The Design Observer Group

Posted 02.27.11

Mohamed Elshahed

Tahrir Square: Social Media, Public Space

Tahrir Square, February 2011. [All photos by Mohamed Elshahed except where noted]

A few months ago I moved from Brooklyn back to Cairo for what I anticipated would be a quiet year of research on my dissertation. My topic is mid-20th-century architecture and urban planning in Egypt; my focus is the 1952 coup d’état that swept away the monarchy of King Farouk, and the period of pan-Arab socialism that followed under the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser — a period during which the new republic deployed a modernist, international style design for state building projects.

I’ve been living in Garden City, a leafy neighborhood on the eastern bank of the Nile, just a short walk from Tahrir Square. Almost daily I walked to Tahrir to catch a bus for the hour-long ride to the new suburban campus of the American University. My routine was not unusual. Tahrir Square is part of daily life for many people: it’s a major downtown square surrounded by important government headquarters and major cultural institutions, and it’s a busy crossroads jammed with honking cars and buses. For tourists Tahrir is the locale of the famed Egyptian Museum; for some Cairenes it is the destination for official state business, for many others it is one of the over-congested places of downtown Cairo to be avoided. For me — even before the latest revolution — Tahrir Square had come to symbolize the failure of the urban planning policies carried out during the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak.

The Mubarak government extended a series of policies initiated under Anwar Sadat. The regime supported laws and actions that sharply limited Egyptians’ access to public space — to places where citizens could congregate, meet, talk, interact. It promoted the development of gated communities with private parks, golf courses and luxury shopping malls, and in doing so facilitated the exodus of Cairo’s middle and upper classes into the desert at the city's periphery. At the same time the government ignored the city's center; its ongoing mismanagement of housing development has resulted in the extensive zone of informal housing, mostly unfinished brick shanties, that rings Cairo. And Mubarek worked to effectively dismantle and depopulate Cairo’s much-admired public squares and parks, including not just Tahrir Square but also Ramses Square and Azbakiyya Gardens. For decades, in fact, public policy and urban planning, like most governmental matters, were filtered through the harsh lens of state security. Urban open spaces — anywhere citizens might congregate and stage political demonstrations — were systematically subdivided or fenced off or given over to vehicular traffic and flyovers, and thus made challenging and even scary for pedestrians. Collectively such policies have led not only to the decline of public space but also to the inexorable deterioration of cities and the erosion of civic pride.

Top: Tahrir Square, early 1960s; in the background is the Nile Hotel, formerly the Nile Hilton, built under Nasser and designed by the U.S. firm Ellerbe Becket. [vintage postcard courtesy of Mohamed Elshahed] Middle: Tahrir Square, undated photo; the fence appeared during the Mubarek years, part of the government's policy of discouraging public assembly. [postcard courtesy of Mohamed Elshahed] Bottom: Tahrir Square, Feb. 6, 2011. 

The January 25th Revolution has had a dramatic, immediate effect on how Egyptians occupy Cairo and interact with one another. Commentators in the West have been quick to credit online social networking with empowering the protests. But the revolution that started in January 2011 in Cairo has provided powerful evidence that the virtual is not enough: in the course of several historic days in Tahrir Square it became decisively clear that the occupation of physical urban space was, and continues to be, crucial to the success and continuity of the revolution. No doubt the initial rush of online exhortations, including the Jan. 25 call to protest police brutality, was vitally important; but as we now know, the country was unplugged for six days, from Jan. 28 through Feb. 5, during which period the protests actually grew larger and the protestors became even more determined not merely to express popular dissent but ultimately to overthrow the regime.

