Perhaps no one could have predicted that a single uprising, which began in a small town in Tunisia, would have spread to major cities in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria in a span of just three months. Nor was it evident that the self-immolation of Mohamed Bou Azizi in front of a local municipal office in Sidi Bouzid would have sparked the Tunisian revolution that overthrew President Ben Ali in a span of two weeks.The upheaval in Tunisia as well as the desperate image of Mohamed Bou Azizi’s self-immolation had repercussions in Egypt. Many Egyptians felt embarrassed that tiny Tunisia could act so boldly while they were still unable to challenge their own repressive regime. On January 25, 2011, ten days after the overthrow of Ben Ali, the world witnessed the beginning of a massive uprising in Egypt. To protest the brutality of the Egyptian police, a demonstration was called for by a few cyber activists who had organized minor demonstrations in the previous years. They scheduled it to coincide with National Police Day, January 25, an official government holiday. As journalist Ahmed Zaki Osman explained the day before the uprisings, January 25, which was dedicated to celebrating the role of the police in the nationalization of the Suez Canal some 50 years earlier, had ironically been revived as a national day in 2009 by the government of President Hosni Mubarak to recognize the current efforts of the Egyptian police to maintain security and stability in Egypt. Responding to calls for democracy and justice, thousands of protesters marched to Tahrir square in Cairo, while others took to the streets of Alexandria, Aswan, Ismailia, and Suez.
Tahrir Square and the Uprising
Centrally located in a city of more than fifteen million inhabitants, Tahrir Square is one of the oldest squares in modern Cairo. It came into existence 140 years ago under the rule of Khedive Ismail, the founder of modern Cairo, and was named after him, “Ismailia Square,” for a little less than a century. Those who have studied the history of Egypt may not be able to resist comparing the recent uprising with another event that occurred 60 years earlier and almost on the same day. In a strange parallel, popular dissatisfaction with King Farouk’s government back then brought about another set of protests that resulted in the Great Fire of Cairo in 1952. The fire was in fact a precursor to the military coup led by Gamal Abdul Nasser on July 23rd that transformed Egypt from a sleepy kingdom into a revolutionary republic. In the following decade, the government of President Nasser issued a decree changing the name of the square to “Tahrir Square,” meaning liberation, in a gesture intended to commemorate the departure of the British forces from Egypt. The new name quickly gained currency but it did not carry much meaning for Cairenes. That is, of course, until the events of last year.
Incidentally, the youth who started the 2011 uprising by occupying the roundabout in the middle of the square may not have been aware of its history. Since the late 1940s, a pedestal stood at the center of the roundabout awaiting a statue of Ismail. The statue was never placed there as the 1952 coup brought an end to the monarchy. Nasser would later leave the pedestal empty as a reminder of the failure of Egypt’s old regime. Today, in Tahrir Square, the tents erected by the protesters in the roundabout—where the pedestal once stood—still stand more than a year after the uprising. This action signifies yet another stage in the long history of Tahrir Square but one in which the meaning of this urban space was shaped by the actions of the Egyptian people.
The story of the protests in Cairo is an important one to decipher here not only to understand the so-called Arab Spring but also to interpret the changes that have occurred in Arab cities as a result of these uprisings. For example, many small groups had been protesting in Cairo and in Tahrir Square itself for years before the uprising but with little effect. But on January 25, 2011 and almost immediately after, it became clear that the cyber activists had managed to amass many protesters from diverse political groups to join the protest in the square. These included the April 6th Movement, the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya), the Muslim Brothers, and a few opposition parties and prominent figures from the business, entertainment, and academic communities. Once protesters remained in the streets and insisted on the occupation of Tahrir Square, the demand for Mubarak’s resignation became the principal point of unity.
Squares and Streets: The Spaces of Protest
To ground the uprisings, which spread from square to square in Cairo, it is necessary to deconstruct the symbolic significance of those spaces where the uprisings actually unfolded and to map out the chronology and the geography of the protests in the city’s urban spaces. Inherent to each of these spaces is a particular urban history or social geography that allows us to better understand the city and the events that occurred in it during this past year.
