 people about 130km north of the capital, Lusaka, is Zambia in microcosm. The country’s first mine opened here in 1906. Railways, milling, textiles, and impressive mansions on spacious, tree-lined avenues soon followed. But when Zambia’s industries, nationalised after independence from Britain in 1964, collapsed, as copper prices halved in the mid-1970s, Kabwe did too. Mass privatisations, conducted at the behest of the World Bank and the IMF, led to huge job losses. As unemployment rocketed, HIV/Aids spread and alcohol abuse increased.

“Kabwe’s a ghost town now. All those activities that kept the place alive are gone – but there’s probably double the number of people that there was 30 years ago,” says Hendricks Kapila, head of Kabwe Community Youth Mobilisation.

The scene in the town’s central business district on a weekday morning confirms his dismal appraisal. Groups of young men gather on corners hustling for work. Plastic Tujilijili sachets, sucked dry, lie strewn on the dusty streets. Nearby, sentries guard the padlocked gates of the vast Mulungushi-China textiles factory, which once employed 12,000 people but now stands empty.

Samuel Tembo, economic empowerment co-ordinator for children’s charity Plan International, in Zambia, believes affordable startup capital is key to tackling the country’s labour market problems. While the vast majority of the population is not in formal employment, almost everyone over the age of 18 works. From farmers, who supply the bustling markets and roadside stalls, to youths selling phone cards, commerce is ubiquitous. “Young people are energetic, they are establishing small businesses. What they need is initial capital to make their business grow and prosper,” says Tembo.

Village savings and loan schemes have proved successful in other developing-world contexts and, last year, the NGO Plan International, in partnership with Barclays, launched Banking on Change, a community-based microfinance programme in Zambia. The theory is simple: 10 to 12 people save and lend relatively small amounts together at low interest rates, with all decisions taken by the group as a whole. A small annual subscription fee covers administration costs and a “social fund” for unexpected outlays, such as funerals.

Eighteen-year-old Joyce Mushala is one of the scheme’s beneficiaries. Perched on a cow-skin chair under a jacaranda tree in a village in Chibombo, a rural province abutting urban Kabwe, the softly spoken single mother explains how a 100,000 Kwacha (about £13) loan kickstarted a profitable confectionery trade.

“I bought lollipops and hard-boiled sweets and sold them in schools,” says Mushala, cradling one-year-old Catherine in her arms. “My business has changed my life. Before, I used to just grow maize and brew beer and had no income.”

Neighbour Doreen Chali, 34, spent half her 100,000 Kwacha loan on household items, and invested the remainder in fish, which she sells in the village. The profit covers school fees for her 16-year-old daughter, Grenda. “She’s very happy about that,” the mother of five says with a smile.

Barclays estimates that the 675 savings and loans groups initiated so far have involved more than 7,000 people and accrued assets worth more than £680,000. Lucy Mataka, community affairs manager at Barclays’ Lusaka office, says disputes within groups are rare, and are almost always settled amicably.

Nevertheless, in a country of 13 million people, more structured guidance and funding for new businesses is also needed, especially for enterprises incurring large startup costs or that have potential to employ substantial numbers of young people. Such support requires governmental as well as financial muscle.

There are signs that this political will is starting to emerge. Employment was a pivotal issue in September’s elections, with opposition leader Michael Sata winning the presidency on a platform of job creation and social justice. Young Zambians, who formed the bulwark of Sata’s support, are expectant of change.

Back in Kabwe, Jonas Silupumbwe, a youth worker with Restless Development, wants to see the government’s good words on employment translated into deeds. He cites the previous administration’s National Youth Empowerment Plan, which, in 2007, allocated 10bn Kwacha (approximately £1.25m) for new businesses in each of Zambia’s nine provinces. Four years later, “only one project in the whole of Kabwe” has received funding, he says.

“Government have said a lot, they have written a lot, but they have actually done very little. That’s the major problem,” Silupumbwe says.

“Young people have been told there’s money available but they’ve not seen any of it. Some don’t even know it’s there. The youth want to work, but they need to be given the opportunity.”