Backwaters, Edges, Center: Tahrir Shaped
Cairo’s most celebrated and politically charged space does not abide by a plan. Rather, it has acquired significance through a build-up of piecemeal spatial and economic definition.

In Cairo tens of thousands of people … flocked into the city center … When the demonstrators reached … [the] square … four armed vehicles moved toward them and a barrage of machine-gun fire opened up. According to the most reliable estimate, twenty-three demonstrators were killed and some one hundred and twenty injured … The government disclaimed all responsibility and blamed students for allowing their peaceful demonstrations to degenerate into violence.1

No, this account is not about the February 2011 events in Midan Al Tahrir,2 the epicenter of the revolution that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The account describes February 21, 1946, or “Evacuation Day” as the demonstrators termed it, anticipating the departure of British forces from the nearby military barracks a year later. According to a leaflet issued by the National Committee of Workers and Students, Egyptian people resolved to make it “a day that shall be a universal awakening of the Egyptian people, which will thus make it plain that it will accept no deviation, no relinquishment of its right to independence and freedom.”3 The demonstrators were assembled in Midan Al Ismailia which, seven years later, would be renamed Midan Al Tahrir. Sixty-five years after “Evacuation Day,” anti-Mubarak protesters in Midan Al Tahrir evoked this event when they declared Friday February 4 the “Day of Departure.”


1. Port of Bulaq, 2. Port of Fustat, 3. Eventual location of Midan Al Tahrir.

The article is accompanied by a series of schematic maps chronicling central Cairo’s, and specifically Midan Al Tahrir’s, development. Schematic Map 1 (based on an 1846 map of Cairo): In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Nile had shifted westward. Further inland from the earlier port of Fustat and then the port of Bulaq, Cairo’s development concentrated inland along a north-south axis until the mid-nineteenth century.

Future urban historians perhaps will mark these two Februaries as signposts of transitions through three significant periods of modern Egyptian history: colonial, postcolonial, and post-postcolonial. Midan Al Tahrir has been a spatial product of the first two eras, which span over more than a century and a half of urban history. This article argues that, while it is true that the 1952 revolution designated Midan Al Tahrir as the main cultural, political, and symbolic center of the city, its gradual formulation, in shape and signification, began during the colonial period as a result of the shifting political and economic forces in the city. This accumulated socio-geographical prominence, however, was under threat at the time of the 2011 demonstrations by urban planning decisions including Cairo Vision 2050, a government-sponsored document released a few weeks before the demonstrations began in January 2011. This article addresses the following questions: When did Midan Al Tahrir become the symbolic and political central urban space in the city, and why?

Mapping the rise of Midan Al Tahrir as Cairo’s symbolic center demonstrates how shifts in the city’s spatial hierarchies are linked to changes in the city’s political and economic conditions.4 To substantiate this argument, the article traces the emergence and transformation of urban political and cultural centrality throughout the city’s modern history. Such a process highlights how the city’s political and economic development has taken physical and social form. The ultimate goal is to contribute to the growing literature that examines how political will and economic forces have influenced urban form and public spaces in today’s Cairo. Below are three scenes from Cairo’s dense, intricate history that have led to the Midan Al Tahrir we witness today.

Scene 1: The Pre-Colonial Urban Centers

A contemporary Cairene transported back in time to the turn of the nineteenth century at the site of what is now Midan Al Tahrir would be bemused to find it consisting of muddy mounds amidst vast swaths of marshland and, more importantly, far away from the city’s urban density to the east. From the establishment of medieval Cairo’s first royal city, Al Fustat, in AD 640 and up to the middle of the nineteenth century, the urban growth of the city obeyed a north-south axis squeezed between the Muqatam Hills to the east and the flood- and silt-prone land to the west. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Nile’s course gradually shifted westward, not only exposing the ground that would become Midan Al Tahrir but also causing the silting up of the port of Al Fustat in the south. This necessitated the establishment of the new port of Bulaq to the north during the Ayyubid dynasty.5 At that time, the city’s urban structure appeared more like an arc with the ports of Fustat and Bulaq at its terminating ends.

