The geography of Cairo's street protests

Here's a take on the recent events in Egypt by Nate Wright, an Arabist reader and Cairo-based freelance journalist. My own take coming up soon. Update: see this map to get a better idea of where's where.

After a week of violent clashes between protesters and police forcesin November, the military moved in and built a concrete wall betweenthe two parties on Mohamed Mahmoud street, the main thoroughfarerunning from Tahrir Square towards the Ministry of Interior. Lastnight, activists toppled the wall using metal beams and ropes, and thebattle lines were dramatically shifted.

Now, police officers are facing down protesters on Mansour street.It's a good distance from Tahrir but a lot closer to the Ministry ofInterior. The sight of tear gas raining down, motorcycles ferrying outthe wounded and protesters standing their ground recalls the clashesin November on Mohamed Mahmoud street and again in December on anearby street. But these similarities mask the changing geography of the battle.

Mansour street is straighter and wider, making it a lot easier forspectators to watch from a distance. The slight bend in MohamedMahmoud street meant that in order for people to see the tear gasthemselves, they often had to be fairly close to the front lines. WhenI walked down Mansour street this evening it was clogged withthousands of people -- many more than I'd ever seen on Mohamed Mahmoud.

At the frontlines, protesters were able to hold their ground moreconsistently throughout the day, aided by a number of low buildingsand the width of the street. Tear gas that came down on protesters'heads was quickly thrown onto the roofs of nearby buildings and theair was more tolerable because the area was not nearly as cramped asMohamed Mahmoud.

The location weakened the effects of tear gas, exposed the clashes toa greater number of observers who likely went home feeling theyparticipated in some small way and pushed the security forces todefend a smaller patch of ground. None of this will be decisive in theface of a counter-attack, if it happens, with live ammo or increasedfiring of rubber bullets, but it does suggest that the clashesthemselves may be more sustainable where they are.

But while the location may favor the protesters tactically, it raisesa number of worrying issues for the evolving political geography ofstreet protests in Cairo. On Mohamed Mahmoud street, the activistscould at least credibly claim they were defending Tahrir square, a hubfor peaceful political protest that, while frustrating to manyCairenes when it is closed to traffic, is nevertheless seen as alegitimate site for demonstrations -- one that should remainoff-limits to the security forces.

As the center shifts away from Tahrir, so do the crowds. The squarewas not empty today, but neither was it packed. Had the peoplewatching on Mansour street been in Tahrir, the square would havelooked and felt pretty full. That matters because Tahrir is still, ayear later, in spite of divisive partisan disputes over who speaks onbehalf of the revolution, a powerful symbol of popular dissent. Awayfrom Tahrir square activists are pressing the police forces to defendshrinking piece of real estate as they try to dismantle the army'slegitimacy (a process I believe is happening, although it is difficultto say to what extent). But this shift mirrors the narrowingperspective of anti-Scaf activists fueling the battle, who no longerexpress an interest in seeking broad public support or leveraging thepopulist symbols of Tahrir square.

In past clashes, Tahrir's proximity gave the battles a reasonable linkto the square. With that link threatened, it may become more difficultfor anti-Scaf activists to argue that the fighting is anything morethan a partisan attempt to excercise the influence they were unable towin in parliamentary elections.