Agorapoiesis – Tahrir Square, Territory, and the Refrain

As the Egyptian people filled Tahrir on June 30th of 2013, the space of the square became transformed through the erection of various tents, stages, and checkpoints, much as it had been 2 years ago during similar revolts that ousted Hosni Mubarak.  Reminiscent of many of the other global uprisings of recent years, the activities of the participants less resembled a demonstration, but rather manifested in the creation, maintenance, reproduction, and defense of a territory. Mobilized to overthrow the elected Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi, millions of people from the Tamarod (Rebel) movement filled the streets to call for his removal from government in a struggle that is still ongoing. Over the course of the four days it took to overthrow Mohammad Morsi in a military intervention, the movement took on increasingly aesthetic dimensions as the various coalitions and political formations expressed themselves spatially in a multiplicity of collective practices.

Protests ahead of military coup ultimatum around Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt - 03 Jul 2013

A crowd fills Tahrir Square.

Many have noted the innumerable green lasers being emitted by the crowds occupying Tahrir over the course of the uprisings, their beams dancing across the building facades, people’s bodies, and military helicopters that patrolled the square. First used to point out snipers on rooftops, and later becoming popular among the youth of Cairo more generally, these lasers became a technique of establishing and marking the territory of Tahrir during times of gathering. Fireworks were synchronously launched into the sky sending loud echoes reverberating off of the many buildings in downtown Cairo and briefly illuminating the faces of the participants in bright flashes. Laser projectors were also switched on and various slogans were projected onto the Mogamma government administration building facing the square. Those who participate in the uprisings typically gather during sunset, and the appearance of the lasers, fireworks, and projections in the evening sky each night produces a space and time within which to relate to one another in opposition to the state, a geography and climate within which they can become and express themselves as a people together.

Egypt Protests Intensify As Army Ousts President Morsi

Fireworks above the crowds in Tahrir Square.

This agora, or gathering place, does not formally exist before the arrival of the crowds, but rather is produced through the ongoing expressive practices that created the conditions for such a meeting place to manifest in the first place.  Tahrir square, as a space of agora, is first cleared of the ongoing activities (mainly car traffic) in preparation for new activities and relationalities to unfold. The ancient Greek agora in Athens is often framed as the mythical birthplace of democracy, where people could meet and engage in politics in the space of the city. Importantly, the agora was also subject to frequent invasions, making the space of the agora less about the enactment of a formal politics but rather about the production and destruction of politics as such. 

It would be a mistake to reduce the political space of Cairo to frames of Athenian democracy, as the political traditions in North Africa and the Middle East follow trajectories in their own specificities (the mosque has traditionally been a space of politics, as has the bazaar).  Rather, the agora as a concept is meant to make clear the ways in which territories always produce and are produced by the entangled activities of the many people and assemblages which live in and through them. Significantly, politics are always artificial in this way, only produced as possible given the alignment of specific conditions, architectures, and peoples, an subject to creative production and destruction.


The Athenian agora in ruins.

The chorus of lasers seen against the background of the star-lit sky in Cairo could be witnessed not only from the square itself, but imperatively from other parts of the city as well, announcing its creation as a space of relation. The use of these lasers marked Tahrir as a space of difference in relation to the city more generally, and produced a novel territory within which new forms of action could take place. This action of establishing a territory was both political in the sense that it made formal demands of the state, but also importantly a-political in the ways in which the activities, relationalities, and the space itself necessarily precede and exceed the political situation. Agorapoiesis, or the production (poiesis) of space (agora), is the always-collective process within which the conditions of the political and the social are enfolded and unfolded, produced and collapsed. 


A people’s refrain in green light.

The repetition of a creative expression establishes a territory, adding a rhythm and pulse to an environment. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari described the refrain (the repetition) in many musical compositions as having the capacity to establish orders and territories from chaos, of putting momentums and circulations into motion.  If a new refrain emerges within an already existing territory, such as when a bird sings along with a piano, the new refrain mutates the rhythm and sets entangled resonances into dynamic motion:

“A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of the chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip; it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment … The role of the refrain has often been emphasized: it is territorial, a territorial assemblage … it always carries earth with it” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 311–312)

The refrain of an expression territorializes a space and time and enfolds new relations, opening contingent dimensions, routes, and avenues for action and thought.

The military, too, labored to put into place its own territories and rhythms in the skies over Cairo throughout the course of the most recent uprising. In the addition to a seemingly endless stream of apache helicopters patrolling over the skies of various neighborhoods, each producing different audible pitches and resonances with the city below depending on their altitude, military jets also regularly flew by leaving colored smoke trails in their wake. In a surrealistic precursor to the violence between demonstrators which took place on the streets of Cairo later in the afternoon on July 5th, military jets drew hearts in the skies above Tahrir Square with their smoke. In fact, the military has for the most part refused to participate in physical encounters with demonstrators, instead opting for aesthetic displays and shows of force in the sky as a way of establishing territorial authority.

Egyptian Military jets draw hearts over the skies of Cairo after the military coup.

A territory is never a given, established and then permanent, but is always continually reproduced. From chaos, or the infinite plane of potentiality in which any number of possibilities could be cultivated, comes order, or contingent actualities. The refrains of various activities in a space and across time produce the conditions for new things to come into being and for new refrains to unfold. The Egyptian military, attempting to establish itself as the sovereign authority of Egypt and an expression of the populist will of the people continued to put on these aerial displays, and even went so far as to hover their helicopters above Tahrir, allowing the crowds to all focus their lasers on them creating a territorial concert between the people in the square and the pilots above.


An Apache helicopter glowing with the lasers of demonstrators above Cairo.

The Muslim Brotherhood, in response to having been removed from power by the military’s intervention, later marched to Tahrir square in the evening to attack the anti-Morsi demonstrators and their camp.  Only a year earlier, the Brotherhood had been occupying Tahrir, calling for the state to recognize Morsi’s electoral victory and the reinstatement of the parliament. During their march, a fight between the Pro- and Anti-Morsi camps broke out on the on the 6th of October Bridge which crosses the Nile River and leads to Tahrir square. The Muslim Brotherhood was eventually driven back, and the territory surrounding Tahrir was preserved as a space for the ongoing expression of the Tamarod demonstrators.  This confrontation on the night of July 5th amounted to a contestation of the territory which had been so firmly established over the previous days as a result of the demonstrators’ expressive refrains, only this time the modalities of expression that composed the territorial conflict included throwing rocks and molotov cocktails at each other in addition to the use of lasers and fireworks, making for a much more radically turbulent expression of difference. While territories often emerge and are given duration through aesthetic means, they are also importantly produced, preserved, and contested materially.

APTOPIX Mideast Egypt

A firework explodes over a crowd of demonstrators defending Tahrir square.

Territories are established and set into turbulent motion through the refrains of various coalitions and assemblages, and are in need of continued refrain for their ongoing existence. Equally, the limits and boundaries of territories are contested through the disruption, destruction or introduction of new refrains, which always have the potential to collapse the territory as such.  Cairo has been host to a proliferation of territories over the course of its enveloping revolutions, opening and closing routes and potentialities, and modulating the conditions of relationalities. Our lives are always embedded and imbricated in territorial currents produced by ongoing expressions of difference, and much of what is importantly at stake in our lives depends upon the ways in which we can support or produce territories in moments of collective agorapoiesis, participating in the enactment of novel refrains and affinities.

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One thought on “Agorapoiesis – Tahrir Square, Territory, and the Refrain

  1. Pingback: Agorapoiesis – Tahrir Square, Territory, and the Refrain | a Rhizomatic Book

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