It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the area between the Nile and the medieval city began to spark development interest. The marshy land had to be hardened. Once much of the land had been drained, filled, and planted, Ibrahim Pasha, the son and heir of modern Egypt’s founder Mohammad Ali, constructed his royal palace, Al Qasr Al Ali, on the previously soggy land. It was the first building in the area. A few years later, Mohammad Ali’s son and Egypt’s subsequent ruler, Khedive Said, built another palace, Qasr Al Nile, which was converted a decade later to house the Egyptian army, soldier barracks, and the Ministry of War.

“A contemporary Cairene transported back in time to the turn of the nineteenth century at the site of what is now Midan Al Tahrir would be bemused to find it consisting of muddy mounds amid vast swaths of marshland.”

Although Khedive Said’s successor, Ismail, also built himself a palace on the reclaimed swamp lands, Ismailia Palace, Khedive Ismail made his true mark on Cairo’s urban development elsewhere. Determined that Cairo’s streets would reflect the city’s economic and cultural ties with Europe and to boost his image as a ruler of a modern nation. In anticipation of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Ismail adopted Western planning principles for expanding the city and altering its image. The government grafted urban and architectural styles of nineteenth-century Paris onto the marshy land between the Nile and the medieval city and invited private developers to build on land kept cheap to stimulate speedy development. The city’s growth began its steady reach toward what would become Midan Al Tahrir. By signaling a deviation from Cairo’s historical north-south axis and by pushing the city toward the Nile, Ismail’s development project altered the city’s historical urban growth course. Furthermore, in contrast to the medieval city’s narrow, winding roads, the new quarter, named Ismailia, was defined by its wide, radiating boulevards, open squares, gas-lit street lighting, gardens, and an opera house.6

The emergence of a European-like quarter paralleled the gradual rise of a Western-oriented Egyptian bourgeoisie and the influx of an international population that needed hotels and expected modern amenities. Several historians have described Ismailia as “a second Cairo,” suggesting the city acquired a double identity: native and modern.7 The wealth necessary to carry out these massive urban developments was generated from the sudden increase in Egyptian cotton exports to British textile manufacturing centers as a result of the decline in American cotton production and sales due to the Civil War.8 To maintain healthy property values Ismailia’s private backers endorsed development of public squares so that the district would become the true heart of the city, or the “downtown,” as it was later coined. Public space, therefore, was an investment by private developers.

The new district included three important plaza-like squares to signify modern Cairo’s urban life: Abdeen, Opera, and Ataba.9 Upon its completion in 1874, Abdeen Palace and the adjoining Abdeen Square supplanted the citadel as the city’s main political centerpiece. The new midan attracted governmental buildings, with the parliament and several ministries arriving just to the west. Opera and Ataba Squares, as well as the Azbakiyya gardens, were designed to provide cumulatively the modern quarter’s social, commercial, and cultural center.

To facilitate European visitors’ day trips to the pyramids on the opposite side of the Nile, the plan for Ismailia included another significant development: the Ismailia Bridge (later renamed Qasr Al Nile Bridge). The new bridge connected the modern quarter of Ismailia to the newly constructed road across the Nile in Giza, reaching through a scattering of villages toward the pyramids. The Nile crossing further diverted the city’s development from its north-south axis, stretching Cairo to the west and eventually leading to the urban development of the Nile’s west bank. To link the bridge to the Ismailia quarter, planners proposed a roundabout at the eastern approach to the bridge. In response, Khedive Ismail gave up a large section of his Ismailia palace gardens for the project. With Ismail’s land grant, the assemblage of land eventually to be known as Midan Al Tahrir was completed.

“By this historical moment, Midan Al Ismailia had developed as little more than a place for siting palaces and the military beyond the density of the city.”

While the Ismailia quarter and the reach of the Ismailia Bridge signified Cairo’s western expansion toward the Nile, architectural orientation and urban spaces remained directed toward the old city. The continued result was a contrast between the ancient and the modern. Royal palaces and the military barracks might have had gardens that backed up onto the banks of the Nile, but their main entrances faced the old city. This remaining attention to the old city meant that the Nile was not yet a significant part of the urban or tourist experience.

