Roundabouts and Revolutions: The “Arab Street” Begins and Ends In a Circle

By now, perceptive news watchers know that Cairo’s Tahrir Square is not in the least square—it’s a traffic circle. Now attention has turned to Bahrain’s increasingly ecumenical revolt against its ruler, Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa (a mere emir before...

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Feb 20 2011, 7:24pm
"Liberation" Square, full circle

By now, perceptive news watchers know that Cairo's Tahrir Square is not in the least square—it's a traffic circle. Now attention has turned to Bahrain's increasingly ecumenical revolt against its ruler, Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa (a mere emir before promoting himself to king, and his state to kingdom, in 2002). In Manama, the Bahraini capital, protesters have occupied the city's Pearl Roundabout, vowing to make it their Tahrir. The region's revolutionary wave was set off, of course, by the uprising that ousted Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali—and converged on downtown Tunis's Place du 7 Novembre, a rotary complete with center clock tower.

Avatar of European city planning at its most ostentatiously imperial and imperiously nineteenth-century, the urban traffic circle apparently survives and thrives as default public sphere in the Arab world. What an odd discovery for city-dwellers of today's West, where a few old circles are revered as sublime (Place Charles de Gaulle, around the Arc de Triomphe) and many more cursed as traffic-congealing torture devices (any of the dozens in Washington, D.C.) or ignored as minor irrelevancies. (Would any military deposition of Mike Bloomberg—or New Years Eve celebration—culminate at Columbus Circle?)

And yet it makes a certain rough sense. Compared with either labyrinthine medieval warrens or rigid modern grids, there is something distinctly authoritarian, perhaps paternalistic, about a streetscape studded with traffic circles. They're obvious pedestals for equestrian statues, victory columns, and other some such paraphernalia of state violence, but the effect is more elemental than that. The hubs and spokes of rotaries impose a top-down hierarchy of movement and memory: significance doesn't emerge, organically and fitfully, though the palimpsest of history (the twelfth-century town still faintly visible on a London map) or the cauldron of the market (abetted in early New York by the standardized lots of the grid plan). Rather, sites of power and prestige are fixed for all time by the regime that lays the streets.

Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout, in brighter days for the regime.

At the geographical and symbolic center of a city, a traffic circle play-acts the centripetal force of the one-party state—or for that matter, the centralizing metropole. The revolutionary circles of the Arab capitals indeed speak to the rocky course of reactions between the liberal West and its near-east periphery: a cycle of enmity and emulation and, perhaps finally, empathy?

The "Liberation" in Tahrir refers to the Egyptian revolutions of 1919 and 1954—and now, 2011. But the square was actually laid in the reign of devoted Europhile Isma'il Pasha, who ruled from 1863 to 1879. The Khedive (a nominal vassal of the Ottomans) wanted a "Paris on the Nile"—specifically, the new Second Empire Paris of magisterial rotaries, ramrod avenues, and uniform facades constructed sui generis between 1852 and 1870. As Napoleon III had Baron Haussmann, Isma'il had his own civil engineer–cum¬–strongman bureaucrat as master builder of Cairo: one 'Ali Mubarak (no relation, as far as I can tell.)

In 1879, Isma'il was deposed in favor of his son—more or less by French and British diplomats unhappy with the spendthrift Khedive's failure to repay European debts. Thus began another chapter in the saga of Ishma'il's clan, which had come to power in 1805, after French occupiers had been expelled from the country – a retreat led by, naturally, the French Emperor's uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Tunis's Place du 7 Novembre

Tunis's Place du 7 Novembre (that's the 1987 date of Ben Ali's ascension) and its adjoining Avenue Habib Bourguiba (that was Ben Ali's immediate and only predecessor as president) are even closer facsimiles of Champs-Élysées orbital extravagance. And for good reason: they were built by the French, whose appetite for military parades in the twentieth century was out of all proportion to their ability to win battles. Unlike next-door Algeria, Tunisia negotiated the end of French rule on cordial terms, becoming independent in 1956.

If traffic circles in North Africa became loci of colonial or semi-colonial enlightenment from the dark and decrepit old cities of the medinas and casbahs, Bahrain puts a newer, richer, oilier Gulf spin on the design. Pearl Roundabout abuts Manama's World Trade Center —a glass-shard skyscraper with integrated wind turbines (!)—and may be as much sleek highway interchange as traditional traffic circle. And yet the circle is where the uprising goes. In all these cases, the symbolism is almost jokingly obvious: what better place to stage a revolution, after all, then one built for turning around? Or, a general might point out, for being encircled.

One of the greatest hidden lessons of the new Arab revolts then isn't political but architectural. These events argue against the disciplinary logic typically cited as inspiring Napoleon III's monumental Paris makeover, or the gargantuan concrete gestures of Chang'an Avenue and Tian'an'men Square in Mao's Beijing.1 Breaking up the medieval tangle with wide, straight avenues intersecting at key nodes was supposed to prevent future revolutionaries from putting up their barricades, and eventually, their communes. It's hard to fault Haussman for not anticipating SUVs and tanks and satellite TV and Twitter, but it turns out the central traffic circle, once barricaded, occupied, and broadcasting live, may become a crucible where no Khedive or emperor or president is finally safe.

1. Even if the events in Beijing's square in 1989 turned out grim, they represented a voice in the country that had been invisible to the world prior to that televised moment, and a voice echoed today. Officials are on high alert amidst new
rumors of a "Jasmine revolution."