Cairo, Egypt – In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, ground zero of the democratic uprising which overthrew the brutal 42-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, the history of the 2011 revolution is literally drawn on the walls. Down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, along the sides of the American University of Cairo (AUC) compound and all around the Square there are stunning and oft-emotional testaments to the historic events which led to the fall of the Mubarak regime and which galvanised the attention of the world.
Pharaohnic imagery, written messages of inspiration, artistic depictions of soldiers, politicians, protestors and the ordinary Egyptians from all walks of life who came into the streets to finally lift the heavy weight of dictatorship from their nation – all these are painted on the walls around Tahrir in recognition of the transcendent events which took place there only so recently. In addition, what are painted are tributes to those young and old who gave their lives to the cause of bringing freedom to Egypt. Depictions of the martyrs of Tahrir Square with angel wings and words of commemoration adorn the walls, and it is these historic images, among others, that the Egyptian military came this week to wipe away.
‘They want us to forget’
On an early Monday morning a work crew commissioned by the Egyptian government began covering the revolutionary murals in Tahrir with white paint, in what seemed to many to be a calculated and deliberate effort to erase the living history of the 2011 revolution. They succeeded in covering over the paintings on the front wall of the American University of Cairo compound facing Qasr Al-Ainy Street, as well as the corner directly facing the square which had previously displayed the iconic image of Hosni Mubarak as half-politician half-general, painted by the legendary Egyptian street artist Omar Fahmy.
As they continued their work and began to paint over the long stretch of artwork on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a group of passing students, shocked by what they were witnessing, prevented them from continuing. Ahmed Kamel, 19, was among those who stopped the painters.
“Since the first days of the revolution Egyptians have found their democratic voice through impromptu street art in Cairo and beyond.“
“We did not use any violence to make them stop, we just told them that they can not do this and we will not let them keep painting.”
Uncensored street art
The painters were ordinary contractors hired by the government to do a job, not politically motivated in their work but simply among those of the millions of Cairenes trying to eke out an existence in the sprawling North African megacity. They left quietly and without incident, leaving behind them some whitewashed revolutionary artwork and a growing crowd of youths who had come to survey what had been lost and to stand guard over the walls of paintings which remained.
Since the first days of the revolution Egyptians have found their democratic voice through impromptu street art in Cairo and beyond. Denunciations of the corrupt military dictatorship as well as illustrations of their own aspirations for freedom and self-determination have taken graphic form on city walls from Cairo to Alexandria to Suez. This week’s effort by the SCAF to destroy the most prominent and visceral of these displays was not the first attempt to wipe out revolutionary street art. In other urban centres across Egypt, graffiti murals have been defaced and destroyed and their creators imprisoned. Mohammed Fahmy, who goes by the name Ganzeer, is among those who have been detained by the military for his work.
“I chose graffiti over other types of artistic expression because there was a need for alternative media… Uncensored street art is the only way we can tell our story.”
Far from the stereotypical portrayal of graffiti as vandalism; in a closed and repressive society such as Mubarak’s Egypt it often constituted the only uncorrupted means of personal and communal expression. The revolution was widely seen by Egyptians, especially the youth, as a time of upheaval and inspiration in which an entirely new world suddenly seemed attainable, and the graffiti produced in its wake reflected the transcendence of this vision. Existentialist depictions of masked protesters dancing with ballerinas amid tear gas being fired in the square, Pharoahnic montages depicting the role played by women during the uprising and graphic exhortations towards all strata of society to bring social justice to Egypt; all these were painted and remain on the walls around Tahrir as testament to the herculean energy which was brought forth by the Egyptian people during their revolution.
“The graffiti… serves as a reminder and testament to the cost that was paid to overthrow Egypt’s dictatorship.“
For Karim Usef, 25, the paintings adorning Tahrir Square and throughout Cairo are not only political but deeply personal. Karim, a soft spoken young man who holds a degree in social work but has been unable to find steady work for the past two years was actively involved in the protests against the Mubarak regime from their early days. Walking through Tahrir and the surrounding streets of downtown Cairo, he points to many spray-painted tributes commemorating his friend Ramy Sharkawi, a 28-year old graphic designer who had joined the protests and was shot to death by armed men hired by the regime to attack pro-democracy protesters.
“When he was alive I would see him every day in the Square, but after he died I would see him in my mind everywhere.”
He had been shot in the side and chest and died there in Tahrir. After his death his close friends and those who had come to know him in the protest movement held a birthday party for him in the Square. Karim and others spray painted his smiling image in stencil along many of the walls of surrounding buildings, including those of the AUC which the government had this week attempted to paint over.
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“We celebrated his birthday right there in the Square, we wanted him to be remembered for what he did for us.”
Ramy’s death would not be the last which Karim witnessed – days later while standing in the centre of the Square, he watched another young fellow protester die in front of his eyes, struck in the head by a bullet fired by a government sniper from the adjacent Mogamma government building.
“He was standing only a few metres away from me when he was shot, I watched him die as people tried to help him… I will never forget this as long as I live.”
For Karim, the graffiti painted on the AUC walls and elsewhere in memory of Ramy and the others who died serves as a reminder and testament to the cost that was paid to overthrow Egypt’s dictatorship, as well as a tribute to his friends whose young lives were violently cut short by the military regime. To this day he cannot bring himself to walk through the centre of the Square, the memories of what took place there being too much for him to bear.
‘We will never forget’
After halting the work of the government painters, the crowd of youths surveyed the destruction of their revolutionary artwork. Two entire walls had been covered in white and a third partially as well, but luckily they had arrived in time to preserve the majority of the paintings. As crowds of fellow student activists as well as onlookers and journalists came to view the scene, several young men earnestly began the work of painting the walls once again. Asked whether he thought the government would again try to destroy their work, Ahmed Kamel said, “They will come but it doesn’t matter. If we have to we will paint again and again.”
As the crowds grew so too came officials from the SCAF, screaming at the activists and at gathered reporters to disperse from the scene and to cease repainting the walls. Across the street, police operatives took photos of all those on the corner.
“They are angry because it makes them look bad, they want us to forget what happened.” Kamel said.
As the scene grew more tense and as the government officials grew more hysterical and threatening in their anger, some activists tried to form a cordon while one young man continued to paint – a depiction of an Egyptian general as a grim reaper atop a pile of skulls. With chaos seemingly building around him he continued to work, focused on his painting alone as though he was the only one in the Square.
As minutes turned into hours and day into night, and as the SCAF left, frustrated in their attempts to paint clean the walls, the crowd brought him more supplies and he continued to paint back over the whitewash the government had made of the revolutionary graffiti. By the end of the night there were more paintings back on the walls, including one of Khaled Said; the first martyr whose death had sparked the revolution. Like him and all those who died for the cause afterwards, their sacrifice has not been forgotten by their fellow Egyptians despite the best effort of the SCAF to whitewash his death both from memory and from the walls of Egyptian city streets.
On every blank canvas is painted and repainted from memory a tribute to him and the others who paid the ultimate price, as well as to the incredible events which changed the country forever and made freedom at last seem attainable in Egypt. No attempt at whitewashing by the government seems able to wipe away the collective memory of the Egyptian people, a memory which continues to manifest itself time and again in artistry on the streets where the battles of the revolution were fought and won.
“We will never forget these things,” said Karim.
Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics and the “Global War on Terror”.