Scene 2: The Colonial Urban Centers of the City


01 Azbakiyya Gardens, 02 Opera Square, 03 Ataba Square, 04 Abdeen Square, 05 Eventual location of Midan Al Tahrir, 06 Qasr Al Nile (eventually military barracks), 07 Qasr Ismailia, 08 Qasr Al Doubara, 09 Ministry offices.

Schematic Map 2 (based on historical maps circa 1870): The initial streets and blocks of the Paris-like Ismailia district extended to the west of existing Cairo toward the reclaimed marshland along the Nile. The backers of Cairo's new district wanted to convey European-style modernity adorned with views of ancient Cairo. Ismailia included three Parisian squares intended to define the district as the “downtown” of Cairo. The area south of what would become Midan Al Tahrir remained a marginal district of mostly palaces.

September 1882 marked the beginning of the colonial period in Egyptian modern history.10 After defeating the Egyptian army at Al Tal Al Kabeer, British troops marched westward toward Cairo and through its new Haussmannian boulevards in the heart of the city until they reached their final destination, the Qasr Al Nile barracks at Midan Al Ismailia.11 The British troops’ occupation of the barracks marked the beginning of the intertwined relationship between Midan Al Ismailia and the Egyptian struggle for independence.

By this historical moment, Midan Al Ismailia had developed as little more than a place for siting palaces and the military beyond the density of the city and as a gateway to the Ismailia quarter for those returning from the pyramids. While Midan Al Ismailia remained in this unformed state, the Ismailia quarter was nearing full capacity. With the city’s population continuing to grow substantially, Egyptian and foreign entrepreneurs became increasingly interested in exploiting the population boom through real estate developments, resulting in designated districts like Heliopolis and Maadi.12

Despite urban expansion, Ismailia’s three major squares continued to rise as the city’s dominant urban attractors. Located on the district’s eastern edge and abutting the native city, Opera Square in particular existed as the city’s commercial and cultural center. For this reason, Cairo remained connected to its geographical roots during these first stages of modernization. Shops, cafés, cinemas, the train station, the city’s famous hotels, travel agencies, foreign embassies, and the Royal Opera House were all within view of the minarets and domes of medieval Cairo.13 Midan Al Ismailia, on the other hand, was disregarded as a backwater at the edge of the city. If it was considered at all, then it was associated with the much-despised British occupation.

By 1902 it seemed the Francophile boulevards of Ismailia might have continued westward into Midan Al Ismailia. Initiated by the government and the increasingly dominant private sector, a number of buildings around Midan Al Ismailia from the era reflected Cairo’s economic and cultural conditions. First, several apartment buildings were added to flank the midan’s eastern side.14 These buildings reflected the government’s more liberal economic policies adopted between 1898 and 1907. Second, to the south of these buildings, the former Ahmed Khairy Pasha palace complex was retrofitted to become Cairo University (later the American University in Cairo). The third significant addition from this period was the transfer of the Egyptian Museum to the new and larger current location.15 From an urban design perspective, the new museum delineated for the first time the northern edge of Midan Al Ismailia. Rather than extending the cultural reach of Ismailia, the museum’s new location and monumental architecture offered the first challenge to Opera Square’s cultural primacy. Midan Al Ismailia was poised to represent an additional element of Egyptian history that Opera Square could not: the ancient history.

“The fledgling Egyptian capitalist class and ruling elites found that the Nile bank’s distance from medieval Cairo provided an ideal location for their new lifestyle.”

The last building to be built around Midan Al Tahrir in this period was the Semiramis Hotel, which opened as the first building to face the now fortified Nile and offered its mostly foreign guests river views toward the distant pyramids of Giza.16 The hotel’s opening can be described as the moment the Nile was recognized for its tourism and leisure potential. By not only being situated on but also being oriented to the Nile, the new hotel fastened itself onto the spine of a growing Oriental tourism industry that linked the pyramids and medieval Cairo to Luxor and Aswan further south. Ismailia, with its views over “Oriental” Cairo, was being superseded as the focus of the budding tourist industry. In this regard, Cairo’s urban development was responding to economic and social changes in Western Europe, in this case the rise of a tourism industry. Additionally, at the onset of the twentieth century, the fledgling Egyptian capitalist class and ruling elites found that the river bank’s distance from medieval Cairo provided an ideal location for their new lifestyle.


