Takeovers and makeovers: using the landscape to re-write history in post-revolutionary Cairo

Clearing sites of mass protest in Cairo and stamping them with symbolic representations of their preferred narrative of order and stability, the military authorities are striving to relegate the revolution to the past. Yet, these new cityscape makeovers continue to be contested.

Leila Zaki Chakravarti
26 November 2013

On 14 August, some six weeks after deposing the Egypt’s first democratically elected President, the Egyptian Army moved with overwhelming force and violence to clear two huge protest camps which Muslim Brotherhood members and their supporters had set up in different parts of Cairo. One was in Midan Nahda (“Awakening Square”) at the ceremonial gates of Cairo University, a central and well-established public space for political protests going back to the first stirrings of modern Egyptian nationalism. The other, even vaster, camp was way across town, in the concrete wastes of Medinet Nasr (“Victory City”), one of the city’s more recently constructed, sprawling northern suburbs. Based in the Brotherhood stronghold of the Rabaa El Adaweyah mosque, the protest camp spilled out onto the large traffic island in front, and up along the entire width of the dual-carriageways of the two major roads which intersected there.


The Rabaa Square protest camp.

In the days that followed the violent clearance, the Government media were full of stories and images purporting to show how the authorities were rapidly ‘restoring a state of normality’ at the site, allowing the once-trendy cinemas and barricaded shopping malls to function. When I took a taxi from my flat in nearby Heliopolis to approach the site, the first thing that hit me, long before I could see anything, was a terrible stench of rot hanging in the air. When I reached the blackened front of the mosque I could see that truckloads of street cleaners had been mobilised, along with the heavy machinery of contractors re-asphalting the carriageways, and planting trees and shrubs in the devastated central reservations. At the time I remember being puzzled by the purpose of the concrete construction which seemed to be underway right in middle of the large roundabout in front of the mosque gates. Only after returning to London did I see web images of the completed work, which turned out to be a monumental fountain consisting of two huge concrete hands clasped protectively over an illuminated sphere of some sort (below). It did not take much to work out that what had been put up was a monument intended to give concrete form to the slogan ‘El geish w’il shaab id wahda’ (“The Army and the People are One Hand”), the banner under which the military takeover had claimed legitimacy and popular support. It confirmed that, whatever the official narrative of ‘restoring normality’, the prime intention of the makeover of the public spaces in front of the Rabaa mosque seemed clearly to be the raw assertion of a military fait accompli, marked by the complete obliteration of all traces of the many thousands of protesters, and the mayhem and unprecedented bloodshed which had marked their removal.

blue-illuminated sculpture/fountain.

The new ‘fountain’ at the centre of where the Rabaa camp used to be. Photo: www.shorouknews.com

And yet the public effect was never as clear-cut as the military authorities, who had imposed a dusk-to-morning curfew and a heavy security presence, had intended - and rumours of continuing protest continued. By October stories had started flying around of how on the nights of the Eid El Kebir festival, Brotherhood members had been seen circumambulating the Rabaa mosque clothed in the distinctive white taub drapes of pilgrims on the hajj to Mecca, in effect reclaiming its blackened ruins as the congregational heart of their community and its martyrs. Indeed, by choosing to attach their politics of resistance to a mosque (rather than, as previously had been customary, congregating in a religiously neutral location such as a public square or in front a government institution) the Brotherhood had ensured that their Rabaa protest camp acquired a set of implicit associations with a place of worship, which in the context of the struggle for political survival served as a sanctuary.

The protest camp itself had, as its numbers swelled, soon taken on the features of a well-established commune. Tightly organised by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing the Freedom and Justice Party, the commune overwhelmingly comprised members of the economically disadvantaged sections of Egyptian society, who had been bussed in not only from Cairo’s poorer quarters, but also from villages in far flung parts of the country. Though professing themselves glad to ‘repay the debt’ incurred through benefitting from the Brotherhood’s social, infrastructural and economic daw’a (charitable) works amongst those marginalised and disenfranchised by decades of economic ‘reform’ culminating in neo-liberal Mubarak-bizniz, the communards were nevertheless generously compensated by the organisers, reportedly to the tune of 200 Egyptian pounds a day for each female, and 500 Egyptian pounds a day for each male ( more than many Egyptians earn in a month, if not longer) . Alongside them could also be found other groups who has been prominent in the original anti-Mubarak Tahrir Square demonstrations of two years earlier, including students in higher education, professionals from different syndicates, the fearsome football altraz (ultras ie extreme supporters of some clubs - of whom I have written previously) and a smattering of media and sports celebrities.

The camp’s permanent residents were regularly joined by large numbers of ‘day visitors’ who live in Medinet Nasr, who either came to pray, as before, in their local mosque, or to join in the spirit of shared communality and protest. Reflecting the character of the neighbourhood, these were typically much more affluent, and from markedly more privileged educational and professional backgrounds, than the vast majority of the camp’s permanent residents. Many were from the families of the first wave of migrant Egyptian professionals who had taken advantage of President Sadat’s original infitah (opening) economic reforms of the 70s to make their fortunes in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf. There they had acquired not only unprecedented wealth, but also, in many cases, various degrees of affinity with Wahhabi Islam, and some of its personal and political expressions. Their participation thus provided the protest camp not only with a form of ‘class protection’, but also a subtle – if more covert than overt – underpinning of Islamist political support. Though one such ‘day visitor’, a professional living in the area, made a point of telling me that his motivation on the latter score was not specifically to support the Brotherhood, but rather to protest that the military had not remained “above politics”.

