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The battle for Tahrir

The epicentre of the January 2011 Revolution, is receiving the attention of the authorities as they seek to revive its Khedival identity and reshape its landscape and function

Amira Howeidy , Wednesday 16 Dec 2015
The focal point of the 2011 uprising has received a face-lift and a new underground garage (Photo: S
Tahrir Square, the focal point of the 2011 uprising has received a face-lift and a new underground garage (Photo: Sherief Sonbol)
Views: 5810
Views: 5810

In November, following four years of work the Nile Ritz Carlton Hotel — formerly the Nile Hilton — opened its doors. For 60-years a hotel has traded on the site, its major selling point being spectacular Nile views from one side and a commanding view of the Egyptian Museum from the other. The Nile Ritz Carlton, however, now has a new string to its promotional bow. The hotel’s website is busy selling rooms that overlook “the iconic” Tahrir Square.

Tahrir hit the international headlines when it became the venue for the massive popular demonstrations that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. It remained Egypt’s main political theatre for the next two years, though it is now firmly out of bounds for protesters. In November 2013 a law that effectively criminalises demonstrations was promulgated, imposing jail sentences on those who violate it, including many of the activists who came to prominence during the January uprising.

Political protests did continue, though they were banished to the capital’s fringes, to Omraniya, Matariya, Al-Haram and Helwan, growing ever smaller until they almost ground to a halt.When holders of PhD and MA degrees did take to Tahrir Square on 29 November to demand jobs the area was quickly sealed off. An army of anti-riot police deployed from nearby barracks took control of the square, dispersed the demonstrators and detained 31 protesters for 24 hours.

The protest law may have put an end to demonstrations in Tahrir but it has failed to erase the association between the square and the expression of popular dissent. Both the authorities and the supporters of the 2011 uprising remain obsessed with Tahrir. The battle to fix its identity, and its role in opposing narratives of what really happened in January 2011, rages on.

Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011
Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011

“Civilising” the square

Cairo governorate spent much of 2015 renovating and developing Khedival Cairo, the 19th century urban expansion of the capital undertaken by the Khedive Ismail, the remnants of which comprise today’s downtown, including Tahrir. A few days after the fourth anniversary of the 25 January uprising a 20-metre high flagpole was installed on a circular podium in the centre of Tahrir Square. Officials at the time described it as a national symbol that unifies Egyptians.

In 2013 the government had erected a monument on the same site to commemorate the victims of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes between police and protesters in November 2011 in which 40 demonstrators were killed. Less than 24 hours later protesters, angry that the authorities, whom they hold responsible for the death toll, should attempt to commemorate their own victims, defaced the monument. The memorial was then removed. The circular patch remained vacant throughout 2014 as the new regime sought to consolidate its position after removing Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013.

The flagpole’s direct symbolism may not have been welcomed by urban critics but it had the advantage of not being a polarising statement. As such it seemed to suit the occasion it was designed for, the long-delayed inauguration of the underground parking garage in Tahrir Square on 31 January.

The opening of the four-level garage, located in front of the Egyptian Museum, the Ritz Carlton, the Arab League and Omar Makram Mosque was attended by then premier Ibrahim Mehleb, who hailed it as a milestone in changing the contours of downtown Cairo. Cairo’s Governor Galal MustafaSaid said the massive parking lot, which stretches over 20,000 square metres and cost a staggering LE675 million, would restore “a civilised appearance to the city centre”.

Other measures to “civilise” the city centre included the forcible eviction and relocation of hundreds of street vendors and the banning of parking in main streets.

The repainted streets, free of vendors and parked vehicles, are a far cry from the chaotic but lively scene that characterised downtown Cairo in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising. The city centre can sometimes appear eerie, an impression exacerbated by the fact that it’s hardly bustling with family groups or tourists. And according to security officers — on two occasions they interrupted a photographer attempting to take pictures — “photographs are not allowed”.

“The whole point of these renovations is to realise a vision of Khedival Cairo that projects a suitable image of Egypt,”says Reham Arram, head of the heritage preservation unit at Cairo governorate. To this end it was important to put an end to the chaos that had become such a feature of Tahrir and downtown Cairo after the January uprising. To Arram, the renovations are all about reviving Ismail’s ideal of “a Paris of the Orient”.

