Egypt, Democracy, Public Space

I thought this article, Tahrir Square: Social Media, Public Space, was really good, and relates somewhat to our discussion in class (and in the reading) about how we define democracy. Some quotes:

The January 25th Revolution has had a dramatic, immediate effect on how Egyptians occupy Cairo and interact with one another. Commentators in the West have been quick to credit online social networking with empowering the protests. But the revolution that started in January 2011 in Cairo has provided powerful evidence that the virtual is not enough: in the course of several historic days in Tahrir Square it became decisively clear that the occupation of physical urban space was, and continues to be, crucial to the success and continuity of the revolution. No doubt the initial rush of online exhortations, including the Jan. 25 call to protest police brutality, was vitally important; but as we now know, the country was unplugged for six days, from Jan. 28 through Feb. 5, during which period the protests actually grew larger and the protestors became even more determined not merely to express popular dissent but ultimately to overthrow the regime.

Indeed, in the past few weeks Tahrir has became a truly public square. Before it was merely a big and busy traffic circle — and again, its limitations were the result of political design, of policies that not only discouraged but also prohibited public assembly. Under emergency law — established from the moment Mubarak took office in 1981 and yet to be lifted — a gathering of even a few adults in a public square would constitute cause for arrest. Like all autocracies, the Mubarak government understood the power of a true public square, of a place where citizens meet, mingle, promenade, gather, protest, perform and share ideas; it understood that a true midan — Arabic for public square — is a physical manifestation of democracy. A truly public Midan al-Tahrir would have been feared as a threat to regime security, and so over the years the state deployed the physical design of urban space as one of its chief means of discouraging democracy.

[…]

In the days following Mubarak’s resignation, thousands took to the streets with cleaning supplies, brooms and trash bags; they were responding to spontaneous nationwide calls by activists and concerned citizens. Cleaning efforts had begun in Tahrir just days after the start of the revolution, but with Mubarak truly gone, Egyptians wanted to clean — to cleanse — the entire country, to rid it of trash, of the old regime. Cairenes scoured their city, and many give Tahrir special attention. Streets were swept, anti-regime graffiti removed, statues were washed. Artists and students painted patriotic slogans on blank walls: “Welcome to the new Egypt,” “From Egypt with love,” and “25 January Revolution.” Construction companies dispatched volunteers to move mounds of trash to landfills. A true sense of civic pride, suppressed for decades, has blossomed.

A week after Mubarak stepped down, the military helped activists organize an official celebration in Tahrir Square; an estimated 1.5 million citizens turned out. Such a gesture would have been unthinkable before the events of January 25. Egyptians know that the real revolution has just begun, and they are building on their newfound, hard-won knowledge — that their fight for democracy is inseparably linked to their ability to assemble in urban space. The military understands this too, which is why it is tolerating public calls for mass demonstrations to take place every Tuesday and Friday across the country. These demonstrations are meant to maintain pressure on the military to release political prisoners, oversee the amendment of the constitution, and lift emergency law, among other demands. And even as Tahrir Square has captured the attention of international media and became a symbol of popular revolution, people around the country have taken to the streets, occupying squares and avenues as they continue to protest and demand the resignation of local governors, as Egypt transitions to democracy.

Some other great points made in this article: Justice makes for a clear blue sky.

And, in weirder news, some Libyan activists got creative and used online dating sites to send coded messages as part of their revolution organising.  (Take this one with a few grains of salt, because I’m pretty sure that online matchmaking sites should probably not get a whole lot of credit for much of what’s happened in Libya recently, but the idea is entertaining!)

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