Lost in all the breathless tributes to Facebook and Twitter as catalysts for the recent Middle East protests is a far older and more vital form of social media: the actual, brick-and-mortar public square. The e–activist may have replaced the pamphleteer, but it was only once thousands of people massed in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Tunisia’s Casbah Square, and Bahrain’s Pearl Square that the movements showed themselves as something more than a tinkling of keystrokes.
The abiding role of public squares as battlegrounds for democracy is particularly notable in the age of WikiLeaks, YouTube campaign scandals, and Web petitions. The idea that we no longer need to leave the glow of our laptops to hold leaders accountable is comforting and dangerous. Why bother, when with a few taps on a screen we can microblog about corruption and “Like” the good guy’s Facebook page?
The protests in the Middle East are a reminder that real change still unfolds in what Greeks called the agora. It is in public spaces that human beings, exchanging ideas and feeding off one another’s passions and expertise, begin to feel part of something bigger than themselves.
Tellingly, the protests in Tahrir Square swelled only after Egypt shut down the Internet. A young, tech-savvy Egyptian activist told The New York Times that it was precisely the Web blackout that drove him into the streets. “Tell you what, I didn’t miss Twitter, I can confidently say that Tahrir was a street Twitter. Almost everyone sharing in a political discussion, trying to announce something or circulate news, even if they are rumors, simply retweets.”
Public squares as seat of revolution
News reports described demonstrators in the squares operating with a leaderless, decentralized efficiency more often associated with, well, the Internet. Though they lacked central leadership or formal means of coordination, protesters found ingenious ways to divide their labor. Some ferried in food and first aid, while others manned checkpoints and strung electrical cable. When President Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down, activists painstakingly cleaned up Tahrir Square in a kind of homage to its place in the uprising – and perhaps in future ones.
The role of central squares in the birth of modern democracies is at least as old as France’s Place de la Concorde, where in 1792 revolutionaries tore down the statue of Louis XV and replaced it with one called Liberté. (The square, in Paris, was also soon home to another structure: the guillotine). More recently, the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square in 2004 helped nullify a fraudulent election and usher in democratic reforms in the so-called Orange Revolution.
Mao Zedong had announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square in 1949 and later enlarged it into the world’s vastest square, in a putative nod to the supremacy of the people. But when the people raised their voice in that very place in 1989, the Communist regime responded with a bloody crackdown. The iconic image of the Tiananmen protests – a solitary man standing down a line of tanks – remains a striking emblem of the power of the individual over the state.
China’s paranoia about free expression in public places appears unabated. A few weeks ago, in a pre-emptive strike against Middle East-style protests, the country barred foreign journalists from interviewing Chinese citizens in public areas without government permission.
When Bahrain’s security forces drove protesters from Pearl Square last week, it was no accident that the army also razed the 300-foot monument at its center. Bahrain’s foreign minister explained to reporters that the structure had become a “bad memory.”
The power of citizens banding together
For despots of every stripe, public spaces are threatening because they permit citizens, suffering separately from hunger, poverty, and powerlessness, to feel less alone. Pressed against one another, sharing food and water and stories of hardship, they feel, for the first time, the nobility of their grievances.
Life on the square becomes a microcosm – and harbinger – of the better life they had dreamed of. When it comes to shaping world opinion, no readout of page-view statistics will compete with the sight of hundreds of thousands of people publicly banding together for change.
There is no doubt that young activists in the Middle East and elsewhere are turning to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to fuel a new generation of protest. But citizens lull themselves into irrelevance if they think the tweet will ever replace the street.
Ariel Sabar, a former political correspondent for the Monitor, is the author of two books, “Heart of the City” and “My Father’s Paradise.”