Many impressions come to mind when thinking of the Arab Spring, but a unanimous image remains the thousands of citizens across the Arab world that took to their squares and streets. Whether it was Tahrir Square in Egypt, the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, the main square of Sana’a, or the Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, the civilian demonstrations since 2010 took place front and center in the Arab countries’ main public landmarks. Historically, the interaction of citizens and their public space has often influenced times of dissent or revolution. The importance of the public space for people’s socialization and public consciousness is hard to overstate and is an important element to consider in the anatomy of more resilient MENA societies.
In the past 100 years, the Arab public space has gone through its own pendulum evolution, as described in this excellent article by Nasser Rabat, “the Arab Revolution takes back the public space” and by the Al-Mashaa project by Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Originally, the public space was shared among tribes and families as a common area for self-provision. Who could not foresee in the needs of the land would lose property of it (HKW, 2013). In addition, it was and remains until this day the role of the Mosque as “the quintessential Islamic public space, polyvalent serving for prayer, learning, political gathering, congregation.” (Rabat, N., 2012). The colonial period imported among a multitude of tangible and intangible institutions its conception of the western public space: a place of intermittent private and public ownership with architectural and functional landmarks such as plazas or squares visible in most cities around the world today, though rarely accepted as intended by the indigenous communities who couldn’t identify with these imposed structures at the time (HKW, 2013; Rabat, N. 2012). Past the colonial era and into the 1950’s waves of independence, the public space transformed into a place for patriotic glorification and sometimes even the persona cult of authoritarian leaders, who simultaneously operated an over-active state control apparatus to keep watch over the public space, essentially rendering it unfriendly for citizen engagement and activity. It took 5 decades, until 2011, for thousands of citizens across the Arab world to take to the streets and manifest their discontent, encountering in those midans and squares not only their inner civic persona but also empathy with their co-citizens. Since then, a backlash installed by leaders and regimes has restored the antisocial public space in the same or worse way.
It is hard to overstate the importance of a healthy, safe and accessible public space for the wellbeing of societies and its individual actors. More than a space for gathering and managing crowds, the public space is an integral part of a community’s education. Individuals and the societies they create can learn as much from the public space as in their private realms. The public space is where we exit our own world and enter a larger shared entity. Out in public is where we learn to-coexist and co-habit with other individuals that are not in our direct circle of kinship. Participating in the public space serves an essential socializing purpose where we are confronted with others, similar and different in behavior, appearance, occupation and background, where we express that of our own, and where we learn to govern those differences and similarities. The public space becomes a space of community and collective ownership.
Yet the public space in the MENA region today can be full of obstacles. From infrastructure to waste, massive crowds, gender-violence, pollution, lack of care and age-appropriate services, lack of safety and aesthetics, in addition to a strong presence of state authorities security apparatus – the public space is rendered a hazardous location that people learn to either avoid, despise, or help deteriorate, especially in today’s mega-cities. This means we are constantly losing a valuable opportunity for people to be socialized and made aware of their surroundings and co-citizens, and participate in it. Positive urban intervention and redesign can bring solutions and even create opportunities for democracy and resilience by building a collective normalized public life. Solutions can be prioritized to make the public space truly public again: safe for all individuals of all ages, genders and backgrounds, respectful of nature and resources, and appropriate for social encounters.
As societies in the MENA region continue to evolve, attention needs to go towards the preservation of a safe and free public space, in particular in the context of making individuals and societies more resilient by granting them an area for respectful and inclusive learning and self-expression. The Arab Spring already illustrated what important strides forward can be made on a citizen-to-citizen and ultimately societal basis. As the Arab world sets forth in its political, economic and societal evolution, it would be wise to pay attention to the benefits that can arise from a resilient, free and safe public space.
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Rabat, N. 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/668055, last accessed: 13 September 2016.
Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2013. Al Mashaa Project: https://www.hkw.de/en/programm/projekte/2013/edward_said_konferenz/multimedia_edward_said/text_workshop.php, last accessed: 13 September 2016.