IT has become fashionable to refer to the 18-day Egyptian uprising as the “Facebook revolution,” much to the dismay of the protesters who riveted the world with their bravery in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. But revolutions do not happen in cyberspace, even if they start there. What happened in Tahrir Square during the revolution and the protests happening there now show that even in the 21st century, public space remains the most important arena for dissent and social change.
Tahrir Square’s rise to prominence is a testament to how place and history can come together unexpectedly. Although its Arabic name means “liberation,” and although it is one of the oldest squares in modern Cairo, Tahrir never carried much meaning for Cairenes until recently.
In fact, the idea of the public square as we know it today did not exist in Egypt or in the cities of the Middle East until colonial times; open spaces were historically situated in front of the main mosque, to accommodate overflow crowds and religious festivals.
The demonstrations that began in Tahrir Square in January with demands for the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak continue today with protests of the Egyptian military’s management of the revolution’s aftermath. Indeed, the interim Egyptian cabinet recently issued a decree criminalizing demonstrations, on the ground that they disrupt the economy, and two protesters in the square were killed last weekend by security forces.
In many ways, it seems an accident of history that Tahrir Square has become a locus of protest and repression. But a closer look reveals that the square’s geography and structures, including the burned buildings and pockmarked pavements now engraved in the minds of people all over the globe, embody the shifting political currents of modern Egypt as it encountered colonialism, modernism, Pan-Arabism, socialism and neoliberalism.
To the south of the square stands the Mugamma, a bulky, Soviet-style structure that has long been a symbol of Egypt’s monumental bureaucracy. (No Egyptian was able to avoid a trip to that building, in which government offices issued everything from birth certificates to passports.) Overlooking Tahrir Square on the west are the headquarters of the Arab League, with its Islamic architectural motifs, and the former Hilton, the city’s first modern hotel (and soon to be a Ritz-Carlton). Just north of the hotel lies the salmon-colored Egyptian Museum and, behind it, the headquarters for Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, with its monotonous Modernist facade left charred by a fire set during this year’s protests.
The city’s various rulers and regimes, from the pharaohs to Mubarak, have woven themselves in Cairo’s urban fabric. When the Fatimid regime established el-Qahira (Cairo is the Anglicized version of that name) in the 10th century, the Nile ran a different course than it does today. The area that later became Tahrir Square was marshland. By the time Napoleon occupied Cairo at the end of the 18th century, the land had dried up enough to allow the French forces to camp there. But it was not for several decades more, until the time of Muhammad Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, that engineers were able to stabilize the Nile’s banks enough to allow the square to be born as a green field.
The 500-acre open space was home to cultivated fields, gardens and several royal palaces during Khedive Ismail’s reign, from 1863 to 1879. Ismail, the grandson of Muhammad Ali, came to be known as the founder of modern Cairo.
Having lived in Paris as it rebuilt itself into a city of broad boulevards and roundabouts, Ismail embarked on a similar project of modernizing Cairo during the 1860s. Both a district and the square that eventually became Tahrir were initially named Ismailia in his honor.
Ismail’s modernization projects plunged the country into great debt, and he was ousted by foreign forces in 1879. The British occupation of Egypt soon ensued, lasting into the mid-20th century. The British stationed their troops west of the square in Ismailia, in what Egyptians often called the English Barracks.
In the early 20th century, the Ismailia district became downtown Cairo and expanded toward the square, which was redesigned with a roundabout at the southern end to improve the flow of cars. A few decades later, during the reign of King Farouk, the square acquired a large empty pedestal that Cairenes who lived through those years still remember with great nostalgia. Farouk had commissioned a statue of his grandfather, Khedive Ismail, but by the time it arrived years later, reverence for the monarchy had given way to the Egyptian Republic and nascent Pan-Arabism — and the statue never took its place on that pedestal. The Arab League headquarters, a symbol of this new era and ideology, was constructed at the western side of the square and became a monument to the dream of Arab unity.
The square witnessed its first demonstrations on Feb. 11, 1946, when opposition to the British presence in Egypt led to protests and skirmishes with the police, resulting in the death of two dozen Egyptians. Dissatisfaction with King Farouk’s government brought protests that ignited the Great Fire of Cairo on Jan. 25, 1952. A few buildings in the square were casualties of the blaze. (On the same day, 59 years later, Egyptians descended upon Tahrir Square in unprecedented numbers to protest their government.)
The 1952 fire was a precursor to an army coup, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, which transformed Egypt from a sleepy kingdom into a revolutionary anti-imperialist republic. In the following decade, Nasser’s government issued a decree changing the name of the square from Ismailia to Tahrir to commemorate the departure of the British from Egypt.
In 1959, the Nile Hilton opened on the site of the former English Barracks, inaugurating the era of mass tourism in Egypt. Next to it was a building that became the headquarters of Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union, the party that governed Egypt as a police state for much of his rule. This was the same building that Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party later inherited as its headquarters.
After Nasser’s death in 1970, President Anwar el-Sadat renamed Tahrir for his predecessor and rumor had it that a statue of Nasser would sit atop the pedestal once intended for Khedive Ismail — but the name never stuck and the statue never came.
The unoccupied pedestal remained in the square until the mid-1970s, when construction of a station for the Cairo metro system necessitated its removal. Its pieces now lie forgotten in a storage yard on the outskirts of Cairo.
Today, as the dust settles over the few remaining tents and the scarred sidewalks of Tahrir Square, a quiet revolution is taking place in all sectors of Egyptian urban life — one that has largely gone unnoticed. Students in schools and universities are demanding a say in their curriculum, government employees are refusing to work unless given raises, many of the Islamist activists and fundamentalists who have been jailed for decades have been released and now make regular television appearances, and the despised police have been replaced by soldiers serving as traffic cops. The neighborhood watch groups and committees that sprung up during the revolution to coordinate security and deliver services have also disappeared now that most people have gone back to work.
For a city of more than 11 million people, this new order could be a recipe for instability or it could usher in a new era of democratic participation. When I visited Tahrir Square a few weeks ago, the situation was volatile and the euphoria of the revolution had subsided. The mood of the city remains tense, and many Cairenes are realizing that the military, which is heavily invested in the Egyptian economy and unwilling to tolerate dissent or criticism of its behavior, is not on their side. The slogan chanted during the revolution — “The people and the army are one hand!” — now rings hollow.
The Egyptian people have long accepted July 23, 1952, as their day of revolution, but they never recognized Tahrir Square as the symbol of their liberation. That changed on Jan. 25. But the new government’s crackdown on protests may yet deny Tahrir Square the name that it has finally earned. We can only hope that the Egyptians who massed in the square to demand their rights will be able to reclaim that name before Tahrir simply becomes yet another Martyrs’ Square.
Nezar AlSayyad, a professor of architecture, planning and urban history and the chairman of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of “Cairo: Histories of a City.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 14, 2011, on Page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Cairo’s Roundabout Revolution.