Cairo is a city of multiple centers, each laid out by the various empires that have conquered and controlled this ancient city and the nation of Egypt over the last 2000 years. While fascinating to visit, most of Cairo's centers have tiny cramped streets and little public space of any kind.
Tahrir Square, where the crowds gathered over the last few weeks to shout for greater democracy and the resignation of their president Hosni Mubarak, is different.
Egypt's leader the Khedive Isma'il Pasha had it laid out in the late 19th century, after being among the many foreign leaders to visit Paris during the Universal Exposition in 1867 and see Baron Haussmann's stunning redevelopment of the French capital. Isma'il, who was educated in Paris as a youth, toured the wide streets and visited the city's famous new sewers. On his return to Egypt, Isma'il had Tahrir Square laid out as a Parisian-style roundabout where various avenues met in a star-shaped pattern. The broad avenues would eventually be lined with ornate beaux-arts style buildings.
A century and a half later, it is perhaps appropriate that the events of Egypt are playing out in this large, public square. Although the Khedive (like Napoleon III who employed Haussmann) was no democrat, these leaders built places of public assembly that would serve a variety of purposes over the subsequent decades. It is appropriate that the calls for more democracy come from a place that is itself meant for the public.