In the last few years an abridged narrative of the Egyptian popular movement has been limited to Tahrir Square—especially for the years 2011 and 2012, before the masses were polarized between those who demonstrated outside the Ittihadiya Palace and those in Rabia Al Adawiya Square.
In the last few years an abridged narrative of the Egyptian popular movement has been limited to Tahrir Square—especially for the years 2011 and 2012, before the masses were polarized between those who demonstrated outside the Ittihadiya Palace and those in Rabia Al Adawiya Square. The media played a major role in marginalizing the mass movement in Egypt’s various cities and governorates, which arose first in January and February 2011, just prior to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, and then again in November of that same year, in solidarity with the revolutionary movement in Mohammed Mahmoud Street, which runs between Tahrir Square and the Interior Ministry, when a clear and precise timetable for handing over power from the Military Council through direct presidential elections in 2012 was taken off the table.
I was lucky enough to be touring through a number of governorates in the north and south of the country to document aspects of revolutionary involvement there, not to mention my personal involvement in, and the media coverage I provided of, the first eighteen days of the revolution (from January 25 to February 11, 2011) in my hometown of Alexandria.
With my own eyes I saw massive crowds marching dozens of kilometres each day through the streets of my city without stopping for a single sit-in in the cold, blustery conditions—quite unlike the warm, rainless sit-ins in Tahrir Square that provided a fixed centre where revolutionaries could meet and from where they could depart again, as individuals rather than en masse.
I spent three years rejecting the superficial, centralized abridged version of the mass movement that was used to fashion a monolithic narrative, a legend called, “Tahrir Square.” I leaned towards more inclusive terms, like “the squares and streets of Tahrir,” making the word “square” plural and including those streets that had witnessed genuine protest marches, not just motionless gatherings. And it also brought the word “Tahrir” back to its original meaning, which is “liberation” in English, instead of treating it as a road sign, its meaning limited to a location.
I was one of those who regarded the confinement of the revolutionary scene to Tahrir as un-revolutionary and reactionary. In other words, a move to reproduce centralism, marginalizing everything that lay outside the centre of power and so reasserting the monopoly of the capital city’s elite and its senior political and media players over the voice of some ninety million citizens, whose social, economic, cultural, intellectual, ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity and differences cannot be contained and understood in a single capital city in which crowds, noise, pollution, daily struggle, depression and lack of space are concentrated. What I am trying to say is that it deserves its name, Al Qahira (The Vanquisher) because it is the capital of qahr, of “subjugation.”
In the spring of 2013 it so happened that I moved house, going to live in the historical neighbourhood of Al Zaher, which richly deserves its reputation as the centre of religious diversity in Egypt. The neighbourhood was named after the famous Mamluk sultan, Al Zaher Baybars. Today, cars circle a broad square around the Al Fasih Mosque, built more than five centuries ago and considered the second largest mosque in Cairo after the Amr Ibn Al Aas Mosque, itself unique amongst the city’s mosques for being without dome or minaret. There are also four closed Jewish synagogues and a number of other historic buildings associated with Egyptian Jewish sects like the Rabbanites and Karaites.
Moving out from the centre we encounter a number of churches and monasteries as well as various Christian schools, associations and institutes. All in all, the district is a delightful and sprawling site of religious and ethnic diversity, the like of which is to be found nowhere else in Egypt. In the space of a few square kilometres, Copts, Armenians, Greeks, Syriacs, Chaldoneans and Maronites live side-by-side with European monastic orders like the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans.
My new job was in Talaat Harb Street in the heart of Khedival Cairo—that district known as Wast Al Balad, or Downtown—so each day I had to make my way through the squares of Bab Al Shariya and Ataba, or otherwise go via Ramses Square where Cairo’s main train station, Mahatet Masr, stands.
Through a combination of these daily walks, observing the sights and sounds in the squares around me, reading extensively about the history of Cairo and its streets and squares, and poring over maps of the city, I found myself more open to the idea of compressing the million square kilometres of the Arab Republic of Egypt into one square within its capital city: of reducing the diversity of ninety million people into the few hundred thousand that might on special occasions fill the square. I still reject the political, administrative, economic and media centralization of Cairo, but I have warmed a little to the idea of Cairo as a symbolic centre. I find myself more accommodating to the concept of a temporary, conditional abridgment, with the aim of listening to and studying the story of a people as told by a single square.
