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Graffiti on Cairo walls carry strong message

Rivals revel in new medium of political expression

  • Graffiti depicts amilitary tank on a wall undera bridge in Cairo. In May,Mohammad Fahmi, knownamong EgImage Credit: AP
  • Protesters sit in front of graffiti shows the face of Field Marshal Hussain Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s rulinImage Credit: AP
  • A mural in Cairo depictsfootball fans killed in thePort Said riots. The wordsin Arabic read, ‘we bringImage Credit: AP
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Cairo:  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, two young supporters of the ruling generals wearing Guy Fawkes masks — the grinning face made famous by the movie V for Vendetta — painted over part of the largest and most famous anti-military graffiti pieces in the capital.

The two made a 15-minute video of themselves stenciling slogans declaring, ‘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".

Ironic turnabout

It was an ironic turnabout, with backers of the authorities picking up the renegade street art medium of revolutionary youth — and even adopting masks that have become an international symbol of rebellion against authority.

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 this day last year, 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 graffiti that the Badr Battalion painted over had survived remarkably long. Mohammad Fahmi, 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.

Common subjects

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 Khalid Saeed, 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.

Resentful few

"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 neighbourhood.

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 favoured 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.