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The Rise and Decline of a Heterotopic Space: Views from Midan al-Tahrir

“We are fortunate—the world is fortunate—that we had the Tahrir days, that for eighteen days we lived the dream, and so we know—absolutely—that life can be that dream.” (Soueif 2012:187)


Centrally located in Cairo’s hectic landscape, strategically positioned near several national and global attractions, a busy hub that allows the mixing of different social groups, and an embodiment of the modern history of the Egyptian capital, Midan al-Tahrir became the site of massive political protests that have shaped the country’s political and social landscape. Drawing on media representations, testimonies by activists and journalists, and ethnographic research, I explore how, between 25 January 2011 and 11 February 2011, the square became a heterotopic space, a “counter arrangement,” which forcefully articulated an alternative understanding of order, citizenship, and civic responsibility that sharply contrasted with the corruption and injustice the protestors sought to transform. Tracing how Midan al-Tahrir was re-appropriated, and redefined in different ways by various social and political groups, I argue that the case of Tahrir encourages us to shift our attention from Foucault’s notion of “heterotopias” to “heterotopic spaces.” Heterotopia assumes an enduring quality inherent in specific spaces, whereas “heterotopic spaces” aims to capture the changing uses, and meanings that could be invested in a particular space during certain times but that could be redefined and appropriated by dominant groups.


Heterotopia

The notion of heterotopia is closely linked to the work of Michel Foucault. In his essay “Of Other Spaces,” first published in 1967, Foucault introduced the notion of heterotopias (from the Greek heteros to mean other, and topos to mean place) to account for different spaces, which are actualized utopias, and have the ability to mirror, subvert, and transform other spaces. According to Foucault, heterotopias are “a sort of counter-emplacements, a sort of effectively realized utopias in which… all the other real emplacements that can be found within culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (p.17 in Dehaene and de Cauter). Foucault argues that such “spatio-temporal units” (Daniel Defert as quoted in Johnson 2006: 78) exist in all societies, that their functions shift over time, that they “juxtapose in a single real place several spaces, several emplacements that are in themselves incompatible,” that they “presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable,” and that they might serve an illusory or compensatory function (19).

This concept has found wide appeal among scholars of space, and many have used it to analyze various spaces including gated communities, gardens, museums, hotels, and shopping malls (a list of examples also can be found on the website). However, several scholars (such as Soja 1996, and others) have pointed out the ambiguous, contradictory, and confusing nature of Foucault’s use of this concept. Some have maintained that Foucault’s argument was weakened by its structuralist assumptions, and by his usage “of various absolutist phrases suggesting that heterotopias are ‘utterly’ different from ‘all’ the others (Johnson 2013: 793, see also Saldanha 2008). Scholars like David Harvey (2000: 538, 2012) questioned the value of Foucault’s notion of heterotopias, seeing it as fundamentally about “escape,” and wonder about the “liberatory” or “emancipatory” potentialities of spaces such as the cruise ship, Disneyland, and shopping malls. Indeed, Foucault’s short essay offers contradictory statements and diverse examples such as the brothel, the colony, the cemetery, and the ship, which make grasping the conceptual value of heterotopia rather challenging. However, I believe that there are some aspects of the concept that could be reworked to generate a productive tool for the study of the relationship between space, power, and resistance.

I would like to bring Foucault’s notion into a closer dialogue with Henri Lefebvre’s understanding of space and revolution. Lefebvre (1991 and 2003) differentiated between isotopy (“analogous places”), heterotopy (“contrasting places”), and utopia, or “the places of what has no place” (1991:163). While the first concept includes rationalized, ordered, homogenized, and comparable spaces and the last one refers to “the non-place, the place for that which doesn’t occur, for that which has no place of its own” (2003:129), heterotopy refers to the ambiguous “space of the other, simultaneously excluded and interwoven” (2003:128). Despite the fact that he differentiated these spaces, Lefebvre insisted that the “isotopy-heterotopy difference can only be understood dynamically” (2003:129). Central to his view of heterotopy is a broader view of urban space as always dynamic, and open for different possibilities. As argued by Harvey (2012), Lefebvre’s notion of heterotopy “delineates liminal spaces of possibility where ‘something different’ is not only possible but foundational for the defining of revolutionary trajectory. This “something different” does not necessarily arise out of conscious planning, but more simply out of what people do, feel, and come to articulate as they seek meaning in their daily lives” (2012: xvii).

