Tahrir Square's Festive Imagination

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Since the late 1960s, Egyptians have repeatedly gravitated to Tahrir Square to stage political actions. The 18-day occupation of January-February 2011 and subsequent two years of robust actions represent the longest stretch of continuous sit-ins and recurrent happenings, and hence the closest to developing a quasi-consistent festive form. This paper explores how Tahrir Square’s spatial morphology and experience scaffold its form(s) of festive activities, festive social formations and festive imagination.
The article poses the following questions: what festive qualities do Tahrir Square activities possess, and how do they deal with the city’s entrenched authoritarian milieu? In what ways is sacrality essential to such political festivities? What collective space of imagination do protesters inhabit whilst in the square to engage authority and sacrality simultaneously? And: How do Tahrir Square’s physical, morphological and phenomenal properties inform such festival activity, sacrality and imagination? Why indeed, Tahrir Square in the first place?
To address these questions, the article explores the festive traditions that inform Tahrir Square’s gatherings and actions. Aborted before congealing into their own, Tahrir Square’s fledgling festival forms remain tentative: Some features linger from traditional moulid celebrations (dedicated to saint-like awliya’) with folk-religion associations which recall Mikhail Bakhtin’s arguments about carnival’s subversive nature. Simultaneously, Tahrir Square’s actions draw heavily on post-enlightenment modes of festivities whose lineage trace back to early French Revolutionary festivals, to post-1960s Protestivals like Seattle 1999.
The article discerns the shades of sacrality that Tahrir actions inherit from the centuries-old local festivals of mulids, and how these acquired modernist overtones since the nineteenth century. The article probes the nationalist myth of the city vs. countryside (pharaoh vs. fellah) underlying this modernist turn, arguing the ways it became manifest in Cairo’s urban fabric especially around Tahrir Square. Tracing the history of the square’s emergence as the main site for the people’s protests and symbolic actions in the twentieth century, the argument posits that Tahrir evaded the sharp contradictions evoked by the nationalist myth and its political and economic implications. It speculates that the square registers in the people’s cognitive mapping of the city outside its authoritarian matrix.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationArchitecture, Festival and the City
Subtitle of host publicationUrban celebrations from antiquity to the present
EditorsJemma Browne, Christian Frost, Ray Lucas
Place of PublicationLondon & New York
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9780429432125
ISBN (Print)9781138362345
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2018

Publication series

NameRoutledge Critiques Series


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