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Cairo 2013: In a conceptual struggle

Christian Müller

Tweeëneenhalf jaar geleden schreef Christian Müller naar aanleiding van de gebeurtenissen in Egypte een optimistisch artikel over het begin van een ontwikkeling naar meer publiek domein in de stad. De update van hem stemt minder vrolijk.

Nabeel Elhady, one of the leaders of the 2011 revolution,  wrote down his incisive view on Tahrir square. I met architect Elhady for the first time when I was for work in Cairo myself, February 2011, during the days of the revolution. We debated "Drop everything and go to Tahrir Square" in the context of a panel discussion at Cairo University, Faculty of Engineering. During the demonstrations in early 2011 and the revolution that followed, Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square) showed just how important and emotionally charged this square is to freedom of expression. The events in and around the square marked the start of a development towards a public sphere in the city. Elhady explained that the Friday prayers during the demonstration represented the first instance of a the public realm in Cairo during Egypt's period of dictatorship – created on location, from the bottom up, by the people. Back from Cairo I summarised my experiences and encounters in the article "Cairo 2011: Architecture by the people", published by Archined, on 16 March 2011.

Two years later, with the announcement that Islamist president Morsi was toppled by the military, Tahrir Square is still and again an international symbol of the revolution.

The comment by Elhady is perfectly timed to question this when he states "Tahrir and other squares of Egypt now are not public places any more, as they stopped tolerating not only different opinions but more importantly different people".

The second email I received late August 2013 is even more shocking in its visual impact. Professor A. [name kept secret for safety, known to archined], respected teacher at Cairo University, sent images showing educational facilities blasted away and reduced to ashes. Main infrastructure in all sectors is undergoing systemic destruction. Even though his mail may be driven by personal emotions, and is difficult for outsiders to verify, the message is unquestionable: Education is made impossible.

Looking back at February 2011, students of different religions (Muslims, Copts) and atheists celebrated their hope for a bright future of country and personal career, and joy and tolerance predominated then. Two short years after that, the very same auditorium and classrooms have been 'fully demolished'.

Egypt, in a struggle between hope and despair.