Cairo on fire — again

Two and a half years since the ouster of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, Cairo’s Tahrir Square stands empty. Tan military armed personnel carriers and uniformed soldiers line entrances to the square, in what the military have described as “a ring of steal.” Egypt’s bloody revolution, initiated in January 2011, has claimed thousands of lives and reformulated the way Cairo residents understand and use their city. Violence has moved from the confines of Tahrir Square to streets and public spaces of greater Cairo, which is home to an estimated 20 million inhabitants. Military curfews have strangled Cairo’s once bustling nightlife. Haphazard citizen committees have also taken up arms to create checkpoints as protesters engage in street battles with the military, the police and each other. “People have a new sense of ownership with the city,” said Omar Nagati, an Egyptian architect and planner who has documented the effects of Egypt’s on-going revolution on the urban environment. “They feel that they have the right to say what will happen with their streets and public spaces. This is not just in Tahrir Square, it is happening in every neighbourhood of Cairo.”

It is no coincidence that this new sense of urban pride and agency was born in Tahrir Square. The square took shape in the late 19th century as the brainchild of Ismail Pasha, an ambitious and forward- looking leader who controlled Egypt from 1863 until 1879, when the British toppled his government. Pasha envisioned Egypt’s future as a modernised, urbanised “Paris on the Nile.” The square, a modern traffic roundabout styled after spaces the ruler had observed in western Europe, was central to that vision. Located in the heart of downtown Cairo, with the Nile River bordering its western side, Tahrir has more than 20 streets feeding into it. The square was named Ismailia Square for its creator, until 1952, when it would become a symbol of a completely  different sort of movement. The Egyptian Revolution of 1952 ended the country’s monarchy and occupation by the British. Following the overthrow, the nation’s new leader, Gamel Abdel Nasser, renamed the square Tahrir, meaning liberation. In the years that followed, Egypt fell into cycles of corrupt leaders and dictators, during which authorities invested heavily in the area around Tahrir as a showpiece for Egyptian progress and an attractive destination for tourists. Handled like a sleeping tiger,

Tahrir’s public space was carefully controlled. Under Mubarak, even the smallest gatherings were outlawed in the midan, as it is known in Arabic. Writing in Design Observer, Mohamed Elshahed, a PhD student at New York University and proprietor of the popular Cairo Observer blog, described the first wave of protests that rocked Cairo in 2011:  “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 Mohammed Morsi, a member of the long-banned political organisation the Muslim Brotherhood, won the country’s first democratic presidential election in 2012, many Egyptians rejoiced. On Election Day, Tahrir Square transformed from a place of street battles and protest to a shared public space where Egyptians eagerly embraced the next chapter in their country’s storied history. What a difference a year can make in revolutionary Egypt.

For its part, the Egyptian military has demonstrated resolve to control the urban environment by force. Military curfews have destroyed Cairo’s once- busy nocturnal street life 

Angry with Morsi’s authoritarian tendencies and fearing an Islamist takeover, Egyptians again returned to the streets on 30 June 2013—one year after Morsi assumed office— demanding that the country’s first democratically elected president step down from office. Millions flooded Tahrir, as well as the area in front of the presidential palace in the upmarket neighbourhood of Heliopolis.

“We live in the streets now. We can live in the streets for years,” one protester named Alaa told me amidst loud cheering in front of the presidential palace in June,
hours before the military issued an ultimatum calling on Morsi to heed the country’s demands. “Even though things are not working all the time, like the water and the electricity, Egyptians have reclaimed Cairo and we will never give it back to dictatorial rulers again.”

In the following days, a majority of Egyptians like Alaa did, in fact, give in to a new form of dictatorship. The Egyptian military deposed Morsi, installed an interim civilian government, and told pro-Morsi supporters to get off the streets. Rabaa al-Adiwayah mosque in Nasr City, a middle class neighbourhood of Cairo on the road to the international airport, became the base camp for the Muslim Brotherhood as the sit-in morphed into an occupation. Braving intense mid-summer heat, protesters erected field hospitals similar to those seen in Tahrir two years prior. Informal checkpoints were established to check IDs. Operated by ‘citizens,’ foreign journalists such as myself were treated with suspicion. Protesters carried sticks and wore neon vests along with red construction helmets. Large numbers of women and children mixed with male protesters here. Food stalls did brisk business. In effect, the Muslim Brotherhood created an outdoor city on a small public space in Cairo—just as anti-Mubarak protesters had done with Tahrir Square.

The Egyptian military—the new old rulers of the country—set out to break-up the encampment on 14 August, killing more than 600 protesters in the process. The massacre at Rabaa al-Adiwayah mosque underlined an important factor driving the political violence in Cairo: without strong public presence on streets and in squares, the Muslim Brotherhood would lose their ability to capture international support for their cause. Despite a state of emergency and nightly curfew imposed by the Egyptian military, led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Muslim Brotherhood remained defiant. It called on its supporters to return to the streets of downtown Cairo and stage peaceful protests everyday. The movement also began attacking Christian churches throughout Egypt, confirming the fears of many that a sectarian battle is simmering in Egypt. For its part, the Egyptian military has demonstrated resolve to control the  urban environment by force. Military curfews have destroyed Cairo’s once-busy nocturnal street life.

The imposition of military law has made spontaneous demonstration increasingly dangerous.

Amidst this on-going violence, neighbourhood organisations have formed. Initially their aims were defensive, to ward-off violent attacks, but discussions now revolve around resource management, garbage collection and need for community green space. In parts of Dokki, a working class neighbourhood across the Nile from downtown, community dialogue is shaping how the neighbourhood functions during this time of crisis. Community councils now make decisions, not the city. “Not only are we claiming our spaces, but we’re also redefining unused spots as public property,” wrote leading social activist Tarek Shalaby, who lives in Dokki, on his website. “This is a manifestation within itself, and it can only empower us to fight for our basic rights and services, and that includes public space for all. Not exactly what the ruling elite had in mind, but we are the ones who decide.”

While public squares will continue
to be the primary battlefields in this on-going revolution, interpersonal dialogue at the neighbourhood level, for now, represents where people
are able to talk to each other. In the downtown hinterland behind Tahrir Square, thousands of illegal street vendors have also taken over the dusty streets. The absence of any real authority means that they can sell everything from televisions to shoes. The result is a massive outdoor mall stretching for blocks and attracting Egyptians from all social background.

“We could never have done this under Mubarak,” says Mohammed,
a street vendor selling watches. “The revolution has given us our city and given me my livelihood.” He added, “The next battle will be about holding on to this new ownership”

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