Contours of Cairo Revolt: Street Semiology, Values and Political Affordances


This article contemplates symbols and values inscribed on Cairo’s landscape during the 2011 revolution and the period since, focusing on Tahrir Square and the role of the Egyptian flag in street discourses there. I start by briefly pondering how intertwined popular narratives readied the square and flag as emblems of dissent. Next I examine how these appropriations shaped protests in the square, and how military authorities who retook control in 2013 re-coopted the square and flag, with the reabsorption of each critical to that of the other and executed in the same place: Tahrir. Pro-military factions have created the pretense that they were for the revolution by altering the square and structures around it. Furthermore, the square has remained open to the public, but ceased to be inviting. This relates to post-revolutionary alterations that psychologically repel entry. I consider these changes in light of affordance theory, value sensitive design research and especially the defensible space model, arguing that Tahrir Square has been symbolically cordoned and closed.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    For a visual record of flag motifs in Tahrir, click through photographs posted at

  2. 2.

    For video footage, visit

  3. 3.

    For video footage, visit

  4. 4.

    In many Western cities, the traffic on surrounding streets might admittedly push people away. But Cairenes do not perceive this as an obstacle. They are skilled road-crossers and incline towards even small green patches in urban centers if accessible without payment, as mentioned earlier. Thus it is not out of place to see city dwellers hanging around or picnicking on traffic medians in heavily used roads.


  1. Ahram Online (2014) Egypt chief editors pledge support for state institutions, 26 October 2014. Accessed 12 April 2018

  2. Alexander A (2011) Egypt’s Muslims and Christians join hands in protest. BBC News, 10 February 2011. Accessed 12 April 2018

  3. Anderson L (2015) Outcomes of the Arab Spring in Libya and Tunisia: the value of history in political analysis. In: Paper presented the American University in Cairo, Cairo, 14 September 2015

  4. Bacon E (1967) Design of cities. Penguin, New York

    Google Scholar 

  5. Barthes R (1957/1991) Mythologies (trans: Lavers A). Noonday Press, New York

  6. Bhalla M, Proffitt D (1999) Visual-motor recalibration in geographical slant perception. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform 25(4):1076–1096

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Caro RA (1974) The power broker: Robert Moses and the fall of New York. Knopf, New York

    Google Scholar 

  8. Crippen M (2015) Asleep at the press: Thoreau, Egyptian revolt and nuances of democracy. Arab Media Soc 20:1–14

    Google Scholar 

  9. Crippen M (2016a) Egypt and the Middle East: democracy, anti-democracy and pragmatic faith. Saint Louis Univ Public Law Rev 35(2):281–302

    Google Scholar 

  10. Crippen M (2016b) Intuitive cities: pre-reflective, aesthetic and political aspects of urban design. J Aesthet Phenomenol 3(2):125–145

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Crippen M (2017) Group cognition in pragmatism, developmental psychology and aesthetics. Pragmatism Today 8(1):185–197

    Google Scholar 

  12. Crippen M (2018) Pragmatism and the valuative mind. Trans Charles S. Peirce Soc 54(3):341–360

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Crippen M (2019). Aesthetics and action: situations, emotional perception and the Kuleshov effect. Synthese (issue currently unassigned).

  14. El-Naggar M (2011) The legacy of 18 days in Tahrir Square. N Y Times, 19 February 2011

  15. Fisher M (2013) Video: Egyptian arm helicopter drops flags over anti-government protests. Wash Post, 1 July 2013

  16. Fisk R (2012) Late for the revolution, Muslim Brotherhood take over Tahrir Square. Independent, 22 June 2012

  17. Gardener L (2011) The road to Tahrir Square: Egypt and the United States from the rise of Nasser to the fall of Mubarak. Saqi, New York

    Google Scholar 

  18. Ghonim W (2012) Revolution 2.0: the power of the people is greater than the people in power: a memoir. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York

    Google Scholar 

  19. Gibson JJ (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception. Houghton-Mifflin, Boston

    Google Scholar 

  20. Guerin O (2018) The shadow over Egypt. BBC News, 23 February 2018. Accessed 12 April 2018

  21. Hall S (1980/2005) Encoding/decoding. In: Hall S, Hobson D, Lowe A, Willis P (eds) Culture, media, language. Routledge, New York, pp 117–127

