In this article, Aya Nassar shifts the focus from Tahrir Square and other iconic places of the Egyptian revolution. Dissecting the anatomy of the 6th of October Bridge and its history, she gives insights of an often less discussed, yet major event in the memory of Cairene protestors.
For better or worse, the “Arab Spring” provided a shorthand image for Cairo, and Tahrir, for a while after 2011, reigned as its spatial icon. Geographer Derek Gregory, for instance, wrote in 2013 that Tahrir Square was “the most iconic site of all these tumultuous events” meaning the Arab Uprisings, and even more commentators gravitated towards the square’s enigma. However, for many who witnessed the battles of the 18 days, the spatial icon of the revolutionary moment was not necessarily the square, but rather the burning of the nearby building that housed the headquarters of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the ruling party in Egypt. Interestingly, when the headquarters of the ruling party burnt, the picture that captured its enigmatic torching also caught traffic beside it on the 6th of October bridge. In Cairo, even in the middle of a revolution, one is likely to be caught in traffic on a bridge.
That NDP building and its adjacent bridge act as a spatial marker. The building has been a staple postcard image from the bridge for the past few decades. Its burning might not have had the same international standing of icon-making as the square. It was burnt during the internet cut-off on January 28, 2011 and it has never been made clear who actually burnt it. However, the image that dominates the imagination and memory of a lot of Cairenes, whether they were part of the 18 days or not, is passing by the dominating building that overlooks the Nile with a charred façade on their necessary commute over the bridge. This charred building only remained for a few years until it got demolished altogether in 2015. But until then, the physical and material engraving of January 28 on its façade was impossible to avoid or ignore. Currently, it is simply one of the many vacant lands in the heart of Cairo, situated adjacent to the iconic Tahrir Square.
The building is also an important temporal marker. In 2011 the building was torched, arguably, by protestors on January 28, the Friday of Rage. While January 25, and other days from the 18 days of the Uprising are well documented, January 28 remains for many the key victory point. It might be worth remembering that protests, indeed, started on January 25, but were in constant confrontation with the police and central security forces. It is only on Friday January 28, that the dynamic of conflict changed and protestors were able to appropriate the space by forcing the security forces to withdraw completely from the streets and public spaces. After this, the occupation of the square became possible (although not totally devoid of violence as the further battles continued such as the infamous battle of the camel and the sexual harassment).
In Cairo, marches and the protests started after the Friday Prayers (around 1pm) gathering momentum as it approached the city center. The internet and cell-phone connections had been gradually decreasing until it was cut off all together. And as first in quite a significant time, the state issued a curfew on that day. Some of the rare footage we have of the protests of that days have been salvaged by Mosireen Collective whose archive hosts close to 90 short videos shot through cell phones as well as Al-Masry Al-Youm and other news outlets. As marches headed towards downtown from East Cairo, they had to cross the Central Security forces at Ramses Street overseen by an extension of the 6th of October Bridge. Closer to Tahrir, and a more prolonged battle, was on Qasr al-Nil Bridge, the parallel bridge to the 6th of October Bridge and main entry to Tahrir Square. Security forces attempted everything to prevent protestors from crossing it. Disciplinary lines of central security forces (CSF) were sent through to make it an impenetrable space. Tear gas canisters shot through liberally, water cannons soaked wavers of protestors, and riot control vehicles were used not only to intimidate protestors but to repeatedly run them over. Throughout the day the bridge — as well other bridges, roads and streets in the city — was a battlefield, shot through waves of unarmed protestor and geared riot control police. Despite an arsenal of weaponry, protestors stood their ground. Bodies hit metal, bodies hit tear gas, bodies hit rubber bullets and bodies hit water. At around 6pm, the protestors have won the Qasr Al-Nil battle in Cairo, with the central security forces retreating from the bridge and from the streets of the city. At night, several police points and local branches of the NDP were burnt, as well as the NDP building in downtown Cairo.
With that in mind, January 28 is for those who were part of it a turning point, not least because it marked a clear victory over the police. This clear victory was marked with the ability to break the security lines set on the main entry points to Tahrir Square, as well as its culmination at the end of the day with burning police points and the headquarters of the NDP. As an ephemeral and almost undocumented day, its memory holds sway over the narrative of the 18 days. What follows is not an attempt to recreate or recount this precise battle, on this precise day. This would be impossible for even those who were at the frontlines, and problematic to be voiced by someone who was not. However, it might be worth thinking about the traces and afterlives these battles left to be witnessed in the actual space of the city. The site of the bridge and the building are important to what we come to understand as the narrative(s) of the battle(s) of the revolution in 2011. They are, crucially, also important to help think through spatial victories as something always contested, reworked and with multiple temporalities. They link it to a history of technologies and contestations of the politics of Egypt. This is quite important to remember, since the revolution was, and continued to be for a long time, an entangled series of battles; in Cairo and elsewhere, in 2011 and afterwards.
A Namesake for Victory ///
It is part of Cairo’s subconscious.
