Is there a way to write about Tahrir as a distant observer? I do not know.
My way is to put Tahrir in the set of cities, at once protagonists and stages of the revolutions and upheavals that took place from 2010 to 2019. Cruel Cities is the project I am working on since I started writing my book on Jerusalem. “My first” cruel city depicted in Jerusalem without God. Portrait of a Cruel City (AUC Press). I will continue my unusual journey through Algiers, Beirut, Cairo, as part of the project I started to develop during my stay at Civitella Ranieri castle as CR Fellow.
Here are some brief thoughts on Tahrir, public space, political space, revolutions. And Alaa.
#25jan #FreeAlaa #FreeThemAll
THINKING ABOUT THE SQUARE
“What do we do in the square? Well, we meet, we eat, we sleep, we talk, we pray, we chant, we sing, we expend energy and ideas in order to sustain ourselves, we cheer at a wedding and weep in a funeral, we express our ideas, our dreams, our identities, we quarrel sometimes, sometimes we’re at a loss and confused, searching for the future, we spend each day as it comes, not knowing what the future hides for us.
Is this not what we do outside the square? Nothing is exceptional in the square except our togetherness. Out of the square we believe we’re happy at a wedding because we know the bride and groom, in the square we rejoiced at the wedding of strangers and celebrated. Out of the square we believe we grieve at a funeral because we know the deceased, in the square we grieved for strangers and prayed for them.
Nothing is new in the square except that we surround ourselves with the love of strangers. ….
We go to the square to discover that we love life outside it, that our love for life is resistance. We race towards the bullets because we love life, and we walk into prison because we love freedom”.
These powerful words are not mine, of course. They are the words of, arguably, the most high profile political prisoner in the entire Arab world, Alaa Abdel Fattah. The leading figure of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. These words are part of his article published in the Egyptian daily al Shorouk in December 2011, few months after the epical 18 days’ revolt in Tahrir.
Tahrir. The Square, in fact. But Alaa Abdel Fattah wrote these words in prison, Tora, the same prison where he is jailed now in Cairo.
Bodies are away from the Square. Bodies of revolutionaries, like Alaa’s, are taken away from the square, the street, the life in freedom. As dozens of thousands of others, his body, their bodies are invisible behind the wall of Tora and the other prisons.
It is alienating to read, after our first pandemic of the Third Millennium, words about a multitude of people in an enclosed place, a square. Strange that Alaa describes how they shared life, celebrations, quarrels and joy, side by side.
Remember? The year was 2011 in Cairo. But the year was 2019, in the Spring, for the hirak, the popular revolt in Algiers. And the year was 2019, in autumn, for the thawra, revolution in Beirut.
A distant past, for us all. Especially for Alaa.
Almost forty years old, Alaa Abd el-Fattah is an Egyptian writer, technologist and political activist. He has been prosecuted or arrested by every Egyptian regime in his lifetime and has been held in prison for all but a few months since the coup d’état of 2013.
Alaa is one of the protagonists of my research on the Cruel Cities, as I call the political resignification of urban space in the MENA region in the last ten years. The renewed, the reinvented “right to the city” in the Arab world.
Upheavals have torn open and asunder the geography of the Middle East and North Africa. Upheavals punctuated history during the last decade, resonating the cry and the demand for a different urban and political paradigm. Cities with a complex, extremely stratified and burdensome history have become the stage of numerous highly innovative, critical acts of repossession of urban spaces.
Algiers, Beirut, Cairo, Tunis, Baghdad, Sanaa witnessed the occupation of their historical squares, streets, buildings. Citizens and inhabitants, squatters and impoverished middle class reclaimed their city centers as their political space, revealing the fracture between the political/economic èlites and “the city”.
The reconfiguration of the urban space is pivotal in the Mediterranean area, as it will set the future of its most important cities along its southern and even northern shores. In fact, the Covid pandemic will likely reshape the neoliberal urban structure that left its mark on cities’ recent history.
The first outcome of my Cruel Cities’ project is my book on Jerusalem published in 2017 (English version), Jerusalem without God. Portrait of a Cruel City (AUC Press).
And in Jerusalem, the city that was my beloved home for 10 years, I discovered that the inspiration I tend to are the angels immortalized by Wim Wenders in that masterpiece of European cinema– Wings of Desire, Der Himmel über Berlin – a cult film for my generation. Damiel and Cassel, the two angels, gather the silent and remote thoughts of individuals, in order to gather the soul of cities and places.
FROM TAHRIR TO TAHRIR TO TAHRIR
At the beginning of April, 2021, Egyptians witnessed a pharaonic procession in Cairo. 22 mummies – 18 kings and four queens – were transported from the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square and relocated far from the historical center of the capital.
Away from the city center. Away, I would add, from The City.
The mummies of the ancient queens and kings have been relocated far away from the very heart of Cairo, far away from the Orientalist museum built exactly 120 years ago by an Italian construction firm, Garozzo Zaffarani. But also, far away from the vibrant and popular Downtown Cairo. They are now in the brand-new Museum of the Ancient Civilization, near the Giza Pyramids
Tourists and travel agents will not need to confront themselves with the inscrutable chaos of the Egyptian megalopolis. Umm al dunya, the Mother of the Earth, the Mother of the World, as the Egyptians will call their city, ambiguously confused with Egypt and their national identity.
No dust anymore, and the unbearable traffic, and the crowded sidewalks, and the extreme poverty that surfaces abruptly at any corner, bridge, square, alley, kiosk.
Tourists will not see any more the suffering humanity. Mummies and canopic jars will be exposed in a shimmery sanitized environment.
Away from the city. In an extremely different way, mummies and their neighbors, the inhabitants of Maspero, share the same fate. Relocation. The mummies at Giza. The poor people of the Maspero neighborhood even further, at the Asmarat social housing neighborhood. Far from their place of birth and their informal, poor business, as many of them are street vendors.