  22. Jacobs J (1961) The death and life of great American cities. Vintage, New York

    Google Scholar 

  23. Khalil A (2012) Liberation Square: inside the Egyptian revolution and the rebirth of a nation. St. Martin’s Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  24. Kirkpatrick D (2012) Egypt’s new leader takes oath, promising to work for release of jailed terrorist. N Y Times, 29 June 2012

  25. Knoblauch J (2014) The economy of fear: Oscar Newman launches crime prevention through urban design (1969–197x). Archit Theory Rev 19(3):336–354

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Krueger J (2011) Extended cognition and the space of social interaction. Conscious Cogn 20(3):643–655

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Lesch AM (2011) Egypt’s spring: causes of the revolution. Middle East Policy 18(3):35–48

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Liddell HG, Scott R, Jones HS, McKenzie R (1996) A Greek–English lexicon. Clarendon Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  29. Mealey L, Theis P (1995) The relationship between mood and preferences among natural landscapes: an evolutionary perspective. Ethol Sociobiol 16(3):247–256

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Meyer S (2014) Graffiti becomes political weapon on Cairo Streets. Voice Am News, 24 January 2014. Accessed 19 April 2018

  31. Mostyn T (2007) Egypt’s belle epoque: Cairo and the age of the hedonists. Tauris Parke, New York

    Google Scholar 

  32. Newman O (1972) Defensible space: crime prevention through urban design. Macmillan, New York

    Google Scholar 

  33. Partenie C (2014) Plato’s myths. In: Zalta E (ed) The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Accessed 12 April 2018

  34. Pleyers G, Glasius M (2013) The movements of 2011: democracy, social justice, dignity. Dev Change 44(3):547–567

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Podeh E (2011) The politics of national celebrations in the Arab Middle East. Cambridge University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  36. Proffitt D (2006) Embodied perception and the economy of action. Perspect Psychol Sci 1(2):110–122

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Reuters (2013) Helicopter drops flags as jubilation sweeps Cairo’s Tahrir Square, 3 July 2013. Accessed 12 April 2018

  38. Safdar A (2016) Egyptian jailed as a teen ‘freed’ after 787 days. Al Jazeera, 22 March 2016. Accessed 12 April 2018

  39. Schnall S, Zadra J, Proffitt D (2010) Direct evidence for the economy of actions: glucose and the perception of geographical slant. Perception 39(4):464–482

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Selem G (2016) Between order and modernity: resurgence planning in revolutionary Egypt. J Urban Hist 42(1):180–200

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Shah R, Kesan J (2007) How architecture regulates. J Archit Plan Res 24(4):350–359

    Google Scholar 

  42. Shenker J (2016) The Egyptians: a radical story. The New Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  43. Shenker J, McGreal C (2011) Egypt set for mass protest as army rules out force. Guardian, 31 January 2011

  44. Still A, Good J (1998) The ontology of mutualism. Ecol Psychol 10(1):39–63

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Teti A, Gervasio G (2011) The unbearable lightness of authoritarianism: lessons from the Arab uprisings. Mediterr Polit 16(2):321–327

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. The Telegraph (2011) Egypt crisis: protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, wear the colours of the Egyptian flag (2011), 7 February 2011. Accessed 12 April 2018

  47. Van den Hoven J (2013) Architecture and value-sensitive design. In: Basta C, Moroni S (eds) Ethics, design and planning of the built environment. Springer, New York

    Google Scholar 

  48. Weaver M, McCarthy T (2013) Egypt army helicopters bearing flags circle Cairo. Guardian, 2 July 2013. Accessed 12 April 2018

  49. Whyte W (1980) The social life of small urban spaces. The Conservation Foundation, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  50. Winner L (1980) Do artifacts have politics? Daedalus 109(1):121–136

    Google Scholar 

  51. Zadra J, Schnall S, Weltman A, Proffitt D (2010) Direct physiological evidence for the economy of action: bioenergetics and the perception of spatial layout. J Vis 10(7):54–54

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


I would like to acknowledge Farida Youssef for her assistance on historical portions of this paper. I would also like to thank Shane Epting, Jules Simon and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback.


No funding received.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Matthew Crippen.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

Matthew Crippen declares no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

No human or non-human animals employed

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Crippen, M. Contours of Cairo Revolt: Street Semiology, Values and Political Affordances. Topoi (2019).

Download citation


  • Affordances
  • Arab Spring
  • Cairo
  • Defensible space
  • Politics
  • Protest
  • Revolution
  • Semiology
  • Tahrir Square
  • Value sensitive design