Tarek Atia, “The Final Bridge”
For many it would not come as a surprise that the namesake of the bridge (the 6th of October) is reference to a central victory in the Egyptian national narrative. To those who are familiar with Cairo, al-’Obour (Arabic for crossing) is a ubiquitous temporal and spatial marker. It is the name given to the 6th of October War of 1973. The military is revered because it crossed the Suez Canal into Sinai in 1973, which was by then occupied by the Israeli army. During the mid-1970s as well as afterwards, new cities, neighborhoods, streets and high-rises were often named “the crossing,” “victory” or, indeed, “6th of October.” The bridge itself is a key infrastructure project, associated with that time, and with the aim of increasing river crossings and circulation between the two sides of Greater Cairo. During the first phase, prior to the war, the project was called “Ramses Bridge” and was celebrated in newspapers as early as 1971. After the war, the bridge project was renamed the “6th of October Bridge” and the phases of its construction extended for around three decades, well into the late 1990s, as it became one the longest elevated highways in Africa, more than 20km long.
One of the key players behind building the bridge was Osman Ahmed Osman, the chair of the “Arab Contractors.” A business tycoon with close political, economic and personal ties to President Sadat. Osman himself embodied the rise of a new neoliberal class in Egypt in the 1970s, which benefited from the restructured political economy of infitah (the open door policy that ushered in structural adjustment afterwards). In his autobiography, Osman presented this bridge as a project born out of the victorious crossing of the Suez Canal, the bridge’s namesake. In the first instance, he and his friend Ahmed Moharram came up with the idea after 1967, when the two were stuck in traffic between Dokki and Tahrir Square. The project was presented to the governor, who then presented it to President Nasser. However, the idea was (according to Osman) rejected under Nasser to be welcomed by his successor and Osman’s friend. Osman, and indeed the state, presented the project as extending an order to increase the flow and circulation of traffic.
The problem with infrastructure is that, since such projects enable smooth mobility, they are falsely seen as smooth projects. The bridge not only competed with other alternatives and priorities — such as widening the Zamalek Bridge and building a new bridge north of the town centre to decongest city traffic patterns — it also drastically changed the riverfront. Some residents had to be relocated and a report in Al-Musawar hesitantly asked what would happen to the adjacent Egyptian Museum with regards to the numerous adjacent entrances and ramps to the 6th of October Bridge. The museum, the report argued, “will be suffocated” from all sides by the dust, the pollution and the movement of traffic (1976).
In any case however, the 6th of October Bridge emerged as an infrastructural solution that symbolically capitalized on the war; a solution that emerged out of a traffic jam and elevated it — decades later — vertically to another horizontal level. Needless to say, this solution was geared towards private cars, rather than investment in public transportation, a tendency that has remained a feature of government policies to the present day. According to Osman, under Sadat, victory in war essentially meant that contractors were free to build and to solve Egypt’s problems.
The bridge was an incision in the fabric of the city. A bridge redistributes the spaces of light and darkness in the city, changing the way the city is displayed as an image for those moving through it. Despite this, the bridge was broadly celebrated as a post-1973 war achievement. It was a sign that the Egyptians could keep on giving and that their achievements in construction paralleled their victories in war.
The bridge currently is an icon of Cairo’s best and worst images. It offered a privileged position, allowing people to move across the city and see it from above, avoiding its messiness and violence. As well as being a technology of circulation, the bridge was also a technology of spectacle. In the 1970s, it was a showcase for the state. Currently, the bridge is a place of perpetual traffic jams, and assault of neon advertising boards and in 2011 the stage brushing against the icon of the 18 days; not the square, but the burnt headquarters of the NDP.
The Concrete Building ///
According to architect Mahmoud Riad — the grandson of the architect who designed the building — this building had been a part of a trio of modernist buildings that punctuated the Nile front, the dominant Cairene Skyline, at least throughout post-independence Cairo. The building used to almost brush against the 6th of October Bridge, and therefore it has been a familiar presence to commuters crossing the Nile banks on an everyday basis for several decades. Now these commuters are met with a cool airy absence where it used to stand. From the other side of the Nile, these three buildings engulfed Tahrir Square, separating it from the Nile Front.
The site itself has been part of the evolution of modern Cairo as historians of Cairo Janet Abu-Lughod and André Raymond tell us. This side of the Nile bank was drained and levelled to allow for the city’s expansion throughout the late 18th and early 19th century. In 1853 Khedive Sa’id decided to use this site as the centralized military barracks, and they were completed in 1863 during the reign of Khedive Ismail. The site came to be used as the Egyptian military barracks, a site of military parades and headquarters. It remained the military barracks for the Egyptian army until the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, after which the Qasr al-Nil Barracks housed the British troops and became a symbol of foreign occupation in the city until 1946. After the troops evacuated the barracks in the late 1940s, the Egyptian king, unsurprisingly, ordered the demolition of the barracks.