In order for a commune of this size and variety to function effectively, especially in view of its declared indefinite timeline, the Brotherhood organisers established the sort of tight organisational framework for which their public manifestations, including street demonstrations, had already become famous. As on earlier demonstrations, Brotherhood organisers and monitors made particularly effective use of mobile phones to communicate and co-ordinate, and set up a simple but effective database to keep a record of the names, identity card numbers and next of kin, and to record the mobility of members in and out of the site. As well as preserving social order within the commune, this had the added advantage of guarding against infiltration by security agents or baltageyya (hired thugs) seeking to foment disorder, and so break the residents’ defiant spirit and resolve not to leave until their President had been restored to his rightful office. Under this benevolent, well-resourced and yet informal organisational infrastructure, the commune took on much of the character of the traditional sha’abi (poor, lower class) gatherings around religious shrines, which throughout Ramadan exude the shared simplicity and generosity of all who arrive to partake in the blessings of the resident saint. This included free cold drinks generously shared; the collective preparation of trays of Eid biscuits in makeshift ovens; hiring in ramshackle festive swings and simple travelling fun-fair amusements for children to enjoy; the marking out of pitches for young men to play street football; and even a largish paddling pool, complete with plastic boats for tiny tots to float around in (below). The solidarity which such communal activities engendered was spoken of as il arwah gunud muganada “the souls of the soldiers recruited (for salvation)” – a phrase taken from the hadith sayings attributed to the Prophet, and evoking the spiritual bonding of like-minded individuals, however diverse their socio-economic backgrounds, united in their spiritual quest.

 woman cooking food, children swimming, men playing football, the protests at night

Daily life in the Rabaa protest camp. Photos: www.r4bia.com

In the weeks leading up to the enforced destruction and clearance of the camp, the official media unleashed a barrage of derogatory propaganda aimed both at weakening the resolve of the communards, and at turning wider public opinion against them. Initial efforts were very much in the mainstream of the “Egypt fighting terrorism” campaign, declaring that the camp harboured terrorists and criminals who had stacked up arsenals of heavy-fire weapons, set up secret torture chambers, and dug hidden pits for the mass burial of those who opposed them. Commentators on official channels started declaring unequivocally that ‘no visitor ever comes out alive from the commune’. Vox pop interventions were conjured up to flood phone-in programmes with complaints about the stench of sewage and rotting garbage hanging over the area (even though it had been the authorities who had chosen to cut off the camp’s water and sanitation facilities), frequently couched in vehement denunciations of the inhabitants ‘living like animals’. A particular focus of local criticism seemed to be that the communards were bringing in large numbers of sheep (an expensive commodity beyond the reach of ordinary citizens), in order to fatten them up for the Eid El Kebir festival-of-the-sacrifice which fell some months in the future. Complaints that the protest camp appeared both to be enjoying a luxury lifestyle and settling in for the indefinite future often culminated in emotive declarations that honest residents had no option but to move out of the neighbourhood altogether.

Underpinning these political and ‘practical day-to-day’ lines of official attack, rumours also started to circulate aimed at undermining the religious integrity of the commune, and stigmatising its inhabitants as wicked, deviant and heretical Muslims. Some of the milder accusations focused on claims that the Brotherhood had declared jihad (holy war) against the Army and Egyptian people, and issued an ‘internal fatwa (religious ruling)’ exempting the entire commune from the Ramadan fast (one of the central tenets of the faith). Additional claims flew around that male protestors were engaging in sex with female refugees from the fighting in Syria, securing entry to tented brothels in the camp through contracting a Shi’ite muta’a (short-term marriage of convenience), and on leaving absolving their sins through the ritual sacrifice of no less than three sheep (which in the more wild-eyed variations of the accusation escalated to ‘three camels’). This echoed the Government rumours which in 2011 had been spread against the anti-Mubarak democracy protestors, stigmatising Tahrir Square as a zone of both physical and moral danger. The effectiveness of the propaganda campaign, which cynically exploited and further heightened already deep anxieties and fears in Egypt’s riven polity, could be seen in the eventual TV images of soldiers who were clearing the Rabaa site having to protect evacuating protestors from a mob of residents baying for their blood.

The relentlessly increasing, and increasingly bitter, polarisation and division which the Army takeover has engendered, allows one to make some kind of sense – however perverse - of the ugly ‘fountain’ which the Army has caused to be erected on the now cleared and sanitised protest site. It can best be read as nothing more than a rather brutalist ‘Triumphal Arch’, whose message seems to be “Here, in the heart of what was once your community – and which we have now annihilated – we triumphantly place ‘our id (hand)’ (ie the hand of ‘El geish w’il shaab id wahda’) to permanently assert your defeat.” The insightful Mada Masr website, quotes a well-known observer to this effect:

For Omar Nagati, an urban planner and architect, the makeovers could have functioned as “a gesture of reconciliation as opposed to exclusion. This was also a chance for the city to wake up and use the restructuring to address older issues, such as traffic and garbage waste,” he says, criticizing these projects as a missed opportunity. Instead, he thinks these makeovers have a political function, using the landscape to rewrite history…“The army is writing its own narrative.”

But given the continuing street and social media protests in Egypt (which include voices who deplore both what the Brotherhood had been doing and how the Army has dealt with it, and the resulting either/or polarisation of Egyptian politics), it seems unlikely that this narrative will suddenly cease to be contested – or that the public spaces of Egypt’s urban landscape have seen their final takeovers and makeovers. For example, the attempts by the military authorities to erect a ‘martyrs memorial’ at the heart of Tahrir Square (see here, here and here) has been vigorously repelled by anti-takeover protestors. And back in Medinet Nasr, the authorities are considering renaming Rabaa Square completely, as a means of de- legitimising continuing Brotherhood protests at the site.

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