Cairo’s Tahrir Square gets a contested makeover
Egypt’s government has revamped Tahrir Square, dotting the space occupied nearly a decade ago by throngs of anti-regime protesters with Pharaonic monuments and private security guards.
A general view shows Tahrir Square, after its renovation, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cairo, Egypt. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Officials say they are improving the square in line with famous plazas in Europe, and its facelift – which includes new lighting on repainted buildings – has attracted some praise on social media for its grandiose effect.
Critics say the project appears designed to tighten control of a symbolic public space and prevent future protests. Some archaeologists worry about the preservation of four sandstone sphinxes placed on a busy roundabout.
“I think the main message is that people do not belong to the square and the square does not belong to the people. This is a square that belongs to the state,” said Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at Cambridge University who participated in the 2011 uprising and ran a short-lived official committee to document it.
Egypt’s state press centre did not respond to questions about the square’s redesign.
Tahrir Square is charged with political symbolism. It gained global renown as the cradle of the revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Two years later, huge crowds massed in the square once again to push for and later celebrate the removal of Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the then army chief.
Sisi’s supporters see 2013 as a correction that allowed him to gain the presidency a year later and stabilise the country.
A short inscription on the ancient obelisk recently installed in the centre of the square hints at official thinking. Tahrir Square came to symbolise the Egyptian people’s “freedom and steadfastness” after witnessing the anti-colonial revolution in 1919 and the events of 2011, but “became a symbol of the Egyptians and their freedom by the June 30th (2013) revolution”, it says.
For Sisi’s opponents, 2013 marked the start of a sweeping, crackdown that ended the free-flowing atmosphere of the uprising and its aftermath.
The authorities view the discussions, meetings, and placards of 2011 as “deeply subversive”, said Fahmy.
Rare anti-Sisi protests in September last year triggered a security lockdown around Tahrir Square and a wave of arrests. Spot checks of pedestrians in and around the square became more common.
In recent weeks, security guards from the Egyptian company Falcon Group appeared as the square’s renovation progressed. They hurried on passers-by who approached the monuments.
Falcon declined to comment.
Some people said the renovation made them feel proud. But Mohamed Abdo, a 25-year-old Uber driver, said the square’s overhaul seemed wasteful and deprived ordinary people of space to sit and rest.
“You are closing it off, saying you cannot do this or that, or sit there,” he said. “Before, it was open for everyone.”
Some are concerned about four ram-headed, sandstone sphinxes placed round the obelisk in the centre of the square. The sphinxes were relocated from the Karnak Temple complex in Luxor, a UNESCO world heritage site 500km (300 miles) south of Cairo.
Though the granite obelisk should withstand the climate and the pollution, “it will be more dangerous for the sphinxes as they are made of sandstone, and the rain, mixed in with pollutants could prove damaging”, said Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo.
Mostafa al-Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said the project had allowed the obelisk to be salvaged from an area north-east of Cairo and repaired, and that the sphinxes should resist pollution.