By Salma Khamis
If asked about the outcome of the Egyptian revolution, most Western academics and local democracy activists alike would probably locate their response somewhere within a narrative of failure and disillusionment. That isn’t to say their responses wouldn’t be entirely true. Rather, a brief survey of the political, economic, and social indicators underpinning the analysis of any country’s post-revolutionary progress would indicate a clear degradation in today’s Egypt. However, succumbing solely to this one-dimensional narrative, at the expense of a plethora of nuances, is all too easy. Alternatively, considering one of the often-ignored byproducts of the Egyptian revolution can contribute towards the formation of a different, and starkly more optimistic, legacy of this popular uprising.
Walking through downtown Cairo five years ago would have provided for a very different journey than pursuing the same path today. Four years after Tahrir Square erupted in protest the walls of Cairo’s epicenter are lined not only with the blood of countless slain martyrs, but also with the spray paint commemorating their legacies. Large-scale murals, iconic stencils, and freehand graffiti slogans overlap one another on any wall large enough to house them. Especially today, in an Egypt characterized primarily by the increasingly militarized and authoritative regime of army strongman Abdelfattah el-Sisi, the advent of this extremely accessible and explicitly defiant art form represents the slow reclamation of the urban public space by artists and spectators alike. A public space that was once available to all during the eighteen days of uprising in January has since been seized (arguably more strongly than ever) by local authorities, both literally and figuratively. The emergence of this locally produced (and often improvised) powerful graffiti, as well as its persistence despite the increasingly oppressive political and social climate, is a testament to one of the Egyptian revolution’s few, and thus infinitely valuable, successes.
The Power of the Stencil:
From January 2011 to this day, every new wave of protests in Egypt has brought with it a series of different, albeit sometimes overlapping, rhetorical themes – depending on that which is being protested. As such, the street art accompanying each respective movement has also been characterized by a different set of themes and grievances, the evolutionary trends of which are interesting to track. Despite local authorities’ attempts at, literally, whitewashing martyrs’ legacies that had been documented by street artists on walls all over the capital, this only provided new planes upon which to display more relevant material.
Triggered by the brutal murder of Khaled Said in 2010, the initial uprising of 2011 saw the emergence of classic revolutionary rhetoric, highlighting the uprising’s main goals in a simple visual, and thus accessible, form. A stencil of Said’s headshot was plastered all over Egypt, the remnants of which today stand as a painful reminder of the initially pacifistic calls of an uprising that, four years on, has become increasingly violent.
After President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February, the interim military government too faced powerful opposition on behalf of the liberal and progressive factions that had led the calls for change characterizing the January 2011 uprising. When a video of a female protestor being unclothed and beaten up by security forces emerged in December 2011, the infamous image of her blue bra virtually characterized anti-SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) dissent. As rhetorical coming-of-age, if you will, the graffiti that had previously been dominated by vague demands of equality and democracy now began to reflect newly articulated and more defined demands: gender justice and anti-police brutality.
The image of the Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti wearing a gas mask (shown at the top of this article) is equally profound. While the blue bra piece highlights the importance of female participation in the unfolding anti-SCAF protests, the second piece criticizes the army’s disproportionate use of force against protestors. One cannot deny the lasting impact of both pieces. Most prominently, the previously inaccessible messages triumphed by progressive artists, who previously could not effectively relay their ideas to the greater public, were finally freed from the ivory tower that they were previously confined.
What is particularly interesting to note about the development of graffiti in Egypt is how it transcends the ideological differences that make up the myriad political factions on Egypt’s spectrum. Despite the fact that urban street art was perceived to be a luxury reserved for privileged westernized progressives, the walls of this misconception quickly crumbled in 2011 as protest, in all its forms, became mainstream. From the conventionally Eurocentric perceptions of democracy and equality portrayed in the art that defied Mubarak’s rule in 2011, to Islamist opposition to the 2013 military coup – people’s virtually uniform access to the public space meant that anyone with anything to say could take to an empty wall and say it, colorfully and beautifully. Thus, irrespective of who’s in power, revolutionary Egyptian graffiti is able to both represent a rejection of the status quo and provide dissenters with the medium upon which to express their discontent with whatever rhetoric they see fit.
Furthermore, one needs only to consider the frequency with which Egyptian authorities are quick to pin public discontent on “foreign conspiracies” to note the suspicion traditionally attributed to the transportation of foreign phenomena into Egypt. Distinctly, however, the Egyptian graffiti scene has dodged this counterproductive cultural barrier and reaped the fruits of this western tradition of visual protest, while simultaneously maintaining a distinct national identity. Not only is the majority of the work decorating Egyptian walls today in Arabic, but the combination of Arabic calligraphy with the techniques of traditional urban western graffiti has also allowed artists and activists alike the opportunity to express their protest with a degree of authenticity previously alien to Egyptian political and cultural discourse.
Amidst rumors of strengthened anti-graffiti laws and the magnitude of unjustified arrests of both political activists and graffiti artists, followers of Egypt’s graffiti scene fear its disintegration. As the government relentlessly tries to promote its own legitimacy both in the domestic and international spheres, there seems to be no room for the counterculture in Sisi’s Egypt. The voices of those who favor the return of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in particular have been eradicated from both the mainstream media and socially acceptable public discourse. Why should their corresponding graffiti scene be any different?
However, the desperation of the pro-Brotherhood cause, coupled with the current regime’s propagation of ultra-nationalist, militarized rhetoric hasn’t meant the complete disappearance of political graffiti, only its transformation. As noted by Jano Charbel, those producing pro-Morsi graffiti today “appear to be more interested in publicly posting their messages than in the aesthetic value of their graffiti. In Cairo, they have produced no murals and very few stencils, forms which become prevalent over the past three years.” This could explain their increased use of the English language: to maximize the accessibility of their message and testify to their increasing despair. Having been the prime target of government and public persecution since the coup of July 2013, pro-Morsi activists have been using what’s left of their dwindling resources to voice their opposition through whatever simplistic (and arguably thus less effective) forms they can manage – albeit to an audience that is, at best, largely ignoring them. Today, everything from public trashcans, to the walls encompassing the world-renowned al-Azhar University, is covered in these freehand expressions of discontent. It is clear that Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers are trying to make the most of the limited access they have to the public space after over eighteen months of intense persecution.
To clarify, this article has been but a brief introduction the fascinating pursuit of analyzing the different rhetorical trends governing the Egyptian graffiti scene since January 2011. It would not have been possible to capture the entirety of this dynamic and inspiring movement with the accuracy and justice it so rightly deserves in such a short piece. I hope, however, to have brought to light an optimistic result of the 2011 uprising on Egyptian society: the flourishing of a vibrant and expressive urban graffiti scene that has garnered mainstream popularity. I believe that analyzing the prominent themes and stylistic techniques employed by the local pioneers in this burgeoning field can help arm future activists with the knowledge of what does and doesn’t work in garnering a response from mainstream Egyptian society. As has already been proven time and time again since the initial uprisings of 2011, it is only by demystifying commonly perceived “corrupt” ideals and practices that fly in the face of the status quo, and presenting them to the greater public in an accessible and interactive form, that domestic political discourse can truly be productively transformed.
This particular topic has garnered much international attention and I urge anyone wanting to find out more to explore Don Karl and Basma Hamdy’s newly released book on the topic titled, “Walls of Freedom.” In the words of the writers themselves, not only does the book document the explosion of revolutionary street art in Egypt, but also seeks to track “the transformation of citizens into artists and artists into activists [and] shed light on the larger framework of the revolution.”