As a teen swept up in social networking, I understand the critical role our new digital commons has played in the democratic uprisings across the Middle East — call Twitter and Facebook the dictator-busters of our age. But I’ve discovered another “commons” that deserves equal attention for its power in transforming the Arab world: the public square.
The ancient squares of the Middle East have never been more relevant to our modern age. During the week that Egypt’s government shut down the media, the protests in Tahrir Square grew larger than ever. Even without the Internet to spur them, hundreds of thousands of protestors converged on Tahrir to overthrow Mubarak’s regime. Perhaps democracy depends less on cyber space and more on public space.
Mubarak understood the power of the pubic square. He worried about citizens meeting and mingling. He knew how places where people promenade and perform could quickly turn into places where they protest and revolt. A true midan — Arabic for public square — isn’t just a public meeting space; it’s a physical expression of democracy that can topple an autocracy. Fearing this, Mubarak planned his cities strategically. He dismantled and depopulated Cairo’s squares, like Tahir and Ramses, and even city gardens and parks. He subdivided and fenced off public spaces, turning squares into traffic circles. Under Emergency Law in Mubarak’s Egypt, a congregation of citizens on public grounds could be grounds for arrest.
But Mubarak underestimated the square’s power. Without vibrant public gathering places, cities deteriorate. Civic pride erodes. Discontent rises. Little did Mubarak know that repressing and neglecting the public square — policies meant to secure his regime — created the perfect launch pad for his demise. I can’t help but wonder what it means for Saudi Arabia that public squares don’t exist there — the closest thing to a meeting place is a shopping mall under close supervision by the religious police.
This past week tens of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square — formerly Mubarak’s traffic circle — gathered to celebrate the ousting of Morsi. Egyptians cheered, “God is great!” and “Long live Egypt!” Just weeks ago, Tahrir was the center of violent and vociferous anti-government revolts against the Muslim Brotherhood. And, of course, two years earlier, Tahrir facilitated and symbolized the global push for freedom.
Like Prague’s Wenceslas Square in 1969 or China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, all across the Arab world public squares have become ground zero for democratic change.
In Bahrain, Sunni revolutionaries, inspired by the Arab Spring, camped out in Pearl Roundabout to call for greater political freedom and an end to monarchy. After a brutal crackdown, the army cleared Pearl Roundabout of protestors and destroyed the square’s iconic statue.
In Libya, Qaddafi’s regime came to an end when rebels captured Green Square, later renamed Martyrs’ Square. After Qaddafi forced his supporters to protest in his favor at the square, it soon became a hotbed of political dissent in Tripoli.
In Yemen, Freedom Square, which some even call Tahrir Square, emerged as the epicenter of protests against President Ali Abdallah Saleh. Even though Saleh has been removed from power, protestors remain in their tents, continuing to call for change.
In Tunisia, the name of the main square in Tunis has been changed to honor Mohammad Bouazizi, the now world-famous street vendor whose suicide sparked a revolution.
In Iran, the government has banned dissidents from Tehran’s Revolution Square, but citizens have found ways to gather in smaller public spaces, like Valiasr Square and Vanak Sqaure. In Taksim Square, progressive Turkish citizens voice their grievances against Erdoğan.
This week, Morsi declared, “Justice dictates that voice of the masses from all squares should be heard.” His message may have been too late, but the message of the square endures, as common ground for the dreams and demands of democracy.
Photo Credit: Diario El Tiempo via creative commons