Engaging Foucault and Lefebvre persuades me that there are no heterotopias per se but heterotopic spaces. If heterotopias “are not stable entities” but are “contingent qualities” (Johnson 2013:800), then we must not attach an identity to a space, and label it “heterotopia.” Rather than a permanent quality or a fixed feature, it is the use of a particular space that makes it heterotopic. In this sense, no space is inherently, continuously, or fully heterotopia. For a space to be heterotopic, it must be used, I argue, in ways that materialize an alternative vision of society (or parts of it) that contrasts with the present, and that actualize a potential substitute for an existing system, or set of relationships. The success of the protestors in materializing an image of the Egypt they aspired to see in the future was central to their ability to garner broad support that helped them challenge the political regime. Drawing on the testimonies of some journalists, activists, and intellectuals who participated in the protests, the following discussion traces how Tahrir was made and unmade as a heterotopic space.


Midan al-Tahrir

“When people recall their time in Tahrir, many describe living in a utopia where they felt freed from their own circumscribed identities as well as fear from the regime.” (Sowers 2012:5)


Like Soueif (2012), I prefer the Arabic word “midan” to refer to Tahrir because like “piazza, it does not tie you down to shape but describes an open urban space in a central position in a city” (2012:10). Indeed, Midan el-Tahrir is not a square, as often indicated by the English “Tahrir Square,” but is “more like a massive curved rectangle covering about 45,000 square meters and connecting Downtown and older Cairo to the east, with the river and Giza and the newer districts to the west” (Soueif 2012:10). Tahrir, originally named Midan al-Ismailia, after Khedive Ismail, was constructed during the last part of the nineteenth century as part of the Khedive’s interest in Europeanizing Cairo, and regulating its traffic. It became informally known as Midan al-Tahrir after the 1919 revolution against the British but officially earned the name in 1960 (Salama 2013: 130). The Arabic word Tahrir, which literally means liberation, signified freeing the country from colonial and royal rules, became strongly linked to the midan and its spatial and symbolic location in the Egyptian capital.

Over the years, Tahrir became a key part of Cairo’s landscape. Many Egyptians know Tahrir as a busy traffic circle, an open space, and the location of several important buildings. They pass through its metro station, which was until recently the nexus of the Egyptian capital’s metro system, caught a bus or a cab to different parts of Cairo, visit some of its important buildings such as the Muga’mma (a notorious building that houses many government bureaucracies), or cross its busy streets to get to the Nile Corniche for a stroll with friends or relatives on cool evenings. Over time, the midan’s spatial centrality, and historical significance made it an important site of popular gatherings to celebrate, mourn, or protest. Tahrir has been the site of several important protests, such as the 1977 bread uprising (when Egyptians protested President Sadat’s attempts to increase the prices of some basic necessities, including bread), and the 2003 protests against the war in Iraq. So it was not strange that the protestors selected it as the site for their protests on January 25, when thousands moved from different neighborhoods and managed, despite the heavy presence of the police, to march to Tahrir (Hazem Ziada offers a detailed history of the midan, and some interesting photos).

The midan was consolidated as a site with specific boundaries to be protected and maintained after the demonstrators were attacked by a group of baltagiyya (thugs, believed to have been paid or incited by Mubarak’s supporters) on February 2. The attacks were met by strong resistance, and the protestors managed to chase the aggressors away. As I argue elsewhere, these attacks had a profound impact on the feelings and views of many Egyptians, who came to condemn the acts of the government and its hired thugs, and to see the protestors as brave, decent, and reliable individuals who were fighting for the best interests of the country.

These attacks also had a significant impact on the midan, and how it was managed. Since its inception, Tahrir was linked to circulation, openness, and fluidity. Although often constricted by terrible traffic jams, which could be agonizing during the hot summer days, Tahrir has been strongly connected to the movement of peoples and vehicles. Due to its “nine major entry points” (Khalil 2012: 224), the protestors had to find ways to protect Tahrir’s entrances and regulate access to its vicinity. This was an important step in the making of Tahrir a heterotopic space. In the process, the protestors not only obstructed the flow of vehicles but they also re-appropriated downtown Cairo, and made it open for Egyptians to gather, interact, and cooperate.