01 Azbakiyya Gardens, 02 Opera Square, 03 Ataba Square, 04 Abdeen Square, 05 Midan Al Ismailia, 06 Qasr Al Nile military barracks, 07 Qasr Ismailia, 08 Ismailia Bridge, 09 Qasr Al Doubara, 10 Ministry offices.

Schematic Map 3 (based on an historical map from 1874): The Paris-style blocks of Ismailia extended southward for ongoing development. The new Ismailia Bridge, which would become the Qasr Al Nile Bridge, facilitated tourist trips to the pyramids of Giza. To provide an entry to the new bridge, Khedive Ismail donated gardens from his adjacent palace. This open space became Midan Al Ismailia, which in 1953 would be renamed Midan Al Tahrir.

Real estate baron Moussa Qattawi Pasha, who sold the land for the Semiramis Hotel, proposed the next development scheme for Midan Al Ismailia. His plan called for demolishing the British barracks and creating luxury residential blocks that framed a grand approach to the Egyptian Museum. In the plan,

the new avenue, Khedive Ismail Street, would lead to the entrance of the museum, passing through multiple round plazas with ancient statues dotting the way …. In addition to the symbolic value of imagining the area without the British barracks, Qattawi’s plan attempted to solve two main issues: creating an appropriate context for the Egyptian Museum and continuing the urban fabric of the Ismailia district to fill what until then had been an urban void in a key location in the city.17

Despite the economic appeal of the plan, it was never realized, most likely because there was no political will to contest the British-occupied barracks, which would remain until the bloody “Evacuation Day” demonstrations of 1946 called for their demolition.

After interest in Qattawi’s plan dissipated, the Egyptian architect Mahmud dhul-Faqqar proposed an urban plan that defined Midan Al Ismailia with monumental architecture represented by

… administrative buildings for various ministries and government bureaucracies and a plethora of museums, in addition to a series of commemorative statues, all surrounded by vast public gardens. Furthermore, the plan included a new parliament building modeled after the United States Capitol. The proposed parliament was to sit on the site of the British barracks, literally replacing the site of foreign occupation with Egypt’s constitutional legislative body.18

It was in this proposal that the idea of Midan Al Ismailia as the new political and cultural center of the city began to take shape. The grand architecture and imposing urban design of the scheme continued the planning principles of the Ismailia quarter westward, infusing them with nationalist symbolism, such as the replacement of the British barracks in the scheme with the parliament building and a Museum of Arab Antiquities. All new proposed buildings and urban spaces in the proposal of this new center, however, remained oriented toward Ismailia and Old Cairo, and still with their backs to the Nile.

The dhul-Faqqar plan was not realized, though some of its elements were pursued. For example, his idea for a single, large administrative building to house various governmental institutions emerged when construction of the Mogamma building began in 1951 on the site of Ismailia Palace.19 The colossal Mogamma building was the first sign of a shift of the city’s political centrality to Midan Al Ismailia. After the adjacent Qasr Al Nile barracks were abandoned in 1947, the complex was demolished, leaving a vacant site intended to be filled with modern developments that might complement the imposing Mogamma building and would define an emerging political and cultural center of the city.

It is important to highlight that during the first half of the twentieth century, while Midan Al Tahrir was still developing into the main axis of Cairo, several public spaces competed as major political centers of the city. Opera Square maintained its ascendancy as the political locus, based on its frequent use as a site for public demonstrations. While it is true that large political and social events took place throughout the city, they focused predominantly on Opera Square. For example, in 1947, thousands gathered in Opera Square to listen to Arab leaders atop one of the square’s buildings, condemning the partitioning of Palestine.

