As citizens gather in city squares from Caracas to Kiev to Cairo, governments are showing symptoms of agoraphobia, which literally means fear of an agora or “place of assembly.” In Swedish, this anxiety disorder is called torgskräck, or “fear of the square.”
In cases of authoritarian agoraphobia, governments have simply destroyed public squares. For example, in Bahrain, the government bulldozed Pearl Square to stymie the country’s 2011 reformist movement and prevent citizens from assembling there. In other countries, governments have erected physical barriers to restrict access to civic space. In Egypt, the military recently erected ten-foot iron gates to control access to Tahrir Square, which has become famous in recent years as a hub of protest activity. (In the photo above, an anti-Mubarak protester attaches an Egyptian flag to the barbed wire surrounding Tahrir Square in 2011.) Similarly, in Uganda, the police installed barbed wire to keep citizens out of Constitution Square, the only public square in Kampala. On March 20, 2014, the Turkish government blocked Twitter, restricting access to the digital agora.
Supplementing physical and electronic barriers, many governments are erecting legal barriers to civic space. In January 2014, Cambodia issued a blanket ban on all public gatherings. Days later, Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine enacted legislation imposing five year prison sentences on protestors if they blocked government buildings, and allowing the authorities to seize the cars of people participating in “Automaidan” protests. Shortly after, the Venezuelan government brought criminal charges, including arson and conspiracy charges to imprison citizens engaged in peaceful assemblies. These are but a few recent examples of the global agoraphobia pandemic.