Nothing new, I would say. In many megalopolises, but also in my hometown, Rome, people were and are relocated for paving the way to new urban planning or gentrification of very central areas.
It is the case of the Maspero’s inhabitants. Maspero is a central neighborhood that stretches from the old Italian consulate, the Boulaq area, the Egyptian Museum up to the backyard of two of the most important official buildings in Cairo, the State Radio-television building, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs skyscraper. Actually, Maspero “stretched”. The so called Maspero poorest area is not anymore. It has been demolished to pave the way to the Maspero Triangle megaproject, developed by Forster and Partners. A Dubai-model new gentrified area with offices, residential buildings for the upper class, shopping malls, another sanitized environment surrounding the two institutional landmarks, the State Tv Building and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Here, in Maspero, starts the resignification process in Downtown Cairo. The name of Maspero has been associated, since October 2011, while the Egyptian revolution was still ongoing, to the massacre of 26 protesters, all Christian Copts, hit by the APCs, the military armored cars. In that moment, the honeymoon between the Egyptian Army and the revolutionaries – the Army, the People, one hand, the same hand, was the slogan at that time – ended in blood.
So, the new project meets two objectives. The first is to associate Maspero to the new Cairene brand, closer to the Gulf shimmery model, than to the old traditional Cairo middle class brand. We all witnessed similar real estate projects in Amman and in Beirut, for example. The second goal is to relocate the “informality”, that means the large informal part of the Egyptian society. In fact, the Maspero inhabitants (almost twenty thousand) were extremely important in supporting the 2011 revolution. They were the protagonists of the so-called street politics in Cairo.
I share here the questions of Dina Wahba, intellectual and scholar:
“What happens to “street politics” when the urban subaltern loses the “political street”. Reflecting on the case of Maspero neighbourhood, What happens to the politics of the urban poor when they lose their “capital”? And, what kind of political and spatial affects are tied to this dispossession? “
Far away from the city. Far away from Tahrir.
The Egyptian regime needs to resignify the square, inseparably linked to the 2011 Egyptian, the most important of the Arab revolutions that started in Tunisia in 2010 and continued up to 2019 in Algiers, Baghdad, Beirut, Khartoum. The Egyptian regime born in 2013 from a coup needs to resignify the Square, as the 2011 revolution itself transformed the Tahrir area, a squared area that start from the Corniche along the Nile, then flanks the Egyptian museum and 19th-century Downtown Cairo, the historical seat of the American University of Cairo till the proper Liberation Square, i.e. Tahrir, the seat of the Arab League up to the Lions’ Bridge and the five stars hotels nearby.
But, is it possible to resignify Tahrir after Tahrir? Is it possible to give to The Square another meaning? The Golden Parade served the purpose. In the Egyptian imagery only Ancient Egypt and its pride can compete with the Tahrir revolution and its pride to be part of the Square and the uprising for bread and dignity.
Before the Golden Parade, the Egyptian regime used different tools. It closed for years the Sadat metro station; the station closer to Tahrir. Works for beautifying the square went on for years. They were attempts to liberate the Liberation square from squatting, walking, sitting, relaxing, and to re-transform the Square in a banal roundabout. As it used to be for years before the Revolution.
But I think that there is another strategy pursued by the authorities. It relates to the relocation of the signs of the power, as architectural signs intrinsically connected with the Power were affected by the Revolution. Let me share three examples.
The first is the NDP building, the overwhelming edifice set on fire during the 18 days epic part of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, from January 25th till February 11th. The building was the symbol of Mubarak era and the relation between the Party-State and the tycoons linked to Mubarak-led apparatus. In fact, the building hosted the National Democratic Party headquarters, id est the Party-State lead by Hosni Mubarak and, at that time, on the verge to be inherited by the Egyptian president scion, Gamal Mubarak. The NDP building has been set on fire and some years ago completely demolished.
The second landmark is the Mogamma, the enormous modernist building that hosted the ministry of Interiors’ administrative offices since its construction, at the end of 1940s, after the end of the British Mandate and before the Free Officials military coup in 1952.
It is difficult to describe how deeply the Mogamma affected the lives of the Egyptian people. A working place for 30.000 public employees, while dozens of thousands of individuals, Egyptian and foreigners, tried to reach their goal – a driver licence, a visa, an administrative paper – along its dirty corridors and gloomy offices.
As the writer Khaled Diab wrote in a poignant definition of the Mogamma, Mogammaesque is the Egyptian translation of Kafkaesque
“It can only be described as “mogammaesque”: one measure Kafka, one part Orwell, with a liberal dose of Magritte’s surrealism and a dash of native wit. The Mogamma is real-life black comedy coloured by the irrepressible light-heartedness of Egypt”.
The most hated building, the high temple of the Egyptian bureaucracy, the place from where snipers shot and killed the protesters in Tahrir is not anymore a symbol of the suffocating bureaucracy. It will become probably a hotel. Or, who knows… It will remain, anyway, as the ghost of an oppressive regime.
The government plans to relocate its offices in the New Administrative Capital, 45 km far from the center of Cairo eastwards. The new capital under construction on the outskirts of Cairo is expected to house 6.5 million people in a range of luxury and affordable housing options.
The mega-project is part of a massive urban planning effort to move away the signs of power, and the power itself, far from the city. Indeed, the regime is attempting to radically alter the national urban landscape with a special emphasis on Cairo. Accoding to the Egyptian authorities, relocation would minimise the impact of mass urban disturbances, while allowing them to unleash massive repression if they will consider it necessary.
La foto: una delle immagini più belle di Tahrir, nello scatto del grande Eduardo Castaldo