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Protesting public space

Mission accomplished, as far as the authorities are concerned. Rabea al-Adaweya is gone.

When the presidency announced that mediation with the Muslim Brotherhood had failed, Al-Azhar was busy cobbling together its own reconciliation initiative. But all the while, it seems, the police were planning to move in on pro-Morsi protesters. Interim Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi said the decision to disperse the sit-ins was “final,” and he meant it.

And yet, while the dominant narrative since June 30 has been between coup versus anti-coup, people’s power versus legitimacy or revolution versus Islamism (depending whose spokesperson you speak to, whose newspaper you read), the recent crisis has essentially boiled down to a fight for dominance over public space.

With deposed President Mohamed Morsi gone, the new government — and of course, the Armed Forces — gained control of the state. But that didn’t necessarily translate to control of the streets. Even with the Nahda and Rabea sit-ins dispersed, it’s not over.

The debate around the control of public and private space has gained considerable ground in the wake of two recent events: the Egyptian revolution and Occupy Wall Street. Both introduced laymen to new takes on traditional ideas of activism and dissent. And while some in Egypt and further afield may reject the comparison, it could tell us a lot about the pro-Morsi occupations.

Controlling the public

Before Tahrir became the spiritual home of the Egyptian revolution, it had a series of past lives as a bustling urban center, a motorist’s trap and a military parade ground.

“It was always strictly monitored; for some years after the so-called bread riots of 1977, special security police observed the area from a set of raised walkways,” Roger Owen wrote in Foreign Affairs last week.

“Only the occasional pro-regime event was encouraged. Otherwise, mass use of the square was confined to assembling at the start of funeral processions for regime favorites, such as the singer Umm Kulthum in 1975.”

In addition to surveillance, the Mubarak regime followed former President Anwar al-Sadat’s lead by using architecture, privatization and urban planning to limit the risk of large public gatherings, and therefore, dissent.

In Tahrir, the now fenced-off area in front of the Egyptian Museum used to be a grassy park with fountains and pigeons. Photographs from the 1960s show it used to be a popular Cairo hang-out.

“Here families and students would gather throughout the day; it was also a notorious meeting point for lovers on a date in the heart of the city,” Cairo Observer’s Mohamed Elshahed wrote just weeks after Mubarak’s fall. “But in the 1970s, the government fenced off the area — and more, it never offered any clear explanation of what was to be the fate of this favorite meeting spot.”

Locals speculated as to what the area would be used for. A new Metro station? Part of some Nile-side development? At some point, a sign appeared announcing the construction of a multi-story car park.

“During the protests in Tahrir Square, activists took down the fence and used it to build barricades to protect themselves from the attacks of pro-Mubarak thugs —  and the removal of the fence revealed that none of the promised construction had ever taken place. The area had been taken away from the public sphere precisely to avoid the possibility of large crowds congregating in Tahrir. Such was Mubarak’s urban planning legacy,” Shahed explained.

“Given Tahrir Square’s history as a military parade ground, its occupation in the early days of the January 2011 revolution was of enormous symbolic importance,” Owen added. The people unseated the police state, right in the heart of Cairo and in plain view of an entire world watching with one hand firmly placed over its gaping mouth.

From the Egyptian authorities’ perspective, that has taken over two years to remedy.

Breaking down barriers

With Morsi gone, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim enthusiastically announced that the security barriers that had cut up the heart of the city, disrupting the flow of employment, business and day-to-day life with them, would be taken down. And with them, Ibrahim announced grandly, Egypt would see “psychological barriers between the citizen and the police officer” torn down “after the ministry … announced its alignment with the Egyptian people, who took to the streets in huge masses that astounded the world.”

Strangely for a man who claims to act on behalf of Egypt’s revolutionary majority, Ibrahim told reporters on Wednesday evening that he promised “that as soon as … the Egyptian street stabilizes, as soon as possible, security will be restored to this nation as if it was before January 25, and more.”

On July 26, the day of Colonel General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s mandate to confront “violence and terrorism,” police officers were spotted in Tahrir. One demonstrator kindly kissed a cop for the benefit of a photojournalist. Days before, when I was stopped from entering the square (it was “Egyptians only — that’s the rules,” one guard told me), popular committee security checked with the police if it was okay for me to go in. They had the final say: “No.”

And yet, as recently as last November, the army was attacking civilians for legally living on land the army claimed as its own. Troops launched a surprise attack on the Nile island of Qursaya, not far from Giza, killing one and injuring several others. The Armed Forces spokesperson said authorities simply intended to reclaim army property — the islanders shared their plot with a small base — despite the courts’ upholding of a 2008 ruling giving locals the right to live there. Interestingly, the land claim pre-dated the revolution, suggesting the army’s revolutionary one-handed approach to the Egyptian people — like Ibrahim’s — becomes more nuanced when its own interests are at stake.

Qursaya served as a reminder of how the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces brutally cleared Tahrir Square in 2011. Both were precedents for how the dispersals at Nahda and Rabea would look. When clearing the pro-Morsi sit-ins on Wednesday, however, the authorities went much further.  

Prior to the dispersal, and despite the warning signs, pro-Morsi protesters vowed to stay to the bitter end.

“We are expecting [the police] to hit us at any moment, and we are not moving,” Hossam al-Sharqawy, a spokesperson from the Nahda camp, said after the Cabinet’s first warning. “We are defending our rights, which nobody can take away from us — not even by killing us. We are ready to stay in the streets for years, not days.”

Water parks as weapons

Part of this insistence on not leaving the sit-in comes from a political intransigence, a refusal to accept anything other than “the best” choice (which, for these protesters, is Morsi’s return); part of it comes from the Muslim Brotherhood’s tacit realization that its survival on the streets equates to its political survival in Egypt for the foreseeable future.

The Brotherhood’s plucky self-assurance in the public domain, however, was best encapsulated by pictures from Rabea on the first day of Eid, showing children playing in a paddling pool surrounded by inflatable castles and dress-up TV characters dancing on the stage nearby. The Do-It-Yourself Rabea Water Fun Park also happened to be in the middle of army-owned and privately-owned housing, schools, main roads, national memorials, military bases and mosques. Vendors sold the usual “Morsi” merchandise, fast food and occupation home ware.

While the square became synonymous with pro-Morsi protests, viewed from one step back, it actually resembled a fairly accurate microcosm of Egyptian society — a mishmash of state, military and religion — played out for real on the Egyptian street.

This all epitomizes what urbanist Richard Sennett called “ambiguous public/private space” in the wake of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy LSX in London: “Tents and sleeping bags were the ‘weapons’ with which the Occupy movements tested the city’s limits on freedom of assembly. When allowed, legitimate protest is usually framed by the idea that protesters will pass through public space, not dwell in it — the march rather than the camp.”

That urban hinterland, the camp rather than the march, “creates an opportunity for unscripted participation,” a place where nothing is quite public or private, making it harder to control and coopt. You have to give it to the Brotherhood — you couldn’t have got more unscripted than a water park. How do you break up a sit-in that has kids paddling next to an inflatable castle?

The answer, it turns out, is with brute force.

The ham-fisted fascism Egypt’s police displayed on Wednesday, resulting in hundreds of deaths, shows how important public space has become for the authorities. After removing pro-Morsi protests from the streets, the new state of emergency declared by the presidency on Wednesday evening gives the government powers to limit freedom of assembly across the country, while restricting how people express themselves in public.

Interim President Adly Mansour has sweeping powers to monitor and censor Egyptian media now. Beblawi has threatened breakaway demonstrations, including the most recent one at Mostafa Mahmoud. Egypt is undergoing its latest dose of shock therapy, to beat and frighten the Islamists off the streets, led by officials who talk like Disney villains. This is also an emergency.

Violently dispersing the sit-ins was not only bad politics and immoral; it was hypocritical.

The fight for the streets is not over yet. But if Egypt’s so-called revolutionary legitimacy takes its mandate from the streets, it should respect the principle of occupation and protest in public space. This is a test for any democracy, just like Occupy Wall Street tested America.

Otherwise, we may have to face up to the fact that — like Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak  and Morsi before them — the new rulers are coopting the street for their own power. The same system with a new face: Something Tahrir Square has always fought against.

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Tom Rollins  @rollinz
Tom Rollins is a Cairo-based freelance journalist.