The Walls of Tahrir

by Jessica Winegar | published January 6, 2013 - 12:40pm

In recent years, walls have proliferated in Egypt. Some, as Samuli Schielke and I write in the new issue of Middle East Report, are liberally decorated with political graffiti and other, more quotidian types of writing. Whether thus adorned or not, the barriers confront citizens with political and economic power rendered in concrete.

Under Mubarak, posh gated communities mushroomed on the outskirts of Cairo to house the elites who had benefited from government privatization schemes, corrupt back-room deals or both. The developers built the ramparts high to keep out the riff-raff. Meanwhile, the government itself walled off public parks, libraries and other facilities, further diminishing the amount of open space accessible to everyone.

In the post-Mubarak era, after each set of clashes in which State Security or its hired hands have attacked and killed protesters, the state has thrown up barricades on some of the nation’s busiest streets. The goal is to block protester access to key government installations. Nowhere is this aim more apparent than at the locus of the revolution: Tahrir Square.

There, several huge cement-block walls now completely obstruct what were once major thoroughfares leading to, through and around the square. Mammoth blocks sit, for example, in Muhammad Mahmoud, Sheikh Rihan, Qasr al-‘Ayni and Mansour Streets, as well as in the nearby Simon Bolivar Square -- thereby cutting off the majority of roadways leading from Tahrir to the much-hated Ministry of the Interior and the Parliament building. Crowds would now have to scale or tear down the walls to demonstrate at those locales. Whatever their “security” justification, the barriers have greatly hindered mobility in a city already infamous for its clogged arteries. With most of the square closed off to transit and a significant portion turned into a parking lot, completely new traffic patterns have emerged.

On one public bus whose route once went through Tahrir, the driver asked passengers to choose an alternative path. Riders debated what he should do: It was midday in December, already a busy time, and rush hour was approaching. Several passengers advised the driver not to take July 26 Street through Bulaq; with the economy tanking and police still absent much of the time, the street has become a vast informal market teeming with peddlers and makeshift stalls. Together, the riders reached a decision upon the avenue least likely to be hopelessly backed up. The state has the brute power to block traffic, but not to dictate the behavior of public-sector bus drivers, who stray from their official routes as needed.

Similar dialogues occur in taxis. The walls are universally despised, but drivers and passengers seem to direct blame according to larger political preference. Those who are frustrated with the Mursi government see the walls as limiting freedom of movement for no good reason, while Mursi backers excoriate revolutionaries for forcing the state to build the barriers.

“I’ve had to go halfway around the world just to get here!” An exasperated man yelled into his cell phone. “Are we colonized or what?” Along with two dozen others, he and I were trying to get from Tahrir Square to a warren of government offices on nearby Qasr al-‘Ayni Street.

Some of us had come in private cars, taxis and buses forced to navigate the convoluted new traffic patterns; others had wandered underground for 15 minutes or more, looking for a way out of the subway station sprawling beneath the square. Several of the exits, all of which once disgorged tens of thousands of passengers and pedestrians above ground every day, are now closed with locked metal doors. The stairs leading upward from the blocked exit at the corner of Muhammad Mahmoud Street, next to the American University in Cairo, are now filled with garbage and human feces. Once on the sidewalks, which are still gouged and broken after the past two years’ confrontations, we had headed in this direction and that, searching in vain for doorways cut into the massive partitions, asking each other which way to go. As we milled about, the inevitable repartee sprang up: Where are you going? How long have you been trying to get there? What kind of country are we living in? One man repeated, “You’ll have to go down to the river to get where you’re going.” Leery of going so far out of the way, we climbed up the sand piles dumped near the walls, hoping to find a quicker, if not easier passage.

We walked to Simon Bolivar Square, a stone’s throw from Tahrir and the site of street battles in late November 2012, but we found that route newly blocked as well. Several of us stopped to watch a group of young men -- many in suits or dress slacks -- as they tried to break through a narrow area of barbed wire between one of the concrete walls and an adjacent metal gate. It was tempting, but most of us decided to avoid the risk of tearing our clothes. Instead, complaining the whole way, we joined the new stream of foot traffic that indeed goes all the way down to the river, heading down the Nile Corniche before looping back to the east, past a US Embassy compound even more fortified than in the past, to the other side of the Tahrir barriers. When we finally arrived at the government offices, a woman asked me for a Kleenex to wipe off her shoes, which had been soiled in the sand piles and torn-up streets.

Most Egyptians need the state, whether for transportation, documentation, secure employment or all three. But the state’s new walls have added gratuitous hassle and dirt to their days, most of which were already aggravating and exhausting before. The barriers are a constant reminder to citizens of the state’s ability to transform the experience of urban space at its very core: the center of the capital city. But just as the writing (political and otherwise) on those walls challenges that power, so does creative driving, the small, ephemeral alliances of everyday conversation, the act of clambering over barbed wire while remaining conscious of one’s dignity and appearance.

Since 1989, it has become commonplace to say that all walls eventually fall. Those in Tahrir Square, though they persist as physical obstacles, are already crumbling as a means of control, thanks to the sheer perseverance and ingenuity of ordinary Egyptians.

Images: Wall across Qasr al-‘Ayni St. near Tahrir Square, December 30, 2012; Metro exit at Muhammad Mahmoud St. and Tahrir Square, December 30, 2012 (Jessica Winegar).