Cairo is an old city that has puzzled and fascinated people over centuries. In a conversation with a few Cairene friends a few years ago, one of them—possibly frustrated by what he saw as typical Egyptian complacency—described the city as a tomb filled with age-old relics that would change little, if at all, over time. Another friend considered the city more fragile and likened it to a ticking bomb. A third friend who overheard the discussion intervened with a chuckle and suggested that Cairo was a bomb inside a tomb that would ultimately explode and expose layers of Egyptian history unknown to us all. The issue no one bothered to address was when the bomb would detonate. The city exploded much sooner than anyone expected, with an uprising that has made Tahrir Square a household name. It seemed finally that Tahrir Square had earned its name.
The emergence of Tahrir Square as a focal point for the recent revolt is a testament to how place and history come together in unexpected ways. Images of the square were extensively aired during broadcast coverage of the recent uprising, and have been forever engraved in the minds of people all over the world. These images captured a number of buildings that not only narrate the history of modern Cairo but also offer insights into the contradictions of modern Egyptian history as it encountered colonialism, modernism, Pan-Arabism, Socialism, and Neo-liberalism.
The Mugamma, a curved government complex with a bulky, Soviet-like appearance located on the southern end of the square, has long been a symbol of the monumental Egyptian bureaucracy that governed for the past six decades. No wonder that it was in fact built with support from the former Soviet Union and stands as a witness to Egypt’s socialist history. No Cairene could have avoided a trip to that building in their lifetime as the government units which it housed issued everything from birth certificates to passports. In the east of the square are the headquarters of the Arab League built at the height of Pan-Arabism when Egypt led the Arab world both politically and culturally. Next to it is the former Hilton hotel, built when Egypt embarked on its modern industrial phase and attempted to place itself in the international arena and to attract tourists. It long served as the place that housed visiting Western dignitaries, politicians, journalists, and entertainment figures, and was where major regional and international deals were made. The hotel was under renovation to become a Ritz-Carlton, when the Tahrir events brought all development projects to a standstill. Just north of the hotel is the salmon-colored Egyptian Museum, built at the turn of the 20th century as Egypt was still under British colonial control. It houses one of the richest collections of antiquities in the world. At the corner lies a building now in skeleton form after it was burned down by protesters during the uprising. A modernist building initially designed to serve the Cairo municipality, it was first appropriated by the Nasser regime in the early sixties to serve as the headquarters of then-Egypt’s single party, the Arab Socialist Union. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party would later replace the ASU and the building was simply taken over to serve its new masters. Each of these landmarks played a role in the making of modern Egypt. The buildings surrounding Tahrir Square allow us a better reading of how Tahrir square was viewed by the protesters, some of whom were no doubt aware of this history.
Mapping the Protest
Once started, the success of protests across the country emboldened organizers to call for a “Million Man March” on January 28th, a day dubbed the “Day of Rage.” That march was the key demonstration in which the protesters clearly put forward their demand for an end to the regime. In fact, tents erected in Tahrir Square after major battles with the police marked the symbolic resilience of the protesters. The extensive coverage by the international media would later inspire similar demonstrations not only in the Middle East, but around the world in what became known as the Occupy Movement.
On January 28, 2011, during the Day of Rage, Kasr al-Nil Bridge—which connects the districts of Doki and Zamalek to downtown Cairo and leads directly to Tahrir Square—saw a bloody clash between the protesters and the regime’s central security apparatus. Thousands of protesters pushed through the police forces who tried to keep them at bay using water cannons and tear gas. Ironically, protests elsewhere that day had also started miles from the bridge around noon, with a Friday sermon praising the protesters at the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque in Mohandeseen, the mosque that was to be later used by pro-Mubarak supporters. The plan of the Kasr al-Nil bridge protesters seems to have been to march to Tahrir Square and link up with other groups of protesters, particularly those coming from the 6th October Bridge, the elevated highway that leads to the northern part of Tahrir Square. While the 6th October Bridge was being occupied by protestors, the marchers on Kasr al-Nil Bridge succeeded in pushing toward Tahrir Square. Some protesters were breaking through hastily-erected metal barricades and throwing them into the Nile along with the tear gas canisters that the police were throwing, while other protesters pushed against a blockade of police vans. By late afternoon, Kasr al-Nil Bridge was taken by the protesters who crossed to Tahrir Square and joined other protesters who were already there. During the occupation of Tahrir Square by the protesters, taking control of this massive urban space and maintaining order was critical in altering the power relations during the initial phases of the uprising.
After the Kasr al-Nil Bridge clashes, the pro-Mubarak groups assembled in Mustafa Mahmoud Square. As Rasha Sadek explained in 2012, these pro-Mubarak anti-revolutionaries called themselves the Sons of Mubarak and marched on February 2nd towards Tahrir Square on camels and horses, attacking the revolutionaries in what later came to be known as the “Battle of the Camel.” At noon, the Tahrir protesters were shocked to find pro-Mubarak marchers entering the square from the 6th October Bridge side next to the Egyptian Museum. The main urban battle took place in an ancillary square connected to Tahrir Square, while smaller clashes were raging across the space. The protesters eventually managed to push the attackers to the edge of the square. February 10th witnessed one of the most dramatic days of the uprising as the protesters waited for a speech by Mubarak in which he was expected to announce that he was stepping down. But alas, he did not, and the protesters in Tahrir took off their shoes and waived it at the television cameras in a gesture reserved for those held in utter disgust.
Finally, after 18 days of mass protest, on February 11th, it took just over 30 seconds for the newly appointed vice-president of Egypt Omar Suleiman to announce that President Mubarak had handed over all of his responsibilities to the Armed Forces, thereby ending 30 years of autocratic rule.
By the time Mubarak was forced to step down and hand power to his military, headed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the numbers of pro-Mubarak protesters decreased considerably or disappeared altogether, as did the loud chants of his opponents coming from Tahrir Square. They were however quickly replaced by two other groups: those who were unhappy with the pace of reforms and the SCAF’s poor performance in running the country, and those where supportive of the military and its leadership in SCAF. In the summer of 2011, the latter group started to take over other squares in the districts of Heliopolis and Abbasiya. According to Sadek, on one occasion on November 25, 2011, Abbasiya was promoted by the privately-owned and Mubarak-leaning Al-Faraeen satellite channel as the space where stability-seeking Egyptians could demonstrate. Thousands turned out to chant pro-SCAF slogans before the channel’s owner, Tawfiq Okasha, who appeared amongst the crowds carried on shoulders. A month later, a second demonstration was held in response to demands coming from Tahrir that the ruling military council step down. Bloody clashes ensued between anti-SCAF protesters on one side and the army and security forces on the other. Abbasiya, a district that was headquarters of the Egyptian military at the turn of the 20th century, emerged as the alternative to Tahrir for those who either did not support the fall of the Mubarak regime or experienced losses as a result of the security and economic collapse that followed. But none of these matters should be invoked to diminish the accomplishments of the Egyptian uprising or the importance of Tahrir Square.
The Cycle: Social Media, Urban Space, and Traditional Media Coverage
During the momentous events of the uprising, diverse media and communication networks played a major role in facilitating and broadcasting the uprisings to the rest of the world. Traditional media like television, cable, and news websites, social media outlets represented by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and other means of basic communication like cell phones and landlines, all played alternating roles in the success of the protest movement.
The use of social media for collective mobilization was not totally new in Egypt. Over the past ten years, Egypt has witnessed several street protests and demonstrations calling for democracy and justice by groups like Kefaya and the April 6 movement. As Catharine Smith wrote in February 2011, the first spark that mobilized the Egyptian uprising on January 25, 2011 was the popular Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said,” launched by activist Wael Ghonim in June 2010 and which today has over 2 million subscribers. The page was dedicated to 27 year-old Khaled Mohamed Said, who was caught by State Security Investigation (SSI) forces and beaten to death while he was at a cyber café in Alexandria on June 6, 2010. The Facebook page, set up around Khaled Said’s death, offered Egyptians an interactive platform for documenting human rights violations, making anti-government claims, and mobilizing support. As the subscribers grew in numbers and interacted with other oppositional groups online, the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page transformed into an organizing hub for the Egyptian uprising, disseminating the call to protest on national Police Day, January 25th. The Facebook page announced: “We will take all our rights, we will not be silent anymore,” and “Our protest on the 25th will be the beginning of the end, the end of all the silence, dissatisfaction and submission…and the beginning of a new page.”