Which squares have the greatest right to tell their tale?
The passing months revealed that the idealism of Tahrir Square, which characterized its occupation in the early days of the revolution, was devoid of the social and cultural roots capable of securing its survival until the January Revolution’s utopian vision of a future Egypt was realised. Political polarization also played its part in distorting the square, which had been a a cradle for Egyptian dreams of change for the better without marginalizing any group, however weak or small. In the summer of 2011, Tahrir became a stage for displays of the organizational and mobilizing strength of Islamist groups, and then, one year on from celebrations of Mohammed Morsi’s electoral victory, it hosted the anti-Brotherhood mass protests of June 30, 2013. Finally, it transformed once more, this time into a symbol of the violent and mob-like sexual assaults that accompanied the inauguration of Abdel Fattah El Sisi, mere months after it had witnessed the farcical spectacle of the police band playing amid the very crowds that two years previously had been murdered by the police and army working in tandem. Now, work is underway to beautify Tahrir Square in preparation for the reopening of one of the vast international hotels that overlook it, after the space had been closed to the public and declared off limits for demonstrations and protests, and the metro station shut down for over a year. In less than three years, the legend of Tahrir Square is over, the legend of the place where mobilization was an expression, not of a people’s revolution so much as unrest, uncertainty and a complete absence of vision.
Strolling on foot, circling on my bike, staring out through the windshield of my car, I saw, in the crowds moving beneath the gaze of ancient buildings and past the shops and stores along the road, the story of a people that could never be told top-down, i.e.: from a perspective that starts with successive regimes and then descends to the lowest levels of society. For this reason, the centrality of Tahrir Square—at the heart of government: so near to Parliament, the cabinet offices and the most important ministerial offices—can be taken as an appropriate starting point for understanding the evolution of governance in Egypt, but it can never function as an expression of Egyptian society. On the other hand, the excessive hustle and bustle around Ramses Square robs the observer, trying to make sense of what is going on, of the ability to focus. Ramses Station has earned its sobriquet of “Egypt Station,” with people from all corners of the country passing through on a daily basis, arriving and departing, but the crowds and chaos and din render even the idea of careful observation a joke.
Only Ataba Square has the ability to convince an avowed opponent of Cairo’s centrality that this capital—which permits the screeching voice of its elite to marginalize at will—contains a populist narrative that gives voice to the marginalized in their eternal struggle against the centre of governance and its dominance.Ataba Square does not achieve this with its history, its architectural monuments or its dilapidated green spaces, but rather with the movement of people through and about it, down surrounding streets, over its bridges and along its tunnels. Here you can find yourself a spot in one corner and listen to and watch centuries worth of history moving about you in the form of pedestrians, cars, porters and street vendors.
Ataba Square combines two narratives, the social and the political. It is not the centre of governance and the elite like the world-famous Tahrir Square, its legend built up over the last three years, and it is not a purely working-class square like that outside Egypt Station, nor those in ancient neighbours like Bab Al Shariya and Bab Al Khalq, nor even the plazas outside the mosques and mosoleums where every year moulids are held—festivals around the resting places of the righteous and the Prophet’s family, peace be upon him.
Why Ataba Square, though? Good question. The square’s unique location enables it to combine the contradictions of the city that is the capital of government and the home to hordes of subjects. It is the passageway between old Cairo and the modern city. Just a few metres away from the Fire Brigade Building, whose clock once signaled Cairo time before being removed to the dome of the university, you can stand on the corner where two streets converge. One street takes people to the mosques of Al Sultan Hassan and Al Rifaei, in the environs of Saladin’s Qalaa (citadel) on the Muqattam Hill, while the other leads off towards Abdeen Palace, to where Khedive Ismail moved the seat of government from the Qalaa in the second half of the nineteenth century. But looking at the minarets of the Al Sultan Hassan and Al Rifaei mosques at the far end of Mohammed Ali Street then turning to Sultan Abdel Azizi Street towards Abdeen Palace, you don’t see the transition of the centre of power from citadel to palace divorced from your own position in the flow of people coming and going from Moski, Bab Al Shariya, and the district around the Al Azhar and Al Hussein mosques in Fatimid Cairo.