Indeed, in the past few weeks Tahrir has become a truly public square. Before it was merely a big and busy traffic circle — and again, its limitations were the result of political design, of policies that not only discouraged but also prohibited public assembly. Under emergency law — established from the moment Mubarak took office in 1981 and yet to be lifted — a gathering of even a few adults in a public square would constitute cause for arrest. Like all autocracies, the Mubarak government understood the power of a true public square, of a place where citizens meet, mingle, promenade, gather, protest, perform and share ideas; it understood that a true midan — Arabic for public square — is a physical manifestation of democracy. A truly public Midan al-Tahrir would have been feared as a threat to regime security, and so over the years the state deployed the physical design of urban space as one of its chief means of discouraging democracy.

Top: Feb. 8, 2011, one of the collective art works created by citizens, depicting the ancient Egyptian gods of life and death, and commemorating those who died during the uprising in Tahrir. Bottom: Feb. 8, 2011, protestors carrying posters showing men and women killed by state security. 

In Tahrir this meant erecting fences and subdividing open areas into manageable plots of grass and sidewalks. To cite one prominent example: the large portion of the square that fronts the Egyptian museum was, until the 1960s, a grassy plaza with crisscrossing paths and a grand fountain. Here families and students would gather throughout the day; it was also a notorious meeting point for lovers on a date in the heart of the city. But in the 1970s, the government fenced off the area — and more, it never offered any clear explanation of what was to be the fate of this favorite meeting spot. Cairenes speculated that perhaps it was closed to allow for construction of the Cairo Metro or other infrastructure projects. Sometime in the past decade a sign appeared, announcing that a multi-level underground parking garage was being built. During the protests in Tahrir Square, activists took down the fence and used it to build barricades to protect themselves from the attacks of pro-Mubarak thugs — and the removal of the fence revealed that none of the promised construction had ever taken place. The area had been taken away from the public sphere precisely to avoid the possibility of large crowds congregating in Tahrir. Such was Mubarak’s urban planning legacy.

When protests erupted on January 25, peaceful demonstrators from all over the city started marching toward Tahrir Square. The square was a magnet partly because of its central location and symbolic name — Tahrir means "liberation" — and partly because of its history as the scene of dissent. Earlier demonstrations, however, such as those against the Iraq War, were much smaller, and quickly quashed by police. This time demonstrators were determined to occupy and hold the square — to symbolically reclaim it. Violence between the security forces of the Interior Ministry and protesters broke out on the evening of Jan. 25, and the square began to empty; but the use of excessive force then made Tahrir an even more potent symbol, and spurred the larger protests that started on Jan. 28; by this point an estimated 30,000 people had gathered. State security, too, recognized the growing symbolism of the place and took still more vigorous measures to fortify the area, using water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition against crowds of people equipped mostly with cameras and cell phones. And so on Jan. 28 the battle shifted yet again; now the goal was not only to defeat state security forces and to topple the regime but also to claim the square as the main stage of events and to transform it into the epicenter of the revolution.

During the next few days, as the state police retreated and protesters gained control, Mubarak sent paid thugs to attack citizens with sticks, knives and Molotov cocktails, and in a desperate and surreal move, he also sent plainclothes officers on horseback and camelback. There were violent moments, we know; but once these ended what remained was a new Tahrir Square, quickly dubbed the "free people’s republic of Tahrir." Entry points were manned by volunteers who checked for weapons and identification — denying entry to anyone employed by the Interior Ministry. Outside the checkpoints, long cues formed and people waited patiently for hours. Once inside, past the checkpoints, new arrivals walked through long rows of men and women who welcomed them with cheers. By this point the military were standing by, at the entrances, helping to secure the area. The square now belonged to the people who had defeated the regime’s efforts to disperse and defuse the young revolution; by this point the crowds had grown to an estimated 400,000. And for the next two weeks, what happened in Tahrir was more than a demonstration; it was the creation of a dynamic and resourceful community of citizens brought together by the shared goal of bringing true democracy to Egypt.

Tahrir Square, Feb. 11, a torched state security truck (the trucks were notorious symbols of police brutality), used by protestors as a barricade and also as a trash dumpster. 

