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Opinion

Layers of resistance

In Egypt, murals aren't a form of art - they are an act of protest.

Last Modified: 09 Mar 2013 13:08
Sarah Mousa

Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.
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The act of painting was a form of protest aimed at a wide range of political actors, from the Mubarak government to "Islamic institutions or Islamist forces which claim the sole right to cite religion" [Reuters]

Two years ago, on March 9, just one month after the fall of Mubarak, security forces gathered demonstrators from Tahrir Square into the National Museum. There, amid ancient Egyptian artifacts and under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the protesters were tortured.

One year later, that day was marked with another act of protest; members of the opposition used their talent to paint elaborate murals on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, just off Tahrir Square. The street, home to the American University of Cairo, had been the site of bloodshed for months.

Protesters, opposed to widespread military detentions, torture and failure to facilitate democratic transition, had gathered in the street demonstrating against SCAF and the Ministry of Interior. They were met with tear gas and live, rubber and cartouche bullets. Dozens of protesters fell dead on what may be the bloodiest street of the ongoing Egyptian revolution.

Between November and February 2012, SCAF erected eight cement walls, barbed wire barriers and security checkpoints throughout Downtown Cairo, citing security purposes. The walls, impenetrable by vehicle or foot, isolated protest sites and posed a great inconvenience to the residents of an already congested city, who found themselves circling blocks to reach a destination just across a wall. The walls were a point of great contention; some climbed over them, others attempted to knock them down.

When fighting quelled by March 2012 and police and security forces had altogether retreated from the area marked by the barriers, a rare opportunity was presented. Graffitists, who had mostly used stencils or quickly scribbled messages on walls to avoid arrest or torture, could now spend more time painting without any threat. Mohamed Mahmoud Street as well as the SCAF-constructed barriers became sites of elaborate paintings.

Over the past year, the murals, whitewashed and painted one over the other several times, have confronted a number of forces of power: the SCAF government, the Ministry of Interior, the Islamist-dominated parliament, societal apathy, the Morsi leadership, Mubarak-era hijacking of culture, and Western modernist dictations on the utility of art.

'There are no walls'

The initiative to paint Mohamed Mahmoud Street, called the Tomb of Tahrir Square, prominently features images of those killed in Egypt's ongoing revolution. The goal was not simply to memorialise these figures, but to directly confront SCAF with the faces of those killed under its rule and to mobilise wider segments of society against military and police brutality.

Images of Ahly football club fans, killed on the street and in a Port Said stadium as they watched a match in February 2012, were painted in their jerseys and clad with wings. The paintings were elaborate not simply for aesthetic appeal, but as a way of establishing presence in the street through the longer-term needs of more detailed artwork, allowing the protest artists to engage with and express views to passersby. One of the main Tahrir painters, Ammar Abo Bakr, took great joy when people began flocking around as he painted, asking for clarification on his political stances. 

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A parallel initiative to the painting of Mohamed Mahmoud Street focused on the painting of the cement barricades. From the moment they were erected, the barriers brought to mind far the more egregious ones cutting through the Palestinian West Bank. Perhaps the military's gravest mistake in constructing these walls was overlooking their symbolism. Egyptian protesters looked back at their struggle, one of uneven power and "ceasefires" called as an excuse to rearm and further isolate protesters, and saw the struggle of Palestinians. The walls inspired sarcastic remarks on whether Egypt was Palestine and chants likening SCAF to Israeli authorities.

Activists made an event out of the painting of the barricades with an initiative called "There Are No Walls". A mock plaque was painted, labelling the street without walls, and each activist took to painting one of the cement barriers, all at the same time. The act of painting in unison was itself a sort of demonstration that attracted crowds who chanted against SCAF and the walls as they were being painted.

As the name of the initiative suggests, the effort sought to make the presence of the walls obsolete. Borrowing directly from methods used in Palestine, most of the walls portray realistic images of the scenery covered by the wall. One of the more magnificent of these paintings was depicted on the wall blocking Sheikh Rehan street, adjacent to the front entrance of the AUC.

Among the more prominent barricade paintings is an image drawn on the wall erected in front of the Ministry of Interior, to Egyptian activists the ultimate symbol of injustice. Like other wall paintings, this one realistically depicted the scene behind it, the entrance to the Ministry, including its seal. Standing beneath the seal is Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali's famous character, Handala.

