For this past year, I have been reveling in pedestrian-ship around Tahrir Square whenever I needed to be there; it’s been a very long time since I’d driven around the square, preferring instead to park my car further off in Adli Street if I am driving in through the Azhar Tunnel, or in Zamalek if I am taking the 6th-of-October Bridge, and then assume a proud pedestrian status to get around and go about my business. Additionally, I generally try to schedule my errands and appointments so as to avoid rush-hour commutes to the city center at any cost.
For two consecutive days, however, scheduled appointments did have me driving to Qasr-ElEini Street right during the traffic peak hours. While there isn’t necessarily anything remarkable about the slowness and congestion at that time of day on that route through the city, I was struck, for the first time as a driver, by the effects of the current road blockades, and their resulting reroutes, planted across the most vital parts of our city by state authorities, on the quality of traffic, and by extension, the quality of life (at least for the part of it they happen to spend at that area of Cairo) of all commuters and residents.
These road blockades are actually concrete walls, huge stacked concrete blocks erected by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) during various episodes of fierce clashes, and I fail to end the sentence with any logical sensible explanation of their public benefit or purpose.
The first employment of this bizarre tactic was during confrontations at the Israeli Embassy in August 2011, as angry demonstrators protested the “accidental” death of four Egyptian soldiers during a shoot-out on the other side of the Egyptian-Israeli border, and were met with excessive state aggression. However, then, rather than block a street, the wall was built to contain and protect a building entrance.
In all, eight such walls were erected during three different episodes of violent clashes (here is my excellent reference article):
The first one was built across Mohamed Mahmoud Street on November 24, 2011 following violent confrontations between protestors and police forces sparked by an unjustifiably and disproportionately violent dispersal of a small sit-in in Tahrir Square held mostly by injured revolutionaries and families of martyrs. This wall was brought down by protestors during the second episode of clashes witnessed by Mohamed Mahmoud Street on February 3, 2011.
The next three walls were erected in December 2011 across Qasr ElEini, Youssef ElGuendy, and Sheikh Rihan Streets during fierce confrontations between military and revolutionary forces to end the sit-in held in front of the Cabinet Building in objection to Ganzouri’s appointment as Prime Minister (the #OccupyCabinet sit-in).
And last, during the most recent episode of clashes, where demonstrations in front of the Ministry of Interior and triggered by the Port Said football game massacre were again brutally cracked down on, four more walls were erected in February 2012 across Fahmy, Mansour, ElFalaky, and Noubar Streets.
In Egypt, we may sadly have been desensitized to the presence of walls, fences, and even watchtowers among our public spaces, their hidden yet clear message epitomized by the iconic (and quite direct) “ممنوع الإقتراب أو التصوير” (access-and-photography-prohibited) signs – it is indeed not so often that I find myself pausing to question the familiarity of the presence of a wall, or to consciously examine and externalize its significance and connotations beyond that familiarity; stripped of their familiarity and native context, of the “they have always been there” factor, these structures belong in a cold-war-era behind-the-iron-curtain nation, in caricatures of Latin American autocracies, in current day China or North Korea or occupied Palestine, how true do these associations reflect our relation as citizens to our public spaces and the state’s relation to us as citizens?
On the other hand, and despite of whatever security function or strategic purpose the state may attribute to them, these eight walls specifically have become monuments to our revolution and resistance, their very presence each a reminder of and milestone in the struggle against state violence, their sides adorned with graffiti telling the stories of the fallen, condemning the authorities, and heralding a victorious revolution.
But beyond the impact of these walls and structures on our civic consciousness, and how conditioned we may be to suppress our awareness of it, their physical impact on the quality of life of Cairo citizens is simply enormous: denied access through main streets to vital areas and its repercussions on the blocked area residents and those seeking access, redirection of major traffic routes into smaller side streets ill-equipped to take in the excessive traffic flow, dispensing with conventional driving directions on all affected streets – all staggeringly inconveniencing and resulting in huge wastes of time and energy of Cairo citizens.
While sensitizing our awareness and sense of civic entitlement and ownership over our public spaces may perhaps take some time against ingrained familiarity and false notions of security impounded on us over years and decades, I wonder how long our inconvenience and physical oppression by these occupying walls will take before it causes us to rise up and reclaim what is ours as citizens: our city, our streets, our spaces.
[Note: On February 26, 2011, MP Moustafa ElNaggar presented a motion to the Minister of Defense and Minister of Interior to reopen the blockaded streets.]