x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Revolutions still need physical space to foment, but social media helps

The square has been not just the physical locus for Arab Spring uprisings, it is also their symbolic and intellectual heartbeat. But such venues are not always necessary.

Is it possible to imagine the Egyptian revolution without Tahrir Square? The famous Cairo landmark became not just the physical locus for the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, but also its symbolic and intellectual heartbeat.

And each of the countries caught up in the Arab Spring found their equivalent of Tahrir Square, be it Green Square in Libya (later renamed Martyrs' Square) or Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia.

But one view is that the urban environment of asphalt and paving isn't essential for protest. All that is needed is a place where people united by a political desire could gather - and that space could be physical or virtual.

This was one of the themes running through a recent conference hosted by the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute.

Farah al-Nakib, a historian with the American University of Kuwait, said that matters of spatial politics stretched far beyond the limits of the Arab world.

"How can one reach for power without reaching for the place where power presides?" she asked. "The events across the globe in 2011, from the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring, have made urban destinations relevant again."

Nelida Fuccaro, a Middle East historian at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said that ownership of the key meeting places was seen as crucial for controlling an uprising.

The bulldozing of the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain last year, for instance, was triggered by the intensification of the political, social and ideological competition over control of key urban spaces. In the mind of the authorites, the equation became as simple as flattening the terrain to quieten the disturbance.

However, that is not always the case. Sebastian Maisel, an assistant professor of Middle East studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, said his research of the Saudi Arabian city of Unayzah suggested that without a physical ability to voice different opinions and dissent, many residents had moved into cyberspace.

"There is an overall state of censorship in the print media [but] there are new virtual places where people can express their content or discontent. It's opened up ways of communication," he said.

"These discussion boards are self-censored, rather than censored by the government - there is an understanding that they won't cross certain red lines. They have memberships of 200,000 registered users. That's a large and significant membership [who can] express non-compliant opinions through these channels."

NYU Abu Dhabi social anthropologist Pascal Menoret found that traditional protest was also stymied in Riyadh, but the disenchanted there had also found their own way around it.

The physical equivalent of Tahrir Square in the Saudi capital is a major road interchange that is reflective of Riyadh's car-dominated urban landscape.

"In Cairo, people circled the place and occupied Tahrir Square," Menoret explained. "In Riyadh, the police circled the protesters."

The reaction of some has been to use their cars as a mode of protest, specifically by illegal street racing, with large convoys of cars travelling around the outskirts of Riyadh at high speed.

"In other cities, people organise sit-ins. In Riyadh, they organise drive-outs," he said.

Thirty years ago, illegal street racing was a misdemeanour with a penalty of a week in jail or 10 lashes. By the late 1990s, the police were arresting 44,000 illegal racers every year - an average of one every 12 minutes. In 2001, the penalties were increased and the authorities put an even greater focus on stopping the racing.

"The crackdown led joy riders to start using social media to organise themselves and joy riding remains widespread in Riyadh," Menoret said, neatly converging the thoughts that asphalt is both essential and expendable in the sphere of spatial politics.

* John Henzell