Tahrir Square as ‘learning space’ and the role of English

Phyllis Wachob

The American University in Cairo



Congratulations, Egypt, on your revolution!

For anyone who watched TV or went to Tahrir Square during the revolution, you have all seen the space full of people and their messages. As teachers, we often think of classrooms as ‘learning spaces’ and forget that much is learned in other venues. And I believe that at least for a while, Tahrir Square was not a traffic circle but a large magic space of learning. In this forum space, I would like to describe some of my experiences and what I learned from the Egyptian revolution. Also, I want to explore some thoughts on my role as English teacher and the role of the English language in the revolution and the future of Egypt.

I went to make my voice heard on February 3rd, the day after the ‘Day of the Camels.’ For so many of us, without internet, without phones, and only watching TV, the days became a blur. We took to naming the days, such as the ‘Day of the Camels,’ which was the day anti-revolutionary camels and horses sped through the square. Rocks thrown. Violence.  

But on Feb 3rd, the square was busy with chanting, marching, praying, and people holding signs. Everyone was there. I saw many children brought by their parents to witness the revolution. (Remember at that point, we did not know how it would end.) When I saw them, I thought about what they were learning. What did they think? What did they understand? And in fifty years, when they were my age, what would they remember from this time, this day? What lessons would they learn?

They certainly were learning that ‘freedom isn’t free’ because even then the shrine to the martyrs was being erected that showed the faces of young men and women who gave their lives to stand up to tyranny and despotism. They were learning that being bold together was the way to make individual voices heard. They were learning to not be afraid to say what they thought, out loud and boldly. Thus, they brought innumerable signs.

There were signs in English; the largest in the square was all in English. “People demand removal of the regime.” Some were in Arabic, and many were in both languages.  I carried my sign too, one that I might not have been bold enough to carry just a few short weeks before. I was inspired by the Egyptians who had so much more to lose than I did. It read, “Obama, support the Egyptian people, not the dictator who terrorizes them.” My sign was directed to my president, who, at that point, had been quite hesitant to align himself with freedom, democracy, open elections; the things we enjoy in our country. I was angered that perhaps he was trying to say that we could live in a country ruled by law and the people, but that Egyptians could not?

This was my contribution to the learning space. My picture was taken by many. My sign was read by many and translated for those who could not read it.

And what did I learn? Just as I was leaving, I saw a man wearing a traditional  gallabeya picking up papers and putting them into a box. Picking up the trash. I’m a great one for criticizing the Egyptians for their lack of civic pride and letting their streets and sidewalks become so dirty. So I was quick to say to him, “Shukran, shukran.” He stood up straight, looked me right in the eye and said, “I am a teacher.” Rather startled, I replied, “I’m a teacher, too.”

That exchange has stayed with me and I have often thought about what it meant. Did he mean, by speaking in English, “Don’t condescend to me by speaking in Arabic; I can speak English too.” Or did he mean “I’m a teacher and I’m teaching young people about civic awareness and responsibility.” Or “Even class divisions cannot keep us apart. Teachers should pick up trash, not just the lowly garbage men.” Or perhaps he was just announcing his profession?  But why in English? What place does English play in Egyptian public life? And what role did it play in the revolution?

We all know how it started with Facebook. When I asked my colleague what Facebook was in Arabic, he gave a very strange look, “Facebook.” What else? The young people of Egypt, the Middle East (and the rest of the world) have taken to the Internet, the language of computers, and they have made it their own.

When we woke up one morning to silence on mobile phone networks and the internet, we called that the ‘Day the internet went down’. It was the fourth day of the revolution and my first thought was that the government was really frightened, to try to cut us off. But I knew that Egyptians had already gone too far to go back now and it was the first time that I thought that the young people of Egypt might seriously bring down the regime. After all, revolutions have been carried out for thousands of years without Facebook; it could be done again.

