Mohamed Mahmoud Graffiti Project

By Omar Awaad

“A riot is the language of the unheard.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. 

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

Graffiti is a great form of art that is used world wide, usually illegally, to send messages and spread awareness, or even for fun and showing off. In Egypt, young artists used graffiti to document a crucial time of their lives and the country’s. Walls and buildings were used as a tool to express anger and opinions. In this project, I’ll be talking about the most famous wall that was used for graffiti artwork in Mohamed Mahmoud street. My purpose is to spread the word and let more people know about what happened during that time since many Americans and people from around the world haven’t heard about the significance of Mohamed Mahmoud street.

Mohamed Mahmoud Graffiti is a series of graffiti pieces that were painted on several walls in the area surrounding Mohamed Mahmoud street near Tahrir Square in Cairo during and after the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Areas with the graffiti included the walls of The American University in Cairo and some buildings and schools surrounding it, and the concrete wall that was installed later in Mohamed Mahmoud street to stop protesters from advancing to the Ministry of Interior building.

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Mohamed Mahmoud street was named after Egypt’s prime minister in the ’30s. After the Egyptian revolution in 2011 a lot of incidents and clashes happened between protesters and police, and the most famous clash would have to be the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes that happened in November 2011. The story began when security forces cleared a small sit-in of those wounded in the January/February revolution from Tahrir square. Supporters of the protesters rushed to their aid, and in the afternoon the clash was at its peak and a lot of protesters were either killed or shot in the eye.

Graffiti in Egypt wasn’t really famous or recognized until after the revolution. It used to be just stencils and writings on the walls with almost no meaning, but all of that changed after the 25th of January revolution. Egypt started to witness talented graffiti artists that we had never heard of before! They started working on the walls and buildings of downtown Cairo with political and revolutionary work, with the intent of documenting what happened at that time with their art. They wanted to motivate the people to go to the streets and demand their own rights and freedom. Political street art was never prevalent in the Egyptian capital before the revolution. There were scrawled names, of course, and hard-core soccer fans tagged walls and painted designs, but nothing like what we saw during and after the revolution. 

One place that featured a lot of this artwork is the street of Mohamed Mahmoud. It was fairly close to the famous Tahrir Square and it lead to the Ministry of Interior. In this place, many brutal movements from the cops and the use of excessive force towards protesters lead to the deaths of innocent people.

Early in the revolution, graffiti commonly consisted of slogans of the Egyptian revolution – images of prominent revolutionary figures including martyrs like Mina Daniel, Khaled Saeed and Sheikh Imad Effat; as well as authority figures like Field Marshal Tantawi and Lieutenant Mahmoud Shinawi who was filmed shooting protesters in the eyes with bird shots and that led to a lot of young people loosing their eyes in the clashes. A graffiti work was done especially for El Shinawi with his picture holding a riffle and the word ‘Wanted’ written on top of his face.

“The No Wall” initiative was launched in mid March 2011. The initiative called on artists to paint graffiti on concrete blocks that authorities installed in the main streets leading to the Interior Ministry and the headquarters of the Egyptian Parliament. Blocks were painted with the “No Wall” slogan and scenes of security forces attacking peaceful protesters.

Later on, images of martyrs of the revolution were added. Graffiti also included slogans demanding the handover of power to civilians and end of the military rule. Some graffiti represented clashes with Copts in front of the TV building in Maspero in October 2011, the so-called Maspero Massacre.

Graffiti painted on the wall of the American University showed the rise of revolution martyrs to paradise, and was inspired by the painting styles of the ancient Egyptians recorded on the walls of Pharaonic funerary temples.

With its location in the heart of downtown Cairo, Mohammed Mahmoud provides an ideal forum for everyday people to express grievances, sacrifice and loyalty to the martyrs. This street connecting the crowded traffic of Tahrir Square to the hated Interior Ministry has been so frequently visited by multiple battles between protesters and the security forces, it seems as if the street has become a permanent scar. New graffiti covers the remainings of every old one.

Ten months after the revolution started, security forces stormed a sit-in in Tahrir square. Protestors ran back to the square and the Battle of Mohammed Mahmoud had begun. Around forty demonstrators lost their lives, and snipers blinded more than sixty others among the crowd. Sad images of sightless protestors emerged on the walls to keep watch over the revolution and to remind the rest of who lost their lives and their sight for what they believe in.

The provincial department of Cairo has removed the murals several times, It is also reported that the Central Security Forces participated in such efforts. Young people always felt helpless and angry whenever they heard that the graffiti was being removed, but at the same time it’s an opportunity for the artists to do more great work and to honor more martyrs on the walls. 

In September 2012, the news that the state once again had painted over the murals on Mohammed Mahmoud Street aroused attention on social media platforms. Talented and amateur artists, returned immediately to the street with spray cans and paint. Some pointed fingers of blame at the government, interpreting the destruction as a crackdown on art and expression. Some of this graffiti remains documented and even published by people who took photographs of the artwork on the wall. 

The ruling regime had different strategies that was used to stop what they called vandalization. It wasn’t vandalism, but it wasn’t something praising them, so they had to get rid of it. The state-owned media started describing the artwork as ugly and an act of vandalizing the streets and buildings. They wanted to make the public believe in that too, so different media outlets started talking about the graffiti movement and how the artists are being paid by various NGOs and even countries to harm the national security.

Furthermore, the state passed a law that allow police to arrest anyone who drew or wrote on the walls, and those caught would be put in jail for three years. This made a lot of artists ease up and to take more care and be more cautious when doing any work related to politics or criticizing the state.

Artists used new creative ways to express their art. For example, artists might make a piece that looks like it supports the military and change it to something else at the last minute, like the graffiti that was done by the artist Ganzeer, where he drew the camouflage of the army and then painted faces of the martyrs and skulls to show how bad they are dealing with opposition. The final artwork was called ‘Army Above All.’

One may say that some of the artwork is not pretty, and I myself think that it can be ugly, but on the other hand the revolution opened the door for the people to spread their words through walls and buildings as most of the media is owned by the state or by businessmen who are working with the state.

People who are unheard and have no voice will do anything to spread their words and messages, and sometimes that means rioting. When there’s a riot somewhere, it’s not just the protesters’ fault. The people in charge must have done something that lead people to go in the streets like this just to be heard and recognized. 

Governments in Egypt always wanted Egyptians to feel unsafe, and they’re the only people that can protect the public. People will actually give up their freedom and rights just to feel safe and move away from threats. (that the government would usually create to control the public).

Regarding the Key-terms, I chose what first came to my mind whenever I think about the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes.

1-Freedom, is the first thing came to mind regarding the Mohamed Mahmoud battle. People were demanding their own basic rights.

2-Resistance, this project is about resistance and showing that just small number of people can make a change and make the whole world aware of what they are doing by resisting the power. 

3-Fear, I went to Mohamed Mahmoud during the clashes between protesters and the police and fear was the main thing that occupied my mind. Seeing people on the ground, blood everywhere & people trying to protect each others from the tear gas and bullets will only make you feel scared.

4-Sacrifice, a lot of people died during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes and even a larger number lost their eyes trying to defend in what they believe in and the future of their country. 

All of the graffiti that was in Mohamed Mahmoud are in Arabic and since I’m doing this project for my Open Space For Democracy in English, some of these work should be translated so the readers would better understand the topic.

