Over the course of the first year of the January 25 Revolution, some public squares have become symbols of revolution, while others have come to represent support for the transitional military regime.
Space is never something that people simply use; we make meaning out of space through how we use it. And Egypt`s revolution has seen a transformation in public space. That it is no longer surprising to see public walls adorned with political graffiti—even those of Cairo’s Supreme Court or administrative Mogamma building—speaks powerfully to this geographic transformation and to public space both as a site and an instrument of revolutionary struggle.
This transformation has taken place against a backdrop of urban planning that sought to limit the availability of open spaces in which citizens might congregate, while deveoping gated communities for the wealthy that, along with exclusive parks, have constituted a tend towards the privatisation of space.
Emergency laws in place since Mubarak came to power and renewed periodically (most recently in September by the ruling military council) criminalize gatherings of more than just a few people. So, in this sense, public space does not belong to the public at all. The January 25 Revolution can be seen in part as a re-appropriation of public space, indicative of the public`s refusal to concede the streets and squares to the dictates of the security apparatus.
People all over the world have by now heard of Egypt’s Tahrir Square, which has become a symbol not only of Egypt`s revolution but of the resilience of "the people" against state power. References to Tahrir in banners seen at Madrid`s 15 May demonstrations, at Occupy Wall Street, and even on a street sign at Occupy London reflect this awareness. And Tahrir continues to be a site of demonstrations and sit-ins, as well as state brutality against protesters.
When people chant that they are going back to "the square" or that legitimacy comes from "the square" in protest against the appointment of Mubarak-era Kamal Ganzouri as Prime Minister, it is understood by all that the boundaries of Tahrir transcend the square in downtown Cairo. What is invoked are the dreams and demands of the revolution, namely bread, freedom, and social justice.
Sometimes, some forget that Tahrir Square is a key symbol of the revolution. And while it was certainly the revolution’s physical epicentre, it was not and is not the revolution itself, however. The revolution was and continues to be waged, fought, and defended way beyond Tahrir. Arbaeen Square and Qa`id Ibrahim Square far from Cairo have also gained symbolic status as sites of revolutionary struggle and popular anger. Testament to the symbolic potency of Tahrir Square, Arbaeen Square is often described as the Tahrir of Suez, while Qaid Ibrahim Square is refered to as Alexandria’s Tahrir.
The port city of Suez, considered by many as one of the key engines of the revolution, has long been a site of resistance. It is an important locus of Egyptian workers` struggles. Moreover, the last major battle of the 1973 war took place in Suez, with Arbaeen Square filled with soldiers and civilians defending the city against Israeli forces.
Some of the fiercest fighting during the eight-day uprising took place in Suez, and the first martyr of the revolution was killed there. On 28 January 2011—the “day of rage”—protesters torched the notorious Arbaeen police station. This followed the heels of three days of attacks on demonstrations, leading to the murder and arrest of hundreds of protesters. Several police stations were attacked throughout the country on that day too. The burnt-out shell of Arbaeen police station is now adorned with graffiti blasting the regime, while glorifying the revolution.
Protesters have returned to Arbaeen Square for various activities during the past year, ranging from staging sit-ins to protest the bailed release of officers accused of killing protesters to thousands flocking there upon hearing of clashes breaking out last November in Tahrir Square.
Qaid Ibrahim Square in Alexandria, meanwhile, has witnessed revolutionary protests by hundreds of thousands in the past year. It takes its name from a nearby mosque, whose imam, Sheikh Ahmad el-Mahalawy, was banned from preaching several years ago because his sermons attacked the Mubarak regime. In 2011, el-Mahalawy delivered his first sermon since he was banned, and it was devoted to the value of freedom.
Marches from Qaid Ibrahim Square to police headquarters a few kilometres away have been particularly poignant, as it was in Alexandria that the Khaled Said met a brutal end to his youth at the hands of the police in 2010. His death became a galvanizing symbol in the months before the revolution, not only of police brutality but also of all that was (and is) wrong with the regime. Protesters have returned to Qaid Ibrahim Square time and time again, from a sit-in in July to enormous protests in November 2011.