Scene 3: The Postcolonial Urban Centers

01 Azbakiyya Gardens, 02 Opera Square, 03 Ataba Square, 04 Abdeen Square, 05 Midan Al Ismailia, 06 British military barracks, 07 Qasr Ismailia, 08 Qasr Al Nile Bridge, 09 Egyptian Museum, 10 Semiramis Hotel, 11 Qasr Kamal Al Din, 12 Cairo University, 13 Ministry offices, 14 Garden City.

Schematic Map 4 (based on historical maps from around 1910): Development of plots continued in Ismailia, and land where palaces once lay was parceled for real estate investment. Garden City, a bourgeois district of Cairo, was under construction. By this time the British military occupied by the Qasr al Nile barracks. The Egyptian Museum was open at the northern end of Midan Al Ismailia, and the Semiramis Hotel provided visitors views of the Nile. The campus of Cairo University, which would become the home to American University in Cairo, lay to the southeast of Midan Al Ismailia.

Six months after a military coup ended the rule of King Farouk, the revolutionary officers, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, designated January 23, 1953, as a national holiday. They invited the whole country to a four-day festival marking the occasion. The newly established Ministry of National Guidance selected Midan Al Ismailia as the festivities’ locale and renamed it Midan Al Tahrir for the occasion.20 “Forty thousand Egyptians packed into Cairo’s newly named Liberation Square,” reported the Life magazine correspondent in Cairo, “to see and hear the revolutionary officers pledge for the new Liberation Society, which replaces all previous political parties.”21 The army paraded; there were floats, water sports, music, and dancing in the streets.22 Midan Al Tahrir was a public space as never before experienced in Cairo. It was the place that witnessed the birth of Egypt’s postcolonial era.

As if answering Henri Lefebvre’s prophetic observation that any revolution that has not produced new spaces “has not changed life itself but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses,” the revolutionary officers prioritized the reinforcement of Midan Al Tahrir as the political and cultural center for a postcolonial Cairo.23 To a great extent, the new spaces and buildings produced in the years immediately following the revolution reflected the nationalist aspirations of the government as well as its political and economic orientations. Five buildings and projects in this area completed in the period between 1952 and 1965 represented the new economic and political orientation of postcolonial Cairo: the riverside promenade completed in 1954, the Nile Hilton completed in 1959, the new Shepheard Hotel completed in 1958, the Arab League Headquarters completed in 1964, and the Socialist Union Headquarters completed in 1965. It is important to highlight that these projects resulted in splitting the urban space of the former Midan Al Ismailia into two physically distinct urban areas: the Nile Corniche and the urban space of Midan Al Tahrir.

The shore drive, which would become known as the Nile Corniche, is an example of a space produced by the government as a showcase of national advancement. Prior to the revolution, the Nile shores, particularly west and southwest of the Ismailia quarter, were almost exclusively reserved for private palaces, the British occupation, and foreign tourists. From the new regime’s point of view, carving out this space along the Nile not only freed spaces from the grip of the former colonial power and its Egyptian bourgeoisie collaborators but also reconfigured them as signs of a new era. But it is equally true that the new orientation of all these buildings and spaces toward the Nile was a continuation of the liberal economic tendencies first implemented at the turn of the twentieth century, specifically with the building of the Semiramis Hotel. The new spaces for development created along the Corniche promenade and at Midan Al Tahrir defined and offered Cairo’s most prime real estate opportunities, marking a new orientation for the postcolonial city and thus eclipsing Ismailia’s preeminent role. As an example of this economic shift, the 1957 rebuilding of the famous Shepheard Hotel did not occur at its original location in Ismailia but at a new site on the Nile’s shoreline.24

The first development proposal for the vacant barracks site arose in 1953. Capitalizing on the Tahrir celebrations and the euphoria of the new city center, architect Sayed Karim published a proposal in his architectural magazine Al Imara that called for, among other things, the construction of a hotel with a casino extending into the Nile.25 Toward the end of the same year, the New York Times announced that Hilton Hotels Corporation would build a new hotel, not on the site of the former Shepheard Hotel, Cairo’s “landmark of oriental splendor” which had burned down.26 Rather, the new proposed hotel “will be situated on what is now a six-acre park on the bank of the Nile.”27 Two years later, Gamal Abdel Nasser attended the ceremonial laying of the Hilton’s foundation stone.

