Planning and Execution

Infrastructural changes around Tahrir Square reflect Egyptian politics

01 January, 2016

I reported from a protest at Tahrir Square, in the historic centre of Cairo, on 29 January 2011, just days into a mass movement that ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak, a strongman president who had ruled Egypt for 30 years. The army was called in to stem the uprising after the swelling number of protestors had made the police withdraw from the streets on the previous day. Over the next few days, with Tahrir becoming the symbolic heart of the uprising, a sea of demonstrators occupied the square, and the area filled up with tents and banners. The mood was excited and confused. Many of those I spoke to were unsure what to make of the army, which had been sympathetic to the protestors.

In the years of political turmoil that followed, I covered nearly every protest at Tahrir—“liberation” in Arabic. Through late 2012 and into early 2013, the square was filled with banners and tents again, but the protesters had changed, and so had the enemy. This time, they were demanding the resignation of Mohamed Morsi, the new president and a member of an Islamic political group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi was deposed in July 2013, by order of the military, and an unelected, army-led government took over. Afterwards, a monument commemorating all the “martyrs” of the protest movements was installed in the square.

Today, though, protests are not troubling Tahrir anymore, and the state is in complete control of the square. It sees noticeably fewer people and cars, the street vendors who once occupied its pavements have been kicked out, and the monument remembering fallen protestors has been replaced by a towering pole bearing an Egyptian flag. Political graffiti that once documented the uprisings has almost all been wiped away. The little that remains is on a single wall on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, just off the square, bearing the faces of some of the protest casualties. Right besides those are freshly carved plaques, in English and Arabic, stating that the message of Egypt’s three major religions—Christianity, Islam and Judaism—is “peace.”

These are, in part, the results of a slew of infrastructural and administrative changes in and around Tahrir. Since 2013, the area has seen the opening of a new underground car park, the renovation of numerous buildings, and measures to limit both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Omar Nagati, a co-founder of a Cairo-based architecture and design lab, told me last month that “you can’t really even sit anywhere now in Tahrir square—there’s no space left to gather, except at the small green triangle next to the roundabout.”

Protests are not troubling Tahrir anymore, and the state is in complete control of the square. ASMAA WAGUIH/ REUTERS

The ongoing transformation is an exercise in city management, but, Nagati said, there is more to it than just that. Urban planning, he explained, is always political, since it attempts to “control, limit or enable what happens on the street.” With Tahrir, Cairo’s authorities have two overlapping agendas: to make the square and its surroundings more appealing to business and tourism, and to increase security forces’ control over the area. These goals, in turn, reflect the priorities of the army-led regime. The new government is cultivating a technocratic, pro-business image, and officials have spoken of replacing past “instability” with “economic growth” and “prosperity.” Simultaneously, the regime has worked to limit civil liberties. Ruling without a parliament, it has issued a number of “anti-terrorism” decrees that restrict protest. The media, not wanting to be seen as destabilising the country, has been largely supportive of the government. Meanwhile, state-sponsored violence has become all too common.

A massive protest against the army, organised in August 2013 by those seeking Morsi’s return, was brutally repressed, resulting in many hundreds of deaths. In Cairo, the centre of these demonstrations was Rabaa Square, in the east of the city, as Tahrir had already been overrun by army supporters. On 6 October 2013, an anti-army march heading towards Tahrir was violently dispersed before it could reach the square. This proved to be the last such major demonstration, and hundreds of opponents of the government have since been imprisoned. On the third anniversary of the 2011 revolution, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and opponents of both the islamists and the military, clashed with security forces on Cairo’s outskirts, and over a hundred people were killed. In January 2015, the activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh was shot dead by police a few hundred metres from Tahrir, during a peaceful march to the square to commemorate the 2011 movement.

In early December, I met Mahmoud Hammam, a former co-owner of a coffee shop-cum-bookstore called Horouf, at a café located a short walk from Tahrir. Horouf—which translates to “letters”—operated in Borsa, an area just off of the square, and was a popular hangout for activists and artists. “The police came and closed Horouf down last October,” Hammam told me, making it one of many such gathering places forced to shut since 2013. “It looks like they didn’t want anything to remain open in Borsa, the area is too sensitive.” Hammam did not plan on applying for a licence to reopen the establishment, because he didn’t expect he would get the necessary security clearance. “I don’t know if they want to kick everyone out of downtown because they don’t want political activity,” he said, “or if it’s because they want it empty to make it easier for real-estate developers.”

Ahmed Zaazaa, an architect I spoke to over the phone, echoed Hammam’s concerns. “Egypt’s richest family, the Sawiris, also had an interest in real-estate projects in downtown,” he told me. “There was this huge plan, Cairo 2050, which was presented by the minister of housing.” That presentation showed “blonde women trotting around with blonde children,” Zaazaa said with a chuckle. “Clearly that city was not planned for us.” He added that the government is especially distrustful of young people, and of the poor.

But not everyone is unhappy with the gentrification of the area. The same day I spoke to Zaazaa, I emailed Ahmed al-Alfi, the head of GrEEK Campus, one of a mushrooming number of technology start-ups now based around Tahrir. He wrote that he chose the place “because it’s conveniently located in the centre.” Initially, he told me, he wanted to name his start-up the Tahrir Alley Technology Park, but he junked the title “to not bring politics into work.” He had no illusions about the new norms of working near the square. “These are the rules,” he wrote. “No religion, no politics.”