Artistic freedom?

Downtown Cairo has become a canvas for post-revolution artists, a dangerous place for self-expression.

Cairo street art 521 (photo credit: Eliezer Sherman)
Cairo street art 521
(photo credit: Eliezer Sherman)
Street brawls, knife fights in broad daylight, petty theft, painted security walls blocking central avenues, angry mobs and graffiti portraits of missing activists: this is Cairo a year and a half after the popular revolution in Egypt forced out the nation’s government, and many Egyptians are tired of it.
City residents openly complain about the lack of security since the uprising, and police are noticeably absent from Cairo’s streets. But the fraught atmosphere has also inspired a number of anonymous Egyptian artists, who have transformed downtown Cairo into their canvas.
Political messages aimed at the former regime and new power seekers cover broken-down walls and the colonial-era buildings that line the city center’s streets.
The exterior walls of the American University of Cairo – which faces the flashpoint Tahrir Square where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered and battled with security forces over 18 days last year in order to topple the previous regime – have become a platform for local artists.
Just a day before Egyptians headed to the polls in Egypt’s first presidential election, an artist sporting the increasingly ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask is gracing a wall on the corner of Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Tahrir with an image not only slamming former president Hosni Mubarak and Egypt’s interim ruler and army chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, but two of last week’s presidential candidates as well.
In the shadows of a makeshift stand selling Egyptian and Arab flags, a two-faced image of a scowling Mubarak and Tantawi adorns the wall, and is flanked on the left by bespectacled portraits of former foreign minister Amr Moussa and the prime minister from Mubarak’s last days Ahmed Shafiq, who will compete against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi in next month’s run-off election.
On the right, in blaring red letters, the artist writes: “the revolution continues.”
Bystanders say it is the second time the image of the dual Tantawi-Mubarak portrait has been painted on the wall – the previous time the authorities covered it over.
Further down Mahmoud Mahmoudi, the graffiti swirls and continues in an anarchistic harmony that has become the norm in downtown Cairo. Images of a muscular steed riding the flags of Arab nations while a skull spewing the Israeli emblem sits next to a florid painting that recalls the art of Egypt’s pharaonic era. The faces of protesters who were killed by sniper fire in the Tahrir uprising cast their gazes alongside crude messages damning the country’s military government, known by the acronym SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) and also the Muslim Brotherhood.
One artist damns the country’s Islamists that are steadily rising to power with a slogan that read simply: “Down with the lying [Muslim] Brotherhood,” using terminology that has become common in the Middle East since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in late 2010.
BUT THE messages are not always directed strictly at politicians or political groups.
One marking calls on Egyptians to “write your own constitution,” as Egypt scrambles to rewrite its own.
Another shows an image of a girl crying.
Above her head in bold black letters it says “Don’t remain silent!” Below, it reads “girls are the same as boys.”
Egyptians are enjoying their newfound ability to express their country’s transition on their own terms. These terms, however, are not always mutually appreciated, and the abundance of political criticisms can both excite and agitate Egyptians who – fresh on the heels of social revolution – are easily suspicious of the motives of those who are offering up critiques of their country.
This was evident when a lighthearted street performance organized by a an artists’ cooperative quickly dissolved into a tense altercation with dozens of angered Egyptians who – armed with stones – blockaded the artists inside an abandoned building on Mahmoud Bassiouni Street just off of Tahrir Square.
The fracas began when a group of artists paraded down the central Cairo street hoisting an effigy of presidential frontrunner Shafiq.
Soon after the initial insults were slung, Egyptian men, screaming and some throwing stones, chased the artists down the street. Revelers – who had either happened upon the street performance or found out about it through word of mouth – rushed inside a partially abandoned building on Mahmoud Bassiouni where a small artists’ initiative called Mahatat had organized a free series of performances including interpretive dance, theater, poetry and visual arts.
Organizers inside the building bolted the door shut. In a bizarre juxtaposition, patrons of the event gathered on the balcony to witness the swelling mob and were soon caught in a hail of flying stones, while inside a young woman continued a stark interpretive dance underneath a single dangling light bulb.
One Egyptian man, an artist who had organized the puppetry, said he had been accused outside of being a foreigner and ruffling feathers.
“They think he’s a foreigner because he has long hair,” said Aya Metawalli, a local dancer who had attended the event after hearing about it from a friend. She also said such street art performances were booming in Egypt after Mubarak, whose iron grip and strong police force had kept a tight lid on such spontaneous events.
That police force is mostly gone in Cairo today, replaced by the occasional military officer manning traffic in the city’s busier intersections, and a string of massive walls blocking a number of avenues near Tahrir Square, where protesters assembled and battled with security forces in the 18-day uprising.
One of these walls inspired an Egyptian musician, Youssra El Hawary, who performs with a lone accordion, to write a song dedicated to the wall that tells the story of one impoverished man’s encounter with the security barrier.
“In front of the wall, in front of the one who built it/in front of the wall, in front of the one who heightened it/and in front of the one who’s standing to protect it/stood a poor man urinating,” the attractive young singer facetiously croons.
The video clip for the song shows her climbing up the wall armed only with her instrument, along with a number of teenage boys who dance and wave, in view of a military tank and soldiers looking on in seeming apathy.