Tahrir Square and the birth of Democracy?

Demonstrations on Tahrir Square

Reuters/Dylan MartinezDid the world just witness the birth of democracy in Tahrir Square? The demonstrations inspired the world. They were a dramatic and moving outpouring of the people’s desire for an end to Mubarak’s oppressive regime, and the corruption, infringement of people’s rights, and brutality associated with the 40-year enforcement of the ‘state of emergency’. The desire for self-government was passionately voiced. Did Tahrir Square play the same role in supporting democratization that the Agora played? And will it continue to support democratic engagement in Egypt? Was the fall of Mubarak in February like the overthrow of the brutal tyrant Hippias in 507 B.C. when, with the organizational leadership of Cleisthenes, the Athenians created the first form of democracy?

The built environment has a profound influence on people’s behavior, interaction, values and ideas. New urban forms can change centuries-old cultural patterns and social structures. But not all squares are the same, and cultural and religious traditions, themselves often embedded in the urban structure, also shape social movements.

Like many other large urban spaces in the past (Tianamen Square, Beijing, Azadi Square, Tehran, etc) Tahrir Square was well suited to massive demonstrations of opposition to Mubarak, and to celebration, as in the rally of March 4 in support of Egypt's new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. But it is a mistake to think that urban public places are only useful to support riots and mass demonstrations. The design of a square, its surrounding urban fabric and building uses shape the activity that takes place there. Some city structures allow peaceful, incremental change to take place through discussion and negotiation; other city structures prevent democratic dialogue and discussion and bottle up discontent until it reaches boiling point.

Tahrir Square

Tahrir SquareTahrir Square is a sprawling, amorphous, open space on the east bank of the Nile at the center of Cairo. The east side of the Square is bounded by Haussmann-inspired seven story buildings containing many hotels with some shops at street level. On the opposite side, between the square and the river are monumental, free-standing buildings, including a fifteen story hotel. At the north end is the Egyptian Museum, at the south are government offices. By different estimates there are at least eight, and perhaps as many as twenty-three streets and two bridges leading into it, making it impossible to close off the square.

The name is symbolic – Liberation Square – and it was large enough to hold the vast numbers of demonstrators, but it is not a place that would normally encourage people to gather for commerce, social life, discussion and dialogue. It functions as a traffic artery, similar to Paris’ Place de la Concorde, another pedestrian nightmare. Its design and the building uses around the square do not support democratic engagement. It is not comparable to the Agora, nor to traditional European medieval market places that were specifically designed to foster democracy. Gathering in public and forming political organizations have been banned in Egypt for 40 years under the Emergency Law. Indeed, according to Mohamed Elshahed, the Mubarak regime “supported laws and actions that sharply limited Egyptians’ access to public space — to places where citizens could congregate, meet, talk, interact… over the years the state deployed the physical design of urban space as one of its chief means of discouraging democracy.”

Because of Egypt’s historic social structure and religious values, Cairo has never had public squares and an urban fabric designed to support democratic dialogue. Commerce has traditionally taken place in markets (souqs) that are generally narrow commercial streets or purely commercial enclosed bazaars, not multi-functional places. Government has not been easily accessible to the people. The oldest sections of the city are a maze of narrow streets and dead end alleys. The nineteenth century districts, laid out by Haussmann, consist of Parisian-style Neoclassical mixed use urban fabric of 7-story apartments over shops. The most beautiful “square” from this period, Midan Talaat Harb Square is a Parisian-style étoile – not a “place” but an intersection of six streets with a monument at the center. Cairo lacks the kind of squares that fostered democratic dialogue in Europe.

The Agora and birth of democracy

AgoraThe Ancient Greek Agora was the crucible and catalyst for the invention of democracy. So what characteristics of the Agora caused it to play such a significant role? The daily market took place there, as well as a multiplicity of overlapping commercial, religious, social, and cultural functions. Everyone in Ancient Athens would come to the Agora for one reason of another as a normal part of their daily life. This meant that people in different social, occupational and economic realms (and non-Athenians) would intermingle and have some social contact. This permitted ideas and opinions to circulate and gain currency, for ties to develop between people with similar opinions, for individuals to be known for their reputation in dealing with people of all strata, for leaders to arise (and be curbed) through public consensus, for public discussion and collaboration to help shape organizational skills, and for democratic decision-making to be achieved in a visible process.

The Agora was a large open space at the crossing point of the major routes into the city. So far, the parallel with Tahrir Square holds. However, the Agora was filled with a market selling everything under the sun, a wooden theater arena (later demolished), and religious monuments. Bounding the edge were shops, workshops, places of business for lawyers, accountants, etc. Craftsmen and shopkeepers often lived over their business in the porticoed buildings and a large population lived in close proximity. As time went by, the surrounding buildings for communal use and self-government - the Council House, a common dining hall, public baths, administrative offices - became larger and more elaborate. The Assembly, at which discussion, debate and voting took place, was held in the Agora. This first form of democracy was not perfect - slaves and women could not vote – but they were not excluded from the debate and discussion. And do not forget, it was not until the twentieth century that women, slaves and native Americans were permitted to vote in the US!

Medieval rebirth of democracy on the square

Lubeck - Marktplatz 1580During the thirteenth century hundreds of towns were founded across Europe. Settlers were drawn by the promise of a democratic form of government symbolized by the market square and council hall at the town’s heart. Essential elements of these squares echoed the ancient Agora. The primary attraction that drew people together on a daily basis was the market. This was the catalyst that provided a topic of conversation and allowed social networks to develop. Shops, workshops and services in surrounding buildings supported this commercial function. When the farmers and craftsmen had packed up and gone home, the square became a place for political, social or recreational activities. Residents above the shops provided an in situ community and helped maintain peace on the square. Leaders were elected on the square, and remained visible and accessible because the town hall was on the square.

AscoliThe squares still exist. They are visually enclosed, enhancing a strong sense of place. Many entrances provide access, but these are narrow, arched, or angled in such a way that attention is focused inwards. Surrounding buildings, particularly those belonging to the community, are as fine and beautiful as possible, creating a backdrop for events on the square and enhancing community pride. Except in rare instances such as Krakow, the main square is not very large and has proportions like a grand hall.

The future for Tahrir Square and Egyptian self-government

To return to the question of whether we are seeing democracy being born in Egypt: Tahrir Square functions well for mass rallies, but will not help the long-term process of building democratic dialogue and civic engagement on a day-to-day basis. If this is indeed, the vision of the people, there is enough space within Tahrir Square to build such a square and the enclosure of buildings necessary to support its multi-functional, social character. [See image below: Tahrir Square, Feb11] What is very remarkable about the demonstrations is how thousands of Cairenes, strangers to each other, within just a few days peacefully collaborated to build an organized village in the square, with makeshift camp sites in certain areas, toilets, water, rubbish bins, food stalls, clinics, artwork and a kindergarten, and the astonishing way in which after Mubarak’s resignation, the people again collaborated to sweep and clean the square. This degree of cooperation and organizational skills bodes well for Egyptians’ ability to govern themselves.

AP Photo/Manoocher Deghati