North Africa, West Asia

Cairo landscapes: a battle over history

The reworking of urban spaces embodying the collective memory of the January 25 uprising is not a novelty, but part and parcel of the state's attempt to rewrite the history of the revolution.

Sara Verderi
17 November 2015

Demotix/Shawkan. All rights reserved.A few weeks ago a video was aired portraying the graffiti-painted wall of Mohamed Mahmoud Street being partially demolished. This famous wall is the fence of the American University in Cairo’s premises in Tahrir Square. 

The workers in the video explained that the wall was not going to be entirely demolished, only parts of it, as it was the only way to get the heavy construction equipment they needed to use inside the campus. 

The wall is famous for having hosted graffiti portraying different moments of the series of uprisings commonly known as the 25 January Revolution. Among the artists who have been committed to painting the wall is the legendary Ammar Abu Bakr, recently arrested during one of his performances in Borsa, downtown Cairo.

If one takes Pierre Nora's definition of lieux de memoir—that is, spaces in which collective memory is encapsulated and kept in store such as monuments, streets and museums—then Mohamed Mahmoud street and Tahrir Square have undoubtedly been the most central spaces of commemoration of the January 25 revolution. 

In this short article I would like to reflect on the relation between space and the memorialisation of the Egyptian uprising. First, the way in which the wall demolition inserts into a broader urban restructuring of downtown Cairo; second, on the collective re-working of the narrative 'revolution', meaning the way in which a society (composed of ordinary people as well as of the establishment in power) give significance to political events and experiences. 

The episode has once again raised a debate about the alleged battle of the writing of the history of the revolution that has been taking place between activists and the Egyptian state. 

Changing urban landscapes

According to a recent report, Khaled Mostafa, spokesperson for the Cairo governor's office, referred to the demolition of the wall as necessary for the demolition of the building behind it.

The battle for writing the revolution is in the making, and the city is the battlefield in which it partially takes place.

On the state’s side, numerous projects of urban re-structuring of downtown Cairo have been taking place, such as the construction of a mega parking facility in Tahrir Square, the iconic space of the uprising during the eighteen days of 2011; the dismantling of pavement cafes in Borsa, an area that used to gather young activists in Cairo; and the supposed re-location of one of the revolutionary hubs, Dar Merit publishing house.  

It has to be said that among the residents of downtown, many have cheered the government’s decision of dismantling pavement cafes and street vendors, because their hypertrophic expansion over the past four years has suffocated public spaces. 

Other projects include the re-qualification of the central railway station in Ramses Square and the construction of a mall complex in the same square, which is the object of dissent according to residents living in the surrounding neighbourhood.

The re-working of January 25 uprising's lieux de memoir is not a novelty in itself, rather part and parcel of the stance the state has been taking towards January 25, which translates into urban restructuring.

The battle for writing the revolution is in the making, and the city is the battlefield in which it partially takes place. Thinking about how this process reflects on the politics of naming: Mohamed Mahmoud Street was re-named the street of the “Eyes of Freedom” by revolutionaries, in remembrance of the many who lost their eyes to police fire during clashes in November 2012. 

When I visited Cairo for the first time in March 2012, I had my first encounter with Tahrir Square. At that time the square was still animated by the presence of a permanent sit-in, tents and street vendors. A number of baltagiyya (thugs)—as referred to by the state—were part of the human landscape characterising the square.

When I turned, my gaze captured a colourful street that was somehow distinguished from the rest of the urban landscape. The street was enclosed by barbed wire. Eloquent graffiti portrayed a face split into two halves: one half was General Mohamed El Tantawi, head of SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) in 2011, and the second half was that of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.  

March 2012. Sara Verderi. All rights reserved.

Tantawi was the head of the secret services and the de-facto head of the Egyptian State after the ousting of Mubarak in February 2011. 

In 2014, a project for the building of a mosque dedicated to him was initiated in New Cairo. Today the minaret's mosque (one of the highest in the world, as army sympathisers emphatically claim) is visible from the road to Nasr City.

In November 2013, the Mubarak-Tantawi graffiti was covered up along with all others in the vicinity. Notably, the next day new graffiti portraying a monkey carrying a banner of another monkey wearing a military helmet appeared on the wall.

November 2013. Sara Verderi. All rights reserved.

November 2013. Sara Verderi. All rights reserved.In 2013 a memorial monument for the martyrs of January 25 was erected in Tahrir Square. Few attended the ceremony and I did not even notice it despite my daily crossing of the Square. Right after, contestation took place and the memorial was covered in red spots, symbolising the blood of the martyrs, in a gesture of protest by activists. For activists and relatives of the victims, the monumental memorial was not a way to close ‘the case’. On the contrary, they wanted those responsible to be held accountable for the murders committed during the uprising.

Sayable memories, unsayable memories

On the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the uprising, I decided to go out hoping to stumble across a commemoration. It was not possible to reach Tahrir Square itself as it was closed and heavily militarised at the main entrances with tanks and barbed wire. 

The regime is trying to erase the memory of the revolution by all means possible.

While walking through the alleys surrounding the Square, I stopped by a kiosk and engaged in conversation in the midst of an unusually deserted downtown Cairo. "So today is the anniversary of the revolution," I said to the woman sitting behind the kiosk's window. She replid, "I'll tell you, the kids who are asking for the fall of the regime belong to the Muslim Brotherhood! Enough with the revolution, they destroyed the country!" 

For this woman the militarisation of the square was normal and legitimised by the potential dangers that 'the kids of the revolution' posed to Egypt. State discourse resonated in the sense that the army was portrayed as the rescuer of the people of Egypt. 

Curiously, a few hours later on the same day, another part of the state apparatus—the police—assaulted a dozen members of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, who had staged a sit-in in the vicinity of Tahrir Square to commemorate the anniversary. 

One of the participants, trade unionist Shaima Sabbagh, was shot to death by a policeman even though she was only carrying flowers in remembrance of all those who had lost their lives during the uprising. 

The fact that the soldier who killed her has been sentenced to 15 years does not change much of the Egyptian State’s discourse and practices of 'pre-emptive' repression. 

Maybe the wall is on the verge of total demolition or perhaps it will only be partially knocked down. In any case, this episode suggests that the regime is trying to erase the memory of the revolution by all means possible. 

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