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The battle for public space: Squares and streets of the Egyptian revolution
Over the course of the first year of the January 25 revolution, some public squares have become symbols of revolution, while others have come to represent support for regime
Naira Antoun, Monday 23 Jan 2012
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Suez
Police lob tear gas on protesters in the historic Arbain Street in Suez City (Photo: Reuters)

Space is never something that people simply use; we make meaning out of space through how we use it. And the revolution has seen a transformation in public space. That it is no longer surprising to see public walls – even those of Cairo’s administrative Mogamma building or Supreme Court – adorned with political graffiti speaks powerfully to this transformation, and to public space both as a site and instrument of revolutionary struggle.

This transformation takes place against the backdrop of urban planning that sought to limit the availability of open spaces in which citizens might congregate, and the development of gated communities for the wealthy that, along with exclusive parks, constitute a privatisation of space.

Emergency laws in place since Mubarak came to power and renewed periodically – most recently in September by the ruling military council – criminalises gatherings of more than just a few people. So in this sense, public space did not belong to the public at all. The January 25 Revolution can be seen in part as a re-appropriation of public space – a refusal to concede the streets and squares to the dictates of the security apparatus.

People all over the world have now heard of Egypt’s Tahrir Square, which has become a symbol not only of Egypt's revolution, but of the resilience of people against state power. That there were references to Tahrir in banners seen at the 15 May demonstrations in Madrid, at Occupy Wall Street, and even a street sign at Occupy London is reflective of this. Tahrir has continued throughout the year to be a site of demonstrations and sit-ins, as well as state brutality against protesters. When people chant that they are going back to the square, or that legitimacy comes from the square, in protest against the appointment of Mubarak-era figure Kamal Ganzouri as prime minister, it is understood by all that the boundaries of Tahrir transcend the square in downtown Cairo. They are invoking the dreams and demands of the revolution: namely, bread, freedom and social justice.

Sometimes it is forgotten that Tahrir Square is a symbol of the revolution, and while it was certainly the revolution’s physical epicentre, it was not and is not the revolution itself. The revolution was and continues to be waged, fought, and defended way beyond Tahrir. Arbaeen Square and Qa'id Ibrahim Square far from Cairo have also gained symbolic status as sites of revolutionary struggle and popular anger. Testament to the symbolic potency of Tahrir Square, Arbaeen Square is often described as the Tahrir of Suez; Qaid Ibrahim Square as Alexandria’s Tahrir.

The port city of Suez, considered by many as one of the key engines of the revolution, has long been a site of resistance, and is an important locus of the workers' struggle. The last major battle of the 1973 war took place in Suez, with Arbaeen Square filled with soldiers and civilians defending the city against Israeli forces.

Some of the fiercest fighting during the 18-day uprising took place in Suez, and the first martyr of the revolution was killed there. On 28 January – known as the “day of rage” – protesters torched the notorious Arbaeen police station. This followed on the heels of three days of attacks on demonstrations, killings and the arrest of hundreds of protesters. Several police stations were attacked throughout the country on that day. The burnt out shell of Arbaeen station is now adorned with graffiti blasting the regime and glorifying the revolution.

Protesters have returned to Arbaeen Square throughout the year for various activities, from staging sit-ins protesting the release on bail of officers accused of killing protesters to thousands flocking there when clashes broke out in November in Tahrir Square.

Qaid Ibrahim Square in Alexandria, meanwhile, saw protests of hundreds of thousands during last year’s revolution. It takes its name from a nearby mosque, whose imam, Sheikh Ahmad El-Mahalawy, was banned from preaching several years ago because of his sermons attacking the Mubarak regime. In 2011, El-Mahalawy delivered a sermon – devoted to the value of freedom – for the first time since he was banned.

Marches from the square to the police headquarters a few kilometres away were particularly poignant, as it was in Alexandria that the young Khaled Said met a brutal end at the hands of the police in 2010 – his death becoming a galvanising symbol in the months before the revolution, not only of police brutality but also of all that was wrong with the regime. Protesters have returned to Qaid Ibrahim Square throughout the year, from a sit-in in July to enormous protests in November.

A number of place names – such as Tahrir, Arbaeen and Qa'id Ibrahim – have become indelibly imprinted into Egypt’s collective consciousness throughout the past year, but there are also others with different connotations.

The year has been littered since the fall of Mubarak with attacks on protesters, and these attacks are now known by where they occurred. So people might refer to before or after Maspero, in reference to the killing of protesters demanding rights for Copts in October. Or they might refer to Mohamed Mahmoud, in reference to the five days of fighting in which dozens were killed, thousands wounded, and many blinded in one or both eyes. Places have become markers of time.

And there are the squares of Abbasiyya and Mostafa Mahmoud, both associated with anti-revolution demonstrations. While large demonstrations began from Mostafa Mahmoud in Mohandiseen during the 18 days of protests that culminated in Mubarak's fall, the square quickly became associated with support for the deposed president. It became a site of demonstrations and sit-ins where posters bearing Mubarak's face became common – it became a symbol of the counter-revolution.

The focus shifted from Mostafa Mahmoud to Abbasiyya after a march in July from Tahrir Square to the defence ministry was stopped after being attacked by baltagiyya – paid thugs – in Abbasiyya. Abbasiyya residents soon came to be seen as honourable citizens protecting the army and country from the chaos that the demonstrators wanted to wreak, while those who threw water from their balconies to the protesters on a hot July day were elided from the narrative. And since then, whenever there is a large gathering at Tahrir, there is a smaller counter-gathering at Abbasiyya, proclaiming support for the military council and antipathy towards the revolution.

What Mostafa Mahmoud and Abbasiyya have come to represent has been contested. After the focus shifted to Abbassiyya as a symbol of support for the regime, several revolutionary marches made their way to Tahrir from Mostafa Mahmoud, reclaiming a former symbol of the counter-revolution. Notably, in early December, a large march for the martyrs of the revolution set out from Mostafa Mahmoud, with several protesters wearing eye patches in solidarity with those shot in the eye only days before at Mohamed Mahmoud.

Unhappy with the association of Abbassiyya with support for the military council, a group of residents set up a Facebook group to voice their support for the revolution's demands. After a silent rally in the area in December, the number of “likes” on their Facebook page shot up to 14,000. In January, they went one step further, organising a public screening of footage showcasing military aggression against protesters. A couple hundred were in attendance, and while the group was eventually attacked, it was able to pull off the initiative by using the streets of Abbasiya as a site of revolutionary protest.

These meyadeen, or squares, are public spaces, but of course squares are not streets. And it is partly the recognition of this that led to a grassroots initiative, Kazeboon (“Liars”), which takes its name from the now-iconic photo of a woman partially-stripped and beaten by soldiers in Tahrir Square in December. Aware that, while footage and photos of the military's brutal treatment of protesters are available online, many Egyptians may not have seen them and may therefore still believe the SCAF’s claim to be a “guardian of the revolution,” Kazeboon has taken this video evidence to the streets. Over the past few weeks, there have been Kazeboon screenings in Cairo and beyond, from middle-class to working-class districts, and even on the streets of Abbasiyya.

The battle to reclaim public space – squares and streets – is part of the ongoing revolution; it is not simply a battle for space. It is a quest to put the demands of the people above the demands of a regime that seeks stability for the few and hardship for the many. For the first time in years, squares across the country became real public spaces, places in which citizens can meet to protest, share ideas, cooperate, make art, sing, chant and discuss – they have become physical manifestations of a different Egypt. The names of these squares are sure to go down in history, even as they continue to witness yet more history-making in the months ahead.





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