Fences were erected, makeshift gates were formed, and male and female activists took turns searching bags, verifying identities, and determining who would have access to the square and who would not (see Figure 1). No weapons were allowed and individuals who had connections to the security forces, or who were suspected of being troublemakers were forbidden from entering. This process was highly celebrated by those who inhabited Tahrir. That they searched and were searched, asked for and showed IDs, and treated each other and were treated with politeness have been taken as signs of the civility, order, responsibility, and good citizenship they aspired to see materialize throughout Egypt (Khalil 2012, Soueif 2012, and Rashed 2011). According to one observer, during the last week of the revolution, “Tahrir Square was more secure than most international airports” (Khalil 2012: 248). Yet security was not the only achievement of the enclosure. In addition, it also marked the boundaries between the here and there, the present and future, the real and the imagined. Enclosure helped create a sense of unity and a shared destiny, and facilitated the actualization of a counter arrangement that critiqued existing systems of power, and that offered an alternative vision of the future.
 

 
[Figure 1: Makeshift fences like these continued to be part of Tahrir in July of 2011,
the first time I visited Tahrir after the 25 January revolution.]

 
Making a Heterotopic Space

Here, I find the notion of “heterotopias of compensation” to be a promising concept for understanding how Tahrir came to offer a model of efficiency, reliability, and order that contrasted with the incompetency, corruption, and disorder of the regime. Foucault distinguishes between heterotopias of “illusion,” and heterotopias of “compensation” (2008: 21). While the first type “exposes all real spaces, all the emplacements in the interior of which human life is enclosed and partitioned” (2008: 21), heterotopias of compensation aim to “create another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is disorderly, ill construed, and sketchy” (2008:21).

Through their use of the midan, the protestors managed to connect, and critique multiple spaces such as the neighborhood, the city, and the nation-state, and to mediate the divide between real/not real, present/future, and presence/absence. Their efforts mirrored the ethos that structured life in urban neighborhoods, but extended these ethos beyond the spatial boundaries of the quarter, celebrated the nation, but critiqued the inefficiency of the state, and drew on global media and discourses in the articulation and circulation of their messages, while emphasizing their national belonging and attachment.

Similar to Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussion of carnivalesque, in Tahrir there was a “temporary” suspension of usual hierarchies and norms, and, for at least a while, “established order” was replaced by “a space of freedom,” and the self was “dissolved into a collective spirit” (Johnson 2006: 83). I say “temporary” because my sense is that distinctions based on gender and class were downplayed, but still structured the organization of the midan. There are indications, for example, that working class men took more of the burden of physically confronting potential attackers, while middle and upper middle class men (and women) were blogging, and communicating with national and international media. My data is limited, and does not allow me to say more about this matter. There is a clear need for a thorough exploration of these aspects of the protests, and my preliminary observations need to be verified, and thickly described. Nevertheless, most accounts by the media, protestors, and other scholars emphasize how men and women, young and old, Christians and Muslims, and religious and secular, chanted, ate, cleaned, and lived together. They shared moments of horror and despair, and moments of joy and triumph. They protected each other from the brutality of the police, and the violence of baltagiyya, the thugs who attacked or attempted to attack the midan. Unlike the authoritarian regime, protestors in Tahrir did not have one leader or one spokesperson, but decisions were improvised and implemented collectively. As described by Shokr, “Daily struggles to hold the space and feeds its inhabitants, without the disciplined mechanisms of an organized state, were exercises in democratic process. It was through these everyday practices that Tahrir became a truly radical space.” The protestors were inventive in securing electric and sanitation infrastructure and providing basic services (see BBC interactive map, and Figure 2). Stands selling different foods and drinks proliferated in Tahrir, and family members and friends brought different food and medical supplies. Doctors volunteered their time, and established makeshift clinics to treat the wounded and the sick. Musicians, singers, and actors frequented the midan to sing, play music, and show their support. Barbers volunteered their time to cut hair and trim beards. Couples came to celebrate their weddings. Children were accommodated, and offered areas to draw, and keep themselves busy with crafts.
 

 
[Figure 2: The organization of Tahrir during the protests. BBC Interactive map.]