In her seminal work on the building of international proliferation of Hilton hotels during the 1950s and 1960s, art historian Annabel Wharton portrays the Hilton as doing more than just building American luxury hotels for tourists; each was a political statement inscribed in space, Midan Al Tahrir included.28 As the focal point of a more modern Cairo, the Hilton became something more than the most desired tourist stop. It was for “the rich and powerful, both Egyptians and expatriate, in Cairo.”29 In addition, it was the unofficial guest house for many politicians and political leaders visiting the country.30 Egyptian media outlets celebrated the new addition to Cairo’s cityscape, equating it no less to the building of the great pyramids. The Hilton development represented Nasser’s initial and short-lived engagement with Western capitalism. It was also an early example of Nasser’s state capitalism, which, as Egyptian sociologist Mona Abaza has convincingly argued, led to the subsequent stage of liberalizing the economy and, as this article argues, a continuation of capitalist development since the turn of the twentieth century.31

Wharton rightly observes that the new hotel was given a specific orientation: it faced resolutely west, thus turning its back on the old city.

The view promoted in Hilton’s advertising offers the sweep of the Nile, the new suburbs on its opposite bank, and, in the desert beyond, the pyramids. The gaze of its highest-paying guests was directed to the most modern and the most ancient parts of Egypt’s historical topography.32

Wharton explores various reasons that may account for the shifting order of the gaze to the west. One example is that the Hilton’s distant positioning appeased “the irrational fear of the Arab that seemed lodged in Western bourgeois consciousness.”33 In contrast to the Corniche’s openness, argued Wharton, “the medieval city manifested a disturbing religious and political Otherness.”34 From another angle, the shift in orientation with the gravitation toward the Nile perhaps worked for the revolutionary officers symbolically to unify the whole nation as the Nile is the conduit that connects the whole country. Regardless of the reason, there is no doubt that riverfront development became what the eminent sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod called the “Gold Coast.”35

Under President Anwar Sadat’s infitah policy in the early 1970s, Egypt’s economic orientation began to shift more toward Western market capitalism and to increase the private sector’s role in economic activities. Sadat’s policy unleashed new socio-economic and political forces upon Cairo, to which the city physically responded in various ways. Perhaps the most visible signs of this phase of capitalistic penetration have been international retail and restaurant chains, banks, malls, and gated communities. While the once grand Ismailia district lost much of its glamor, Midan Al Tahrir constituted and remained the cultural and political center for public expression, despite the city’s vast expansion and decentralization. In fact, Midan Al Tahrir’s urban massing hardly changed during these decades of tremendous expansion and metamorphosis. Physical alterations were limited to changes in landscaping and underground construction of garages, tunnels, and a metro station. Midan Al Tahrir’s expanse, however, was reduced; a large portion of it was cordoned off with a metal fence for the construction of another underground parking garage, which never materialized.36 Midan Al Tahrir was a place where demonstrations took place throughout recent decades: from the student protests in 1972, to the bread riots of 1977, to the demonstrations against the Iraq War in 2003, to several demonstrations organized by the political movement Kefaya between 2005 and 2010. The midan also hosted large-scale funerals of dignitaries and celebrities, such as Nasser and the famous Egyptian singers Umm Kulthum and Abd Elhalim Hafez.

Midan Al Tahrir was, however, on the brink of a radical transformation. Released just before the 2011 uprising, Cairo Vision 2050 revealed the Mubarak government’s intentions to introduce changes that might have deprived Midan Al Tahrir of its cultural and political centrality. Commissioned in 2006 by the Egyptian cabinet and prepared by the General Organization for Physical Development, Cairo Vision 2050 was a study of how to transform Cairo into a “truly global city.” Cairo Vision 2050 appeared more like a mix of visual dreams the former Egyptian government was trying to sell in the same manner in which real estate developers sell luxurious residential units. The proposal was replete with eye-catching renderings that promised a re-branded Cairo. A section of the report was devoted to the revamping of Cairo’s downtown and the Nile Corniche, reflecting the neo-liberal economic orientation of the former regime. In the vision, the Nile Corniche was to become a car-free zone, flanked by glitzy commercial buildings and office towers. In the historic city center, the proposal showed some of its major boulevards turned to pedestrian pathways with coffee shops, restaurants, renovated building facades, green areas, enhanced shopping environments, and underground parking areas. The proposed retrofitted historic center recalled Beirut’s and Amman’s downtown redevelopments.

