Revolutionary road: the urban showcase of Egypt's uprising

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The graffiti that sprang up in one of the hotspots of Egypt's insurrection so unsettled the government that it was whitewashed – but now it's back. Alastair Beach reports in Cairo


On Martyr's Road in Downtown Cairo, the ghosts of Egypt's uprising haunt every single step. Following the terrible clashes which erupted here in November last year, the long thoroughfare leading east off Tahrir Square became an unofficial shrine for Egypt's revolutionaries; its walls transformed by street art into a mesmerising point of pilgrimage.

The murals, which included Banksy-style stencils depicting victims of the regime, clearly unsettled the Egyptian government – one evening in September, municipal workers arrived under the cover of darkness to whitewash some of the artwork.

But memories die hard on Martyr's Road, the unofficial name given by some activists to Mohamed Mahmoud Street and the long wall of the American University in Cairo which has now become a giant outdoor canvas.

Within hours, Egypt's industrious graffiti artists were back on their step-ladders, buckets of paint in hand and brushes at the ready.

"There is a feeling that Downtown Cairo and Tahrir Square is our land," said Ammar Abo Bakr, a well-known artist who was one of the first people back in Mohamed Mahmoud Street to try and undo the government's handy-work. "We need to say that this is our place, and we can write whatever we want."

The result, like much of the work which came before it, is spectacular – an open air "gallery of the people", which judging by the scores of camera-snapping Egyptians who can be seen paying homage every day, is fast becoming something of an unofficial tourist attraction.

In the manner of the Berlin Wall before it, where the East Side Gallery still features a famous mural depicting Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev smooching Eric Honecker, a place of death and despair has been reclaimed and transformed into a promenade of iconoclastic beauty.

One of the first murals to take shape following last month's clean-up job featured a placid-looking painter being menaced by a devilish, club-wielding police chief, his fangs dripping with blood – a tongue-in-cheek sideswipe at the government's attitude to street art.

Further along, away from Tahrir Square, is an enormous mural dedicated to the 79 football fans who were killed during the Port Said stadium disaster earlier this year. That incident, which many Egyptians blamed on government security forces, triggered yet more rioting in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, one of the main roads leading towards the Interior Ministry.

Now, eight months on, every name of each supporter who died is preserved in paint on the American University's wall, along with the words: "Remember them."

Numerous other victims of state-orchestrated violence have been commemorated along the street. Alaa Abd el-Hady, a medical student killed during a military crackdown on protesters in December, looms large in a dreamy 12ft-high mural near the AUC entrance; Mina Daniel, an activist shot through the heart when soldiers attacked a Coptic demonstration in October last year, peers out at pedestrians from a series of stark black stencils; and then of course there's Khaled Saeed, the Alexandrian man beaten to death by police in 2010 who became a posthumous figurehead of the uprising.

"People have been visiting Mohamed Mahmoud like it is a shrine," said Ganzeer, an artist who hit the headlines last year when he was arrested for putting up posters advertising an anti-government demonstration. "It has become more important than the actual graves of the victims."

The consecration of Martyr's Street as a temple of revolutionary memory came alongside an explosion in street art which followed the downfall of Hosni Mubarak's regime. According to Sherif Boraie, the editor of a recently published book on Egyptian graffiti, street art was "hardly significant" before the revolution.

"The revolution started and was fought on the street," he told The Independent. "The art was a constant response and commentary on events as they unfolded."

Soraya Morayef, a blogger who has documented the rise of revolutionary graffiti on her website, Suzee in the City, agreed. Prior to the fall of Mubarak, she said, street art was "anonymous", an underground phenomenon carried out by an unconnected web of low-profile enthusiasts. "If artists tried to make graffiti, they were not only attacked by police but by citizens too," she said.

But now, she added, much of that is changing. "I think it's fantastic and proof that there has been a cultural revolution as much as a social revolution."

Under Hosni Mubarak, artistic license was often muzzled by the state. Film scripts were tightly vetted, book publishing monitored and theatre and film festivals brought tightly under the auspices of the Culture Ministry.

But one walk down Mohamed Mahmoud Street is enough to realise how the former dictator's demise unleashed an artistic genie which had long been bottled up. Galleries which may once have shied away from featuring graffiti have now opened their doors for exhibitions which showcase local talent. There is also growing international recognition too. Dokhan, a graffiti artist from Alexandria, is due to exhibit his work in Washington DC later this month, while earlier this year Ganzeer displayed his talents at an Arabic graffiti event in Frankfurt. "Because of the exposure and the magnificence of their work, they are in demand," said Soraya Morayef.

According to Caleb Neelon, an American artist who has written a history of urban graffiti, the outburst of creativity on Egypt's streets taps into a long and irreverent tradition of deploying spray cans to undermine power and authority. "Whether it's political message or imagery, name-based graffiti, or street art of any kind, there's always an implicit exhortation to freedom in it," he said.

Yet it also represents a continuing ideological fault line running deep beneath Egyptian politics.

Following last month's attempts to expunge the memory of Mohamed Mahmoud, graffiti artists were accosted by a group of ultra-conservative Salafis who objected to a series of templates caricaturing fundamentalist Muslims.

"They were saying it was against the Prophet Mohammad," said Ammar Abo Bakr. "But the artists were just making a joke about what the Salafists look like."

Graffiti has not always been the preserve of Egypt's liberals. Spray-painted reminders close to mosques often encourage women to wear the veil, said Soraya Morayef, or ask worshippers to perform the wudu – washing their hands before prayer.

But when it comes to much of the post-revolutionary artwork, it has often assumed a decidedly liberal overtone. "The artists were themselves the fighters and revolutionaries," explained Sherif Boraie. "Generally, there were few Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis and they are not known for open progressive artistic minds."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower