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Egyptians gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 25, 2011, to celebrate the success of their revolution. (KHALED DESOUKI/Khaled Desoukii/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 25, 2011, to celebrate the success of their revolution. (KHALED DESOUKI/Khaled Desoukii/AFP/Getty Images)

Mideast crisis

The exponential power of public squares Add to ...

Revolutions need space. All across the Middle East Friday, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets and took ownership of the vast public places where democracy feels most at home. Merely by their very presence, massed together out in the open, the exuberant protesters have loosened the grip of the cabals and clans and backroom boys who thought they held control.

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The fight for democracy is a public event where numbers really matter. Social networks are only a starting point: It's not about the likes of MySpace but more about Our Space. Twitter's intimacy implies the presence of a like-minded crowd, but technology's quick connections can't compare with the noisy, unpredictable volume of human flesh crammed together in the pungent open air. Dictators have to take notice of what's going on outside their walls - because something so palpably physical and dangerously dynamic can't just be ignored.

Western societies like ours tilt toward a more private and personal view of social life. Where computer networks and consumer comforts suppress outbreaks of dissent, and where protests marginalize into staged and stylized flash mobs, it's easy to forget the public realm's political possibilities.

The city square is the original social medium, the place where power is openly asserted and contested. It's not in itself a generator of democracy, any more than a social-media instrument like Facebook is intrinsically good or evil. But just by being vast and visible, the living embodiment of the networks' electronic claims, these meeting places can make democracy's aspirations more real.

The square evolved as the middle ground between public and private life - in Renaissance Florence it could showcase wealth and taste, in papal Rome it radiated the power of the Church, in revolutionary Paris it hosted public executions (part entertainment, part intimidation, part political pep rally), in Moscow it could be transformed via Communism from public marketplace to a showcase for state power and military might. Tiananmen Square in Beijing may now be a byword for heavy-handed oppression, but that underlines the ambiguous nature of public space - it, too, was once a place of the people, the spot where festive democracy-seekers flocked to find a common cause. Before the tanks rolled in, it behaved more like the Woodstock of China's pro-democracy movement.

Yet it's become clear from the rallies in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, even Libya and Iraq, that a city's expansive open squares - the legacy of Westernizing movements in urban design and traffic flow - are now intimately connected with the contemporary form of mass insurrection.

The unlikely father of Tahrir Square is Baron Haussmann, the 19th-century French urban planner who transformed Paris for Napoleon III and inspired modernizers in Egypt and across the Middle East. Haussmann's aim was to open up a city that felt cramped and closed-off. The broad boulevards and vast traffic circles he created from the ancient city's chaotic jumble of medieval alleyways were intended to speed traffic and goods, circulate healthy air, deliver essential services, convey an image of worldly sophistication and - if you believe his detractors - provide a literal inroad against the revolutionary movements that thrive in the narrow, easily blockaded back streets.

The methods and manners of revolution have changed. The demonstrators in the Middle East have perfected a more open style that's perfectly matched to Haussmann's more public streetscape. If there's back-alley subversion going on, it's in the hidden realm of technology, the conspiratorial electronic networks that nervous autocrats still try to close down in times of uncertainty. But modern-day protesters don't want to lurk in revolutionary cells and hide out behind barricades; they need to be visible and bear witness to their cause. The immense gatherings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King altered the political status of public space as much as they changed the rules of dissent - road networks designed to move troops and traffic have become the medium for democracy's messengers.

Tiananmen Square

Its name means Gates of Heavenly Peace. Built in the late 1600s for the empire, became symbolic of Communist power (Mao's tomb is there, as were lots of military parades) as well an occasional hotbed of protest. Over the last century, two massive demonstrations against authorities took place before army's notorious massacre of 1989.

Jallianwala Bagh

In Amritsar, India's holy city of the Sikh religion, British and Gurkha troops massacred at least 379 unarmed demonstrators in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. Victims were nationalists protesting the British government's forced conscription of Indian soldiers and the heavy war tax imposed on the Indian people. The slaughter stirred up nationalist sentiment in India and deeply affected one of the movement's leaders, Mohandas Gandhi.

National Mall

This open-air park is a chronicle of America at its most august and solemn, containing two of the nation's most revered monuments: the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It also witnessed some heady civil rights moments, Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech to name one.

Plaza de Mayo

Named after the revolution of May 1810 that began Argentina's quest for independence, it's located near La Casa Rosada, the seat of Argentina's executive branch in Buenos Aires. The Plaza de Mayo has historically been a place of political demonstrations. Since the 1970s, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have gathered here to commemorate those who disappeared during the Dirty War of the 1970s.

Pearl Square

Now also known as the "Martyr's Roundabout," it's an unlikely spot to foment revolution against Bahrain's Sunni monarchy. Situated in Manama's financial district, the square's roundabout, where most of the protesting has taken place, features a monument consisting of six sails that symbolize the six Arab countries of the Gulf and their heritage of pearl diving.

Place de la Concorde

Contrary to its name, the square in central Paris is steeped more in blood than in harmony. When the radicals seized power, they renamed the area Place de la Révolution, hacked down the statue of Louis XV and replaced it with a guillotine. Between 1793 and 1795, more than 1,300 people were publicly beheaded, including Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Danton and Robespierre.

Tahrir Square

The focal point of the Cairo protests, its name translates to Liberation Square. It was the creation of an earlier Egyptian ruler, Ismail, who while living in Haussmann's Paris became enchanted with Napoleon III and sought to remake Cairo in the image of the French capital. The success of the rallies in Tahrir Square in getting rid of Hosni Mubarak can be chalked up in part to its central location in the city: 23 streets and two bridges lead to it.

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