Tales from Two Cities: Tunis and Cairo
Urban Crossroads #114


Egyptians congregating in Tahrir Square, Cairo. (AP photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill.)

Over the past few weeks, we all have been glued to media outlets following up on how the people in countries in the Arab World broke the barrier of fear and rose up, demanding their freedom and dignity, and calling for democracy.

Much has been said about those unfolding historic events, and much more still will be said. As someone interested in the making of the city, my remarks will deal with the relation between these popular uprisings and the city, particularly Tunis and Cairo. Anyone watching the footage of events in them couldn't but notice the intimate connection between these uprisings and specific spaces and places of the city.

In Tunis, a main location of the people's revolution has been Habib Bourqiba Avenue, the wide, tree-lined thoroughfare dating back to the French Colonial period. It is a monumental space with wide sidewalks that extends about 1.6 kilometers in length. Its western end is where modern Tunis meets the traditional Medina.

In Cairo, few scenes are as memorable as that of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians congregating in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, transforming it into a nucleus for a new Egypt in the making. The square was created when Cairo was remade along the model of Paris during the 1860s and 1870s under the orders of Egypt's ruler Khedive Ismail.

Other places at which Cairenes have gathered during their revolution include Tal'at Harb Square, named after the famed early-20th-century Egyptian industrialist and nationalist. Another location is the Egyptian Radio and Television building, also known as Maspero, after the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero. The landmark modernist highrise building, which was completed in 1960, is prominently located in Cairo along the Nile. And of course, there is the Presidential Palace in the Cairene suburb of Heliopolis. The complex used to be the luxurious Heliopolis Palace Hotel. When completed in 1910, it was the world's largest hotel. All these spaces and landmarks cannot be separated from the momentous events that took place in these two cities.

Cities need spaces and places where people can come together to express opinions and exchange ideas. Repressive regimes prohibit such a use of spaces and places, as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt. They do not allow people to congregate en masse in public spaces, except to take part in government-controlled events. They also do not allow the free expression of opinions in other locations where people come together such as universities and lecture halls. Moreover, what is presented in local radio and television is controlled by the state, and these therefore cannot function as free forums for presenting and debating ideas. This is why protesters in Cairo demonstrated in front of the Radio and Television building; it was a primary symbol of state repression.

The one urban place the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia could not completely control as a place of congregation is the mosque. The mosque is the main architectural representative of Islam, and forms a main and integral component of the identity of the countries of the Arab World. The mosque is accessible to all and is open at all times. It is difficult for the modern state to control an institution that has been a part of society's fabric for centuries.

The state nonetheless has tried to do so in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. It often has succeeded in controlling what takes place in the mosque. This control, however, has never been complete, and the mosque emerged as the main location where a degree of independence from the domination of the state could exist. Accordingly, people have come to expect much of the mosque as a place for political activism. It has become the place where most political dissent has concentrated. These developments also have meant that the mosque has emerged as a place where the political has come to be emphasized more than the spiritual. In many cases, it also has become a radicalized place.

The political discourse in cities such as Cairo and Tunis therefore ended up being dominated by two competing forces: an oppressive regime and radical religious movements. Some supported one side over the other; some accepted the control of one side rather than the other. Most simply surrendered to this difficult polarized reality, retreating into apathy and alienation. This was reflected in their interaction with the city, and was most clearly evident in Cairo. Cairo had been the uncontested cosmopolitan center of the modern Arab World until the middle of the twentieth century. Since then, however, it has sadly succumbed to fatigue, suffering from mismanagement and a crumbling, dysfunctional infrastructure.

As this state of despair suffocated the city and its people, a fascinating development that has transformed what was a hopeless situation began to quietly take place. For over a decade, virtual spaces have been evolving on the Internet. These virtual spaces have been filling the gap left by the absence of physical communal spaces and places in the city where a free expression and exchange of ideas should have taken place. The growth of these virtual spaces was made possible by email, web sites, and, later on, by social networking sites such as Facebook. Users of these services could easily connect to large numbers of people who shared their interests, hopes, and concerns.

Many of these users have consisted of the young. Most are not bound by any political ideologies. The virtual spaces they created were too new, too diverse, and too widespread to be effectively monitored or controlled by the state. Moreover, the Internet has connected those younger users to the outside world. It connected them to global political, cultural, and social developments that are far more diverse than what they have directly experienced in their physical surroundings. The Internet and the virtual spaces these users created have also provided them with a sense of freedom not available in their physical surroundings. Once they tasted that freedom, they would not give it up. Through this freedom, they were exposed to alternatives to the prevailing political landscape dominated by a repressive regime, with the only serious challenge to it coming from radical religious movements.

Eventually, the users of those virtual communities felt the need to go beyond inhabiting a virtual world. They decided to move into the physical world of cities. They did so by peacefully congregating into the major spaces of the city, taking them over and transforming them into places where city residents can freely congregate and interact. They also showed a sense of ownership of these spaces and took responsibility for them. In the case of Cairo, the demonstrators showed that the alienation and hopelessness that had characterized the relationship with the city could be reversed. In the urban microcosm they created in Tahrir Square, they themselves cleaned the area, recycled the garbage, and established a clinic, a pharmacy, and a kindergarten. After the main protests were over, they even cleaned the graffiti they had painted in the square. Alienation was replaced by a sense of belonging and by pride.

Every city needs spaces and places where people may congregate and where they may freely and peacefully express and exchange ideas. The regimes in Tunisia and Egypt essentially had taken these spaces away from the people by suppressing any form of civic life from emerging in them. In 2011, the people of Cairo and Tunis took back the city and its spaces.

Mohammad al-Asad

March 03, 2011