The Egyptian government has covered the main squares in the country, which witnessed significant protests during the period between 2011-2013, with new features, apparently to tighten control over areas that have acquired significant symbolic connotations and to prevent future demonstrations. Perhaps the most prominent of these squares whose features have changed is Tahrir Square in central Cairo. Authorities have deployed Pharaonic antiquities and security guards from private companies under the pretext of development. These “developments” also took place in Rabaa al-Adawiya square, east of Cairo, when the government built a bridge above it. Al-Nahda square (west of Cairo) also closed for a long time whilst the government carried out colossal construction work, including digging a tunnel under it. “Developments” also took place in major squares in the different governorates, the most prominent of which was the Clock Square in Damietta (the Nile Delta / North), which was a witness to the protests of the Egyptians during the revolution, and now no more than five people are allowed to gather in it.
Tahrir Square is symbolic and charged with political connotations. Its name transcends borders and dams around the world, as it was considered the cradle of the Egyptian revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Two years later the square filled again with huge crowds, this time to pressure the removal of Mohamed Morsi, the first elected president of the country.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was commander of the army at the time of the military coup, celebrated his departure. Al-Sisi’s supporters believe that 2013 was the correction of a mistake, a revision that allowed al-Sisi to reach the presidency a year later and achieve stability in the country. Short words engraved on the ancient obelisk erected in the centre of the square indicate the regime’s thinking. The inscribed words say that Tahrir Square symbolises “the freedom and steadfastness of the Egyptian people,” after it “witnessed the beginning of the events of the 1919 revolution (against colonialism) and the events of the January 25, 2011 revolution, then in the June 30, 2013 revolution, became a symbol of Egyptians and their freedom.” As for al-Sisi’s opponents, the year 2013 marks a comprehensive campaign of repression that erased the revolution.
Rare anti-Sisi protests in September of last year resulted in a security cordon being erected around Tahrir Square and led to a wave of arrests, after which passers-by were stopped and searched regularly. In recent weeks, security guards from the Egyptian Falcon Group have appeared. As renovation work continues, they have been rushing towards pedestrians approaching the ruins. Some archaeologists were concerned about preserving four sandstone statues that resemble the Sphinx, with the lion’s body and ram’s head, due to their presence at a crossroads crowded with cars and passers-by. Near the square, on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which witnessed successive events after the 2011 revolution, the authorities removed all the pictures the revolutionaries drew, erasing all of what happened.
In a related matter, after the dispersal of Morsi’s supporters at the sit-in in Rab’a in August 2013, the authorities worked to change the features of the place that witnessed the dispersal. The regime paid EGP 90 million ($5.65 million) to renovate the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, which included a field hospital for the wounded and dead during the dispersal process, and built a fountain in the shape of two hands holding a ball, to symbolise the army and the police and their containment of the people. Later, a decision was issued to name the square as Hisham Barakat Square, after the name of the former Attorney General of Egypt, who was assassinated in 2015. Later, the authorities built a bridge over the square, to completely change its features.
The same policy was repeated in al-Nahda Square, which witnessed a similar sit-in held by Morsi’s supporters. The regime changed the square’s features, after removing evidence of the dispersal, including the burning of tents and bodies.
Al-Sisi directed that the name of the square be changed from al-Nahda to the square of the heroic martyr Satia al-Nuamani, after the name of one of the officers who participated in breaking up the sit-in. This was before a tunnel was constructed under the square, causing significant traffic diversions, which completely changed the features of the square.
Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, Khaled Fahmy, who participated in the 2011 revolution and ran a short-lived committee to document it, says: “I think that the main message is that people are not related to these squares, it is not their own… just the regime owns these squares.” Fahmy adds that the authorities view the discussions that took place, the meetings that were held, and the banners raised in 2011 as “severe sabotage,” that must be erased.