So often lately, the language of revolution has been in English. I have started calling English an Egyptian language beside Modern Standard Arabic, ‘Ameya (colloquial Arabic), Nubian, Berber, as well as all the French and German that Egyptians speak. But what does it mean that English is an Egyptian language? Is this just a neocolonialist vision? Phillipson’s (1992) Linguistic Imperialism gave us ideas about what we, especially those of us who are English teachers, do. Do we promote English as a ‘world language’ that will lead to better jobs, more connection with worldwide businesses, and perhaps immigration to wealthier, better places to live? Others, such as David Crystal (2003) and David Nunan (2003) in their ‘Global English’ vision, perhaps are still referring to the same power relationships of business, aid to ‘developing’ countries, and so forth. I, too, must acknowledge that for years I have been teaching outside the US to eager students in many countries with the same vision of coming in contact and being able to ‘do’ English for personal financial or social gain. I maintain that there are ‘rules’ of good English, that vocabulary is a canon of words used in English and that ‘my’ pragmatics as a native speaker are the right ones.

But Pennycook (2007) has argued that if we view English, the language, as a ‘myth’, a created idea that is “a social, ideological, historical and discursive construction” (p.110), then what is it that Egyptians have been using? Have they, as they use English for their signs, been engaged in “acts of English identification [that] are used to perform, invent and (re)fashion identities across innumerable domains” (p.110).  We need to understand, as Pennycook says, “the multiple investments people bring to their acts, desires and performances in ‘English’” (p. 111).

I believe this is not Phillipson’s neocolonialist English, but a Global English that has been used by Egyptians (and others in the Middle East) for their own purposes. They have created their own identities with it, global citizens with a new found voice. And they do not necessarily follow OUR rules of spelling, or grammar. If I point out that a phrase is ‘incorrect,’ my sign-carrying Egyptian might say, “Who cares; you know what I mean.” Leave out an article or a preposition, “Who cares?” Make a joke? (De-Nile: Not only a river in Egypt.) They are entitled because it is their language. They are creating their own identities through their own use of the language. Some of my favorite signs were, “Obama, it’s not about you.” “The US, it’s not about you.” “USA, it’s our decision, not yours.” This is what Global English looks like, Egyptian style. Egyptians are using English for communication to the outside world, but also as a way of identifying themselves as bilingual, global citizens who have found their ‘voice.’ This identification of ideas, often expressed in English, yearns for democracy, Egyptian democracy.  A few months ago, one might say that that phrase was an oxymoron, and indeed Egyptian democracy may not look like American democracy. But we do not know, because it has not been invented yet.

Let me return to my first idea of Tahrir Square as ‘learning space’. As Egyptians watched their TV’s, or joined with those in Tahrir, what were they learning? As we outsiders watched TV, what did we learn?  I watched CNN, BBC, and Al Jezeera TV.  I saw their coverage, and I experienced for myself their many different views. The world has changed. We in Egypt know that. Every day we see, hear and experience many different things. ‘Before the revolution’ is a marker of time, and of a different world. We have experienced new energy, new openness, new identities, with fierceness and a fearlessness that is new. After all, Tahrir means ‘liberation’.

And what of the role of English? It is embedded in this new world not because we want to do ‘business’ or have pen pals around the world. English is used as a connector via the new media to citizens of the world, wherever they are, and in whatever variety of English they choose to use.


(This was first given as a presentation at the New Orleans TESOL Convention, March 18, 2011.)





Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.


Nunan, D. (2003). The impact of English as a global language on educational policies and 
            practices in the Asia-Pacific region. TESOL Quarterly, 37(4), 589-613.


Pennycook, A. (2007). The Myth of English as an International Language. In Makoni, S. 
            and Pennycook, A. (Eds.) Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages, pp. 90-
            115. Multilingual Matters.


Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Phyllis Wachob teaches methodology in the MATEFL program at the American University in Cairo. Her interests are learner autonomy, motivation, cooperative learning, Critical Pedagogy and introducing innovative methodologies. She can be reached at pwachob@aucegypt.edu.