Nezar AlSayyad: Cairo’s Roundabout Revolution

Roundup: Historians' Take

[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.”]

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....

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