Mohamed Mahmoud Graffiti, keeping the Martyrs alive

Abstract: 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. 

Purpose: 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 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.

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.

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.

For this project I chose some Quotations and Key-terms. The quotes are about freedom and demanding rights. They are for American Leaders, but the quotes perfectly apply to Egypt’s situation since the revolution until now and because the course is about the American democracy. The first one is from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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

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. 

The second quote is by Benjamin Franklin, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

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.

 

Key-terms & Quotations for The Mohamed Mahmoud Graffiti Project

For this project, I chose two of my favorite quotes. The quotes are also related to the project as they are about freedom, resistance and demanding rights.

Quotes:

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

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

Key-terms:

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

2-Resistance, this project is about resistance and to show that small amount of youth can make a change and make the whole world aware of what they were 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. 

Adrienne Rich’s insight into the future

Before talking about a great poet like Adrienne Rich, we have to know a bit about her life and career. Adrienne Cecile Rich was an American poet, essayist and radical feminist, she was called “one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century”.

Rich was born in a family with art & education background as her father was the Chairman of Pathology at The Johns Hopkins Medical School and her mother, Helen Elizabeth Rich, was a concert pianist and a composer.

She won many awards for her work including ‘Yale Younger Poets Award’ and ‘National Institute of Arts and Letters’ award.

In 1997, she refused the National Medal of Arts, stating that “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” She went on to say: “Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”

in one of her poems, Blood, Bread, and Poetry, Rich talked about how the world should all unite so everybody can live in peace and harmony. All races and colors should be treated with respect.

She says: “It was in the writings but also the actions and speeches and sermons of Black United States citizens that I began to experience the meaning of my whiteness as a point of location for which I needed to take responsibility. It was in reading poems by contemporary Cuban women that I began to experience the meaning of North America as a location which had also shaped my ways of seeing and my ideas of who and what was important, a location for which I was also responsible.”

I believe that Rich at that time felt responsible as a poet and a public figure to speak out about racism and how living united and equal will only benefit the society, she had a voice that can reach thousands of people in and outside the Unites States.

She felt that being white is not a privilege when other citizens around her don’t feel that they have their basic rights and aren’t allowed the things as white people are.

Rich had insight into the future that almost no one had at that time, she called for equal rights and empowering women in the 70s & 80s, while Saudi Arabia in 2017 forbids women to drive a car.

One must say that Rich’s poetry has maintained its overtly political, feminist edge throughout the decades, and this why, in my opinion she was famous and was awarded many awards for her work.

She made a difference in the world.

Governments, the media & how they control the public

After reading the Commencement by Terry Williams my mind connected what was written about patriotism, freedom, and democracy in the US to those we have in Egypt.

Terry talked about how the president, vice-president, secretary of defense, attorney general and the government are using some specific words and incidents to justify their actions and to cultivate fear into the public minds, saying that the security & safety of the nation should reside in their hands as they know better than the people, which to me, is not necessarily true.

They used the media to convince people that they will liberate Iraq, get rid of the terrorists.

Terry said in his piece “For many of us, the war on terror is not something that has been initiated outside our country, but inside our country as well. We wonder who to trust and what to believe.”

I can’t really blame the people just because most of the media outlets at that time was directing the public to one purpose which was ‘The War On Terrorism’.

The reason why I made a connection between this article and Egypt, is because we had and actually still have the media controlling our minds and telling us what we should to and who we should elect.

Government in Egypt knew that the best way to control the people is through the media, and it works better when you have all the media outlets in your hands and all the people working their are pro regime. They will mislead and trick people just so they can have better positions and salaries.

The majority of the people in Egypt are also really poor and didn’t complete their education so, this is an extra reason why they are being manipulated easily.

After ‘El Sisi’ the current president, overthrew the only elected civilian president (with religious background), the government & the media wanted the public to believe that he and his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, are terrorists so they can throw the party members in jail and whenever there’s something going wrong in the country they would blame the Muslim Brotherhood for it although most of the party leaders are jailed, including ‘Mohamed Morsi’ the previous president.

The president’s campaign slogan was “Long Live Egypt” and he say it in each and every speech he directs to us, they want the people to love the country, serve in the army and they just benefit from that and control the people more and more.

Long Live Egypt is a good slogan, but he never clarified how we are going to live, in fear? in poverty? Or we’re going to be a great country? He never explained but I guess actions are better than words and we can see how we’re doing.

