“I’ve lost around LE40,000 since the first wall was built in November,” Says Mohasin Hatteneen, 61, the owner of Al-Ahram Farm pet shop on downtown Cairo's Mohamed Mahmoud Street. The store became a landmark to protesters who had used it to measure how far the front line had been pushed back as they ran from gunfire and gas in last year’s clashes with Egypt’s security forces.
“During the fighting, I couldn’t get into my shop to feed my animals for five days – they got teargassed too,” he said. “I tried to carry out as many of the animals as I could, but most were already dead. The smell was unbearable.”
When the army erected a concrete block wall right next to his shop on the afternoon of 24 November, Hatteneen was cut off from Tahrir Square, the main access point to the rest of the city. Mohamed Mahmoud Street became an unpleasant cul de sac.
In the ensuing December clashes near parliament, local shop owners and residents would wake up to new walls being built under heavy gunfire during the middle of the night. The landscape of Cairo's busiest area changed with bewildering speed.
By February, when the last five walls were built, there was a grid of 12-foot-high barricades. Barbed wire checkpoints manned by Central Security Forces (CSF) personnel and tanks, bearing stickers of soldiers carrying babies, blocked the other end of the streets. The Ministry of Interior was sealed in. Movement in the area was completely paralysed. Traffic was squeezed onto the corniche.
Downtown is under siege.
"Employees from the interior and health ministries used to walk by and buy things, and now they don’t because of the wall," says Khalil, 27, a fruit seller on the corner of Felaky and Mohamed Mahmoud streets. The family fruit stand was broken three times during the tear gas stampedes in November and then February.
His father explained how they had lost LE25,000 because of the broken stands, the spoiled fruit and business losses. "I live on between LE20 and LE80 a day for me and my six children. That means I've lost between a year and three years worth of salary." He asked me why the army couldn't install a door in the wall.
Mamdoh Abdel Khalil, 55, owns a dry-cleaning business right next to the Fahmy Street wall. The flats above his shop caught fire during the February clashes. He explained how customers do not come by his store any more as the walls make the area seem like "a warzone."
He showed me where he lives, just across the street, some 100 metres away. But with the wall in between, he has to go around four different streets and an army checkpoint to get home.
Those living behind the walls on the Ministry of Interior side, face police questioning as they go through a barbed wire fence to get home. There are at least two tanks permanently stationed there with around ten CSF armoured vehicles guarding the streets at all times.
"I feel like I'm living with the military," says Atif Eid, 44, pointing to a tank parked outside his car-upholstery business on Noubar Street. The armed military officer on top looks young and embarrassed. "We don't need to be treated this way. We're not animals," says Eid.
Residents of the area are finding it equally hard. During the November and February clashes, many found they couldn't get home. Those that did had to wear gasmasks in their living rooms.
"It was extremely hard for my children, who were terrified when they heard the bombs. We had to go," explained Walid Abel-Latif, 33, a resident of Mansour Street, situated only a couple hundred metres from the frontline.
"I couldn't get to my flat for eight days," recalls Arab Loutfi, who lives opposite to the Ministry of Interior. "I've had to take two courses of antibiotics because of chest infections from the teargas, and I'm having x-rays done because I still can't breathe."
When she eventually returned, she found the surrounding streets transformed.
"The walls have cut us off from our friends, especially women, who now don't like to come at night since they have to use the small roads. Taxis won't drop you here either, so we don't leave the house – it doesn't feel safe," she added.
After decades of police brutality, kidnapping and arbitrary arrests, the presence of black-clad officers in full riot gear hanging out on the sidewalks does little to reassure people.
I spoke with an officer, responsible for around 30 men behind the Noubar Wall. When asked about the future of the walls and the situation, he replied: “I’m lost.”
The walls themselves, three large concrete cubes high and as many as 20 blocks wide, fortified with a cross-stitch of iron rods, make an aggressive and somewhat hysterical statement. Architect Sherif El-Dakkak estimated that each block likely cost LE1,100, including installation. The Mansour Street wall alone may have cost the army as much as LE65,000, he said.