Urban critics,wary of such a vision, question both the objectives and benefits and the renovations.

“It’s a complete waste of money. The work isn’t even being done properly,” says architect Tarek Wali. Yes, the façades of many buildings have been painted but the sides of buildings that don’t face Tahrir are ignored and there is little, if any, structural maintenance.

Not so, insists Arram. Where the infrastructure needed upgrading it was, she says, citing work on downtown’s Al-Alfi Street where the entire sewage system was renewed.

A pedestrian bridge circled Tahrir in the 1970s. The photo shows the pink granite base intended for
A pedestrian bridge circled Tahrir in the 1970s. The photo shows the pink granite base intended for a statue of Khedive Ismail which was erected in the 1940's and removed almost four decades later.

“Easier for security”

Trying to resuscitate Khedival Cairo is not a new project. The latest round of renovations actually began in 2009, under Mubarak-era Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, who also introduced a draft law to create a new capital by 2050. The 2011 uprising interrupted these plans, only for the idea of a new administrative and business capital to be revived amid much fanfare during the March economic conference in Sharm El-Sheikh.

One fear triggered by the new capital project is that Khedival Cairo, the heart of Egypt’s current capital, will be left to crumble. But plans for the new administrative centre are in their infancy and it is unclear how it will be financed. In the meantime the heart of Cairo, epicentre of the January 2011 Revolution, is receiving the attention of the authorities as they seek to revive its Khedival identity and reshape its landscape and function.

In October, Cairo governorate published an advertisement in the national press inviting tenders to develop the surface area of the Tahrir underground carpark. According to Sohair Hawas, a professor of architecture who acts as a consultant to the governorate, the plan is for an area of “lightly constructed”cafés and restaurants.

“It should be a place for recreation but the question was what would be most useful on the site. Cafés are a good idea, people will be able to buy something light to eat or drink when they’re out having a walk. It also represents a source of income for the governorate,” she said.

When the subterranean car park was opened the surface area — sealed behind metal fences for years during construction work — was finally revealed. Paved slabs enclosed areas of brick-coloured sand with the whole framed by artificial grass. Hawas, who oversaw the design, says she dismissed the original plan to plant trees and construct grottos.

“The whole point was to have a neutral landscape,” she says. “It’s also easier for security. Everything is visible and within eyeshot.” Nor did she want a design that requires maintenance. “It just doesn’t work in Egypt,” she said.

The barracks of the British troops in Cairo circa 1905 where Tahrir stands today
The barracks of the British troops in Cairo circa 1905 where Tahrir stands today

British barracks to political symbol

Decades before Tahrir became a security issue the area extending from the Egyptian Museum to the Arab League building was laid to grass. There was a fountain at the centre circled by stone benches. Where the flagpole is today stood a pink granite podium, a 1940s design by architect Mustafa Pacha Fahmy intended as the base for a statue of Khedive Ismail. The 1952 army-led revolution, which ended the monarchy, interrupted these plans and the base remained statue-less until it was removed in the 1980s.

Little remains of Khedive Ismail’s development of the city. The vast majority of downtown buildings were constructed in the first half of the 20th century, replacing the palaces and villas constructed by the aristocrats who had flocked to Ismail’s new centre.

Tahrir lacks the Haussmann-styled planning of much of central Cairo. It was, in fact, never designed to be a square. Before the Egyptian army barracks were constructed in Qasr Al-Nil in the 1870s the land was a swamp. When the British army invaded Egypt in 1882 they took over the barracks, expanding them, and remained there until 1946. The barracks faced the Nile. Behind them was a massive field covering most of today’s Tahrir Square.

The barracks were demolished following the British army’s exit from Cairo. The Mugamma, the government’s massive administrative building, a modernist edifice completed in 1949, established the southern border of the then Ismailia Square. Its northern limits had been set in 1905, with the construction of the Egyptian Museum. When Gamal Abdel-Nasser came to power in 1954, the Arab League, the Nile Hilton and a municipal building — later home to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) — were erected on the land once occupied by the barracks. And it was under Nasser that Ismailia Square became Tahrir, liberation in Arabic, a renaming intended to symbolise Egypt’s liberation from British occupation.

