Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation”. Author: Dina Fergani
Tahrir Square has a special place in contemporary political psyche. It became a dream icon for urban resistance throughout the world, and was also a place to examine the possible modes of resistance for the Egyptian people.
At the early phases of the Egyptian revolution, Tahrir square functioned as a unifying tool, making it a utopic blueprint where all political plans were charted. During that period it was relatively easy to organise various political factions and individuals, on one common cause, that of ousting Mubarak and the representations of his police state. Around such demands converged Islamists, Marxists, Nationalists, Liberals and everything in between, in addition to thinkers, workers, students, clerics and others. Tahrir Square, thus, converged a myriad of people and relations that were actively kept separate outside of it by the hegemonic forces of both capitalism and the state. However, as the revolution progressed the space became layered with certain contradictions.
As the events of the Egyptian revolution unfolded, the one-time square friends became foes, in a classical dialectic of power struggle. The temporal alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and several revolutionary forces crumbled down as the brotherhood ascended to power and excluded those very factions that supported them in the elections. In return revolutionary forces had a strong presence in the June 30 protests that led to Sisi’s ascension to power. Also, several reports were revealed of violence directed towards females at the midst of revolutionary liberation and celebrations. These incidents do not in any way distill the potency of the square as a tool of resistance, but rather shed light on the complexity of urban resistance.
Tahrir square operated as an alternative city and was divided into three main areas: a battlefield, a buffer space and areas of social services (field hospitals, art corners, communal schools for street kids). People did not converge in these spaces in an egalitarian manner. Factors of class and gender were decisive in the distribution of people and power. The battlefield was at the outskirts of the square, where protestors clashed with either the police or army over controlling territory. This area was the backbone of Tahrir, since no sit-in would have been possible without actively fighting for the right of space. This space was the most violent and predominantly (but not exclusively) occupied by young working and middle class men. A gender divide was also visible around this area, as women were continuously discouraged from approaching the front lines. Women, however, congregated in large numbers on the outskirts applying medications, to mitigate the effect of tear gas, or bandages, on rubber bullet injuries. The second area of the square was the buffer space between the areas of clashing and the rest of the city. This area was the entrance point to the square, and was saturated by various citizen-run checkpoints. This zone acted as the visible representation of the political will of the people present, and was the most socially diverse. The last area was that of the field hospitals run by volunteer doctors and pharmacists. The health practitioners occupied street corners, but more often than not they occupied nearby mosques and churches since their enclosed architecture deemed them safer. It is interesting that these religious institutions also provided these services in the outer city, especially with the decay of state-run services. The square was thus a citizen-run city, with a rigid structure corresponding to familiar forms of organising space found in several urban spaces. Citizens became the providers of services, not in the individualistic neoliberal sense where access is only granted to consumers who can accumulate capital, but rather as a collective.
Thinking about the potency of the collective organising, it is useful to mention Gramsci, the Italian political theorist, who theorised the concept of hegemony and saw the constraints for political action in capitalist rule: an act of resistance within it will always recreate its power relations rather than change them. Gramsci alludes to two contradictory consciousnesses. One is formed by the collective in organising and transforming the world. The other is based upon uncritical absorption of old social relations. The dialectic between the two, creates political action leading to change. It can be said that Tahrir square provided the medium for this dialectic as the protestors experienced both consciousnesses. This dialectic made the square a blueprint for social progression. The square became a place of alteration of consciousness, and a place of examining the possible modes of resistance, which was the first step in a prolonged series of resistances.
- Gramsci, Antonio, Quintin Hoare, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Selections from The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers, 1971.