Why downtown Cairo has been the symbolic center of protest since the 1950s

The anti-Mubarak demonstrations that began on 25 January 2011 have centered on Tahrir Square at the edge of downtown Cairo.  It has now become common to call this square the ‘heart of Cairo’ but that is misleading: it is a large and awkward space that is often passed through en route to somewhere else, but in normal times few linger in Tahrir for very long.  But precisely because the square is the intersection point of many essential streets, the massive demonstrations have succeeded in paralyzing traffic across the city.  For foreigners, the most prominent institutions along the square are the Egyptian Museum (on the north side) and the old Nile Hilton (on the west side along the Nile, which is now under renovation); for Egyptians, the important buildings are the giant, Stalinist bureaucratic office called the Mugamma (looming over the southwest side) and the now-destroyed ruling party’s headquarters (on the northwest side, adjacent to the museum).

The demonstrations began on a holiday known as Police Day, which marks the colonial-era killing of Egyptian police by the British in the coastal city of Ismailia on 25 January 1952.  Those earlier killings led, the following day, to ‘Black Saturday,’ in which much of downtown Cairo — also known as Ismailia, as it happens, both being named for Khedive Ismail who burdened the country with ruinous debt from his building schemes — was torched, department stores and cinemas were looted, and casinos were destroyed.  This was either the work of spontaneous crowds or organized radicals (in dispute ever since, though the balance of evidence points to the latter) but the symbolism was clear: downtown Cairo was built on a Parisian plan, with circular étoiles and radial streets, and it was a district closely associated with the European presence in Cairo.  Seven months later, a military coup evicted the British once and for all.

Today, downtown is again at the center of the conflict.  On 2 February 2011, its streets — especially Champollion and Talaat Harb, both leading to Tahrir Square from the east — became the site of attacks on the demonstrators by Mubarak supporters (many of them muscle for hire known as baltaguia thought to be in the paid employ of the state security services) who after a long absence suddenly appeared the day after Mubarak himself threatened chaos.  The streets have been dug up by thugs looking for rocks to throw at the demonstrators and there have been reports of buildings on fire.

Champollion Street, in particular, featured significantly in an article I wrote about contemporary art in Cairo for Travel + Leisure (which can be read here) because just off it — between Maarouf Street, where the article begins, and Tahrir Square — lies Townhouse Gallery, one of the most important art institutions in the Middle East.  Here is how I described the area in calmer times:

In downtown Cairo, miracles are performed on Maarouf.  A narrow, tree-lined street in the eastern shadows of the Egyptian Museum, Maarouf echoes with the sound of hammers reshaping steel. Black motor oil glistens in pools on the sidewalk and the small shops nearby are stacked floor to ceiling with auto parts or safety glass.  Parked at the curb propped up on jacks is a century’s worth of automotive history awaiting resurrection by the mechaniki of Maarouf.  Through improvisational genius and the ability to fabricate almost any part, they are able to return old Cadillacs to their 1920s elegance and rebuild Turkish-made Dogans for another decade’s hard labor in the streets of Cairo.  On Maarouf, even the Soviet Union can be patched together and made to stagger on, in the form of the boxy black- and white-paneled Ladas that are the mainstays of the local taxi trade.

On a warm evening in April I went to a contemporary art opening on a quiet lane a block south of Maarouf, at a gallery called Townhouse.  There, the hammering of the mechaniki reduced to a faint, metronomic rhythm and the alley buzzed with Egyptians debating the merits of the video installation and large-scale color photographs of conspicuously un-touristy parts of Cairo.  A few older, professorial types mingled with the mostly young crowd as they gave the work long, respectful consideration.  Some were artists themselves, dressed in a modest, bohemian style or in the black-framed glasses and fashionable casualness of art scenes everywhere.  But the setting was uniquely Cairo: a century ago, this alley was the entrance to a sprawling mansion that still sits, decrepit and alluring, behind a long wall.  Now, Townhouse’s echoing white-walled space feels vaguely industrial, and unmistakably hip, while downtown Cairo has become the home of an astonishingly vibrant contemporary art scene.

The temporal distance between Townhouse and Maarouf might, at first glance, seem to be measured more easily in decades than minutes, but in fact every part of Cairo is dense with competing functions and overlapping histories.  I lived downtown in the mid-1990s, in an airy apartment just off Maarouf, and spent much of my time going to things few people associate with life in Egypt: outdoor jazz by the Nile on Sundays, modern dance at the Gomhuriya theater, opera at the neo-Islamic Opera House.  Mostly, though, I went to art exhibits.  It was a sleepier art scene then, but there was something about downtown – the palatial buildings in a haunting state of disrepair, the traffic-jammed streets adjacent to alleys of almost pastoral beauty – that inspired creativity.

What I loved most about downtown was that it was intended to be French.  Almost a century and a half ago, the Khedive of Egypt laid out the district as a replica of Haussmann’s Paris, with stately apartment buildings, circular étoile and radial boulevards.  At the time, France was synonymous with progress and downtown was part of the Khedive’s very expensive effort to persuade the world that Egypt was a modern country.  The world was largely unconvinced and Cairenes soon reclaimed this faux-French urban space as their own: shops were refurbished, signs were rewritten, and boulevards were renamed.  Now, downtown at street level feels like the archetypal Cairo district; it is only when you step back and look at the upper floors of the buildings that you recall its foreign origins.

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