Rebranding Cairo included gutting Midan Al Tahrir. Among the many large-scale projects presented in the vision was a proposal to relocate all governmental agencies, ministries, parliament, and even the Mogamma administrative building to a new site in the northeastern desert outside Cairo. The new governmental park would be linked to the various parts of the city by bus lines and the ring road. In fact, the emptying of Midan Al Tahrir of its historically significant buildings and institutions had already begun with the relocation of the American University in Cairo to the suburb of New Cairo and the ongoing project to move the Egyptian Museum to a site near the Giza pyramids plateau. Had things gone as intended, Midan Al Tahrir would have been stripped of all its significant institutions. The occupation of Midan Al Tahrir in January 2011 and the ensuing events have disrupted these plans.37

The Post-Postcolonial Era: Parting Thoughts

01 Azbakiyya Gardens, 02 Opera Square, 03 Ataba Square, 04 Abdeen Square, 05 Midan Al Tahrir, 06 Nile Hilton Hotel (under construction), 07 Mogamma Building, 08 Qasr Al Nile Bridge, 09 Egyptian Museum, 10 Semiramis Hotel, 11 Qasr Kamal Al Din (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), 12 American University in Cairo, 13 Parliament and ministry offices, 14 Garden City.

Schematic Map 5 (based on a 1958 map): Midan Al Tahrir is revealed as it was five years after its renaming for the celebrations that took place to mark the end of King Farouk's rule. The well-known roundabout at Midan Al Tahrir was abutted by gardens, which would eventually include a bus station. By 1958, Gamal Abdel Nasser had ascended the presidency and participated in the development of the Nile’s “Gold Coast,” including the Nile Hilton Hotel, which was under construction. The Hilton stood on the land cleared after the demolition of the barracks occupied by the British.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century and throughout Cairo’s subsequent historical periods, Midan Al Tahrir has successively acquired entangled layers of symbolic significance for Egyptians, which are today either embedded in the pantheon of its buildings or stored in the memory of the place from past iterations of national events: namely, funerals, celebrations, and protests. Throughout its history, Midan Al Tahrir was never a carefully planned, delineated public space like those of Ismailia but rather an adapting product of political and economic changes. Instead, the vast urban space of Midan Al Tahrir has been maintained functionally and symbolically as a liminal space between downtown Cairo (the Ismailia quarter) and the expanding metropolis to its west. It exists between the residential blocks that form its eastern edge and the institutional buildings that enclose it nearly from all other sides, or, to put it differently, between the city and the state.38 Whether during the colonial or postcolonial era, Midan Al Tahrir has functioned as a spatial symbol of the Egyptian society’s struggle for freedom against oppressive authority.

In a way, the occupation of Midan Al Tahrir in January 2011 represents the ultimate irony of the revolution: on the one hand, the January revolution saved Midan Al Tahrir from the authority’s future plans that would have deprived the midan of its cultural and political symbolic centrality. On the other hand, the revolution was a rebellion against the authority and the liberal laissez-faire economic regime which produced the midan in the first place. It is not clear how events will unfold in the coming years, but recent developments bring many questions to the fore; among them: How will Cairenes reinvent Midan Al Tahrir in the emerging post-postcolonial era? What new spaces of civic representation and civil society will emerge from the transition now underway? Will Tahrir remain the urban political center of the city and the nation? Or are we going to experience yet another shift in urban centrality?



1 Ahmed Abdalla, The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt 1923–1973 (Cairo: AUC Press, 2008), 66–67.

2 This article deliberately uses the Arabic word midan (pl. mayadeen) instead of the typical English translation “square.” Midan in the everyday language of Cairenes refers to the urban space of Al Tahrir. While the lexical meaning of “square” denotes a plaza or a piazza, midan (pl. mayadeen) maintains a more pliable form, at once connoting a plaza, a roundabout, an area, a horserace, and a field or range.

