The rich symbolism of the square in Cairo

Protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square. "What happens there determines what happens in Egypt," said Swarthmore professor Farha Ghannam. "It's hard to believe that one small space could mean so much, but that's what's happening now."
Protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square. "What happens there determines what happens in Egypt," said Swarthmore professor Farha Ghannam. "It's hard to believe that one small space could mean so much, but that's what's happening now."
Posted: February 04, 2011

When she first traveled to Cairo for fieldwork in 1993, Farha Ghannam recalled, Tahrir Square was mostly used as a bus depot.

Today, it's the battleground on which the future of Egypt is being fought - a space rich with symbolism and meaning, held and defended by protesters at the cost of some lives.

"There's this feeling [among demonstrators] that 'if we lose at Tahrir Square, we're going to lose the fight,' " said Ghannam, an anthropology professor at Swarthmore College who studies the use of public space in Egypt.

For 10 days, television cameras and news photographers have beamed and broadcast image upon image from the square, first of mass protests and now of bloody fighting. It can be hard to tell what the square - a big, usually traffic-clogged plaza - actually looks like. And it's impossible for pictures to convey the importance of the place to Egyptians, and how it was the obvious, logical place for the protests to erupt.

No longer mostly a stopping point for buses, the square remains the hub of the Cairo transportation system, busy with cabs, cars, and subways, and with people coming and going. In a society sharply divided by class and gender, the square has been a place where all feel comfortable - young and elderly, rich and poor, men and women, Muslim and Christian.

It's a physical link between old and new, a place central to the Egyptian revolution in 1952. The main office of the American University in Cairo is on the square. So is the headquarters of President Hosni Mubarak's ruling political party, the National Democratic Party.

The square is the center of government power and bureaucracy - a corrupt, inefficient bureaucracy that many Egyptians have come to hate. Across from the main government building stands the Egyptian Museum - a juxtaposition that pits the symbol of a repressive regime against a representation of Egypt's ancient and glorious civilization.

"What happens there determines what happens in Egypt," said Ghannam, author of Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo. "It's hard to believe that one small space could mean so much, but that's what's happening now."

Ghannam, who has been traveling to and working in Egypt for 17 years, has been in Tahrir Square thousands of times. She knows the square like a National Park Service ranger knows Independence Hall.

The area that people think of as the square encompasses a larger space of lanes, businesses, and homes, as important to Egyptians as Times Square is to New Yorkers or Tiananmen Square to Chinese. Located near the Nile, its streets host Egyptian cafes and Pizza Hut restaurants, blending local and global, past and present.

Now, the square is a battleground. At least five have been killed and 900 injured after pro-government crowds attacked largely peaceful protesters with bricks, sticks, firebombs, and chunks of concrete.

Cairo is not just the capital of Egypt and the largest city in Africa, but is also one of the most densely packed cities in the world. While Egypt is three times the size of New Mexico, 95 percent of its land is desert, limiting livable space. More than 40 percent of the country's 80 million people live in urban centers, and one out of five lives in greater Cairo.

Other huge parks and gardens in the city could have accommodated thousands of demonstrators. But none carries the meaning of Tahrir Square.

It was planned and built near the end of the 19th century, becoming a national space in 1952, when Egypt threw off the British-backed monarchy. The British military barracks that stood on the square, housing occupation troops, were wiped away.

What had been known as Midan Ismailia was renamed Midan Tahrir, meaning "Liberation Square."

In 1977, the square was the site of riots when President Anwar el-Sadat ended subsidies on basic foodstuffs, such as bread. In 2003, it was the scene of protests against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Ghannam, who was born in the West Bank and raised in Jordan, came to the United States in 1989 to study, traveling to Cairo while completing her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin. She hasn't stopped going back.

"It's the center of the Arab world. What's going to happen there is going to have an impact, an amazing impact, on all the countries all around," she said. "In a way, the protesters are exactly right. If they leave the square, that's a defeat in a way - their demands not really met, the feeling that Mubarak was just buying time.

"But of course, that's easy for us to say. The people there are risking their lives."


Tahrir Square's Busy History

Cairo's Tahrir Square has been host to various public demonstrations since it was built in the 19th century.

Known as Midan Ismailia before the leaders of the revolution of 1952 renamed it Tahrir - or Liberation - Square, it was the focal point of 1977 riots sparked when President Anwar el-Sadat said the government was ending subsidies on basic foodstuffs. The square was also the site of demonstrations in 1881 against the ruling Khedive Tawfik, and in 1919 against British occupation.

One of Cairo's main traffic intersections, the square features a central grassy area and radiates wide boulevards. "Its importance is due to its size and its closeness to vital sovereign institutions and embassies," said Obada Kohela, a professor of history at Cairo University.

In 2003, the square, which holds the former main campus of the American University in Cairo and the Mogama, the center of government administration in Egypt, hosted rallies against the war in Iraq.

"The protests in Tahrir Square are a pain in the back of government officials," said Mervat Helal, a real-estate tax employee. It restricts officials' movements, Helal said, because protesters there are in control of the center of town.

- Bloomberg News


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415

or jgammage@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|