Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the site of eight consecutive days of protests aimed at forcing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign, has been host to several public demonstrations since it was built in the 19th century.
The square, known as Midan Ismailia before the leaders of the revolution of 1952 renamed it Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, was the focal point of riots in 1977 that were sparked when President Anwar Sadat announced the government was ending subsidies on basic foodstuffs such as bread and cooking oil. The square was also the site of demonstrations in 1881 against the ruling Khedive Tawfik and in 1919 against British occupation.
“Its importance is due to its size and its closeness to vital sovereign institutions and embassies,” said Obada Kohela, a professor of history at Cairo University. “This is the first popular revolt against an Egyptian ruler.”
The protests have left more than 100 people dead and roiled international stock, bond and oil markets, with investors concerned they may spread to other countries in the region or lead to the closure of the Suez Canal. Mubarak last night said he won’t run for another term.
Egypt is the fourth-largest recipient of American foreign aid based on the Obama administration’s budget request for this year, according to the Congressional Research Service. Mubarak has backed efforts to encourage Arab acceptance of Israel, oppose Iran’s nuclear program and isolate Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.
Karima el-Hefnawy, a pharmacist who took part in this week’s demonstrations, said that after she and several thousand other students were arrested in 1972 following a sit-in to demand that Egypt wage war with Israel, protesters gathered in Tahrir to demand her release. “That night and in the absence of communications, all Egyptians headed toward Tahrir Square and indeed we were freed one week later,” she said.
In 2003, the square, which holds the former main campus of the American University in Cairo and the Mogama, the center of government administration in Egypt, hosted demonstrations against the war in Iraq. The most recent protests that started on Jan. 25 have seen thousands of Egyptians gather to call for end to the rule of Mubarak.
“The protests in Tahrir square are a pain in the back of government officials,” said Mervat Helal, a real-estate tax employee. It restricts their movements because the protesters are in control of the center of town, he said.
One of the city’s main traffic intersections, the square features a central grassy area and radiates wide boulevards. The Egyptian Museum, which houses antiquities including the death mask of King Tutankhamun, lies to the north of Tahrir, which once housed the barracks of the British army.