In 1936, Robert Merton published a seminal paper entitled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” in the American Sociological Review . Seemingly minor events, the then 26-year-old argued, can have profound, unanticipated implications. The “law of unintended consequences” was born.
Mohammed Bouazizi was the same age as Merton when he provided the digital age’s most iconic demonstration of the sociologist’s maxim. On December 17th 2010, Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor frustrated at his treatment by a local policewoman in the town of Sidi Bouzid, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. Inadvertently, what we now call the Arab Spring was born.
Just over a month later, on January 25th, the Egyptian revolt began, as tens of thousands gathered in Cairo and in town and cities across the country to protest against Hosni Mubarak’s brutal regime. One year on, Egypt’s revolution remains unfinished.
Clashes between protesters and the now-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) have become a regular feature of daily life, particularly in Cairo, in recent months. The spark for the latest confrontation, last month, was a football inadvertently booted into the grounds of the Egyptian Cabinet Office near Tahrir Square. An activist who climbed in to retrieve the ball was badly beaten by guards.
Protesters responded by setting fire to cars in a nearby street. The situation escalated from there with portentous speed.
Following similar violence in November, many Egyptian protesters swapped the wide, open (and easily infiltrated) spaces of Tahrir Square for the narrow confines of the Magles El Shab Street, abutting the Cabinet Office. As I watched the shocking scenes of repression at the self-styled “Occupy Cabinet” protest on YouTube recently, one of my first thoughts was of Sean O’Casey. Not that the jerky camera-phone footage bore any resemblance to the playwright’s stage directions but because it reminded me of Ahmed.
I met Ahmed at Occupy Cabinet. The afternoon prayer, Asr, had just finished across Cairo – one of Mubarak’s last acts as president, although no one knew it at the time, was to synchronise the muezzin in the city’s 4,500 mosques, putting an end to centuries of discordant prayer calls – and I was sitting among a group of young men in a makeshift tent outside the Egyptian Cabinet Office’s filigreed gates.
Noiselessly, a tall, balding figure, slightly older than the rest, appeared by my side. Ahmed.
During a lull in the heated conversation about the mendacity of the Scaf, I introduced myself as an Irish journalist. Ahmed’s dark eyes lit up. “Ireland, you’re from Ireland.” It was more a declaration than a question, delivered in clear, faultless English. “Do you know Sean O’Casey?” January’s revolt against Mubarak’s kleptocratic rule was motivated, in part, by Egypt’s dire economic situation. Around half the population live on $2 a day or less. Despite the Nasser-era laws to the contrary, even a university education is no guarantee of a decent job – unless you have wasta, connections.
Growing up in Mubarak’s Egypt, Ahmed had no wasta. After graduating in science, like many ambitious Egyptians, he left his homeland for the Gulf. He found Sean O’Casey while working as a hospital porter in Dubai.
“One of the doctors on the ward was an Irish man, he gave me a book of his plays,” he explained. “After that I read more and more.” Now almost 50, Ahmed returned to raise a family in Egypt, but struggled to find a steady job. Having enthusiastically joined the street protests in January he was, like the vast majority I met in Tahrir and Occupy Cabinet, disheartened by the slow pace of change and the army’s tightening grip on power.
What, I asked, was his favourite O’Casey play. “ The Plough and the Stars, ” Ahmed replied, after a moment’s consideration. “I like the language but also the message,” he said, shouting a little to make himself heard above a rousing chant that had broken out among the several hundred strong crowd. Behind us self-appointed revolutionary guards policed the barbed wire entrance to Magles El Shab Street, while relatives wept in the wan light over mock coffins representing those killed by police during November’s rioting. Just before he left, Ahmed translated the protesters’ shouts for me: “We will get our rights or we will die just as they died”.
All across Cairo I found unflinchingly demotic political discussions.
About where Egypt is and where it should go. Doubtless O’Casey would have approved, although given his disdain for nationalist fervour, it’s less clear what the committed socialist would have made of the machinations of Egypt’s rolling revolution.
The Plough and the Stars opened in the Abbey on February 8th 1926. During a performance just three nights later the audience, angered by the treatment of the Easter Rising and egged on by the widow-martyr Mrs Sheehy-Skeffington, rioted. Consequently, intentional or otherwise, O’Casey went into exile soon after, where he remained until his death in 1964.
This piece originally appeared as the Irishman’s Diary, in the Irish Times January 16, 2012.