Friday, February 11

Where does a revolution happen?

In an historic sequence of events for the nation of Egypt, massive demonstrations were held at the Nile View mall in suburban Cairo. Protesters began gathering outside of J.C. Penney in late January. Within a week the parking lot was full, and traffic was backed up for miles with eager activists waiting to enter. The food court was taken over as a makeshift shelter, and new vendors popped up to compete with Sbarros and Panda Express to feed the demonstrators. When Hosni Mubarak agreed to step down, the elated crowds moved into the multiplex movie theater for celebration. Historians believe this may be the first revolution in world history entirely set to the soundtrack of smooth jazz.

No, wait. None of this is happening.

Photo taken by Flickr user Ramy Raoof

Democracy for the nation of Egypt was won in Tahrir Square, right in the heart of Cairo. Tahrir Square is surrounded by museums, governmental offices, universities, stores and hotels, and many, many compact neighborhoods, making it a natural epicenter of human activity and the obvious site for political action. Being one of the mostly densely populated cities in the world, thousands of protestors can converge in the center and meet with others from across the socio-economic range. Protestors flooded into the square through the Egypt Metro system, one of the busiest in the world. Although authorities tried to quell the demonstration by blocking the square’s Metro stop, many of the participants have been getting off at nearby stops and walking the rest of the way in.

Edward Glaeser pointed out in the New York Times last week that “it’s always the urban pot that boils over.” Cairo, Egypt and Tunis, Tunisia are only the latest installments in the tumultuous story of cities.
Cities are places of revolution, because urban proximity connects organizers of opposition. Large urban populations create the scale needed to initially overwhelm local law enforcement … The constant interaction of human energy in dense clusters creates innovations in every area of human life, including politics.”
All the tweets and texts flying through the airwaves have not changed the fact that a physical place, a public square in the most literal sense, will always be a necessary stage for any kind of action. You know, in reality.

Here’s Sarah Goodyear writing in Grist,
The government of Hosni Mubarak could shut down the internet. It could shut down cell phone service. It could force Al Jazeera, which has been providing superb coverage of the events in Egypt, to close its Cairo bureau. It could arrest journalists and seize their equipment.

But the streets of Cairo themselves have been the medium that has carried the message of the Egyptian people. So have the streets of Alexandria, Suez, and other Egyptian cities. And the government's efforts to keep people off those streets have failed completely."
And Tahrir Square was not just a convenient place to hold a rally. Hey, we're about equidistant between most of our homes, plenty of space to work with, let's start gathering here. No, the fact that the message was brought to the center of the capital city itself conveyed meaning. The central public square is likewise the impromptu location for celebration.


Dave Reid said...

@Daniel, I was just starting on the very same article!:) Might still write mine.

Daniel Nairn said...

After I finished writing this, I discovered that Sarah Goodyear had written something very similar a full two weeks earlier. Go ahead with it. The more the merrier!

Dave Reid said...

Great minds think alike:)

Eric Orozco said...

The inflection point in these revolutions is the point at when the people on the streets lose fear. This is less like a revolution and more like an unveiling. The Wizard of the regime is exposed behind the filamentary gauze of his police narrative: that only he can mobilize the unity and destiny of a people. He has evangelize the people with this narrative. It is a contestation between faith narratives. This is partly why regimes often need big building projects says Larry Vale (see his essay in Cities and Sovereignty)... so, savvy tyrants, to your point, actually do engage the public realm.

It is such a pleasure to witness a people awakening.

Bob Giordano said...

Great article. Several of us have been discussing this in Missoula. We are now pushing forward with proposal to create a public square here. A piazza, a gathering place, a green space, a circle: whatever we call them, they seem essential for democracy.

We are planning a series of events to gather input on the proposal. Please contact me with ideas/suggestions to: 406-880-6834 or

thanks, -Bob Giordano, Missoula Institute For Sustainable Transportation

Anonymous said...

It can't truly work, I think this way.