editor’s note: this post is third of four written in December 2011 about
In Sidi Bouzid the location of protests was determined by two factors. One, where Bouazizi decided to set himself on fire (the local seat of government) and two, where the local seat of government decided to situate itself within the urban fabric. Bouazizi’s and subsequent protests occured outside the provincial headquarters along the main boulevard of Sidi Bouzid (since renamed in Bouazizi’s honor). The building is located in the middle of town, the physical and political center of life there. It is also within the central downtown neighborhood, notable for its rigid orthogonal grid layout, similar to cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and hundereds others spanning six continents, similar to the western style urban planning described by Bianca.
Tunis’ protests tell a similar story. A town with a historic medina goes through an intense period of expansion which introduces a number of orthogonal grids radiating out from the old city. The homes of government palaces, ministries and other institutions are found in this euro-style new city, and the wide and grand boulevard connecting all these seats of power become the place of choice for protesters to congregate and voice their displeasure with the powers that be. In Cairo, protesters almost happened upon the large traffic circle called Tahrir Square, which is not a public square in either the traditional western or Islamic sense of the word. It is, however, a product of western planning and within close proximity to a number of high profile government headquarters (and much further away from the old city). Figure three shows Tahrir Squares’ (red circle) location in comparison to a number of ministry buildings and the old city.
Sana’a offered protesters many open spaces to camp in, however police maneuvering pushed these gatherings to the outskirts of town at the campus of Sana’a University. The campus’ suburban layout offered ample space for a protest camp, but also found itself outside the city grid (old and new) and out of sight, and earshot, of most of the city (including President Saleh)(see figure four). While this protest camp provided a home base for the civil unrest, it is arguably the impact of smaller and more violent skirmishes within the city proper which had the most influence on domestic and international sentiment. For protesters in Manama, Bahrain, their choice of location was similarly on the outskirts of town, but benefited from the iconic landmark of the Pearl statue located in the Pearl Square. Like the other protests mentioned, Pearl Square is a product of western urban planning and is located closer to western style neighborhoods and block grid systems (which, similar to the other cities, is home to government headquarters and international banks) than any neighborhoods of traditional Islamic urban fabric.