The veteran British broadcaster — a well-regarded journalist — looked excited as he asked the Egyptian protester for an update. “And how do the protesters communicate with each other?” he asked her, a writer. There was no email: Hosni Mubarak had switched off the Internet.
“Well,” she replied without a moment’s hesitation, “we meet at Tahrir Square and exchange information.”
If I were a dictator I’d build no Squares. My towns and cities would have no public places to gather at; and cafes would serve no coffee for people to linger over. But dictators rarely show any sense or imagination. Today (Tuesday) is the 15th day of the popular uprising in the city of Cairo, and yet Hosni’s response remains obstructionist if not heavy-handed.
As a witness to protests, Tahrir falls somewhere between Beijing’s Tiananmen and London’s Trafalgar squares. Tiananmen Square was where government militias charged thousands of mourners with batons and clubs in 1976 rather than allow them to mourn the death of Premier Zhou Enlai — mainly because chairman Mao Zhedong’s wife didn’t like Zhou very much.
In 1989, pro-democracy students at Tiananmen were mowed down by the Chinese Army. Exactly a year later, Trafalgar Square became the focal point for protests against steep community charges — the Poll Tax — introduced by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Mounted police charged with batons, and a riot ensued. Eight months later, the Iron Lady was ousted. The first thing her successor John Major did was to abolish the tax.
More recently, Trafalgar Square has seen student demonstrations against hikes in university tuition fees. And when worker’s unions take to the streets to protest job-cuts in the public sector — set to be enforced later this year — we will see more action at the central London square.
“If you had no Squares,” said a thoughtful friend, “where would you flaunt your dictatorial magnificence?” An excellent point: for an answer, we should keep our eyes glued to Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, currently used to flaunt the eccentric magnificence of the Dear Leader. Apparently, it can accommodate 100,000 people.