On Cairo's urban space wars

Mona Abaza , Saturday 17 Sep 2011

At the centre of Cairo a very particular tug of war is taking place between authoritarian and more open forces, over the city's urban space

Time and again, I am compelled to write about the continuing space wars and metamorphosing urban life in Cairo.  

It is no news that Cairo has been witnessing the most tumultuous and fascinating moments and struggles over the conquest of spaces, of walls through graffiti, and above all over the centre of Tahrir.

The “Saniyya”, which could be translated as the centre, the circle or roundabout of Tahrir Square, continues to epitomise the physical and symbolic seizure of power for both sides, the revolutionaries and the military.

Tahrir is increasingly turning into a contested symbolic space of a still unresolved battle whereby publics will keep on returning to put pressure on the ruling forces, only to be violently pushed away, time and again.  

Since last March, it is as if we are watching a live, vibrant chess game over the space of Tahrir and its surroundings, a game of tactics, of squatting, of public performances, of attacks, and of retreats.

A game that is witness to violent moments through evicting protesters and with it an emerging new public culture. In this game, the army and police forces seem to be bound to emulate the protesters by squatting, in turn, the “saniyya”.

By “being there”, the security forces evoke burlesque and ironic thoughts about how one and a same space can immediately be transformed in a few hours into a regimented totalised institution. However, as the watchdogs of order, the permanence of the security forces on the square is telling about power obsessions that translate into, for instance, marathon carpeting of the saniyya with grass after violent clashes with revolutionaries, as happened in earlier months after the revolution.

Then, during last again Friday, 9 September, protesters were left in peace to return back after the announcement of a planned demonstration.
Security forces left the saniyya and Tahrir was filled in the morning with large masses protesting against the ruling military council in the name of the many demands that are still not fulfilled. Many protesters were carrying large yellow stickers demanding an end to military trials of civilians.

Tahrir witnessed new publics on Friday, like peasants who hanged banners made by the general syndicate of peasants. Other banners had slogans signed by “the humiliated peasant of Egypt”. Perhaps for the first time, the picture of the nationalist leader Orabi on top of the peasants demands was hung, as a reference to his peasant origins.

The 6 April Movement, the Free Egyptians and large crowds of youngsters, and the Ultras (football fans) were present. Then many continued their march towards the headquarters of the high court.

The mugamma (central government offices) graffiti, and the painted walls around the American University, which were booming just before the last attack on the revolutionaries in the early days of Ramadan, have been pervasively erased by repainting the lower area of the walls in white.

In less than a month, the fresh white spots of the huge grey building of the mugamma were repainted back, once again with even more colourful graffiti.

Street children sitting on the walls of the American University, abundant consumer gadgets all over the place, ambulant food stalls, salesmen, and what not, all this certainly evokes the joyful atmospheres of popular mulids.

However, since the military establishment has to have the ultimate say about how and when to allow or hinder the demonstrations on Tahrir, it is expected that the decentring of protests will occur and the spirit of Tahrir will be travelling to other symbolic and material spaces.

Nonetheless, it seems that Tahrir will remain still for a while the battlefield between two cultures, one authoritarian and conservative and another celebrating new visions pertaining to subcultures, public forums and performances.

The writer is a professor of sociology at AUC.

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