Graffiti on Cairo walls: Art or insult?

Chahinaz Gheith, Saturday 2 Nov 2013

Following the 2011 uprising, graffiti emerged as a leading form of opposition; Today, people debate the fine line between art and vandalism

Graffiti of the 25 January, paying tribute to the revolution martyrs and describing the street battles. (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

ERRATUM: Ahram Online apologises to Mona Abaza, Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo, for previously mistakingly crediting her photo to Bassam El-Zoghby.


A new kind of graffiti has emerged in Cairo since the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi, defined by abusive language and a broad range of targets for ridicule.

"CC, the traitor" is a common tag splashed across Cairo's walls now; a reference to army chief Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi, who announced Morsi's ouster in July. "CC, the assassin," and "Adly Mansour, the puppet president" are also making the rounds.

Religious figures feature prominently in this latest spate of written abuse.

Coptic Pope Tawadros II is attacked with variations of "Tawadros-the-dog! Egypt is an Islamic country!"

To Al-Azhar's Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb, "El-Tayeb you are a spy, you sold the turban and religion."

And for good measure, "All cops are bastards."

This is just a small selection of phrases covering much of Cairo's walls.

The statements are inflammatory, and obviously made in haste. Obscenity is the rule. One needs only a brief tour of Downtown Cairo to become disillusioned: the capital has turned into a theatre of insults and vulgarity.

The insults replicate at a great speed, especially in the wake of weekly pro-Morsi marches. Once a new tag appears, irritated passerbys are quick to comment. "It's a shame!", some say. "Why would one defile walls?" others ask.

(Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

The visual pollution continues to grow. From the four-finger Rabaa salute – a symbol that has come to emblemise the dispersed pro-Morsi camp at Rabaa Al-Adawiya –  to a Jewish Star of David tagged with El-Sisi's name, one can find a bit of everything.

The new graffiti's power is in its quantity. It is everywhere: on building facades, metro stations, school walls, balconies, billboards, governmental buildings, clubs, and bridges. No surface has escaped the insults.

"We will not surrender." In other words, "Our revolution will not be stolen."

On the walls of the Maadi sporting club, a man named Mostafa writes "The coup: this is the real terrorism!," A self-described "anti-coup revolutionary," Mostafa puts the finishing touches on his written appeal to Morsi supporters to take to the streets and 'support legitimacy.'

But the next morning, municipal employees paint the club's wall white again. Mostafa does not seem defeated: "Congratulations on the new paint!," he says bitterly. "Remove the graffiti! We will paint new ones!" And the same scene is repeated over and again, from one district to another.

At times, one can even spot these counter forces working in tandem:  one hand cleans the wall, and a few metres away, another hand scrawls new graffiti. But for how long will it continue?

Graffiti 2
Municipal employees erase graffiti done by the Muslim Brotherhood supporters and repaint the walls (Photo: Mona Abaza).

Suppression method

In an attempt to break the cycle, Giza governor Ali Abdel-Rahman has set a fine of LE10,000 for anyone caught red-handed spray painting walls.

"This is destruction of public property and deformation of the urban landscape. Repeat offenders will be sent to prison," Abdel-Rahman elaborated. His decision is supported by several inhabitants of those areas drowned in graffiti.

Souheir, a housewife in her sixties, cannot bear to set foot outside her home because of the insults that bombard her. "We do everything to beautify our neighbourhood. These writings make me very angry. We are assaulted by this insulting graffiti," she says.

Photos of army chief El-Sisi decorate Soheir's dining room, and she does not hide her admiration for the general and Egypt's army.

El-Sisi, Souheir says, is "perfect." For Souheir, the army not only protects the country but also forms the front line against "the conspiracy of the Muslim Brotherhood."

On the outside surfaces of Souheir's home, however, the discourse changes. "El-Sisi, the dirty traitor, bastard, one day you will be hanged for your crimes against the people."

With a cloth and soapy water, Souheir scrubs at the graffiti, time and again.


Graffiti 3
(Photo : Bassam Al-Zoghby)

Change of style

According to sociologist Samia El-Saati, today's graffiti cannot be compared to that which emerged after the 2011 popular uprising that ousted long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak. These days, it is a war of obscenities between pro- and anti-Morsi groups. Not to be outdone, writings insulting the former president and his supporters are equally prominent. "Morsi: you are a liar, a traitor and a felon; the Muslim Brothers are sheep," reads a common refrain.

In this war of words, each side is ready to go to extremes. But as the Muslim Brotherhood struggles to mobilise in the wake of leader arrests, closed satellite channels, banned activities, and seized assets, walls have become the last available canvas to express themselves.

"Why are people so against the graffiti? This is the only means of expression the Muslim Brotherhood has. In 2011, the revolutionaries wrote insults to criticise the army and the police. At the time, nobody considered their graffiti a destruction of public goods," said Hassam, a kiosk owner in the Dokki district.

While today's pro-Morsi graffiti underscores real grievances felt by many – such a rejection of a so-called 'military coup' that ousted the president and a disdain for the security crackdown that has followed – it also carries an insidious tone. Insults against Christians scrawled across churches attack not only those in power but also incite sectarian violence.

For El-Saati, these messages fuel hatred. "The Muslim Brotherhood refuses to understand that there will be no other revolution. They limit their logic to: either you give up, or you kill us all. This attitude is reflected on the walls, which are filled with hatred and violence."

Graffiti 4
(Photo : Bassam Al-Zoghby)

Art as a political criterion

Mostafa Shawki, a specialist in graffiti art, believes that today's trend cannot be grouped with past street art.

According to Shawki, Morsi supporters are imitating the 2011 revolutionaries, who used graffiti as a form of activism, or "artivism." However, Shawki believes this effort is doomed to failure. "[The Muslim Brotherhood] has always rejected art; they can never be creative or succeed in creating artistic or aesthetic expressions," he asserted

Shawki says graffiti since 2011 can be classified into three different phases: in 2011, Down with Mubarak, in 2012, Down with the military, and in 2013, Down with the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the walls of the American University in Cairo, located just outside Tahrir square, large murals trace the steps of a popular uprising. They pay homage to the martyrs, describe street battles, and create a caricature of yesterday and today.

Graffiti 5
Martyrs of the Revolution, graffiti on Egypt's Mohamed Mahmoud walls, 2012. (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Blooming art

It is clear that the art of graffiti has witnessed a boom in Egypt since the 2011 uprising. Its content is primarily political, changing according to events.

"When something happens, people go out in the street and draw. Then we talk about it," Shawki explains. "The decorated walls add a certain atmosphere to the streets, and spread the slogans denouncing repression."

At the end of 2012, graffiti art reflected a growing opposition to the new Islamist-drafted constitution. At the time, walls were covered with caricatures depicting Morsi as a Pharaoh, along other drawings rallying spectators to fight for freedom and dignity, Shawki says.

According to Shawki, Morsi supporters and presidential palace employees quickly erased graffiti that emerged on the palace's walls, but this did not stop the artists from drawing in other parts of the city. "Under the Muslim Brotherhood's rule, the then-government erased all graffiti criticising the group. Today, the tide has turned. Now, pro-army writing is tolerated, and pro-Muslim Brotherhood work is erased."

As municipal employees erase pro-Muslim Brotherhood graffiti and repaint the walls, Hassan, the kiosk owner, sees their efforts as futile. "Instead of spending money removing graffiti, isn't it better to invest in more important causes, and leave Morsi supporters to battle on the walls?" he asks.

Graffiti 6
Graffiti on Egypt's Mohamed Mahmoud walls, American University in Cairo library wall, 2012. (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Short link: