Sean O'Casey in Tahrir Square

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.

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.”