The mood in Tahrir ranged from cautious and depressed to celebratory and jubilant, depending mostly on the developments of the day (and to some extent on the weather). There were some who dug in and set up tents, making Tahrir their new address. There were many more, like myself, who were daily visitors — spending hours in the square chatting with strangers, strolling around and taking in the creative signs, listening to music and making notes on the inventive protest chants, and then returning home at the end of the day. And always there was an amazing cross-section of Egyptian society — a mix of class, gender, age, sexual orientation, dress code, ethnicity and religion — strangers who under normal circumstances would never have met. The revolutionary spirit seemed to break down the longstanding barriers, and to imbue a new sense of solidarity and acceptance.

During these days Tahrir became a hub for social activity and artistic creativity. People sold food and drinks, set up recycling bins and portable toilets, organized the logistics of daily life. Protest signs were humorous and creative. One said, “Step down, my wife is about to have a baby and he doesn’t want to see you.” Another said, “Thanks for bringing us together. Now leave.” And yet another, held aloft by a stoic young man: “Step down already, my arms hurt.” Throughout the square bloggers were streaming comments and images onto the Internet. Doctors and nurses were providing free healthcare in impromptu clinics. Filmmakers were interviewing protesters and creating an instant archive, a visual and oral record of history as it was unfolding. Musicians, professional and amateur, wrote songs and tested them on eager audiences. There were poets, puppeteers and comedians. Art teachers provided supplies and then displayed the artworks that resulted on a public wall. There was even an artist who painted a large canvas that invited protestors to participate in its making. Tahrir Square had been transformed not only into a social and public space but also into the biggest spontaneous event of community-organizing and nation-building the country had ever seen. With the protection of the army, as the security threat abated, Tahrir took on the atmosphere of a carnival.

Top: Feb. 13, 2011, Egyptian military keeping watch at an entrance to Tahrir Square. Bottom: Feb. 8, 2011, one of the massive flags that flowed through the square.

But the occupation of Tahrir Square, day and night, by mass numbers of peaceful protestors, had an over-arching purpose: to bring international attention to the demands of the people, to force the government to step down, and to pressure the military — constitutionally obligated to protect the people not the regime — to take action and topple Mubarak. And ultimately it was this peaceful occupation of an important urban space in the nation's major city that brought down a repressive and tenacious government.

In the days following Mubarak’s resignation, thousands took to the streets with cleaning supplies, brooms and trash bags; they were responding to spontaneous nationwide calls by activists and concerned citizens. Cleaning efforts had begun in Tahrir just days after the start of the revolution, but with Mubarak truly gone, Egyptians wanted to clean — to cleanse — the entire country, to rid it of trash, of the old regime. Cairenes scoured their city, and many give Tahrir special attention. Streets were swept, anti-regime graffiti removed, statues were washed. Artists and students painted patriotic slogans on blank walls: "Welcome to the new Egypt," "From Egypt with love," and "25 January Revolution." Construction companies dispatched volunteers to move mounds of trash to landfills. A true sense of civic pride, suppressed for decades, has blossomed.

A week after Mubarak stepped down, the military helped activists organize an official celebration in Tahrir Square; an estimated 1.5 million citizens turned out. Such a gesture would have been unthinkable before the events of January 25. Egyptians know that the real revolution has just begun, and they are building on their newfound, hard-won knowledge — that their fight for democracy is inseparably linked to their ability to assemble in urban space. The military understands this too, which is why it is tolerating public calls for mass demonstrations to take place every Tuesday and Friday across the country. These demonstrations are meant to maintain pressure on the military to release political prisoners, oversee the amendment of the constitution, and lift emergency law, among other demands. And even as Tahrir Square has captured the attention of international media and became a symbol of popular revolution, people around the country have taken to the streets, occupying squares and avenues as they continue to protest and demand the resignation of local governors, as Egypt transitions to democracy.

Tahrir Square, Feb. 8; the sign demands that Mubarek stand trial and that his alleged $70 billion fortune be investigated.