In addition, one other main organizational online hub was Twitter, where activists used the hash tag #Jan25 to invite others to join the conversation as well as organize amongst themselves. On Twitter, many activists discussed and planned the day of January 25th by using the @ reply function. In fact, Idle and Nunn observed that many of these tweeters considered themselves “citizen journalists” and made it their mission to get the word out with a flow of videos and pictures, which created a new type of urban activism mediated by means of internet and mass communication. By broadcasting their political claims, the activists were not only talking to their fellow citizens, but to the international community and the world. As the tweeters navigated between virtual and physical space, continual updates from protesters in Egypt sustained the uprising in Egypt.
On Friday, January 28th, the government’s shut-down of the internet could have brought an end to the protests or lessen the number of crowds, but it did not. This was because enough people had moved to the square, and by using more traditional means of communication and networking, like simply talking to friends and family, protestors managed to hold on to the square. Even the suspension of all cell phone services did not stop the protest, as many Cairenes were still reliant on old-fashioned land lines. The regime ultimately fell and Egyptians, after chanting for days, “the people want the fall of the regime,” celebrated with chants of “Lift your head up; you are Egyptian” in a manner never before seen on the streets of Cairo. After that, Tahrir square turned into the biggest party Cairo had ever seen, and the celebrations were also captured and produced in online forums, where the uprisings first began. When the celebration was finally over, an army of volunteers—mainly women—descended upon the square. Armed with with brooms and garbage bags, they went down from the houses to clean the debris from the 18 days of protest and urban battles.
New Forms of Social Networking
As of today there has been little in-depth work exploring the cyclical and reciprocal relationship between social media, traditional media, and the urban spaces in which the uprisings came into being. In fact, to understand these uprisings, it is necessary to analyze the ways in which insurgent networks are formed both in social media and in cities, as well as the role of the media coverage of the ensuing events, where the mutual constitutive relationship between these three components unfold.
The recent uprisings of Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world may lead one to suggest that social movements have gone through a distinctive change that they now involve a whole new “repertoire” which came into being and is radically changing the ways of “contentious performances” as recently articulated by Charles Tilly, one of the major theorists of social movements. The events of 2011 have both altered and added new types of performances to the old repertoire of social movements that was based upon street demonstrations, vigils, rallies, and public meetings. This new multi-faceted repertoire is best observed through the relations between social media, urban space, and media coverage of the protests, whose messages are mutually constitutive.
An interesting and recent example that illustrates the cyclical and reciprocal relationship between social media and urban space comes to us from the events of February 4, 2012, a whole year after the uprising in Egypt. On February 3rd, a major soccer riot broke out in the city of Port Said on the Suez Canal after the local team beat a major visiting team from Cairo. More than 70 people, many of them fans of the Cairo team, were killed in the ensuing fights. A rumor quickly circulated that the attackers were hired by a wealthy businessman from Port Said who was well connected to the former regime. Although no evidence was discovered, the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, now the dominant force in the new elected parliament, posted the rumor on its website as if it were a fact. The next day, propelled by the posting, the New York Times reported that more violent demonstrations ensued in the streets of Cairo and lasted several days. This incident demonstrates how events in one urban space get covered by the more traditional media like national television and then interpreted and disseminated by social media sites, in turn generating new protests in other urban spaces. In fact, one of the most important outcomes of the uprisings has not only been the convergence of the roles of traditional and social media, but also the emergence of a new “repertoire” of mass movements in urban space.
