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Op-Ed Contributor
Cairo’s Roundabout Revolution
Published: April 13, 2011
Berkeley, Calif.
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Victo Ngai
IT has become fashionable to refer to the 18-day Egyptian uprising as the “Facebook revolution,” much to the dismay of the protesters who riveted the world with their bravery in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. But revolutions do not happen in cyberspace, even if they start there. What happened in Tahrir Square during the revolution and the protests happening there now show that even in the 21st century, public space remains the most important arena for dissent and social change.
Tahrir Square’s rise to prominence is a testament to how place and history can come together unexpectedly. Although its Arabic name means “liberation,” and although it is one of the oldest squares in modern Cairo, Tahrir never carried much meaning for Cairenes until recently.
In fact, the idea of the public square as we know it today did not exist in Egypt or in the cities of the Middle East until colonial times; open spaces were historically situated in front of the main mosque, to accommodate overflow crowds and religious festivals.
The demonstrations that began in Tahrir Square in January with demands for the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak continue today with protests of the Egyptian military’s management of the revolution’s aftermath. Indeed, the interim Egyptian cabinet recently issued a decree criminalizing demonstrations, on the ground that they disrupt the economy, and two protesters in the square were killed last weekend by security forces.
In many ways, it seems an accident of history that Tahrir Square has become a locus of protest and repression. But a closer look reveals that the square’s geography and structures, including the burned buildings and pockmarked pavements now engraved in the minds of people all over the globe, embody the shifting political currents of modern Egypt as it encountered colonialism, modernism, Pan-Arabism, socialism and neoliberalism.
To the south of the square stands the Mugamma, a bulky, Soviet-style structure that has long been a symbol of Egypt’s monumental bureaucracy. (No Egyptian was able to avoid a trip to that building, in which government offices issued everything from birth certificates to passports.) Overlooking Tahrir Square on the west are the headquarters of the Arab League, with its Islamic architectural motifs, and the former Hilton, the city’s first modern hotel (and soon to be a Ritz-Carlton). Just north of the hotel lies the salmon-colored Egyptian Museum and, behind it, the headquarters for Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, with its monotonous Modernist facade left charred by a fire set during this year’s protests.
The city’s various rulers and regimes, from the pharaohs to Mubarak, have woven themselves in Cairo’s urban fabric. When the Fatimid regime established el-Qahira (Cairo is the Anglicized version of that name) in the 10th century, the Nile ran a different course than it does today. The area that later became Tahrir Square was marshland. By the time Napoleon occupied Cairo at the end of the 18th century, the land had dried up enough to allow the French forces to camp there. But it was not for several decades more, until the time of Muhammad Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, that engineers were able to stabilize the Nile’s banks enough to allow the square to be born as a green field.
The 500-acre open space was home to cultivated fields, gardens and several royal palaces during Khedive Ismail’s reign, from 1863 to 1879. Ismail, the grandson of Muhammad Ali, came to be known as the founder of modern Cairo.
Having lived in Paris as it rebuilt itself into a city of broad boulevards and roundabouts, Ismail embarked on a similar project of modernizing Cairo during the 1860s. Both a district and the square that eventually became Tahrir were initially named Ismailia in his honor.
Ismail’s modernization projects plunged the country into great debt, and he was ousted by foreign forces in 1879. The British occupation of Egypt soon ensued, lasting into the mid-20th century. The British stationed their troops west of the square in Ismailia, in what Egyptians often called the English Barracks.
In the early 20th century, the Ismailia district became downtown Cairo and expanded toward the square, which was redesigned with a roundabout at the southern end to improve the flow of cars. A few decades later, during the reign of King Farouk, the square acquired a large empty pedestal that Cairenes who lived through those years still remember with great nostalgia. Farouk had commissioned a statue of his grandfather, Khedive Ismail, but by the time it arrived years later, reverence for the monarchy had given way to the Egyptian Republic and nascent Pan-Arabism — and the statue never took its place on that pedestal. The Arab League headquarters, a symbol of this new era and ideology, was constructed at the western side of the square and became a monument to the dream of Arab unity.
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Nezar AlSayyad, a professor of architecture, planning and urban history and the chairman of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of “Cairo: Histories of a City.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on April 14, 2011, on page A27 of the New York edition.
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