Today, Midan Al Tahrir is regarded as the symbolic heart of Cairo and serves as a central character in any retelling of the Egyptian revolution. But, the square did not always play such a prominent role in Egyptian society, and, in fact, was essentially slated for obsolescence by the 2006 Cairo Vision 250 study. In his excellent piece, “Backwater, Edges, Center: Tahrir Shaped,” Khaled Adham traces the history of Midan Al Tahrir from its origin as a marshy plot of land revealed when the Nile altered its course during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, to its present-day fame.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century and throughout Cairo’s subsequent historical periods, Midan Al Tahrir has successively acquired entangled layers of symbolic significance for Egyptians, which are today either embedded in the pantheon of its buildings or stored in the memory of the place from past iterations of national events: namely, funerals, celebrations, and protests.
Throughout its history, Midan Al Tahrir was never a carefully planned, delineated public space like those of Ismailia but rather an adapting product of political and economic changes.
Instead, the vast urban space of Midan Al Tahrir has been maintained functionally and symbolically as a liminal space between downtown Cairo (the Ismailia quarter) and the expanding metropolis to its west. It exists between the residential blocks that form its eastern edge and the institutional buildings that enclose it nearly from all other sides, or, to put it differently, between the city and the state. Whether during the colonial or postcolonial era, Midan Al Tahrir has functioned as a spatial symbol of the Egyptian society’s struggle for freedom against oppressive authority.
In a way, the occupation of Midan Al Tahrir in January 2011 represents the ultimate irony of the revolution: on the one hand, the January revolution saved Midan Al Tahrir from the authority’s future plans that would have deprived the midan of its cultural and political symbolic centrality.
On the other hand, the revolution was a rebellion against the authority and the liberal laissez-faire economic regime which produced the midan in the first place.
It is not clear how events will unfold in the coming years, but recent developments bring many questions to the fore; among them: How will Cairenes reinvent Midan Al Tahrir in the emerging post-postcolonial era? What new spaces of civic representation and civil society will emerge from the transition now underway? Will Tahrir remain the urban political center of the city and the nation? Or are we going to experience yet another shift in urban centrality?