As architect Mohamed Elshahed uncovers in his doctoral dissertation, this space remained vacant long enough to flirt with future imaginaries of the modern city center yet-to-come. Several urban planning and architectural imaginations competed to fill in this void as evidenced by a special issue of Egypt’s modernist architectural magazine Al-Imarah in 1947, which republished older architectural and urban plan schemes for this area. Having gotten rid of a long-entrenched anchor of British occupation at the heart of the city, the proposals ranged from modern residential schemes, to political and civic buildings and even hotels.
After the 1952 officers’ movement, the fate of this site was decided. Three modernist buildings were to be constructed, the headquarters of the Arab League, the Nile Hilton and a building for Cairo’s municipality. Architect Mahmoud Riad — the head of Cairo’s municipality at the time — was commissioned to design the three buildings that came to mark the Revolutionary city-scape overlooking the Nile Front. Overall, the three concrete and modernist buildings spoke not only of signifying the city’s skyline, but were also part and parcel of re-ordering of the city’s main traffic and thorough ways. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and even 1970s, the Nile Corniche was once of the main urban planning projects celebrated by the new regime.
The Cairo municipality building, our focus, was designed as a concrete slab with balanced proportions. As soon as it was designed, and before the slow bureaucracy of the municipality of Cairo moved to its new location, the building was taken up by the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) — the only legal party at the time — to be its Headquarters. It stayed the ASU headquarters until Nasser’s successor, Sadat decided to replace the ASU by three platforms in 1976 — later turned into parties, with Sadat heading one of them the National Democratic Party (NDP), and thus the building eventually became the Headquarters of the NDP. It was also in the 1970s that the Building got two concrete neighbors. Cairo’s Brutalist second Hilton Hotel (Ramses Hilton) and the capital’s 6th of October Bridge.
The NDP remained the de-facto ruling party from the 1970s till 2011. In 2010, the NDP performed its electoral campaigns with a semblance of actual competition and thus invested in political marketing and campaigning. The city was drenched with campaigning billboards and posters, and a dominating billboard was erected in front of the building with the campaign’s slogan: “to secure the future of your children.” In 2010, a claim to futurity was bordering on absurdity in Egyptian politics. If we, with some imagination, try to capture the buzz emanating from the building’s hefty presence, it will be a steady rhythm of clapping, shot through the T.V. and radio-waves, the resignation of cars stuck in a bottleneck exit way from the “6th of October bridge” to Tahrir square, the accelerating revving engines of cars on the other direction celebrating having escaped the same said bottleneck, and a cacophony of car horns, bus engines, street vendors in some entangled mess underneath the bridge. A steady, concrete, rhythm of messy politics that is alive under the bridge, dead above it, and monotonous over the soundwaves, overlooking a steady flowing picturesque stretch of the Nile.
The Burning Building ///
For 30 years, the building has accumulated layers of symbolisms of corruption and impossible politics. There was no surprise that it burnt on the Friday in 2011. The Building remained ablaze into the following day. Fire broke the windows of arguably one of the centres of rule. The concrete slab that once was white and blue, and later all closed off for air conditioners, was now, porous and vulnerable. The fire left its marks over the building that stayed charcoaled, as an undetermined ruin-in-the-making for four years after 2011.
In 2012 when it was still acceptable to speak proudly of the revolution, journalist cover stories would speak vindictively about the stench of corruption. Pictures of the hollow, holed, concrete façade, while bleak and ghostly, were also a refreshing reminder of the vulnerability of the concrete opaqueness that had once spoken through the shiny billboard of the future. Now the billboards were grey. The walls of the buildings are graffitied with a tongue-in-cheek statement “Opening Soon” — a different claim on the future. And as ruin, a wasteland of leftover political power, it could be a place for waste sifters to rummage through bureaucratic waste that remained unlooted.
During these years, debates ebbed and flowed about how to use or reuse it, to demolish or keep it. The building was in prime land, in central Cairo, and overlooking the Nile. It has all the possibilities for investors: perhaps another hotel, a shopping mall, or a parking lot like Tahrir square itself ended. The same reasons that were essential for some of us to keep the building, charred as it was, were why others wanted to get rid of it. It was unsightly and unpleasant. For some, it made sense to let a symbol of corruption go, despite not getting rid of corruption itself. For others, it stood out too much, it was unavoidable on the work commute. One could not get used to it, but also could not avoid it. It forcefully imposed the revolutionary times onto the rhythm of everyday life.
The rhythm of the everyday is important to everyone. During sit-ins, the paralysis of traffic was typically not tolerated in areas where sit-ins had occurred. This impatience was common, although the tactics of urban zoning — as Mona Abaza has astutely observed in 2013 — were deployed to contain the protestors and normalize the circulation and business in the rest of the city. Even though these tactics were deployed, those who did not like the revolution didn’t like how to stop the train of everyday rhythm, the slow but sure traffic jam. The tactical as well as the strategic battles of the revolution were, in part, fought over blockages, movements, circulation, traffic and a disruption of a normalized slow depletion. Walter Benjamin famously wrote that revolutions were not necessarily “the locomotives of history” like Marx posed, but that they might be, more aptly, thought of as humanity trying to apply an emergency break. ■