Egyptians speak out against graffiti removal

Handala features in hundreds of Ali's cartoons, always with his back turned to the audience as he watches scenes of grave oppression unfold before him; he has become a symbol of justice in the Palestinian struggle. On the barricade, Handala's hand is drawn clenched behind his back as a symbol of rejection of the scene before him, and the other raising a sword topped with ink, just as Ali had frequently drawn him.

The symbol indicates the superiority of protesters' ideals to the might of the ruling apparatus. The name Handala itself, meaning bitterness, adds another layer of symbolism and is fitting in the Egyptian case in which bitterness at the loss of fellow protesters was for many a driving force for continued opposition.

Using Quranic verses

Another prominent image from Mohamed Mahmoud Street, this one particularly targeting powerful Islamists, was drawn on the AUC library's exterior. The image was painted by Abo Bakr. It depicts Azhar scholar Emad Effat - who was killed in the December 2012 protests in what witnesses say was a case of targeted murder by security forces - and Quranic verses beside him.

Effat carries a heavy symbolism for many; his funeral procession drew thousands and created a rare scene in the typically conservative Azhar Mufti's call to action. In the painting, Effat is depicted in his Azhar dress.

Here, Abo Bakr says, he is reminding people of Al-Azhar's greater past and the revolutionary role that it once played. To many activists, Effat is symbolic of the true spirit which Al-Azhar should embody. Effat is clad with colourful wings, borrowed by the painter from Coptic heritage. The image of the winged martyr, from the time of Roman persecutions, is a prominent feature of Coptic art.

The Quranic verses painted beside Effat were inspired by an interaction between a protester and a parliamentarian affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). At the time, many Islamists and particularly MB parliamentarians stood firmly in support of SCAF, denying that official forces were attacking protesters. The man approached the MP as he neared the Parliament building, and read to him the following Quranic verses:

And they said: Our Lord, we have obeyed our chiefs and leaders, and they have misled us from the right path. Our Lord, give them double the penalty and curse them. (Al-Ahzab 33:68)

The verses are a part of a passage which presents the response of those who followed orders regardless of their virtue. To Abo Bakr, the meaning is clear: "Do not just follow your leaders like sheep."

The message calls on the conscience of Islamist forces that conspired with the SCAF, as well as the security officers who blindly followed orders to violently disperse protesters. The passage is significant because it denies those movements the sole right they often claim to religion.

In describing his selection of the Islamic repertoire, Abo Bakr says, "I am Muslim, and it is my right to cite the Quran just as the Islamists do. The text is clear, let it be the judge." The painting of the verses carries immense power; while many of the paintings were repeatedly whitened out by state forces or by disgruntled opponents, the taboo of erasing passages from the Quran made this particular painting highly resistant to alteration. By drawing directly from the Quran and evoking the symbol of Al-Azhar, Abo Bakr battles Islamists and the institution of Al-Azhar using their own terms.

In their selection of artistic inspirations, the painters explicitly sought to display the wealth of Egyptian culture. The street borrows heavily from Pharaonic, Coptic, Islamic and folklore arts. The act was a form of protest aimed at a wide range of political actors, from the Mubarak government to Islamic institutions or Islamist forces which claim the sole right to cite religion.


The dimensions of resistance revealed in the "evolving walls of Downtown Cairo" point to the depth of Egypt's revolution [AP] 

Egyptian culture and identity 

The Mubarak-era monopolisation of Egyptian heritage by government cronies, notably including the Culture and Antiquities Ministers, meant that art was a matter dictated by political authority. Through its selective support of the arts, the Ministry of Culture often promoted what it deemed to be Westernised, "self-expressive" arts.

Abo Bakr blasts the Mubarak regime for attempting to deface Egyptian culture and identity, to turn it into something "shapeless" and "tasteless". In describing the initiative, Abo Bakr stated: "Egypt has six thousand years of history, and we are embracing all of it. Different actors express one part of our identity at the expense of others, or claim the sole right to use certain traditions, but we are defending our culture in its entirety."

