The Arab Street and the Arab Spring

Tahrir Square, Cairo - Image: Shawn Baldwin

Tahrir Square, Cairo – Image: Shawn Baldwin

Once I was in Paris, walking the city’s mesmerising boulevards as part of my own triumphal entry to the city, when I stopped and read in my guidebook that the majesty of those wide, wide streets was only a by-product of their real purpose: to make the armed insurrections you see in Les Misérables impossible. Baron Haussmann made them wide so you can’t build a barricade across them.

Urbanity and revolution are ancient friends because the same reason cities exist – that is, they accelerate material and cultural exchange, and concentrate production and consumption – makes it hard for them to coexist with modern dictators.

Cities are harder to control than the countryside: with all that mingling, identity in the city tends to the hybrid and fractional, which is not what dictators like. Dictators prefer that the nation’s farmers, soldiers and wives strike poses in a national moral tableau, rather than learning from and living among cosmopolitans. For dictators, the cities must be very carefully watched, and (better) filled with monuments, watchtowers and wide sniper lines of sight boulevards, and (best) rebuilt or razed (an elegant primer on this is Deyan Sudjic’s The Architecture of Power).

So, when the Arab world has changed more in the last year than it has in several decades, it should be expected that the spark was put to the tinder in the capital cities. This, despite the fact that Algiers, and Tunis, and Tripoli and Sana’a and Cairo were closely watched and heavily policed.

Of course, it is possible to have cities without urbanity: these are just physical concentrations of people, without the liberating change in their sense of selves and their sense of opportunity that we mean when we say urbanity. Dubai, as discussed yesterday, is a city without urbanity because it lacks the two great engines that make cities real: (1), learning-by-friction – when the conditions of daily life force people to learn about each other simply because they must share communal spaces, transit and resources, and (2), assertion-through-assimilation, whereby this decade’s shoe-shine boys are the next generation’s small business owners (see: New York).

Dubai doesn’t like its own citizens and the rich to mix with its labouring class, and it certainly isn’t giving away the right to be an Emirati to all hardworking arrivals.

In contrast, the cities of the Arab Spring were real and old and they had urbanity, even if the anaesthesia of dictatorship had slowed and dulled it. In fact, this urbanity, acting through its essential physical infrastructure of squares and places of public assembly, became more important as the media and then cellphones and Twitter were blocked by the central state.

You can’t shut down streets and squares with the flick of a switch: they require huge investments of manpower and political capital. Consequently, Tahrir Square emerged as an many-month long protest in which Egyptians physically massed and reclaimed the right to be complex, messy and national, and to disagree with each other, to diverge as Cairenes and Egyptians rather than converge in the person of the dictator.

To quote the Danish scholar :

Protestors turned key urban spaces, which had been created by the incumbent postcolonial regimes as venues glorifying their own endurance, into centers and symbols of contention and resistance of the these very regimes. Activists have during 2011 captured, celebrated and with unprecedented will to personal sacrifice, defended their presence on Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis, on Tahrir Square in Cairo, on Liberation Square in Benghazi, Taghyir Square in Sana’a, on Pearl Square in Manama, and on Clock Square in Homs. None of these places are picked by coincidence. Rather they each offer a double meaning of symbolically representing the incumbent regimes’ political presence and offering a spatial possibility to gather in masses.

Dr Boserup’s powerful phrasing are a reminder that spaces for people, and much of what Future Cape Town and its readers argue for by instinct, are more than a nice-to-have. When the time comes for the city to articulate dissent, they are the actual infrastructure through which the city betters and frees itself, and through which its denizens make known demands that those in power would wish to keep unknown. An often-quoted but probably unmatched saying in politics is that of the queer theorist Samuel Delany, who wrote: ‘[T]he first direct sense of political power comes from the apprehension of massed bodies’.

The expensive lesson of the Arab Spring for Cape Town is therefore that we must learn by friction in order to be urbane, and we must assimilate all comers by expanding what it means to be Capetonian, if we hope to keep oiled and working the infrastructure of dissent.

Middle East Urbanism week shares insights and perspectives during Brett Petzer’s tour of the Middle East – specifically the Levant and the Arabian Gulf. From Petro Urbanism to the Arab Spring and more.

About Brett Petzer

I'm a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at

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