3 Abdalla, The Student Movement, 66.

4 Dona Stewart, “Changing Cairo: The Political Economy of Urban Form,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 23, no. 1 (1999): 130.

5 Abass Al Tarabely, Ahyaa Al Qaherah Al Mahroosah (Cairo: Al Dar Al Misryyia Al Lebnaniya, 2003).

6 Max Rodenbeck, Cairo: The City Victorious (New York: Picardo, 1998).

7 Janet Abu-Lughod, Cairo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971).

8 For a classic reading on the impact of the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 on Egypt’s modernization, see Edward M. Earle, “Egyptian Cotton and the American Civil War,” Political Science Quarterly 41 (December 1926): 520–545.

9 Arafa A. Ali, Al Qahirah Fi Aahd Ismail (Cairo: Dar Al Madina Al Monawara, 1998). Because these public spaces are based on French urban planning, they will be called “squares” throughout this article.

10 It is arguable that while the short French expedition in Egypt between 1798 and 1801 marked the beginning of the modern European powers’ interest in the country, it was not until after the arrival of the British troops in 1882 that the colonial period is considered to have begun.

11 Ahmed Kamaly, “Midan Al Tahrir Fi Zakirat Al Tareekh,” Selselat Ayam Masriya 40 (2011): 39–40.

12 Fathy Moselhi, Tatour Al’asyma Al Misriya (Cairo: Dar Al Madina Al Monawara, 1998).

13 Nina Nelson, Helnan Shepheard Hotel (Cairo: Ahram, 1992), 61.

14 For more discussion on the development of Midan Al Ismailia during this era, see Samir Raafat, “Midan Al-Tahrir,” Cairo Times, December 10, 1998.

15 Waffaa Al Saddiq, “The Egyptian Museum,” Museum International 57, nos. 1–2 (2005).

16 Samir Raafat, “Bucher-Durer: Semiramis – The Forgotten Story,” Cairo Times, November 13, 1997, in The Most Famous Hotels in History, online,

17 Mohamed Elshahed, “Comment, Tahrir Square, A Collection of Fragments,” Architects Newspaper online,

18 Ibid.

19 The building was designed by the Egyptian architect Kamal Ismail and opened in 1951.

20 Ahmed Kamaly, “Al Gaysh wa Al Sha’b fi Zakirat Al Tareekh,” Selselat Ayam Masriya 40 (2011): 58.

21 Editorial, “Carnival in Cairo,” Life 34 (9 February 1953): 31.

22 Ibid.

23 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 54.

24 The Shepheard Hotel was among many other European establishments that burned down during the January 26, 1952, riots, which took place in Ismailia.

25 See Elshahed, “Comment, Tahrir Square.”

26 Editorial, “Hilton will Build Big Hotel in Cairo,” New York Times, November 12, 1953.

27 Ibid.

28 Annabel J. Wharton, Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 46.

29 Ibid., 48.

30 For example, Nasser was wrapping up an Arab summit aimed at ending war in Jordan between King Hussein and Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization in the Nile Hilton, a few hours before his death in 1970.

31 Mona Abaza, The Changing Consumer Culture of Modern Egypt (Cairo: AUC Press, 2006), 102.

32 Wharton, Building the Cold War, 48–49.

33 Ibid., 50.

34 Ibid.

35 Abu-Lughod, Cairo, 202–203.

36 The construction area was used during the January 25, 2011, revolution as a place for refuse collection and temporary toilets for the revolutionaries, while parts of its surrounding metal fence were utilized as barricades in the famous “Battle of the Camels.”

37 In the weeks following the January 2011 revolution, Cairo Vision 2050 was abandoned. Later, however, talks of a new, modified master plan reappeared along with another study entitled “Egypt Vision 2052.”

38 The historian Khaled Fahmy has suggested that the buildings overlooking Midan Al Tahrir represent what he called “a touchline between the city and the authorities.” Khaled Fahmy, “Al Midan le-Mann,” Al Shorouk, September 23, 2013, 14.

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