Egyptian Leaders Are Co-Opting the Arab Spring's Protest Weapon

Egyptian Leaders Are Co-Opting the Arab Spring's Protest Weapon

Why you should care

In the world’s most powerful Arab nation, even protest is being co-opted. 

When Zeinab Mohamed’s team of 11 artists spray-painted the walls and ceiling of the walkway to the Cairo Opera metro station in February, their work struck a rare balance. It drew public applause but didn’t attract the official backlash graffiti artists faced in 2011 during the revolution that brought down then-President Hosni Mubarak.

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The spray-painted walls of Cairo Opera metro station.

Source Youssra El-Sharkawy

In fact, the team from the Mobdeoun Association had sought and obtained permission from the authorities. That approval and the team’s work are part of the revival of street art in Egypt, four years after the country’s post-Arab Spring leaders clamped down on it, wary of how it had served a critical form of protest during the 2011 uprising. But the official sanction comes at a cost. The new wave of Egyptian graffiti art is often commercially aligned, culturally rooted and at times addresses social concerns, but is stripped of the political messaging central to its earlier avatar in the country.

Today, the resurgence of street graffiti is a reminder of how President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government has successfully co-opted what was a powerful protest form in 2011, as he prepares for a fresh four-year term endorsed by an election that critics have called stage-managed. Egyptians are voting in the presidential elections for three days from March 26 through March 28.

Our message is to bring beauty back to the streets of Egypt.

Zeinab Mohamed, street artist

Artist Alaa Ahmed Ali, 22, a physical therapy student at Cairo University, uses her passion for graffiti to earn a living, painting coffee shops, homes, co-working places and public spaces for a fee. Street artist Ahmed Gaber, who calls himself Nemo, has used graffiti as a medium since 2008, and his work addresses the themes of poverty, hunger, child labor, women’s rights and destitute children. But he says he stays away from overt political subjects, though he adds that “politics is always part of everything.” And Mohamed refuses to even call her work graffiti.

“Graffiti is a sabotaging art,” says Mohamed. “Our message is to bring beauty back to the streets of Egypt.”

Before the 2011 revolution, graffiti in Egypt often focused on popular culture. Football, the most popular sport in the nation, was frequently the theme. That changed once the protests that started in Tahrir Square spread across Egypt — and eventually to large parts of the Arab world. Nemo, based in Mansoura, had documented the anti-Mubarak protests there on the walls of el-Mohafza Square in the city in northern Egypt. And it was during the 2011 protests that Egyptian graffiti really took off. “Graffiti is an art which was born from the womb of rebellion,” says art critic Mona Abdel Karim. “It is not only paintings but also words, slogans and others.”

But an interruption followed when the military in 2013 ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi — who was elected president following the overthrow of Mubarak — after street protests against his rule. The Egyptian government introduced a controversial law curtailing public demonstrations. The law includes a section that bars any act that puts buildings in danger, a clause that was used to arrest several graffiti artists at the time, while others fled the country. Slowly, graffiti started to disappear from Egyptian streets, says Nemo, and it has begun to return only over the past year.

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Boys watch pigeons fly from a coop as buildings painted with a mural by the artist eL Seed are seen in the distance, in the Manshiyat Naser district of Cairo.

Source DAVID DEGNER/Redux

For some, like Ali, the Cairo University student, graffiti art is a skill that brings commercial gains. In 2016, she started a Facebook page titled Ala el-Heta [“On the Wall”], where she promotes her street art — calligraphy, cartoons, portraits — to potential clients. She charges between LE300 ($15) and LE800 ($60) per square meter of art, depending on the size of the work and materials to be used.

To others, like Mohamed, the chairperson of the Mobdeoun Association, street art is simply a tool to add color and beauty to public spaces. Her team of artists, ranging in age from 18 to 28, painted the solar system on the walls of Cairo Opera metro station. Each planet then served as the canvas for a portrait of a famous Egyptian cultural figure — Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, legendary singer Um Kolthoum and comedy actor Ismail Yasin among them. The association, started in 2016, has now received invitations from Helwan University and Cairo University to paint there.

For sure, the new street art in Egypt often carries social messages. Women on Walls (WOW), a graffiti initiative focused on women’s rights that launched in 2013, has picked up momentum more recently. Ali, apart from her earnings through graffiti art, also volunteers with nonprofits and has helped paint homes in Shalateen, a city located in the south of Red Sea Governorate, near the border between Egypt and Sudan, to promote tourism there.

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Mohamed Mahmoud Street is a hot spot of Egyptian revolutionary graffiti and street art, pulling straight onto Tahrir Square.

Source Johann Rousselot/laif/Redux

And Nemo’s work at times borders on the political. One of his work shows an old homeless man sleeping on the street. “I don’t paint about politics, but about issues and problems which people face,” he says. He now paints in smaller Egyptian towns and cities where graffiti art hasn’t yet reached.

For the moment, the revival of the art form in Egypt itself is a victory for its practitioners, while the challenge of reinjecting a rebellious streak in it remains.

But the art form remains under close scrutiny. Artist Khadiga Mustafa, 31, had painted Hypatia, the 4th-century Hellenistic mathematician, philosopher and astronomer who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, for a WOW project in 2015. Back in her time, Hypatia was opposed by the Catholic Church. In 2017, government officials painted over it, without any explanation.

At times, say artists like Nemo and Mustafa, their work is painted over by authorities that haven’t even understood it — and not because it necessarily threatens the regime or is offensive. That hurts, says Nemo.

But when his work is consciously removed, he says, he doesn’t mind it that much. “That means that my message was delivered,” says Nemo.

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