This is where the story begins.
What does Ataba Square say?
The square’s meaning is first and last a meeting point for people coming from various places and making for others. Squares in general are witnesses to what the comings and goings and circlings of people tell us, and more than most Ataba is an open ledger in which the mobile masses can scribble lines that the authorities’ official narrative has no interest in setting down. The genius of this square lies in its obdurate insistence on being a witness, a record of major social, economic and political transformations without becoming one of the main players in such events. Indeed, it was rather shaped by them as a backstage area in the conflict between the authorities and the people, between the centralized capital and the representatives of the margins that frequented the centre, between the majority and numerous and diverse minorities.
A casual visitor to Ataba Square doesn’t need to have a deep knowledge of its history, or of the evolution of its name from “Blue Ataba” to “Green Ataba,” or of the decline and neglect it has witnessed, to understand that he is surrounded by architectural jewels, their splendour and beauty now masked by accumulated layers of dust, dirt, and disorder, encircled by ugly modernist buildings that resemble stacked boxes.
Ataba Square saw Ahmed Orabi and his troops marching down to Abdeen Palace. Its immediate surroundings were off-limits to Egyptians and Orabi’s revolution reached its peak when he and his men trampled through the palace gardens. On the edge of the square is Al Bousta Café (later known as Matatia) where Gamal Al Din Al Afghani once sat, a semi-circle of great minds arrayed at his feet, listening and learning through the night until the sun rose. I can see Mohammed Abdo, Saad Zaghloul and Mahmoud Sami Al Baroudi and picture their daily routine, entering the café then leaving, in defiance of the rumours by which their enemies sought to discredit them, claiming that Al Afghani and his students took drugs and boozed in the café after midnight. Then I see the café empty, its gathering scattered to the winds: the police have arrested Sheikh Al Afghani and his servant and taken them to Suez from where they will be sent into exile in India on the orders of Khedive Tewfik, son of Ismail.
I picture my eyes pinned up on the dome of the Tiring Building, a surveillance camera watching the traffic through the square morning and evening, then assembling a full century’s-worth of recordings. I take the tapes and edit them together, speeding up the movement so that weeks and months spool past in seconds.
I see the poor, barefooted and in their unadorned galabeyas, gathering to watch the demonstrations mounted by the men of the fire brigade. I see the tram lines running together, their passengers swapping seats as they travel from East and South Cairo to Imbaba on the Nile’s western bank, passing over the island of Zamalek on the Aboul Ela Bridge, now disappeared. I see the British army and Egyptian police conduct joint patrols by morning then each go their separate ways by night: the occupation soldiers filling the brothels of Clot Bey Street and the Egyptians scampering off to the bars and cabarets in Mohammed Ali Street. I see crowds coming from Egypt Station to fill Ataba Square as the saints’ festivals get underway, those moulids to which people come from all over Egypt, singly and in groups, arriving at Ramses Square then making their way to Ataba, before heading out to the mosques of Al Hussein and Sayyida Zeinab, or elsewhere.
Looking towards Moski, I see the Franciscans entering the monastery and a few more leaving. By night I watch limousines taking guests to weddings at the Jewish synagogue in Adly Street. Nor can I ignore the green expanse of the Ezbekiya Gardens, where the city centre breathes clean air. I see the trucks arrive in the evening to spray water, leaving the square gleaming by morning, the hour when the office workers, the biggest merchants and the richest customers are to be found.
