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The Struggle For the Walls of Cairo

February 19, 2013

Mural of the martyr Jika in downtown Cairo. Photo: Jessica Winegar.

Mural of the martyr Jika in downtown Cairo. Photo: Jessica Winegar.

“Whoever has something to say in Egypt these days can write it on a wall,” begins a recent photo-essay by Samuli Schielke and Jessica Winegar.

Titled “The Writing on the Walls of Egypt,” it appears in a recent issue of Middle East Report and is available on-line as a public access article.

After emphasizing that wall-writing as a form of art and political expression predates the current revolution, the authors focus on post-Mubarak efforts to control what appears on the walls of Cairo.

While generals, presidents, judges and other powerful leaders jockey for control, street art reminds us that street politics continues to have relevance, and that the art and poetry of slogans, graffiti and murals gives concrete form to “anti-hegemony” sentiments (Shokr 2012) but also to the sentiments of those supporting the SCAF, or the government of President Morsi.

Indeed, street art not only expresses differences of political opinion, it can itself be a battleground:

Immediately after Husni Mubarak left office, citizens adorned Cairo with large portraits of martyrs. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) just as quickly began painting them over. Pro-SCAF youth whited out the famous image of a tank facing a panda, by the graffiti artist Ganzeer, under a bridge near a government-run youth center on Gezira island. Ganzeer and his crew returned and drew a SCAF figure with a forked tongue over the pro-junta graffiti. This well-known graffiti battlefield has been covered up with paint and scrawled upon again several times since then.

And again:

On December 4, 2012, opposition protesters gathered by the thousands in front of the Presidential Palace to protest President Muhammad Mursi’s November 22 constitutional decree. That night, they transformed the palace walls, which had radiated executive privilege for 30 years with their clean, regularly applied pale yellow coating, into an explosion of oppositional political claims. Through their stenciled spray-painting of martyr images and spontaneous insults of the president, they were putting death right in the regime’s face. Writing was key to this challenge to political legitimacy. The very next day, pro-Mursi demonstrators came, also in the thousands, with huge buckets of the same pale yellow paint to blot out the opposition graffiti. As two youths atop ladders slathered the walls from top to bottom, another man assured onlookers that “this filth” — meaning the graffiti — “will be gone by tonight.” Meanwhile, two (outnumbered) opposition protesters stood defiantly by with their hands on the image of Gabir Salah or “Jika,” a young man killed in a clash with police in November. An argument erupted over whether or not Jika was a legitimate martyr, as he died in demonstrations that were, in large measure, anti-Mursi. Even some Brothers agreed with the opposition youth that the dead should not be covered up in a graffiti war. Some writings cannot be erased.

They conclude:

At the very center of Tahrir there are no walls, but citizens have created a “museum” where visitors can write messages on pieces of paper. These notes are then hung from strings to form temporary walls, a space inside which one stands and hears the flapping of paper in the breeze and realizes that all expression is possible but also, in the end, ephemeral.

References

Schielke, Samuli and Jessica Winegar. 2012. The Writing on the Walls of Egypt. Middle East Report 42(625).  http://www.merip.org/mer/mer265/writing-walls-egypt

Shokr, Ahmad. 2013. Reflections on Two Revolutions. Middle East Report 42(625). http://www.merip.org/mer/mer265/reflections-two-revolutions

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