Around the corner from Tahrir Square, the heart of Egypt’s 18-day uprising, Mohamed Mahmud Street bears the scars of a turbulent political year in Egypt. The once-bustling street off of Tahrir Square has seen its share of violent battlefields — beginning with January 28, 2011 and ending with the February 2012 clashes following the Port Said massacre. The pavements that once carried students from the American University of Cairo (AUC), Lycée Français and Deutsche Schule Der Borromäerinnen have witnessed dying protesters dragged to cover, and defenseless men and women shot in the eye or collapsing from tear gas asphyxiation — all at the hands of the Egyptian security forces.
Mohamed Mahmud Street has come to feel like the graveyard of the revolution, or, as Mona Abaza calls it, an “emerging memorial space,” where so many brave Egyptians have died over the past year. Today, the walls commemorate the martyrs, while taking note of the traitors. The AUC Library wall carries artist Ammar Abo-Bakr’s larger-than-life murals of martyrs Sheikh Emad Effat and General Mohamed al-Batran. Around the corner, artist Alaa Awad painted ancient figures in battle, women cowering, hyenas and rabid dogs fighting, and bulls butting horns.
A giant three-headed serpent lines the wall of the Lycée Français School. Three heads of military generals sprout out of its neck, and the serpent’s body is held up by military boots.
Further along, pharaonic calligraphy is scribbled all along the walls next to a resting mummy and a flying centaur.
Then an unfinished mural of Egyptians carrying gas cylinders on their heads finally leads to the much-talked about martyrs’ mural on the AUC wall.
Today, memories of the violence remain in the broken glass of the AUC’s third-floor windows, in the charred signs of the corner shops, in the hallow echoes of the abandoned street, and, of course, in the seven walls closing off the side streets along Mohamed Mahmud, namely Sherif, Farid, Mansour, Falaki, Yousef al-Guindy, Sheikh Rihan and Kasr al-Eini Streets. All these streets have all been blocked off by concrete slabs thanks to the ingenious strategy of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to keep protesters away from the Ministry of Interior. Most of these walls were built after protests broke out on Mohamed Mahmud Street in early February 2012, where thousands of protesters, including Ahly Ultras soccer fans, demanded vengeance and retribution for the deaths of over 130 fans in Port Said stadium.
For many observers, it is difficult to look at these walls without drawing parallels with the Occupied Territories and the Berlin Wall. In the Egyptian context, however, these walls have been built by our very own military regime, and it remains unclear whether they are trying to keep us out or lock themselves in.
Today, the protests have subsided (for now) and the concrete walls remain. The persistent web of traffic around the maze of Mohamed Mahmud has left residents and commuters fuming with anger. With no clear end in sight, street artists have taken to the walls to counter SCAF’s imposing concrete blocks.
On March 9, 2012, a group of artists and activists launched the “no walls” project to transform the seven walls into virtual open spaces. So far only six of the seven walls have been worked on by this large, eclectic group, which includes filmmaker Salma al-Tarzi and street artists Mohamed al-Moshir, Hossam Shukrallah, Hanaa al-Degham, Zeft, Amr Nazeer, Laila Maged, Ammar Abo-Bakr and Alaa Awad.
Mansour Street was most recently the site of deadly clashes on February 2 and 3, 2012, when thousands of protesters flooded Tahrir and Mohamed Mahmud Street in response to the deaths of over 130 young Ahly soccer fans in Port Said. The wall was built in the aftermath of these clashes, and open electric cables lined the top of the wall to prevent protesters and pedestrians from crossing. Today, the wall displays a bright rainbow over shadows of individuals engaged in festive activities, a fervent exhibition of optimism on the site of tragic violence. Titled “Tomorrow” by graffiti artist Zeft, the mural is meant to give hope for the future despite the depressing realities.
On Farid Street, the wall facing the Ministry of Interior’s building now has a mural depicting the rest of the street with the figure of Handala holding up a sword to the building. Through this art, Handala breaks the barrier and confronts the menacing Ministry of Interior alone and unafraid.
On Falaki Street, the wall depicts two men painting what seems to be a boat and staring out through its boat windows. The image is whimsical, simplistic and visually transforms the other side of the wall into an open sea.
Salma al-Tarzy, Hossam Shukrallah and their collaborators “extended” Yousef al-Guindy Street by painting replicas of the trees that lie behind it and a man walking his son down the open street. The wall art attempts to restore a sense of normalcy to the probably emotionally exhausted residents of the street.
On the other side of the AUC campus, Sheikh Rihan Street’s wall carries arguably the most powerful mural of them all. This painting was meticulously designed and planned by a group of artists, including Ammar Abo-Bakr, Mohamed al-Moshir, Laila Maged and their collaborators. The result is an almost perfect extension of Sheikh Rihan Street, complete with the AUC’s architecture and the arabesque details of its windows.
A closer look will show astounding details, including the reflection in puddles of water and in the distance, teargas smoke, riot police aiming towards you, and protesters being dragged out of the AUC doors. The tiny details seem to re-enact the scenes of December 2011 clashes between military police and protesters.
In the foreground on the right, a large man with a bright red chair over his head carries books. This is a tribute to the brave protesters who attempted to salvage books from the burning Scientific Building on December 18, 2011, while at the same time being attacked by military police personnel who were throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails from nearby rooftops.
A small boy stands on a bike against the wall to peek through the cracks of the concrete blocks. Ammar Abo-Bakr used a photo of that same scene to recreate it on the mural. The result is a blending of memory with reality, where the barrier of the wall disappears between the child observer and the memories that haunt this street.
On Kasr al-Eini’s wall, Alaa Awad painted a landscape of Luxor’s Western bank of the Nile and the words “Let us see the light of day.”
Awad also wrote “There is no such thing as La Description d’Egypte,” referring to the valuable original manuscript that was reportedly burned in the Scientific Institute. Today, the Scientific Building is slowly being reconstructed.
During the 18-day Egyptian uprising, Tahrir Square was often referred to as a microcosm of Egyptian society — albeit a euphoric, romanticised version of it. When Hosni Mubarak was toppled, thousands of Egyptians took to the Square, where they swept the streets clean and painted the wall with nationalistic slogans. It was the first time that many felt a sense of ownership over this country, and believed that they would have an equal say in deciding upon Egypt’s future.
Today, the impenetrable walls of Mohamed Mahmud represent SCAF’s reign over the past year, which has left the Egyptian citizen (quite literally) walled out and excluded. In this sense, the proliferation of street art is an attempt to reclaim ownership of the street.
The “no walls” project and the other magnificent works of street art exemplify an effort to record and celebrate the history of Egypt’s continuing revolution, but the art has also filled a void where the Egyptian authorities have failed: paying tribute to the dead, holding the perpetrators accountable, demanding justice for the victims of a seriously flawed and corrupt judicial process, and restoring a sense of normalcy to this strange reality that we live in outside of the walls. These works of art reflect the resilience of a highly subversive revolutionary spirit that will not accept the realities that Egypt’s military rulers have imposed on Egyptians. Even at a moment when popular mobilisation has become less visible in public squares and streets, Egypt’s revolution continues in street art — and in many other ways.