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Global Express

The War of the Walls: The Ongoing Struggle for Cairo’s City Center

March 11, 2012

A year has elapsed since the January revolution, which indisputably led to drastic transformations in street politics. In this short note, I argue that the revolution did trigger a new public culture that has re-appropriated public spaces, in a fascinating manner but which remains precarious. It is a precarious situation because the entire year of 2011 witnessed a drastic escalation of violence with the military junta’s continuation of Mubarak's politics without Mubarak. “Hosni went and Hussain came” (meaning Hosni Mubarak/Hussain Tantawi). This is the running joke that best describes the overwhelming feeling of “plus ça change plus c´est la même chose.”

If the junta's rhetoric maintains that it has protected the revolution, it is precisely with this lying discourse that it is vehemently repressing the vibrant power of the street by perpetrating massacres, by disfiguring the protesters and by undertaking virginity tests on women. That is why the revolutionaries have led a wide anti-SCAF[1] campaign which they called LIARS. Many have already been busy in tracking this fascinating emergent public culture in its struggle against military rule. What is less discussed is the fact that it is happening in a parallel way to an alarming process of “zoning” and confining in the center of town.

Whether the revolution has succeeded or not – indeed, many believe that it is best to define it as incomplete – still Tahrir Square did trigger a powerful process for advocacy of freedom through reshaping street politics. This has been accompanied with the discovery of the effective power of public spaces as a powerful means of exercising pressure on the military junta. The Square became the space per-se of contestation, of grieving and of public performances, painting, and filming. Tahrir triggered a new visual culture. It became the spot to film and be filmed, as well as being a space to see others and to be seen.

The revolution has been teaching many that this will be a long-term learning process of trial and error that might take a long time to materialize. Most importantly however, it created a new public culture of protest that broke the circle of fear. This new public culture is reformulating a novel understanding of public spaces as spaces of contestation, of communication and debating, as spaces of the “spectacle” as my colleague Samia Mehrez has observed in Global Dialogue (2.3). The real world here has been interacting with the world of the virtual that has been given a free hand via the growing significance of the Youtube postings on internet, photography and documentary films that are then screened or exhibited in public spaces. Youtube posting has allowed large audiences of facebook members to follow the events of Tahrir minute by the minute.

The marches have been very effective in mobilizing the masses. During the past months they have been getting increasingly sophisticated with the distribution of precise maps pointing to the departure meeting points and where to join the other marches. Most of the marches have been filmed and the urge of documentation has been growing remarkably. The way the marches move, the intelligent slogans which are chanted, and the way they have been protected by a human cordon, cars in the front and the back have been highly impressive. All this is certainly transforming the visual landscape and peoples’ behavior in public spaces. Cairene middle class protesters, for example, are simply discovering how to march in their own streets, which many probably never did before January.

One can thus speak of two parallel phenomena. On the one hand, a fascinating emerging public culture of protest, on the other hand, with the city witnessing localized war zones that are followed by the erection of barriers, barricades, wires, tanks, and army controlled zones. The barricading or walling, as a buffer zone between the protesters and police forces, was first implemented in November in Mohammed Mahmud Street. This was when over 40 protesters were killed by police forces after that the Central Security Forces used extreme violence to push away the protesters from Tahrir Square. What increased the anger was the violence used against the martyr´s families that were squatting in the Square. More walls were later erected in December 2011 after the protests in front of the Cabinet building,  because of the contested appointment of Minister Ganzuri by SCAF which led to even more violent clashes and the burning of l’ Institut d Égypte. This incident also led to many more deaths. The security forces then constructed another wall blocking completely Sheikh Rehan Street, the parallel street of Mohammed Mahmud Street. Also another wall, blocking Kasr al-Ainy Street, was erected. Then in February, after the massacre of the football Ultras team in Port Said more violence was witnessed in front of the Interior Ministry leading to the erection of three more walls. Then one more wall was constructed in Noubar Street to allegedly protect the fantastic citadel of the Ministry of Interior that became then completely confined by walls after even more deaths and clashes were witnessed. So much so that in February  2012, the walls around the area of Mohammed Mahmud, Noubar, Mansur Sheikh Rehan Streets had reached 8, not to count the wired zones in front of the Ministry of Interior, the blocking tanks and large green police vehicles.[2]

