Reading the Times on the architectural symbolism of Cairo

In the New York Times yesterday, Nezar AlSayyad,  chairman of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Berkeley, surveyed the landmarks on Cairo’s Tahrir Square with an eye towards their political symbolism in an op-ed that covered much the same ground as my post on 2 February.  All to the good then, you would think, but his piece contains an important omission and a small factual error of great resonance.

The omission comes in his description of the origins of downtown Cairo, which was laid out in the mid- to late-19th century on a Parisian Haussmann plan of radial streets and étoiles:

The 500-acre open space was home to cultivated fields, gardens and several royal palaces during Khedive Ismail’s reign, from 1863 to 1879.  Having lived in Paris as it rebuilt itself into a city of broad boulevards and roundabouts, Ismail embarked on a similar project of modernizing Cairo during the 1860s. Both a district and the square that eventually became Tahrir were initially named Ismailia in his honor.  Ismail’s modernization projects plunged the country into great debt, and he was ousted by foreign forces in 1879.

True, as far as it goes, but it is worth noting that this great building project was an indirect consequence of the fight over slavery in the American South.  By the 1860s, Egypt and the US were the world’s two great cotton producers so when the American Civil War took most American cotton off the market Egypt found itself suddenly and spectacularly rich — the Dubai or Saudi Arabia of its era.  It didn’t last.

The factual error might seem small, at first.  AlSayyad is off by a single day in his recounting of the protests in 1952:

Dissatisfaction with King Farouk’s government brought protests that ignited the Great Fire of Cairo on Jan. 25, 1952. A few buildings in the square were casualties of the blaze. (On the same day, 59 years later, Egyptians descended upon Tahrir Square in unprecedented numbers to protest their government.)

The Great Fire of Cairo that torched much of downtown came on January 26th, not the 25th, but that day changes why Egyptians descended on Tahrir 59 years later.  The democracy protests were called for the 25th this year to mark a newly instituted holiday called Police Day, which celebrates the bravery of the (now reviled) Egyptian police in the Suez Canal town of Ismailiya who were killed by British forces on 25 January 1952 — the Great Fire came the following day in reaction to this event and, depending on the account, was either a result of spontaneous protest or an act of organized arson.  Either way, by calling for protests this year on the 25th Asmaa Mahfouz and the other leaders of the democracy protests were not attempting to reference the Great Fire but rather to challenge the regime’s veneration of the police, who in the last few decades have become widely despised for their brutal suppression of dissent.


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