Monday, 11 June 2012

Why Is It Called "Tahrir" Square?

Yes, it is a bit of a belated question.

A picture of Tahrir, said to be taken either in 1941 or 1958. 
As you probably know by now, Tahrir is the Arabic for "Liberation." But how did the iconic Egyptian revolutionary square get its serendipitous title? Well, I recently ventured and got myself a copy of the former head of State TV News Abdel-Latif El Manawy's book, in which he recounts from his point of view and position what happened during the 18 days of the revolution. On page 351 of the Arabic third edition, it says (using his own language, while making some edits on the painful continuous usage of commas without any fullstops):
"Tahrir square was named at the beginning of its construction as Al-Ismailiyya square, in reference to Khedive Ismail who also founded Qasr El-Nil bridge as well as the square. The name of the square was changed from Al-Ismailiyya to Tahrir after the revolution of (19)19, with many stories said regarding the naming. Some said it was a reference to the "liberation of peoples," but there is another story of greater credibility that was recounted in multiple sources. That story goes that the square was given that name after Hoda Shaarawi [an Egyptian feminist], during the revolution of (19)19 took off her niqab [traditional face cover] and the women who were with her at the time took off their niqabs as well as they participated in the revolution inside the square. And from that came the naming of the square, from the liberation of women, towards which many liberation calls took off under the leadership of Qasem Amin later on, and henceforth the square was named Tahrir Square. 
After that came another story after the July Revolution [of 1952] when some explained in their books later on that it was called 'liberation square' as a reference to the liberation of the country from corruption, and from the monarchy after the Free Officers [Military Movement] succeeded in bringing down the monarchy in Egypt.
The square emulates in its design the Charles De Gaulles square ...[in Paris.] etc."

Hoda Shaarawi

While the Hoda Shaarawi story seems to have quite spread online, there are problems with it. Other than the unlikelihood that the monarchy would rename a square named by the Khedive Ismail after himself, and that Al-Wafd wasn't immediately on board with all of Shaarawi's feminist demands, the most direct problem with the story is that most credible sources I have come across indicate Shaarwi only uncovered her face in 1923 after returning from a conference in Rome, 4 years after the revolution.

The official story that I keep running into, however, is that the square became unofficially known as Tahrir Square after the revolution of 1919 as a reference to the "liberation" from the British, as Egypt was fighting British occupation at the time, and from the monarchy. In 1954, the military regime renamed it officially as Tahrir Square so as to signal this brand new era for Egypt. Nasser was supposedly going to have a statue of himself in the centre of the square, according to some accounts, but that idea was scrapped after the defeat in 1967. If someone asks me, I think I am sticking to this story.

Egyptian army in 1952 in Tahrir as Nasser ends the Monarchy.
Tahrir, apparently in the 50s.

Protests, apparently in 1967, asking Nasser to stay after he said he would step down following defeat in the 1967 war.

Sometime before the January revolution.

A breathtaking shot of Tahrir in February of 2011 during the revolution.

You might also be interested in this post on the origin of the term "Arab Spring."

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