Egyptians move to reclaim streets through graffiti

AP, Monday 30 Jan 2012

The conflict between Egypt's ruling military and pro-democracy protesters isn't just on the streets of Cairo, it's on the walls as well, as graffiti artists from each side duel it out with spray paint and stencils

Earlier this month, supporters of the ruling generals painted over part of the largest and most famous antimilitary graffiti pieces in the capital.

The military's supporters then made a 15-minute video using footage posted by two young men stenciling pro-revolution graffiti and wearing Guy Fawkes masks, the grinning face made famous by the movie "V for Vendetta". In an attempt mock the revolutionary street art, the military supporters declared in their video, "The police, military and people are one hand," and, "The military is a red line."

They posted the video online, calling themselves the "Badr Battalion" and describing themselves as "distinguished Egyptian youth who are against the spies and traitors that burn Egypt."

It was an ironic turnabout, with backers of the authorities picking up the renegade street art medium of revolutionary youth.

During the regime of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt had almost no graffiti on the walls of its cities. But when the uprising against Mubarak's rule erupted a year ago, there was an explosion of the art.

Taking control of the streets was critical for the thousands of Egyptians who eventually overthrew the country's authoritarian leader. The battle continues to be fought by graffiti artists who support the country's military rulers and those who want them to relinquish power.

Since Mubarak's fall on 11 February, graffiti is everywhere in Cairo and other cities, proclaiming the goals of the revolution and mocking the regime. Graffiti artists have continued to work, using walls, buildings, bridges and sidewalks as a canvas to denounce the generals who took power after Mubarak as new dictators and to press the revolution's demands.

Usually anti-military graffiti has a short lifetime before it is quickly painted over or defaced with black spray paint. And just as quickly the artists put up more.

The graffito that pro-military supporters painted over had survived remarkably long. Mohamed Fahmy, known by his pseudonym Ganzeer, put it up in May under a bridge. It depicts a military tank with its turret aimed at a boy on his bike who balances on his head one of the wooden racks that are traditionally used to deliver bread — though instead of bread, he's carrying a city. It was a symbolic reference to revolutionary youth who care for the nation, heading into a collision with the generals.

Quickly after it was partially stenciled over, a new graffiti was up, depicting the country's military leader as a large snake with a bloody corpse coming out of his mouth.

Graffiti has turned into perhaps the most fertile artistic expression of Egypt's uprising, shifting rapidly to keep up with events. Faces of protesters killed or arrested in crackdowns are common subjects — and as soon as a new one falls, his face is ubiquitous nearly the next day.

The face of Khaled Said, a young man whose beating death at the hands of police officers in 2010 helped fuel the anti-Mubarak uprising, even appeared briefly on the walls of the Interior Ministry, the daunting security headquarters that few would dare even approach in the past.

Other pieces mock members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the council of generals that is now in power, or figures from Mubarak's regime.

When a police officer was captured on an Internet video shooting at the eyes of protesters during clashes, his image immediately dotted walls, urging people to find the "Eye-Sniper."

State television is another frequent target because it has become the mouthpiece for the military's proclamations that protesters are vandals, thugs and part of a plot to throw Egypt into chaos. One graffito shows the word "Occupy" written in the shape of the state TV building. Stickers plastered on walls show the words "Go down to the street" emerging from a television set, a message to the so-called "Couch Party," people who sit and watch the protests on TV.

"It's about a message in the street. It reaches the poor, the rich, the trash collector, the taxi driver," graffiti artist Karim Gouda said. "Most of these people are away from the Internet and the social networking world so it's a way to reach them."

Not everyone is receptive. Gouda said he was accosted by residents as he put up posters depicting a rotting face with the words "open your eyes before it's too late" in the impoverished Cairo district of Sayeda Zeinab. They accused him of trying to create civil strife and of trying to encourage Egypt's Christian minority to take over from the Muslim majority. Such accusations about activists were rife at the time after an October protest by Christians in Cairo, which was crushed by soldiers, killing more than 20.

The residents tore down Gouda's posters and chased him out of the neighborhood.

Under Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule, political expression on the streets was repressed by his powerful police forces. Once every five years, parliamentary elections would see the country littered with posters for elections that always favored the ruling party. Billboards advertising a lifestyle that only a privileged few could afford for companies whose owners were often closely affiliated with the regime towered over the sprawling slums of Cairo, a bustling city of some 18 million people.

"It's liberating to see," blogger Soraya Morayef said of the proliferation of street art.

Morayef, who has dedicated her blog Suzeeinthecity to documenting graffiti artists' work, said the street art reflects what happened in the whole country.

"The fear barrier was broken," she said.

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