“One of the most important outcomes of these movements has been the return of politics to the public sphere and the return of the square as the place for it” — Nezar AlSayyad, professor of architecture, planning, urban design and urban history at the University of California at Berkeley 


Unknown-1In the postscript to his 2011 book Cairo: Histories of a City (reproduced by The New York Times as an op-ed), and in lectures and articles since, UC Berkeley architecture professor Nezar AlSayyad has argued that Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square, finally lived up to his name with the 2011 Egyptian uprising. Four years later, however, there are questions about whether Egypt really has been “liberated.”

While AlSayyad said it may be “too early to tell” if the 2011 Egyptian uprising can ultimately be deemed a failure, and though “many wish the Arab Spring had never come” — “Are we more comfortable with our dictators?” he wondered aloud —  he seems convinced that what happened in Tahrir Square and in other public squares in the Middle East did indeed have a positive impact.

“People of all classes are now more politically active and politically aware,” he said.

AlSayyad, an Egyptian-American architect, planner, urban historian and public intellectual based at UC Berkeley, made these remarks while at Duke University this winter to deliver the keynote address — “Virtual Uprisings: Tahrir Square” (WATCH BELOW) — for a multi-disciplinary conference on Re-thinking Global Cities.

“When the “revolution” (in Egypt) happened, I have to say I was not completely surprised,” he confided to Duke University Middle East Studies Center Director miriam cooke in a taped interview on the same topic. “I was surprised by the veracity of the demonstrations and I was surprised by the fact that almost everybody from every walk of life was suddenly very supportive, although many of them regret it today.”

In his public talk AlSayyad sought to explore what the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square taught us about media, social movements, social media, and urban space in an age of globalization.

Most agree that the so-called Arab Spring began when Mohamed Bouazizi, a common street vendor in a small town in Tunisia, decided to immolate himself to protest bad treatment by the authorities. Demonstrations against the government that followed ultimately led to the overthrow of Tunisia’s President Ben Ali.

“Egypt, at that time, I would argue was totally unaware what was going on in Tunisia. However many Egyptians, possibly felt, if you will, ‘how can a small nation like Tunisia whose entire population fits in one district in Cairo be able to overthrow their dictator and Egyptian can’t?’” said AlSayyad. “So to protest the brutality of their own police, Egyptians decided to engage in a demonstration in a day (January 25, 2011) that the government declared long ago as a national holiday and called police day.”

The uprising, with the aid of social media mobilization, soon spread from square to square in Cairo and from city to city in Egypt. And on February 11, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.

Tahrir: A History

AlSayyad approaches Egyptian political analysis via his work on architecture and urban planning in Cairo, similar to the way in which Harvard’s Sibel Bozdogan has examined politics through the lens of urban development in Istanbul, Turkey.

Like Bozdogan, he begins with history.

Tahrir Square is not really a single square, but three different connected spaces forming a major traffic hub, and it’s history, according to AlSayyad, mirrors Egyptian political history.

Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising in Cairo. photo courtesy Nezar AlSayyad
Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising in Cairo. (photo courtesy Nezar AlSayyad)

“The emergence of Tahrir Square as a focal point for the revolt is a testament to how place and history come together in unexpected ways,” said AlSayyad. “Images of the square were extensively aired during broadcast coverage of these uprisings and have forever been engrained in the minds of people all over the world. These images capture a number of buildings that not only narrate the history of modern Cairo but also offer us insights into the contradictions of modern Egyptian history as it encountered colonialism, modernism, pan Arabism, socialism, and today neoliberalism.”

He pointed out that the buildings that form Tahrir Square “were in fact more expressive of Egypt’s contemporary secular history and not the religious imaginary of the Islamists who ultimately took over the protests, and then the country altogether, between July 2012 until July 2013.”

(Though the lecture mainly focused on Tahrir, AlSayyad did briefly reflect on the urban spaces and squares connected with supporters of Mubarak who gathered in Mustafa Mahmoud Square, as well as supporters of Mubarak’s  “ideologically Islamist” and democratically-elected successor Muhammad Morsi, who occupied the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square and mosque — and were victims of an “extremely violent” and bloody police crackdown.)

AlSayyad described, in a slideshow, the prominent buildings around Tahrir Square, including the Egyptian Museum (AKA The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities built by the British in 1901); commercial and residential buildings from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s; the Mogamma (a Soviet-style government building built in 1949, “long a symbol of the monumental Egyptian bureaucracy”); the American-designed Hilton hotel (built under Nasser in 1961 on the site of former English barracks, which Nasser envisioned as “Egypt’s official entry into the international tourism industry” — now under renovation to become a Ritz Carleton); a modernist Cairo municipality building appropriated in the ’60s to house the headquarters of Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union and later Mubarak’s National Democratic Party — burned during the uprising and standing “almost as a symbol of the paralysis of the Egyptian political sphere over the past four years;” and the ’60s Arab League Headquarters building.

Ismail Pasha, King Farouk, Gamal Abdel Nasser. (courtesy Nezar AlSayyad)
Ismail Pasha, King Farouk, Gamal Abdel Nasser. (photo courtesy Nezar AlSayyad)

He also spoke about three major historical figures who played an important role in the making of the square: 1) Ismai’l Pasha, Khedive of Egypt and Sudan in the mid 19th century, who modernized Egypt 2) King Farouk, the last presiding King of Egypt; and 3) Gamal Abdl Nasser, who planned the overthrow of the monarchy and served as the second president of Egypt (1956-1970).

Ismai’l Pasha, grandson of the founder of modern Egypt Muhammad Ali Pasha, spent a lot of time in Paris and that was an important influence on his Cairo plans, AlSayyad said, including the square he designed in the Ismailaya District — a public space that was later called Tahrir.

“He imagined Egypt as part of Europe and not necessarily as part of the Middle East,” said AlSayyad.

Ismai’l’s rule was ultimately undone when “modernization and partial corruption plunged the country into great debt, ” explained AlSayyad. “He was the first ruler of modern Egypt to be removed from power, not by his people like Mubarak was, but in fact by foreign bankers who had lent him money to build the Suez Canal and then convinced their nations to intervene on their behalf. What followed was the British occupation or colonization of Egypt in 1882, which lasted for almost 70 years.”

The square witnessed its first political demonstration when opposition to British occupation in Egypt sparked protests and skirmishes with police, resulting in the deaths of two-dozen Egyptians on February 11, 1946. (Another Feb 11, coincidentally, would be the day that President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign).

Dissatisfaction with King Farouk’s government incited another set of protests, which ignited the Great Cairo fire on Jan. 25, 1952.

“The fire was a precursor for the army coup led by a charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser which transformed Egypt from a sleepy kingdom into a revolutionary socialist republic. In the following decade Nasser issued a governmental decree changing the name of the square from Ismailaya — the idea was to totally obliterate any memory of Egypt as a kingdom — to Tahrir (“liberation”) square,” said AlSayyad, “and that was to commemorate the departure of the British from Egypt.”

The Return of the Public Square

It wasn’t until the uprising against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 that Tahrir Square lived up to Nasser’s name for it. Urban tactics and practices in Cairo were even trans-nationalized across the Arab world and adopted by movements in other cities, such as Occupy Wall Street in the U.S. and the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ in Hong Kong.  

An eyewitness to some of the first protests in Hong Kong, and the reaction of the police to them, AlSayyad said he “could not help but be excited about the emergence of a new social movement.” Here a Tweet from AlSayyad: 

AlSayyad explained during his talk at Duke: “One of the most important outcomes of these movements has been the return of politics to the public sphere and the return of the square as the place for it.”  Social media mobilization, which he described as “a new form of mass movement in urban space,” as well as 24-hour traditional media coverage (CNN coverage of the Tiananmen Square events of 20 years ago, he said, had set an “important precedent”) “played a major role” in these revolutions.  But the space itself was critical.  “By providing space for the enactment of protest, cities from Alexandria to Sanaa, from Cairo to Tripoli, played a decisive role in these global uprisings,” he said. “Simply put, neither the governments of these nations, nor the traditional mainstream media, nor the rest of the world, would have paid any attention to the protestors had they not forcefully taken over these symbolically charged public spaces and stayed in them. This is important to recognize. It is not only about the power of social media to bring people together. It is about the actual physical occupation of these places.” He stressed that “in the end, the use of social media led to the direct political involvement of ordinary apolitical citizens in countries where such involvement had rarely existed.” “I would argue that this is the most important outcome of all of these demonstrations despite the fact that very little political change seems to have occurred as of now.” AlSayyad also acknowledged the “diverse body of work,” including his own, that has emerged in the academy “attempting to explain the spread of these Occupy everything uprisings and their failures and minimal successes.”  

Nezar AlSayyad is an architect, planner, urban historian and public intellectual. He is a professor of architecture, planning, urban design and urban history at the University of California at Berkeley. He is Co-Chair of the Middle Eastern Studies Undergraduate Major (MES), Head Graduate Advisor for the M.A in International & Area Studies Graduate Program, and a member of the Global Metropolitan Studies Group (GMS). For almost two decades AlSayyad also chaired the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Berkeley leading it to international standing. Educated as an architect, planner, urban designer and historian, AlSayyad is principally an urbanist whose specialty is the study of cities, their urban spaces, their social practices and their economic realities. As a scholar, AlSayyad has authored and edited several books on colonialism, identity, Islamic architecture, tourism, tradition, urbanism, urban design, urban history, urban informality, and virtuality. His latest book is Cairo: Histories of a City (Harvard University Press, 2011) His forthcoming book is Nile: Urban Histories on the Banks of a River (Harvard University Press, 2015).   ——————-


In this sit-down interview with miriam cooke (above right) the two discussed some of the same themes covered in his public talk, and also spoke more in-depth about his work as an architect, historian and urbanist; his views on 20th century Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy’s invention of a “national style;” and his take on the new (inappropriate?) architecture in the Gulf states.

Here is a Storify of his public talk:



ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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