Corrupt governments all over the world are using the media to manipulate, convince & distract the public.

If this was written in Arabic and it reached a good number of people in Egypt I’d probably be jailed for criticizing the president and the regime. I’m grateful for the opportunity that’s allowing me to express myself and my ideas without being afraid of getting hurt simply because of my opinions.

Literature is the key to Democracy

Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in West Hills, New York. He is considered as one of America’s most influential poets. He founded his own newspaper, wrote for it and edited others, he was against slavery, and worked in an army hospital during the Civil War.

Walt Whitman wrote Democratic Vistas due to the rapid change in the political life in the United States.

Before talking about Whitman’s Democratic Vistas we have to know that he wrote it after six years of the Civil War, America was divided and there was lots of political and social issues at that time, so he wanted to make something to unite his nation.

In Democratic vistas, he blamed the segregation between people based on race, color & gender as this kind of segregation played a huge role in the civil war.

“I say that democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil, until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art, poems, schools, theology, displacing all that exists, or that has been produced anywhere in the past, under opposite influences. It is curious to me that while so many voices, pens, minds, in the press, lecture-rooms, in our Congress, &c., are discussing intellectual topics, pecuniary dangers, legislative problems, the suffrage, tariff and labor questions, and the various business and benevolent needs of America, with propositions, remedies, often worth deep attention, there is one need, a hiatus the profoundest, that no eye seems to perceive, no voice to state. Our fundamental want to-day in the United States, with closest, amplest reference to present conditions, and to the future, is of a class, and the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known”

Whitman here talked about democracy and how it can only be achieved through shaping its own forms of art, learning & literature. America has minds and pens thinking and writing about intellectual topics, passing laws and the right to vote; however, these issues are being discussed in the press, lecture-rooms & in the Congress. Whitman wants all the Americans to be involved in order to make their present better and to shape their future.

“The problem of humanity all over the civilized world is social and religious, and is to be finally met and treated by literature. The priest departs, the divine literature comes. Never was anything more wanted than, to-day, and here in the States, the poet of the modern is wanted, or the great literature of the modern. At all times, perhaps, the central point in any nation, and that whence it is itself really sway’d the most, and whence it sways others, is its national literature, especially its archetypal poems. Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance, (in some respects the sole reliance) of American democracy.”

In this quote, Whitman talks about the importance of literature and poems. He is saying that humanity’s problem in the civilized world is social & religious.

Moreover, Whitman wanted America to have a generation of artists and poets so they can have a distinctive literature and culture different than the ones in Europe.

According to Whitman, democracy in America can only be accomplished with the excessive amount of poems and literature that is being presented to the public and how the public reacts to those forms of art, this is when they can develop their ideas and make informed choices about democracy.

Analyzing De Tocqueville’s Literary Characteristics Of Democratic Times

It’s my first time reading something that was written in the 19th century & little do I know about De Tocqueville.

I love the fact that a French guy came to the United States of America in the 19th century to write and document what he saw and how he feels about how the Americans think and how do they live.

Furthermore, in his writings he’s criticizing the American literature saying that it was shallow and that they depend mainly on the English literature.

“The citizens of the United States are themselves so convinced that it is not for them that books are published, that before they can make up their minds upon the merit of one of their authors, they generally wait till his fame has been ratified in England; just as in pictures the author of an original is held entitled to judge of the merit of a copy.” – Tocqueville said.

He says that Americans almost has no literature, and the only group of people who thinks that have the ability to make their voices reach to the public and know how to use words are journalists. Even though, he mentioned that they are not great writers.

De Tocqueville elaborated his words saying that (at that time) the Americans had all the neccisities (laws & social conditions) to have their own literature, only if they were transported to another place and came from different origins. I felt that he wanted to say that the United States will have its own literature but not in the mean time and without being able to anticipate how the literature is going to be like.

Moreover, Tocqueville says that he think that people who will be involved in the American literature will be from the upper class, people who hold intellectual occupations and are close to the ruling regime, “Aristocratic people” as he said.

“The relations that exist between the social and political condition of a people and the genius of its authors are always numerous, whoever knows the one is never completely ignorant of the other.”

In this quote, I think that De Tocqueville here meant that most of the great novelists and writers are well informed about the political circumstances of their country and this is clearly visible nowadays as we see them expressing their opinions and actually contributing to the political life.