The energy, solidarity, and determination of the protestors as well as the modality they constituted not only helped dispose of Mubarak, but also invested the midan with powerful positive meanings that could be drawn on to support, and legitimize various struggles and demands. Egyptians with different needs and aspirations have continued to show their discontent by staging demonstrations in Tahrir. At the same time, ordinary Egyptians took daily trips to the midan to gaze, consume, commemorate, memorialize, and take photos (see Figure 3). Egyptian politicians (such as the Prime Minster), and international figures (such as David Cameron, Hilary Clinton, and John Kerry) visited Tahrir to show support for the revolution, and to garner part of the legitimacy and positive energy generated in that space. On June 29, 2012, Muhammad Morsi, the candidate affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was sworn president in Tahrir, and declared the midan the source of “legitimacy and power” (Ramadan 2012:145).

 


[Figure 3: Egyptians, young and old, visited Tahrir in July of 2011
to commemorate, celebrate, gaze, and take photos.]

 
While these visits were on the surface celebrating Tahrir, and the revolution, they in effect marked the beginning of its reappropriation by dominant groups, and its unmaking as a heterotopic space. As emphasized by Lefebvre, heterotopic spaces can be quickly appropriated by dominant groups and “any spontaneous alternative visionary moment is fleeting; if it is not seized at the flood, it will surely pass” (Harvey 2012: xvii). We see this trend in the case of Tahrir, which, after February 2011, became the focus of intense struggles between different competing groups, and was eventually re-appropriated by the dominant political elite. 


Unmaking Heterotopic Space

When we spoke in the summer of 2011, Maha, a twenty year-old activist from a low-income neighborhood, and who participated in the protests from the beginning until the end, was proud of their achievements in Tahrir, but she was also deeply unhappy, and disillusioned with how things were changing in the country. She commented with bitterness on how the faces of protestors in Tahrir had changed, how the unity of the revolutionaries was fragmented, how each group sought to have its day in Tahrir while excluding the others, and how many of the men and women who were the driving force behind the revolution were increasingly excluded from the political process. Some “opportunistic” figures, she emphasized, have been affiliating themselves with Tahrir just to boost their public standing and, in the process, have threatened the legitimacy of the space. She was especially worried about strong counter-revolutionary forces working to undermine the symbolic meaning of Tahrir (amailyat darb ramz), and how SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) was actively trying to discredit the protestors in Tahrir by describing them as troublemakers and baltagiyya, working to sow discord, destabilize the country, and ruin its economic infrastructure. 

All these forces set in motion the unmaking of Tahrir as a heterotopic space. Soon after Mubarak’s fall, a split emerged between the activists. On one side were activists with Islamist leanings (including the Salafi movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, which ended up controlling the People’s Assembly, and winning the presidency), who (at least most of the time) allied themselves with SCAF. On the other side were the secular, socialist, and liberal groups, which sought to continue to protest until the realization of the key goals of the revolution. Both sides tried to claim Tahrir, and use it to articulate their demands, visions, and aspirations. When groups with religious leanings used it on Fridays for massive protests, other activists would express worries, and anxiously joke about how the square was becoming Egypt’s “Tora Bora,” the well-known stronghold of the Taliban in Afghanistan.[[1]] They would worry about the type of authoritarian, and exclusionary society the Islamists sought to constitute. When the other groups used the midan, the Islamists and their allies would claim that the `ilmaniyyin (secularists) “were trying to steal the revolution from the hands of Muslims,” and accused those protesting in Tahrir of “serving American and Western interests,” and of trying to “destroy Egypt” (al-Masry al-Youm 2011: 5). Similar to the accusations directed towards the protestors during the early days of the revolution, Islamists claimed that those in Tahrir were thugs paid 5000 Egyptian pounds a night to create instability and political discord.

Accusations flew in all directions and, over the past three years, Tahir has been viewed as: a moral space used by reliable parties to protect the moral values of the country and create a righteous Muslim community; a site of vice and criminality frequented by street children, vendors, prostitutes, drug dealers, and thugs; a site of legitimate resistance and protest geared to advocate for the good of the whole nation, and the creation of a civil and secular government; and, a space of anarchy and disorder used by political dissidents who are deliberately trying to destabilize the country, undermine its security, and ruin its economy (a discourse deployed by SCAF, supporters of Mubarak’s regime, and the Muslim Brothers when they were in power).

