Tahrir Square: Where people make history

Menna Taher, Friday 20 Jan 2012

Tahrir Square became an icon of the 2011 revolution in the eyes of the world, but it has always been a focus of political struggle in Egypt since its early days in the 19th century

File Photo for Tahrir square in 1907

The bird's-eye view of Tahrir Square became one of the most iconic images of 2011.

The square, the epicentre of the January 25 Revolution, witnessed the ebb of flow of post-Mubarak Egypt throughout the year. Initially the focus of millions chanting for the fall of the Mubarak regime, and later the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Tahrir witnessed violent crackdowns, celebrations, funerals and even weddings.

From the first day of the revolution, the square was a magnet that pulled in revolutionaries — a target they were aiming to reach, no matter where the protest started. But the significance that pulled revolutionaries to this central point in Cairo goes a long way back in history.

Tahrir Square, one of the most famous in Egypt, has witnessed political struggle since the 1919 Revolution and was a focal point in many demonstrations and popular uprisings. 

The area, which originally was a mix of sand and swamp, became one of the most vibrant parts of the city. It was planned to emulate the design of Charles de Gaulle Square in Paris and was constructed in 1865 under Khedive Ismail.

The square had a different name then: Ismailliya Square. It was officially changed to Tahrir Square after the 1952 Revolution; however, the name had been unofficially used since the 1919 Revolution.

What many might not know is that the current official name of the square is Sadat Square, named upon Anwar El-Sadat's assassination in 1981. Yet nobody uses the name and the only indication of it is Sadat metro station located in the square.

The square not only holds significance in itself; many of its buildings and surrounding side streets have also played a role in Egypt’s history and contemporary political life.

The location of the Arab League building previously belonged to the barracks of the British army, who took hold of it in 1882, when they entered Egypt. These barracks belonged to the Egyptian army before the British occupation.

According to an article dated 18 February 2011 in Al-Ahram newspaper, large protests took place in front of the barracks in the 1919 Revolution as cited by Abdel Wahab Bakr, a professor of modern history.

The Omar Makram Mosque, which was used as one of the field hospitals during days of fierce clashes in 2011, is also named after one of Egypt’s revolutionaries during the French occupation of Egypt (1798-1801), while the large Mogamaa building is one of the symbols of the country’s bureaucracy and was constructed in 1952.

One of the first significant protests that took place in the square was the Galaa (evacuation) protest on 21 February 1946 calling for the British forces to evacuate the Nile Valley completely (Egypt and Sudan) and was dispersed by forced by the British occupation.

The protest was an extension of the 9 and 10 February student protest against the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, which was dispersed by force by the police.

According to the book Workers and Students in the National Movement of Egypt by Assem Dessouki, 28 protesters were killed and tens were injured in the 21 February Galaa protest.

On 14 November 1951, another significant protest against the British occupation took place. Political forces had united to call for a militant resistance. According to Al-Ahram archives, a million citizens went to then Ismailliya Square to demonstrate and marched until the king’s palace in Abdeen Square. 

Another large protest took place on 9 June 1967, upon the stepping down of President Gamal Abdel Nasser after the military defeat against Israel. In a spontaneous manner, Egyptians took to the streets to demand his return, with large crowds gathered in Tahrir Square and in front of his home.

In February of the following year, students demonstrated in the square to call for more freedoms and to voice protest against the verdicts of the trials of military personnel charged as co-responsible for the 1967 defeat.

During the Sadat era, two major protests took place, the first being the student protest in 1972, on which Amal Donkol wrote his famous poem Oghneyet El-Kaaka El-Hagareya (The Song of the Brick Cake), referring to the circular centre of the square.

The poem, which is applicable to today’s events, describes a scene familiar Tahrir protesters: bullets, chants and songs of determination.

The student protest called for war against Israel and the return of Sinai, which was occupied. The protest was forcefully dispersed at 5am the next day.

On 18 and 19 January 1977, another large protest shook the country as thousands took to the street enraged about rising prices. The riots are widely known as the “Bread Riots.” Late President Sadat called them the “riot of thieves.”

In the Mubarak era, the first large protest in Tahrir Square took place on 10 September 2001 and was an extension of a series of protests throughout Egyptian universities following the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in 2000.

According to an article by activist Kamal Khalil on the Centre for Socialist Studies website, the 2001 protest was a new birth for protests by Egypt’s intellectuals in Tahrir Square.

On 20 March 2003, another large protest took place condemning the US invasion of Iraq. The protest, according to Khalil, was unlike other protests because Central Security Forces officers were the ones who were besieged, not the protesters. Around 20,000 protesters occupied the square until midnight. However, the next day, protesters  were violently dispersed as they tried to gather again in the square with bigger numbers.

On 26 July 2006, another large demonstration took place in solidarity with Lebanon amidst the Israeli war, and on 6 April 2008 large protests swarmed the country in solidarity with textile workers in Mahalla. However, since March 2003 Tahrir Square was always a meeting point that protesters were rarely able to reach, and if they did they would face a crack down before their gathering ever succeeded in gaining momentum.

For years Egyptian activists would gather outside the High Court or the Journalists' Syndicate, only 10 minutes walk from Tahrir Square.

All these protests in past years helped fuel the large uprising that marked 25 January 2011, which was but the beginning of a revolution many feel has not ended.

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