The Mohamed Mahmoud Street wall was built in November by the army, which, like a frustrated parent, decided to “separate” the protesters from police and the Ministry of Interior. This despite the fact that the military assisted police in attacking civilians during the battles.
Two days before, de facto leader Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, slipping into his parental role, had said the army's aim was to “protect the nation.” Here it was in concrete form.
But it’s more complex than this: going beyond the physical barrier, it becomes a psychological one. No one builds a wall for no reason. The downtown barriers, like a concrete exclamation mark, say: a conflict happened here, it's still happening, and it could break out again at any second. It is a perpetuating and stimulating visual reminder of the insecurity on the streets.
Walls also beg the question: why was it put there and what is it separating? Answer: there is some “thing” to be feared beyond the barricade. Egypt’s army (the known entity to the public) had to bring cranes to downtown Cairo to cage the unknown “rabble” in Tahrir. It dehumanises the protesters. It also reveals that dialogue and cooperation has failed – its’ a last resort.
When the first wall was erected in November, Al-Azhar sheikhs and Muslim Brotherhood members, for whatever political motive (the Brotherhood held closed meetings with the SCAF during the bloody crackdown), came to the street to form a human barricade in front of the concrete one. This action would be repeated by “concerned citizens” in the aftermath of every wall building.
So the walls, despite their strength, show a vulnerability – not only in the actual bricks, which, as the protesters discovered in February, can fall, but in the people, in this case the army, who feel the need to build them to hide behind. This vulnerability drives people to protect the builders.
This is a tactic the military has used to garner support from the start of the revolution. From 1 February, when the telephone networks were shut down, the army sent out text messages to the public urging “local men to… protect our precious Egypt.”
In response, terrified people’s committees came to the streets arbitrarily arresting anyone who looked out of place. Before the clearing of the March sit-in, I personally know people who were approached by the army and asked to help remove the “baltegaya” who were destroying Egypt. So they did.
In every battle, you will see civilians dotted amongst the soldiers. In December, one protester, who was on Qasr Al-Aini Street facing the army, spotted his childhood friend on top of the overlooking building helping the soldiers throw rocks on the protest. When he phoned his friend to ask him what he was doing, the man who lived in the area replied that the army had said it needed protection.
Why would an organisation armed with machine guns, tanks, rockets and fighter jets need the help of impoverished locals with rocks and baseball bats? Because, like the symbol of needing to build a wall, it’s about tapping into the very real fear of an unstable Egypt, getting sympathy (“look what they’ve made us do”), accessing Egypt’s complex and emotional relationship with the army, and so securing their support.
Walls are also a visual presentation of a false choice or dilemma – it removes the middle ground: you are either with us (in this case the parliament, the ministries, the army, the state) or you are with “them” (the unknown, the unpredictable). Interestingly, despite complaining about how the walls have affected their lives, local shopkeepers and residents, who don’t engage in politics, opt to side with the army, which they know, rather than the “thugs." All of them denied that the people in the February clashes were protesters.
Walls or borders are always contested, inspiring radically different responses. Either you side with the walls and their safety by compromising your freedom, or you side with bringing the walls down with unknown consequences. The wall is either a welcome separation from whatever is beyond the barrier, or it is a scar on the landscape locking those who live around them out of spaces (including a political one).
Some local residents called for a graffiti event on Friday. Instead of campaigning to have the wall pulled down they are painting the original un-barricaded street onto the walls.
“By drawing the street continuing on the wall, we’re taking back the street,” says Hossam Shukrallah, a stencil artist involved in the event. “We’re going to draw through the wall.” They aim to heal the scar by owning it again and making it beautiful.
“The army can put walls around us, all over the country,” said Egyptian filmmaker and cartoon artist Salma El-Tarzi, 33, who is one of the people coordinating the event. ”But they're not going to be able to imprison our creativity, our revolution, our imagination.”