Despite its symbolic weight the square has never been home to a monument of historic significance. What changes were made over the years are testament to little beyond the administrative failures ofconsecutive governments. The Belgian made tram which had connected the square with Islamic Cairo since the late 19th century was discarded. A pedestrian bridge circling the entire square was erected during Anwar Al-Sadat’s open door policy years and then torn down. The statue-less granite base in front of the Mugamma was finally removed during construction work for the underground in the 1980s, and discarded.

“The Place de la Concorde is immediately recognisable because of its [Pharaonic] obelisk while ours are all hidden,” says Wali. “Surely there are enough objects in the warehouses of the Egyptian Museum to spare one for the square?”

Almost two decades after it was renamed Tahrir, the square became the focus of political action. Students occupied it for the first time in 1972, demanding democracy, a more equitable economic and social system and a “people’s war” against Israel, then occupying the Sinai Peninsula.

Following the opening strikes of the US-led invasion of Iraq thousands took to the square and occupied it until security forces violently dispersed them at the end of the day. But it was the 18-day sit-in, from 25 January to 11 February 2011,when, for the first time in history Egyptians unseated a ruler through popular protests, that established Tahrir’s iconic status.

The 2003 protests in Tahrir Square against the US-led invasion of Iraq (Photo: Randa Shaath)
The 2003 protests in Tahrir Square against the US-led invasion of Iraq (Photo: Randa Shaath)

Claiming Tahrir

Five years later the repercussions of that seismic event still reverberate, in more complicated — and sinister — ways than the protesters who took to the square and roared “the people demand the fall of the regime!”could have foreseen.

Regime supporters in the mainstream media long since took it on themselves to brand the uprising’s leading figures as traitors, servants of mysterious foreign agendas and fifth columnists. Attempts to erase all physical traces of 25 January uprising are ongoing, including the painting out of the graffiti that was such a feature of the revolution.

Tahrir is no longer a venue for dissent. That the most significant happenings in the square over the last 12 months are the inauguration of an underground car park and the reopening of the Sadat metro station, closed in August 2013 for security reasons, serves only to underline this point.

On a bright December morning traffic flowed smoothly around the litter-free square. The area above the garage is empty of pedestrians, save for a handful of drivers emerging from the sunken parking lot.

The burned out concrete block that once housed Mubarak’s NDP, set ablaze during the January uprising, has finally been demolished. In June the cabinet decided to pull it down, erasing yet another piece of physical evidence of the revolution. It took months to reduce the building to rubble and open up a direct view of Tahrir from 6 October Bridge, one of Cairo’s main traffic arteries.

“I find the panoramic view of Tahrir very emotional,” says Khaled Abdel-Hamid, a socialist activist. Although he last demonstrated in Tahrir in December 2012 every time he passes through or sees the square Abdel-Hamid says it evokes memories of the 18-day uprising. He acknowledges that much has changed since those heady days, and it was changing well before the promulgation of the November 2013 protest law. Yet “even if the revolution, in the interim, has been defeated”, Abdel-Hamid insists the square’s symbolism remains intact.

It is a symbolism of which the state remains wary. Official discourse not only steers away from stigmatising the 25 January uprising, officials still feel bound to pay lip-service to the revolution. Hence the decision to erect an innocuous flagpole in the centre of Tahrir.

“The authorities do not feel able to reclaim the square by building a monument that serves their narrative,” says architect Mohamed El-Shahed. He points to the contrast between the flagpole and the memorial erected in Rabaa Square in Eastern Cairo, where police broke up a sit-in of ousted president Mohamed Morsi supporters in August 2013, killing hundreds in the process, which honours the police and the army.

“The flagpole is a relatively neutral symbol given its context,” says El-Shahed. “In a sense it represents an admission by the authorities that they cannot — at least for now — impose their version of what happened in Tahrir on the square.” 

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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