In addition to these competing views, widely disseminated in the media, there were debates and discussions taking place in different circles about the physical and political future of the midan. In fact, architects, planners, and politicians started debating Tahrir, and its future status while the revolution was still underway. Should it be redesigned? Should it be renamed? How to best memorialize the martyrs? Different opinions were expressed. For example, Egypt’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, “in an effort to appease protestors in Tahrir, suggested that the square be transformed into Cairo’s Hyde Park.”

The debates continued under Morsi. Officials and newspapers emphasized the need to clear the vendors, street children, thugs, and drug dealers who frequented the midan, and were seen as tarnishing its name. The government called for transforming Tahrir into a museum that could represent the “glorious past” of the revolution. After the protests against an American movie that was viewed by many Muslims as offensive, and after the protestors managed to climb the walls of the American Embassy, the government decided to take drastic measures to control Tahrir. On 15 September 2012, the Egyptian police forcefully “cleared” Midan al-Tahrir of “the elements that caused disorder” (`anasir el-shaghab). Hundreds of security forces removed the tents and stands used to sell tea, T-shirts, flags, and much more. Newspapers published photos of a sizeable number of policemen taking charge of the midan, blocking its entrances, and ensuring the flow of traffic while workers cleaned the streets, and fixed the pavements and light poles. Morsi’s government wanted to “purify” the midan, and restore its “bright and honorable image that befits the revolution.” Tahrir, the government argued, should become a museum to document, and represent the revolution. The prime minster at the time, Hisham Kandil, announced a plan to renovate the midan, divide it into different parts designated for discussions and deliberations, build a monument and a wall to commemorate those who were killed in the Egyptian revolution, and create an exhibition to display the art work, and play the songs created during the first eighteen days of the protests. In effect, the midan was to become a celebration of the past rather than a heterotopic space for critiquing a problematic present, and imagining an alternative future.

Tahrir and its regulation became central to the attempts of Morsi’s government to establish legitimacy and control. A year of his election, the midan became the center of the massive demonstrations on 30 June 2013, calling for the end of Morsi’s presidency. Tahrir was also the site of another round of public display of support for the army on 26 July 2013, after General Sisi asked Egyptians to go out to the streets to show their support for the armed forces, and its commander in chief. Most recently, Tahrir was the center of joyous celebrations following the election of Sisi as Egypt’s president. Since the inauguration of Sisi, Tahrir has been under the control of security forces, and its entrances are protected by tanks to prevent protestors in general, and Muslim Brothers and their allies in particular, from using its vicinities. What was said about Tahrir before the revolution could be said about it now. The global significance of Tahrir as a site of resistance is interesting to explore but is beyond the scope of this discussion. In the context of Cairo, however, as Gregory shows, the midan has once again been "reduced to a space of circulation not communication, for the traffic of vehicles not ideas, and regulated by the security apparatus not the civic body". In July of 2015, the last time I visited Tahrir, the police and the army tightly controlled it, ensured the flow of the traffic, and restricted the ability of any party to use the midan for protesting. As emphasized in the media, and by several of my interlocutors in Cairo, the control and regulation of Tahrir is strongly linked to the government’s ability to govern and establish order.


Conclusion

Coupling the work of Foucault and Lefebvre offers us a robust analytical concept that can enrich our understanding of urban space, and revolutionary moments. By offering a modality, a counter arrangement, an alternative way of being and doing, heterotopic space reflects, inverts, and reconstitutes social processes. In powerful ways, Tahrir critiqued the existing system that was corrupt, violent, and inefficient, and offered a model that promised to fulfill the aspirations of many Egyptians. Yet it was quickly unmade as a heterotopic space when dominant groups managed to appropriate it, put it to different uses, and invest it with different meanings. While Lefebvre saw heterotopic spaces as providing “the seed-bed of revolutionary movement” (Harvey 2013: xvii), he also emphasized that they could be quickly appropriated by dominant forces. Thinking of heterotopic space as mediating the utopic and isotopic reveals the multiple possibilities embedded in urban encounters, and the new opportunities they offer for the reproduction of power systems, as well as their transformation and reconstitution. Exploring such spaces, and their changing meanings and uses, especially in the constitution of urban publics, is an important part of any adequate understanding of political mobilization, emerging meanings of citizenship, claims to the city, and the relationship between power, space, and resistance.

 


[1] See Ibrahim Isa, Alwan Yaniar (January’s Colors) (Cairo: Dar al-Shorouk, 2012), p.113.

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