  • Down with Mubarak” was the most famous slogan during the revolution, then it was used after Mubarak stepped down because people knew that the same regime was still in power and ruling with the same old mentality.
  • Glory to the Martyrs” people used to say this whenever they lost someone in a battle with the  security forces as they believed that they are in a better place and died for a great cause.
  • Erase and I’ll draw again” ironic sentences that artists used to make fun of the people who used to erase their graffiti works. They would always return and draw more on the same spot they did before.
  • The revolution shall continue” people who truly believed in the revolution were always optimistic, even if they lost people or they got arrested. There’s always someone that will achieve the goals of the revolution.
  • Victory is coming” Young people really believe that they are going to change the country and one day they will be in charge of their own future.
  • Kill, hit & imprison because you’ll end up in jail” this was a message to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces when they ruled the country after Mubarak stepped down for almost a year and a half.
  • Bread, social justice & freedom” this was the main slogan for the 25th of January revolution.
  • Release your dogs in the streets” protesters used to call the riot police dogs and the regime as their owner who order them to bite people without questioning why.
  • Be realistic and ask for the impossible” this was a famous graffiti that is believed to be written by Anarchists as their ‘signature’ was found beside the writings. 

Now the wall is gone. Workmen tore down the whole wall and of course when the last graffiti work was gone, people thought that it was by an order from the government in order to erase anything that’s related to the revolution and Mohamed Mahmoud clashes. However, the American University in Cairo, (AUC) confirmed that they planned to demolish at least 40% of the wall in order to tear down the building behind it. Also, Cairo governor said that the demolition of the wall is not political, but rather for beauty purposes as the AUC wants to have a bigger garden on its campus.

The authorities used another method to stop people from protesting which was installing concrete block walls in downtown Cairo. They installed them near important places and buildings like the Parliament, Ministry of Interior and the American Embassy. They thought that this would prevent protesters from going to the streets and therefor eliminate graffiti, but they were wrong. Young artists actually used these concrete block walls to do more creative graffiti and the outcome was astonishing.

After the authorities sealed off streets around Cairo’s Tahrir Square with concrete blocks, a group of artists decided to reopen the streets in their own way, using their imagination. Young graffiti artists started a campaign called “No Walls Street” to paint a reproduction of the streets behind them and targeted the concrete blocks, where you see some of their work you’ll feel that there’s no wall since they painted the blocks to make people feel that they don’t exist and everything is normal.

Unfortunately, artists and protesters can’t go to the street while we still have the current president in power becausr a law was passed that allows police to arrest any peaceful demonstrators, and of course that only applies for the opposition demonstrations. This clearly lead to a huge decrease in the graffiti movement around Egypt. We stopped hearing about new talented graffiti artists like we used to during the revolution and furthermore, some of the well known artists left the country as they were famous and they didn’t feel safe staying in Egypt with all these laws targeting them and their work.

Demolishing the wall or the paintings will not erase the memory of Mohamed Mahmoud. The street is one of the rare locations that succeeded in displaying the wounds of the revolution in the country’s capital.

Photo Credits

1). Caption: Two men walking by the ‘Graffiti Wall’ in Mohamed Mahmoud street. Source: Tea After Twelve

2). Man walks by a graffiti that was made to mourn a martyr. Source: The Speaker

3). Caption: Graffiti on a concert block showing what’s behind it, part of the “No Walls” campaign. Source: Smart Magazine

4). Caption: Pictures of young people who lost their lives in clashes with the police. Source: suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com

5). Caption: Egyptian Army soldier guarding the Mohamed Mahmoud area & graffiti of martyrs are on the wall. Source: Los Angeles Times

6). Caption: Graffiti of a pharaoh with Vendetta mask. Source: dazeddigital.com

7). Caption: Graffiti of a young man who lost his eye in a clash with the police and then lost his life in another one, memorized on the wall of the American University in Cairo. Source: jadaliyya.com

8). Caption: Young men standing over a concrete block with a smiley face graffiti drawn on it. Source: al-monitor.com

9). Caption: Egyptians walk by graffiti work, graffiti that’s mourning the martyrs and other that’s making fun of the rulers. Source: alamy.com

10). Caption: Young Egyptian artist drawing graffiti on the wall of the American University in Cairo in Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Source: Ahram Online

11). Caption: Army tanks beside the graffiti in Mohamed Mahmoud street. Source: Egyptian Streets

12). Caption: Old man walks by different graffiti work in Mohamed Mahmoud street. Source: al-monitor.com

13). Caption: People watching graffiti artists drawing on the wall. Source: aporamsey.com

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