SCAF and the police security forces could only think of solving the confrontation with the protesters by erecting isolating walls after walls, and spreading internationally sanctioned lethal gas and teargas, which render not only mobility impossible, but which has made daily life in the Downtown area surrounding Tahrir Square simply unbearable for its dwellers. The barricading, or walling of entire areas is equally paralyzing the economic life of the small shop keepers, coffee shops, taxi drivers and the large informal sector economy existing in downtown and the area surrounding Mohammed Mahmud street. That is why it is often the residents who demand the removal of these barricades that were erected after the violent clashes.[3]

What the military has been doing during the past few months through the lesson it has learned from the ‘frozen moment’ of the 18 days of January, which paralyzed the entire city – thus, highly effective in bringing about the downfall of the regime - was to counteract the revolutionaries by “zoning” and squeezing the protesters by segregating them in limited spaces of war. The way the junta imagines the solution for stopping the skirmishes is by the erection of multiple cement walls and by equally blocking entire parallel streets with block stones walls and military vehicles.

The tactics of zoning, including the zoning of Tahrir Square is equally a tactic to blame the revolutionaries for paralyzing  Downtown. The confining of the space of conflict is one way of squeezing the street fights as SCAF thinks that this is the way to contain rebellion. Downtown Cairo, in particular the area of Kasr al-Aini nearing the Zone of Tahrir Square witnessed several battlefields between the various factions of the revolutionaries and the army and police security forces. Clearly the security forces invented new strategies to squeeze the protestors in narrower streets to produce higher casualties and maximum disfiguring and killings. This was just a pretext to counteract the so-called protection of Ministries from “vandalism”. In reality, the revolutionaries acted against the security forces because they had to settle accounts for the series of massacres that were perpetrated by the army and for their demands of which none were met so far. The zoning is thus one way of containing the protesters in specific areas while “normalizing” the rest of the circulation and the business sector and banking in the city of Cairo.

Therefore erecting and destroying walls (from the side of the protesters who managed to tear down parts of the Mohammed Mahmud wall that was then removed by the residents of the quarter in late February) became too a powerful symbol of SCAF and police-force oppression as well as of resistance. Zoning goes together with dividing the city into two spaces, the “normalized” versus the “war zone” space. It is perhaps an astute way of acquainting the citizen with violence if not banalizing it. Certainly walling parts of the city brings immediately to mind the analogy with Israel and the segregation of populations. That is why too, graffiti, paintings, jokes and insults against SCAF filled these walls. That is why too SCAF is relentlessly working on repainting the walls every second day.

SCAF has learned from January 2011 to counteract disobedience and protest by either terrorizing the citizens through a “controlled” form of chaos epitomized in sudden and successive bank robberies, several kidnaps of children of the rich, acts of vandalism by thugs, and murders in broad daylight. The question remains for how long will it be before this “controlled chaos” slips into a complete chaos? No one can answer this question.

[1] SCAF is the military junta that rules Egypt – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
[2] Bel Trew, Mohamed Abdalla & Ahmed Feteha, “Walled in: SCAF's Concrete Barricades,” Ahramonline, Feb 9, 2012, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/33929/Egypt/Politics-/Walled-in-SCAFs-concrete-barricades-.aspx.
[3] “Abdeen Residents Demand Removal of Downtown Street Barricades,” Egypt Independent, February 24, 2012, http://www.egyptindependent.com/node/671371.

Mona Abaza, American University of Cairo, Egypt
for Global Express, March 11, 2012

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