Indeed as Jeffrey Juris argued in 2005, this activist network logic facilitated by “new digital technologies, not only provides an effective method of social movement organizing, it also represents a broader model for creating alternative forms of social, political, and economic organization.” The use of social media seems to have done more than simply allow the activists’ voices to be heard, it has also necessitated a connection to the arena of physical space where these voices demanded change.
In 2009, Manuel Castells, the distinguished sociologist who is a theorist of both social movements and communication technology, suggested in his book Communication Power that “networks of individuals become insurgent communities” and that the “social explosions of resistance do not need leaders and strategists as anyone can reach everybody to share their rage.” While it may be true that the Egyptian movement and others around the Arab world were leaderless, it is also true that such movements are often appropriated by pre-existing and well-organized social or political groups that have acquired credibility through grassroots engagements at the urban level. Such groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or its equivalent parties in other Arab nations, have already invested their efforts in the provision of social services to various poor urban communities. Since these groups by definition have leaders, these leaders tend to emerge first as spokespeople for the protest movements at large even if they did not share the initial goals or demands of the protests. Ultimately, as the Egyptian case illustrates, these protest movements can be hijacked by pre-existing political groups to achieve other ends, resulting in policies that contradict the demands of the original protesters. However it is necessary to pay attention to the process that gave coherence and unity to these “insurgent communities,” leading them to take over the squares and streets in a manner that finally reactivated the long dormant urban space in the uprisings of the Arab Spring.
In this vein, the use of social media during the protests turned individuals and groups into insurgent communities and simultaneously articulated a logic of protest to Facebook and Twitter users. But it would be a mistake to simply label these uprisings as the Facebook revolutions as some have already done. In fact, what happened in Tahrir Square during the uprising shows that even in the 21st century urban space remains the most important arena for dissent and social change. The new spatial arrangements articulated in the cities of the Arab world during the recent uprisings have brought back the “urban question,” as Castells envisioned it some 30 years ago, underscoring the need to study the new “urban qualities” that influence the grievances, organizational forms, and consciousness of insurgent citizens. We need to look at the new urban dynamics that result from complex social and political relations where, for example, new social media has become a subversive apparatus in the articulation of politics and the reappropriation of urban space.
Today, political theorists now contemplate the rise of an Islamist Egypt following the uprising, with the optimist speculating that it could follow the Turkish model, and the pessimist seeing the evolution of a mild theocracy in the footsteps of Iran. The reality however is more complex and unpredictable as social media and urban space are now totally out of the control of the Egyptian government, its police, the elected parliament, and the powerful military, which runs a major portion of the economy. Only time will tell if new forms of control will emerge to restrict the power of social media unleashed in the uprising and restrict access to urban space, leaving Egypt to be not like Turkey or Iran, but like Pakistan with all its attendant problems that come with a military lurking in the background and with strategies that attempt to limit the power of both elected officials and urban activists.
As the repertoire of these protests was dramatically transmitted internationally, one of the most important outcomes has not only been the transformation of the traditional media regime, but also the emergence of a new “repertoire” of mass movements in urban space. Some 20 years ago, the geographer and media theorist Mckenzie Wark argued in his appropriately titled book Virtual Geography that the media coverage of certain events often defines the events themselves and brings them into being. Using examples from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the early 1990s, Wark suggested that the media coverage of these urban events, beamed to the world through the then-new media of 24-hour cable news television stations like CNN, drove the events themselves and ultimately determined their fate. The events of Tahrir Square some 20 years later, this time using the new social media, seem to have done exactly the same, pushing the relationship between media and urban space to a new height.
In the end, revolutions do not simply happen in cyber space even if they get their start there. And what the Cairo experience clearly shows is that the real Tahrir Square, with all the sweat and blood that spilled onto it and its messy, disorganized, and ever-changing virtual counterpart, are two sides of the same coin. In fact, I would suggest that today the real Tahrir Square may not continue to possess a meaningful existence without its virtual other, one that could legitimately be called Tahrir.
Nezar AlSayyad is Professor of Planning, Architecture and Urban History, and Chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest book is “Cairo: Histories of a City”, Harvard University Press, 2011.