Tahrir, Arbaeen and Qa`id Ibrahim have together become indelibly imprinted into Egyptian’s collective consciousness. However, other places have different uses or connotations.
The past year has been littered with attacks on protesters, and these attacks are now known by where they occurred. So Egyptians might refer to "before or after Maspero", in reference to the targeted killing of protesters demanding rights for Copts in October 2011. Or they might refer to Mohamed Mahmoud, in reference to the five days of fighting when dozens were killed, thousands were wounded, and many were blinded in one or both eyes. Places have become markers of revolutionary time.
Alternatively, the squares of Abbasiyya and Mostafa Mahmoud habe both been associated with anti-revolution demonstrations. While large demonstrations began from Mostafa Mahmoud in Mohandiseen during the eighteen days of protest, this square nevertheless quickly became associated with support for the deposed president Mubarak. It was a site of demonstrations and sit-ins where posters bearing Mubarak`s face became common. It became a symbol of the counter-revolution.
After a march in July from Tahrir Square to the Ministry of Defence in Abbasiyya was stopped after being attacked by baltagiyya (paid thugs), the spatial focus of counter-revolutionary space shifted from Mostafa Mahmoud to Abbasiyya. Abbasiyya residents soon came to be seen as "honourable citizens" who did and would protect the army and country from the chaos that demonstrators wanted to wreak. Yet those who threw water from their Abbasiyya balconies upon protesters on a hot July day have been dissimulated, lost from this pro-regime narrative. And since then, whenever there is a large gathering at Tahrir, there is a smaller counter-gathering at Abbasiyya to proclaim support for the transitional military council and antipathy towards revolutionaries.
However, what Mostafa Mahmoud and Abbasiyya have come to represent has been profoundly contested. After the focus shifted to Abbassiyya as a symbol of regime support, several revolutionary marches made their way to Tahrir from Mostafa Mahmoud in order to reclaim a former symbol of the counter-revolution. Notably, in early December 2011, a large march for the January 25 Revolution`s martyrs set out purposefully from Mostafa Mahmoud, and several protesters wore eye patches in solidarity with those shot in the eye only days before at Mohamed Mahmoud.
Unhappy with the association between Abbassiyya and support for the military council, a group of Abassiyya residents set up a Facebook group to voice their support for revolutionary demands. After a silent rally in the area in December, the number of “likes” on their Facebook page shot up to 14,000. And this January 2012, these residents went one step further by organising a public screening of footage showcasing military aggression against protesters in Abassiyya and beyond. A couple hundred people were in attendance during the screening, though they were unfortunately eventually attacked. Regardless, these Abassiyya residents were able to pull off their own initiative by using their streets as a site of revolutionary protest and commemoration.
Collectively, these meyadeen (squares) are indeed public spaces, though not "streets". And it is partly the recognition of this distinction that led to a grassroots initiative, Kazeboon (Liars), which takes its name from the now-iconic photo of a woman partially-stripped and beaten by soldiers in Tahrir Square in December 2011. Aware that footage and photos of the military`s brutal treatment of protesters are available online, Kazaboon has taken video evidence from the squares to the streets because the group recognizes that many Egyptians may not have seen this evidence and therefore may still believe the military council`s claim to be the “guardian of the revolution”. In the past few weeks, Kazeboon have staged successfully screenings throughout Cairo and beyond, from middle-class to working-class districts, and even on the streets of Abbasiyya despite the use of these spaces by the counter-revolution.
In sum, the battle to reclaim public space, both squares and streets, is part of the ongoing Egyptian revolution. It is not simply a battle for twenty-first century space. It is a quest to put the demands of "the people" above and beyond the demands of a "transitional" military regime that seeks stability for the few and hardship for the many. For the first time in years, squares across the country have again become real public spaces, places where citizens can meet to protest, exchange ideas, cooperate, make art, sing, chant, and dialogue. They have become physical manifestations of a different Egypt. The names of these squares are sure to go down in history, even as they continue to witness yet more history-making in the months ahead.
[This article was originally published on Ahram Online.]