Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Documenting revolution

New means of verbal and visual expression have been proliferating across the walls of Egypt since the 25 January Revolution, writes Mai Samih

Documenting revolution
Documenting revolution
Al-Ahram Weekly

Egyptians have long been writing and drawing on walls to record major events, a habit that started in ancient Egypt, when images and texts were used to decorate the walls of tombs and temples and document important events from wars to plagues. Today, this habit has developed into the graffiti art that has emerged especially since the 25 January Revolution, with this being used for a variety of political purposes.

The word graffiti comes from the Italian word graffiare meaning “to scratch”, and it is used to describe street art on walls and other surfaces because originally those responsible used to scratch the walls in the absence of paints or other materials. Since the 25 January Revolution two years ago, there has been an explosion in graffiti art across the country, especially by young people and young artists struggling to make their voices heard. Graffiti can be drawn by almost anyone from any background, and grassroots graffiti artists have produced a record of the events of the last two years on the walls of cities throughout Egypt.

This form of art has become familiar across the country, from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Abu Haggag Square in Luxor. Many of the drawings have become so popular that officials are now calling for their official preservation. The dates of the major demonstrations of the revolution appear on walls with provocative words like “vengeance for the martyrs” below them, encouraging people to participate in politics. The graffiti artists have commemorated those who died in the revolution, produced a wealth of political caricatures, and given their instructions to the government.

Pictures are now just as common as words, but at first a more common form of expression was words alone. From the beginning of the revolution onwards, people wrote their basic needs on public walls, with slogans like “Bread, freedom and social justice” predominating. These slogans were blown up to giant size to signify their importance, the word “bread” often being much larger than the other two words.

Throughout the revolution and afterwards on every wall around Tahrir Square and on metro stations slogans started to appear, much as they did during earlier episodes of political transition elsewhere, such as the slogans that started to appear on the Berlin Wall before its fall in 1989. The names of the martyrs and the missing of the revolution started to appear, with people adding the words “Mubarak out” or in Arabic “erhal” beneath them. Pictures of martyrs like Khaled Said, who had been killed by police in Alexandria in 2010, appeared in black ink to remind people of the goals of the revolution.

Later, a similar message was directed at the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that took up the reins of power following the revolution. “Message Number One, LEAVE,” the graffiti read. The public anger only increased as events unfolded, and this was apparent in the words used. 

After the Mohamed Mahmoud Street events in 2011, graffiti appeared throughout this downtown Cairo street, including slogans like “the picture will change”. Words with pictures to convey a stark meaning were used, such as “the Egyptians demand”, with a hammer shown breaking the words to depict what was seen as government policy at the time. There were also pictures of martyrs like Sheikh Emad Effat, with prayer such as “I hope to God you are happy where you are”.

Later, paintings of Egyptian women mourning the martyrs appeared without comment. There were images of police officers holding guns, with the words “gadaa ya basha”, or “well done, sir”, appearing as a form of black humour. The graffiti did not only depict the events, but it also used symbolism, like in one drawing which showed the police forces shooting protesters and in front of them an artist holding a paint brush and palette to symbolise that graffiti could also be used as a weapon.

After the Port Said football match between the Ahli and Masri teams in which scores of people died, graffiti appeared to record the stories of the victims, with words like “Zaza was shot because he was supporting his team” appearing and picture of military tanks in firing position.

During the presidential elections in the summer of last year, graffiti appeared in the form of pictures like that of a head of which one side was that of the ousted former president Hosni Mubarak and the other side was of former head of the SCAF Hussein Tantawi. There were also the heads of the election candidates with discrediting comments. These often played with words, showing a suit without a head, for example, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate appearing with the word “stebn” below him, meaning “spare tyre”.

Sarcastic drawings of a military cap atop a suit of clothes, or of the two frontrunners in the presidential elections appearing like the puppets of the military, appeared, apparently aiming to persuade voters to boycott the elections. “The picture will change, but the ruler will not”, read one piece of graffiti from the time, the images being roughly painted using stencils and spray paint to reflect the urgency of the time.

When the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood started, drawings of beards with the words, “Islam is not just a beard” began to be seen in the streets. After the 12 December demonstrations last year and the mass protests near Al-Ittihadiya Palace, artists drew pictures of the victims on the walls of syndicates and government buildings. Journalist Al-Husseini Abu Deif, killed while covering Al-Ittihadiya events, was remembered in graffiti drawings. The protesters wrote their demands and objections to the new constitution on the walls of the palace itself, voicing their anger at the government through drawings.   

During the second anniversary of the revolution last month, graffiti images of a hand with the evil eye on it, a sign believed to protect against envy in Eastern culture, were seen on walls with the prayer, “O God, protect our revolution”.


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