The Virtual Square: Urban Space, Media, and the Egyptian Uprising

By Alsayyad, Nezar | Harvard International Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The Virtual Square: Urban Space, Media, and the Egyptian Uprising


Alsayyad, Nezar, Harvard International Review


Perhaps no one could have predicted that a single uprising, which began in a small town in Tunisia, would have spread to major cities in Egy pt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria in a span of just three months. Nor was it evident that the self-immolation of Mohamed Bou Azizi in front of a local municipal office in Sidi Bouzid would have sparked the Tunisian revolution that overthrew President Ben Ali in a span of two weeks.

The upheaval in Tunisia as well as the desperate image of Mohamed Bou Azizi's self-immolation had repercussions in Egypt. Many Egyptians felt embarrassed that tiny Tunisia could act so boldly while they were still unable to challenge their own repressive regime. On January 25, 2011, ten days after the overthrow of Ben Ali, the world witnessed the beginning of a massive uprising in Egypt. To protest the brutality of the Egyptian police, a demonstration was called for by a few cyber activists who had organized minor demonstrations in the previous years. they scheduled it to coincide with National Police Day, January 25, an official government holiday. As journalist Ahmed Zaki Osman explained the day before the uprisings, January 25, which was dedicated to celebrating the role of the police in the nationalization of the Suez Canal some 50 years earlier, had ironically been revived as a national day in 2009 by the government of President Ilosni Mubarak to recognize the current efforts of the Egyptian police to maintain security and stability in Egypt. Responding to calls for democracy and justice, thousands of protesters marched to Tahrir square in Cairo, while others took to the streets of Alexandria, Aswan, Ismailia, and Suez.

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Tahrir Square and the Uprising

Centrally located in a city of more than fifteen million inhabitants, Tahrir Square is one of the oldest squares in modern Cairo. It came into existence 140 years ago under the rule of Khedive Ismail, the founder of modern Cairo, and was named after him, "Ismailia Square," for a little less than a century. Those who have studied the history of Egypt may not be able to resist comparing the recent uprising with another event that occurred 60 years earlier and almost on the same day. In a strange parallel, popular dissatisfaction with King Farouk's government back then brought about another set of protests that resulted in the Great Fire of Cairo in 1952. The fire was in fact a precursor to the military7 coup led by Gamal Abdul Nasser on July 23rd that transformed Egypt from a sleepy kingdom into a revolutionary republic. In the following decade, the government of President Nasser issued a decree changing the name of the square to "Tahrir Square," meaning liberation, in a gesture intended to commemorate the departure of the British forces from Egypt. The new name quickly gained currency but it did not carry much meaning for Cairenes. That is, of course, until the events of last year.

Incidentally, the youth who started the 2011 uprising by occupying the roundabout in the middle of the square may not have been aware of its history. Since the late 1940s, a pedestal stood at the center of the roundabout awaiting a statue of Ismail. The statue was never placed there as the 1952 coup brought an end to the monarchy. Nasser would later leave the pedestal empty as a reminder of the failure of Egypt's old regime. Today, in Tahrir Square, the tents erected by the protesters in the roundabout--where the pedestal once stood--still stand more than a year after the uprising. This action signifies yet another stage in the long history of Tahrir Square but one in which the meaning of this urban space was shaped by the actions of the Egyptian people.

The story of the protests in Cairo is an important one to decipher here not only to understand the so-called Arab Spring but also to interpret the changes that have occurred in Arab cities as a result of these uprisings. For example, many small groups had been protesting in Cairo and in Tahrir Square itself for years before the uprising but with little effect. …

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