In Ataba Square I see all manner of men: Europeans displaced from the homelands by war, walking side-by-side with light-skinned effendis, while all around them are dark Nubians and Sudanese. My eye is just able to distinguish between the people it sees, to tell their jobs from what they wear and not the colour of their skin, for everyone here abides by the code of clothing. The shop-workers, the guards outside the buildings, the soldiers, students, vendors and clerks: everyone has their own uniform and appearance. Evening comes and I see the elegant attire worn for evenings on the town, swishing from open-topped cars outside the steps of the old Opera House. A few seconds pass and now I see a rowdy mob, marching through the square on their way to burn the shops of Egyptian Jews, who will pay the price for the patriotic and religious fervor being stoked by Muslim Brotherhood and the Young Egypt Party, with no distinction being drawn between Zionist ideology and the Jewish faith, between settler colonialism in Palestine and Egyptian Jews, descendants of Mousa Bin Maimoun, personal physician to Saladin himself. Moments later I see the great fire of Cairo advancing from the direction of Abdeen, consuming hotels, offices, restaurants and cafes, and I see huge crowds imploring Gamal Abdel Nasser not to step down following the defeat of 1967, then even greater crowds gathered to mourn him and accompany him on his final journey.
The seconds tick by and I hear cries of joy and see huge bowls carrying sweet drink to mark victory in the October War, after the end of day of fasting on the tenth day of Ramadan, 1973. From the direction of Naguib Al Rihani Street on the far side of the square I hear the bells of St. Mark’s Church being rung in celebration. I see the Jewish lawyer Shehata Haroun passing through the square on his way to Adly Street, where he will insist on entering the synagogue during the visit of Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin and in the presence of President Sadat proclaim his rejection of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty contracted in 1979. I turn my gaze and find Abdel Aziz Street in a state of chaos, packed with the thousands of electric appliances that mark Egypt’s entry into the corrupt open market, a blind eye turned to the illegal activities of the traders and their disregard for the rights of ordinary men and women to their public space.
I bring the film reel to a halt and walk over to Ataba Square myself to see if I can spot where my virtual surveillance camera should be, hanging on the dome of the Tiring building, faded and bleached beneath layers of dust, and I almost spy it there between the vendors’ stacked tables. I can still pick a spot from where to watch, but entering the square in a car is to risk losing time better spent touring around. On my tour, the square, communicating through its constant movement, tells me much about what it experienced during the reign of Hosni Mubarak and the years of the failed revolution and successful coup.
Ataba Square remains a symbol of a Cairo confused, a city halfway between Al Azhar and the European Cairo of Khedive Ismail, and a witness to all of modern history: political, economic, architectural, rural and urban. You can wander round and see the way the street names changed to keep in step with the switch from Mohammed Ali’s royal family to the military officer’s republic. Abdeen Street became Republic Street; Mohammed Ali Street became Qalaa Street. Your eyes are not deceiving you—those are crowds of marginalized people from the rural hinterland trudging through the very heart of the city and riding the metro that has come to replace the tram running over-ground. These poor are asserting their right to the city and to work, bypassing an organized struggle in which they petition the authorities for their rights and imposing their own reality on the pavements of the city.
In Ataba Square’s image, both fixed and fluid, one is inundated by corruption- corruption in government projects and public administration. For instance there is the visual horror of Al Azhar Bridge squatting over Gawhar Al Qaed Street, the lack of planning embodied in the slowly collapsing Azhar Tunnel, and the unproductive chaos of the routes leading into Moski and the two thoroughfares of Mohammed Ali and Abdel Aziz streets. You can wander round and with your own eyes see, and with your ears hear, the stories of the marginalized and the minorities that the authorities never noticed and which the revolutionary movement, confined to Tahrir Square, never paid any heed to: one of the main reasons for its social and economic failure.
In a narrow passageway joining Adly Street and Abdel Khaleq Tharwat Street, just before you reach one of the two entrances to the famous café, Groppi’s, you have the great good fortune to be able to stop in at Restaurant Sudan, serving delicious food at low prices. At its tables, or from the chairs of the café nearby, you can learn about the lives of the Sudanese immigrants and refugees. You might catch sight of a man wearing distinctive clothing and a green turban, then discover that he is fact an Egyptian national from the Bishariya or Ababda tribes in the contested regions of Shalateen and Halayab, and that he has come to Cairo to obtain Sudanese citizenship.