The AUC, by virtue of its physical location, directly came into contact with the Egyptian uprising and particularly the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes which took place right outside of its doors and led to the painting of elaborate murals on its own walls. The AUC took a deliberate stance as to the value of the art through their vocal efforts to conserve the elaborate murals as they were painted in March 2012.

The AUC position seems deeply entrenched in modernist positions on the utility of art, which claim that art is primarily aesthetic and should exist for itself and that any art rooted in political or social paradigms is inferior. Proponents of this theory tend to limit commentary on artwork to its aesthetic appeal, emptying it of its "every day, political, historical meaning", as suggested by Kirsten Scheid.

Scheid writes more widely on how Euro-American institutions, by virtue of their power, have been able to dictate to the Arab world the legitimate purpose of art: "Physical force has been replaced by emotional blackmail and a hegemonic definition of what constitutes 'art'."

The AUC's appraisal of the Tahrir work as a primarily aesthetic feature and memorial that should be preserved largely reflects modernist positions on art. One AUC conservation advocate referred to a major round of whitewashing of the walls which took place under the Morsi government as an "inhumane act" which wiped away a "magnificent mural" and the memory of the past which it depicted; it was an act of "erasing a visual historical archive".

Advocates for preservation emphasised the amount of time, paint, financial expenses and equipment which went into the drawing of the murals. The University described the whitewashing as a loss of "art" in a "legitimate artistic space". Statements by AUC faculty members equated the erasing of the murals with an attempt at depleting a form of art, "self-expression", important to the history of popular art forms in Egypt. 

"Egypt has six thousand years of history, and we are embracing all of it."

- Ammar Abo Bakr, painter

Ammar Abo Bakr takes a post-modernist position on the role of art and vehemently rejected the AUC's preservation efforts. To Abo Bakr, the murals were not meant to be ephemeral; they were painted with the intention of accomplishing a specific goal. They are not forms of self-expression, but rather collective representations. 

Acts of protest

The murals were meant to be elaborated upon and painted atop of one another as political developments call for tailored reactions. Abo Bakr drew over his own paintings and those of others on the Street repeatedly; "that's how it should be," he said. In describing why he repainted the street in May of 2012, defying AUC efforts to preserve the work, Abo Bakr explained:  

We are painting to break this idea that people have of graffiti as simply a tableau or beautiful portrait. Here, we are not making art as it is understood and presented in galleries and such, what we are doing is a form of resistance. Everyone began showing interest in our work, and the American University became protective of it and wanted to preserve it. This wall, in Mohamed Mahmoud, when we came in the beginning and drew the pictures of the martyrs we did not ask anyone or take anyone's permission... now, we are in this situation, and doing it again. We are covering our past paintings with new ones.

Abo Bakr calls the pieces first and foremost "acts of protest". While there was an intention to make the pieces aesthetically pleasing, this was not done out of artistic ambition but is important because "revolutions rise against ugliness... ugliness is what allowed Mubarak to think like he did". Otherwise, Abo Bakr almost completely dismisses the artistic value of the work.

The painter emphasises that the work is not meant to be reflective of his artistic talents; to him, it is a simple piece of work done using inexpensive painting materials primarily to make a point. "If I wanted my pieces to be long lasting," Abo Bakr said, "I could have easily used better paints."

Abo Bakr expresses joy when he recalls the Morsi government's whitewashing of the Mohamed Mahmoud paintings in the fall months of 2012. To him, this was an indication of the political threat which the paintings posed and it revealed the true colours of the Morsi regime. The erasing of the paintings showed that little had changed from the Mubarak era and drew 2,000 protesters to Mohamed Mahmoud Street in an effort to repaint it.

Abo Bakr took the opportunity to paint a taunting face, with the caption "Paint More, Cowardly Regime". He expresses pride in the murals' role in instigating one of the first anti-Morsi protests. The Morsi government's reaction of building more cement barricades simply confirmed the protesters' point.

The dimensions of resistance revealed in the evolving walls of Downtown Cairo point to the depth of Egypt's revolution. The range of authoritarian forces, both political and social, and on local and global scales is poignantly confronted through the protest murals, which are far more than artistic works to be preserved and displayed.

Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt. She is currently a graduate student at the Center of Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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