The Arab Revolution Takes Back the Public Space

February 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Source: Critiqual Enquiry by Nasser Rabbat

Protest at Tahrir square. Photo via BBC News

[…] The mosque was the premier public space in the Islamic city, the equivalent of the agora in the ancient Greek city and the public square in the medieval Western city. In fact, in the case of the numerous cities of Antiquity that were absorbed by the expanding Islamic caliphate, such as Damascus, Antioch, Alexandria, Cordoba, and later Constantinople (Istanbul), the open space of the main congregational mosque may have actually, and probably consciously, replaced the agora in both its urban and political functions. […] Like the agora, the mosque provided the space in the city where the male, adult population exercised its political rights, particularly on Friday, when the community reconfirmed its allegiance to its leader or withdrew it. […] The mosque thus offered a space for an early “Islamic form of democracy”, but later lost its “political function”.

[…]Modern Arab states witnessed major changes in their social, economic, and cultural structures that were Western-influenced and sometimes Western-implemented […]. These transformations translated into alterations to the built environment. […] Old historic cities — shortly thereafter to be dubbed Islamic cities— saw their layouts open to modern interventions that cut through their fabrics and sat uneasily next to or on top of their traditional plans. Concurrently, new urban extensions branched out of the old cities’ cores and in many instances sapped their vitality by absorbing most of their upper class and wealthy inhabitants and most of their economic and social functions. Furthermore, some of these extra-muros new districts were built exclusively for foreigners who were invited by local or colonial authorities to run the modernization process and to profit from it and who were thus accorded most of its amenities, such as modern houses, parks, boulevards, and public spaces. These districts, adjacent as they were to the old cities, were nonetheless entirely separated from them by spatial, legal, and behavioral barriers, although some seepage occurred both ways. The end result, however, was that cities like Algiers, Tunis, Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and Aleppo and many other smaller cities entered the twentieth century with two poorly reconciled and heavily hybridized halves: a pseudo-modern and a faux-traditional one.

A new form of public space, the plaza or the square, started appearing in the late 19th century […] The maydan, [a type of open space already in existence in Arab cities], sometimes doubled as an open-air market place, or was even appropriated by the populace for public protest, [but] it was always the privileged space of the rulers and was never considered a civic space […]. The new squares, on the other hand, […] were imported as complete forms, which had been conceived, tested, contested, and settled elsewhere. They had no local history that would have endowed them with meaning, as they had not been shaped by a political struggle similar to the one that marked the evolution of the square or the city center in premodern European cities. Moreover, plazas or squares in Arab cities have been imposed mostly by the colonial authorities, either to provide the colonial settlers with a familiar European urban environment, as was the case in most cities of the Maghreb from Morocco to Algeria to Tunisia, or to distinguish the new developments from the traditional city, as was the case in pre-colonial and colonial Egypt and in the cities of Bilad al-Sham and Iraq. In both cases, however, the authorities were also enacting a system of spatial control with wide, straight boulevards radiating from the squares that enabled surveillance, military movement, and crowd control.

Though new to the local culture, many plazas and squares assumed civic meanings in the public eye when the nationalist movements of the early 20th century revolted against their colonial rulers. The squares were consecrated by the blood of protestors who demonstrated for independence and clashed with colonial forces there, or by their use for the execution of national revolutionaries by the colonial forces or their local agents. Thus, many squares in various Arab cities, such as Beirut, Damascus, Tripoli, Algiers, and Aden, acquired the very revealing name of midan al-shuhada or sahat al-shuhada (square of the martyrs) to commemorate the martyrs of independence. After independence, many of these squares became the choice place for national celebrations and parades and, sometimes, political and social protests […].

Public squares too lost their burgeoning civic role to become stages for the speeches of the supreme leader thundering in front of thousands of seemingly adoring citizens, in many instances forcibly rounded up from their places of work or study to fill the squares. […] Manipulating public squares as theaters for the exercise of their cult of personality […] with the erection of larger-than-life-size statues of themselves in all the major squares of the cities in their countries, probably in imitation of Communist strongmen in Europe and Asia.

Thus the two potential public spaces of political expression in the city, the (remembered) mosque and the (imported) plaza, were denied their civic function for anywhere between thirty and fifty years of despotic rule across the Arab World depending on the country. […] It was thus such a surprise when the Arab revolutions of 2011 managed to re-enlist both spaces in the service of a new form of civil protest and to succeed against tremendous odds. The surprise was even more startling, at least for the students of Arab history, to realize that the two spaces functioned in tandem despite the decades of mistrust between the religious movements, which saw the mosque as their sanctuary, and the populist, generally left-leaning, political movements, which recalled the days when the public squares were their favorite arena.

[…] In most revolting cities, the mosques (at least many mosques) operate as the relatively safe gathering spot for protestors (who are not all worshippers or even Muslims) and, in many instances, as the environment in which their political dissatisfaction is magnified and vindicated in sermons and in shouted slogans. They come out of their mosques imbued with the will to march and to face up to their oppressors and their brutal attacks. The mosques as such become the incubators of political protest in an updated […] In the scheme of demonstrations perfected by the Arab revolutions, the small rallies emanating from the mosques (and other gathering places in the city) converge on the square. Sometimes the security forces block the way to the square and the demonstrators retreat to their mosques or disperse to prepare for a comeback.

[…] The Squares sometimes morph into the places where they live, sleep, pray, socialize, demonstrate, and shape their destiny. Many lost their lives defending their squares, and their burgeoning revolution therein, against the attacks of the security forces and the regime’s thugs (named differently in different countries). Others found meaning to their life in finally breaking the chain of fear and revolting against the regimes that had dehumanized them for so long. In fact, squares such as Tahrir Square in Cairo, Taghyir (Change) Square in San‘a, and Sahat al-Sa‘a (Square of the Clock, renamed Freedom Square) in Homs have come to frame the Arab revolutions and to represent their exuberance and anguish at the same time. To a world that watches with wonderment, they have acquired the same mystique that other squares of revolution had gained before: the Place de la Bastille in Paris, the Red Square in Moscow, the Azadi Square in Tehran, and, most famously for our short memoried present, Tienamen Square in Beijing.

The new revolutionary episode on the path to Arab liberation has facilitated a kind of dialog between the spaces of tradition and the spaces of modernity in the city that may result in a new civil order, an order in which the revived mosque, with what it represents, is not the antithesis of the reclaimed square, nor is it its substitute. […]Both [the mosque and the square] are regaining their civil roles. […] In this new order, both spaces shelter and nurture the expression of the people’s civil rights. […] And both spaces together address on the urban level the kind of synthesis that the modern Arab culture has been searching for form some time: how to reconcile a heritage overloaded with strong notions of identity and particularity with a modernity that is essential for contemporary life, but is nonetheless imported, sometimes imposed, and allegedly manipulated in ways detrimental to indigenous self-expression?

>>>> This is a shortened version. For full article (and footnotes) click here.

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