In saying anything about the past couple weeks’ events in Egypt, we have to begin by saying that we know little about Egypt. (What we do know — that it is absolutely appropriate to celebrate the downfall of a tyrant, however limited our understanding of Egypt may be and however complicit America has been in sustaining that tyrant — is well said here by Will Wilkinson.)
With that caveat in place, there is one specific aspect of these events (or, really, the analysis of these events) that we find curious. It has been hard to escape the flood of commentary (for example) that attributes the catalysis and successful organization of the revolution to Twitter and Facebook. But despite the key role that Tahrir Square played and how closely it became associated with the revolution itself, there has been little analysis of the role of public space — which we find just as interesting as the role of social media — in a successful revolution . (One notable exception to this that we are aware of is the New York Times‘ day-by-day mapping of the protests here and here.)
Questions come easily to mind. How would the revolution have been different if the public spaces of Cairo were different? What if the protestors had been forced to carry out their protests on narrow streets, where the sheer magnitude of the crowd could never be captured in a single gaze, as it could in Tahrir? Both the pitched din of outrage carried across social media and the pitched battles between protestors and pro-Mubarak forces occurred in kinds of space (albeit very different kinds of space), but can a revolution sustain itself in space without becoming physically instantiated? How does this relationship change when physical space can be hacked from virtual space? What conclusions about the role of public space in peaceful revolution could be drawn from a comparative study of how revolutionaries used the public spaces of Tunis, Cairo, and Alexandria?
[via The Big Picture]
This story in the Wall Street Journal (not behind a paywall at the time of this post, but that may change) paints a fascinating picture of the ways in which the planners of the Egyptian protests considered specific spatial characteristics of their city in tandem with the logistics of communication, the willingness of potential participants to join, and the expected resistance from establishment organizations:
They chose 20 protest sites, usually connected to mosques, in densely populated working-class neighborhoods around Cairo. They hoped that such a large number of scattered rallies would strain security forces, draw larger numbers and increase the likelihood that some protesters would be able to break out and link up in Tahrir Square.
The group publicly called for protests at those sites for Jan. 25, a national holiday celebrating the country’s widely reviled police force. They announced the sites of the demonstrations on the Internet and called for protests to begin at each one after prayers at about 2 p.m.
But that wasn’t all.
“The 21st site, no one knew about,” Mr. Kamel said.
They sent small teams to do reconnaissance on the secret 21st site. It was the Bulaq al-Dakrour neighborhood’s Hayiss Sweet Shop, whose storefront and tiled sidewalk plaza—meant to accommodate outdoor tables in warmer months—would make an easy-to-find rallying point in an otherwise tangled neighborhood no different from countless others around the city.
The plotters say they knew that the demonstrations’ success would depend on the participation of ordinary Egyptians in working-class districts like this one, where the Internet and Facebook aren’t as widely used. They distributed fliers around the city in the days leading up to the demonstration, concentrating efforts on Bulaq al-Dakrour.
In the days leading up to the demonstration, organizers sent small teams of plotters to walk the protest routes at various speeds, to synchronize how separate protests would link up.
On Jan. 25, security forces predictably deployed by the thousands at each of the announced demonstration sites. Meanwhile, four field commanders chosen from the organizers’ committee began dispatching activists in cells of 10. To boost secrecy, only one person per cell knew their destination.
The other marches organized at mosques around the city failed to reach Tahrir Square, their efforts foiled by riot-police cordons. The Bulaq al-Dakrour marchers, the only group to reach their objective, occupied Tahrir Square for several hours until after midnight, when police attacked demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets.
It was the first time Egyptians had seen such a demonstration in their streets, and it provided a spark credited with emboldening tens of thousands of people to come out to protest the following Friday. On Jan. 28, they seized Tahrir Square again. They have stayed there since.
[via The Atlantic]
But why was Tahrir Square so important to the success of the protest?
A reading of the urban space of Cairo informed by both the revolution and Canetti’s Crowds and Power might go a long ways towards answering this. After opening the book with an argument that “there is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown”, Canetti continues:
It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched… the crowd he needs is the dense crowd, in which body is pressed to body; a crowd, too, whose physical constitution is also dense or compact, so that he no longer notices who it is that presses against him… the more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other. This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is the greatest.
The open and closed crowd
As soon as [the crowd] exists at all, it wants to consist of more people: the urge to grow is the first and supreme attribute of the crowd. It wants to seize everyone within reach; anything shaped like a human being can join it. The natural crowd is the open crowd; there are no limits whatever to its growth; it does not recognize houses, doors or locks and those who shut themselves in are suspect. “Open is to be understood here in the fullest sense of the word; it means open everywhere and in any direction. The open crowd exists so long as it grows; it disintegrates as soon as it stops growing.
For just as suddenly as it originates, the crowd disintegrates. In its spontaneous form it is a sensitive thing. The openness which enables it to grow is, at the same time, its danger. A foreboding of threatening disintegration is always alive in the crowd. It seeks, through rapid increase, to avoid this for as long as it can; it absorbs everyone, and, because it does, must ultimately fall to pieces.
In contrast to the open crowd which can grow indefinitely and which is of universal interest because it may spring up anywhere, there is the closed crowd.
The closed crowd renounces growth and puts the stress on permanence. The first thing to be noticed about it is that it has a boundary. It establishes itself by accepting its limitation. It creates a space for itself which it will fill. This space can be compared to a vessel into which liquid is being poured and whose capacity is known. The entrances to this space are limited in number, and only these entrances can be used; the boundary is respected whether it consists of stone, of solid wall, or of some special act of acceptance, or entrance fee. Once the space is completely filled, no one else is allowed in. Even if there is an overflow, the important thing is always the dense crowd in the closed room; those standing outside do not really belong.
The boundary prevents disorderly increase, but it also makes it more difficult for the crowd to disperse and so postpones its dissolution. In this way the crowd sacrifices its chance of growth, but in staying power. It is protected from outside influences which could become hostile and dangerous and it sets its hope on repetition. It is the expectation of reassembly which enables its members to accept each dispersal. The building is waiting for them; it exists for their sake and, so long as it is there, they will be able to meet in the same manner. The space is theirs, even during the ebb, and in its emptiness it reminds them of the flood.
[from open protest to closed camp - click through to BBC for interactive version]
What’s instructive about Canetti’s crowd theory is the importance it places on a crowd’s self-perception, particularly how it perceives its own density, which in turn affects its ability to either grow forcefully or remain resilient. Social media clearly can augment these perceptions, especially during the nascent stages of a protest (and, of course, provides space for lines of communication that are not available in physical space). But when a revolution like Egypt’s calls for bodies in the streets, the space of those streets deserves detailed consideration as well.
It’s easy to imagine this becoming a terrific urban design studio — streets for people extended to streets for permanent revolution, re-working the fabric of cities to better accommodate the ability of the seemingly-powerless masses to exert their mass against ruling elites — thick with both exciting spatial possibilities and thorny ethical problems.
[Thanks to Nam Henderson for some of the above links. Also check out the website for the Urban Design and Civil Protest exhibit (h/t Kush Patel), particularly Max Page's essay, for more on this topic.]