Your surprise will disappear when you learn that in Khartoum he will be treated with the dignity owed a first-class citizen, not like he is treated in Egypt, whether in its capital city or its remotest wastes. If you walk a while down Adly Street to the Jewish synagogue you will see the massive security installations outside that hide the building from passers-by, and you would be astonished to learn of the humiliating searches and intensive security checks run on Magda Shehata Haroun, head of Egypt’s Jewish community (or more precisely, one of its few remaining members), as well as other members of the religion, even though they are just a group of old women who only gather there for funerals.
In Ataba Square I strolled along with friends from Sinai who decided not to wear their traditional clothes during their visit to Cairo to better avoid discrimination and abuse. Just as they avoid mistreatment for being Bedouin, or desert tribesmen, or from urban backgrounds in Al Areish, they are also careful to steer clear of any misunderstandings that might lead to shopkeepers and vendors exploiting and deceiving them on the assumption that they are tourists from the Gulf. This actually happened to a Tamazight friend of mine who was still wearing his Siwan clothes. The salesmen thought he was a rich Libyan.
Different walking paths
You can acquaint yourself with the disabled of Egypt—some fifteen per cent of the population—wherever you are in Ataba. Egypt has committed itself to safeguard their rights in accordance with international treaties, but in reality the very opposite is true: there is not a single pavement in Egypt that has been modified to facilitate access to those with reduced mobility, nor a single traffic light equipped with sound to help the visually impaired. As for public transport, first and foremost the metro which is the chief mode of transport in the city centre, there are only a handful of seats set aside for them in each carriage, but other passengers do not vacate them and the transport police never intervene to clear them. Women are safer here than in Tahrir but they are still in the heart of the world capital of visual and verbal harassment.
After catching fire and collapsing, the old Opera House has become a multi-story car park. The greenery of the Ezbekiya gardens has all but disappeared. Vendors have moved off the pavements into the road itself, obliterating the distinctive features of the square and its surrounding streets and obstructing traffic. When a joint force of the police and army recently intervened to clear Downtown of these vendors, using tanks, special forces and automatic weapons, there was no attempt to provide a solution to the vendors’ problems or give them an alternative location. The operation failed to restore people’s sense of ownership of the square. People have grown accustomed to having the pavements taken from them, and now that the pavement has been cleared they continue to walk in the road itself, competing with cars and motorbikes. The masses’ faith in the authorities has not been restored and they feel no ownership of a pavement that is not fit to receive them, nor the disabled among them.
The rulers have departed but the traces of their rule are still to be found here. The statue of Ibrahim Pasha Bin Mohammed Ali, father of Khedive Ismail, still sits astride his horse’s saddle gesturing towards the Supreme Court on the 26th of July Street (previously known as King Fouad Street). The Izam Mosque still contains the remains of the saints whose mosques Ismail tore down to build Ataba Square. The Nubians who frequent the Downtown side of the square still tell their stories of being displaced from their ancient homeland when the High Dam was built, then remaining stuck in Cairo due to the failure of successive governments to fulfill the promise to return them once the waters had settled behind the dam.
The busy trade in electrical appliances in Abdel Aziz Street is a living reminder of Anwar Sadat’s unregulated and corrupt economic policy. As for the vendors and the chaotic movement of cars over the ugly bridge and through the tunnel that may fall in at any moment, these are the most telling legacies of Hosni Mubarak’s policies. High-tech TV screens seen along its sidewalks reflected the role the street played in changing the lives of farmers consuming more television, along with the cash influx from Egyptian exapts returning from the Gulf States before the 1990 war in Kuwait.
People’s movement through Ataba Square also provides a commentary on events since 2011-Atabans paid little heed to the first curfew, imposed shortly before Mubarak was removed, in stark contrast with the way pedestrians and traders observed the army-ordered curfew the evening after the sit-ins in Rabia Al Adawiya and Nahda Square were swept away in August 2013. The revolution never came to Ataba. The square didn’t interact with the revolution, but it certainly responded to the previous regime when it made its comeback on July 3, 2013, in the hope that the old understandings and collaborations between them might continue: that things might go back to the way they were before the revolution. But the story is not over yet. As long as people move through the square there are still pages to be filled and lines to be written.