North Africa, West Asia

Taming Tahrir (Part 2): re-appropriating Al-Midan and co-opting memory

By replacing the cement block with gates, the regime is not only curtailing the infrastructure of protest and dissent, but it is also destroying many of the meanings that Tahrir stood for: freedom, justice, and citizens’ reclamation of public space.

Marwa Fikry Abdel Samei
12 February 2014

On Monday, February 3, 2014, it was reported that Egypt’s Minister of Interior – Mohamed Ibrahim – had ordered the removal of the concrete walls used to block Cairo’s downtown streets leading to the famous Tahrir Square. These walls were built since the “Battle of Mohamed Mahmoud” in November 2011 to separate the protestors from the police forces. While complicating the lives of the residents and restricting their freedom of movement, these walls were an attempt on the part of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to seal off dissent. It was, nonetheless, more a manifestation of failure on the part of the regime than a sign of social control. 

The Egyptian regime’s decision to remove the walls was obviously meant to create an impression that life is returning to normal. Jubilation over the removal of the walls, however, soon faded when the announcement was made that steel gates were being erected to replace the wall. The regime’s message is clear: public space will remain under our control.

Since the July 3 coup, the regime has used several strategies to restore and assure its dominance over public space. These strategies started with the imposition of a curfew; then by issuing, and adamantly applying, the (anti) protest law. The decision to replace the walls with gates is the latest manifestation in this strangulation of public space. Whereas the walls restricted mobility and curtailed the right to freedom of movement, the gates stand to represent a physical mechanism of social control through compelling people to accept the absurd. Moreover, the regime has announced that the gates will be open to pedestrians and motorists, except at times of emergency, without a clear definition of “emergency”.

Looking back at the events that have taken place since June 30 makes it clear that the final goal is to control the road to Tahrir: deciding who is granted or denied access to al-Midan (the square). Such a scene resembles the checkpoints of all occupation authorities. In fact, since June 30, the square can only be occupied by the regime’s supporters. Any dissident voices that have tried to approach it have been violently repressed.

Public space is defined as a place that should be accessible to all citizens without discrimination. It is an arena for meeting, socializing, discussing, gathering and even protesting: activities that represent physical manifestations of democracy. Therefore, authoritarian regimes conceptualize true public spaces as sources of threat and continuously work on monitoring and controlling them in order to maintain power and “order”. For example, the Mubarak regime used urban planning and security barriers to limit the chances of large public gatherings that could have led to dissent. Using public spaces as spheres for dissent proved very effective during the January 25 revolution. The security apparatus found it difficult to control such spaces when millions were pouring in. There was one lesson the regime has learnt from the January 25 revolution: no compromise in the fight over public space.

By replacing the cement block with gates, the regime is not only curtailing the infrastructure of protest and dissent, but it is also destroying many of the meanings that Tahrir stood for: freedom, justice, and citizens’ reclamation of public space.

While state borders designate the domains of different authorities, gates in cities stand as boundaries to demarcate the nature of spaces and define the parameters of the right to the city. The idea of the right to the city expresses new attitudes towards citizenship by guaranteeing the right to participation and the right to appropriation of public spaces. The first refers to the role played by the city’s inhabitants in every decision contributing to the creation and shape of the urban space. The latter denotes the inhabitants' full right to free physical access to the urban space and to movement within it, as well as the right to possess and occupy the urban space. The Tahrir gates intentionally violate these rights and raise the spectre of the state’s absolute right to control public space as well as citizens' mobility. Its clear message is that citizens’ freedom of mobility is no longer “their right.” Therefore, it comes as no coincidence that the gates are painted with the colours of the Egyptian flag. Playing on nationalist sentiment, what this conveys is that these gates are erected to protect Egypt, with the regime monopolizing what factors protect and threaten Egypt’s security and interests. 

As much as the regime is adamant in physically controlling public space, it also aspires to dominate and manipulate its symbolic aspect. The best example of this attempt is the erection of a monument in the centre of the square that was quickly inaugurated a few days before the anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes. This rushed effort is only one part of the ongoing campaign by the regime to bring the revolution to a close and discourage further protests against the current arrangement, by turning the page on the turmoil that erupted from Tahrir three years ago. This is particularly true given the fact that the government itself announced that it was a temporary memorial and soon it would call for artists to submit their designs for a permanent one.

Egypt’s Prime Minister, accompanied by some ministers and the Governor of Cairo, held a ceremony in Tahrir marking the inauguration of the monument. The scene was clearly orchestrated to co-opt the memory of one of the most important revolutionary moments of the last three years. Ironically, Defense Minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi was part of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) that oversaw the killing of protesters during the 2011 clashes. Cairo Governor -- Galal Saeed -- declared that the monument was, “dedicated to all those who lost their lives in Tahrir, Mohamed Mahmoud, Sinai, the Ittehadiyya Presidential Palace, Kirdasa, Omraniya and all over Egypt.” Strangest of all, police general Hany Abdel Latif offered police "condolences to all martyrs of the revolution whose immaculate blood will nourish the tree of our national struggle. Glory to the martyrs."

Not only is this a blunt endeavour to conceal the distinctive character and memory of the January 25 revolution by making it only one among many others, but it is also an attempt by the regime to hijack the legacy of the revolution which was equally a revolt against the security apparatus as much as it was against an authoritarian ruler. Tahrir martyrs' memorial shows how the regime monopolizes the commemoration of martyrs, their definition, and subsequently rewrites history. Back in 2012, SCAF removed a memorial installed by activists that had the names of the martyrs of the January 25 revolution written on it. It was demolished on the basis that it included names of thugs or missed the names of true martyrs, and that the state would wait for the right time to build a memorial that would accurately represent the martyrs.

By dominating public space physically and symbolically, the coup regime has effectively institutionalized the division of the Egyptian people: one which is granted access to Tahrir and is protected by the state, and the other who is denied the basic right of approaching the edges of the square, possibly then chased and bombarded by tear gas and live ammunition. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, it was widely believed that all walls would eventually fall. Perhaps this does not apply to the Middle East, where walls are constantly being erected.  

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