When Walls Become a Place of Revolution: Powerful Street Art Filling the Cities of Egypt

‘Religion is for God and the homeland is for all’ is visualized in the symbol of a crescent enclosing a cross. The symbol marked the Egyptian walls in 2011. Street art at the time of the revolution was not merely a decoration of space, it recorded what happened in the streets. Like Elliot Colla has stated in the magazine Jadaliyya about ‘the poetry of revolt’, street art was part of the action itself.

The walls became a site of resistance where a media war was played out. Reem Bassiouney, Associate Professor of Arabic Sociolinguistics at the American University in Cairo states in Language and Identity in Modern Egypt (2015) that “the 2011 Egyptian Revolution was also a media war.”

According to visual artist Ammar Abo Bakr, street artists stood in for the role of the journalists, considered puppets of the regime. With his graffiti he coloured the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street occupied by the protesting people during the course of the Egyptian revolution. Mohamed Mahmoud is known for the innumerable clashes it witnessed.

Literally and figuratively

“The 25 January protests were joined by young and old people, men and women, workers and businessmen, Christians and Muslims, which reinforced the ‘national’ character of the movement in the streets”, writes Brecht De Smet, researcher for the Middle East And North Africa Research Group (MENARG) from Ghent University, in his article about the Egyptian national-popular subject published in Political identities and popular uprisings in the Middle East (2016).

Like the crescent figuratively encloses the cross in the symbol, on February 4, 2011 Christian protesters in Alexandria literally encircled Muslims, performing Friday prayers. In order to protect the Muslims, Christians formed a human chain. On the Sunday of Martyrs, February 6, Muslims and Christians together offered funeral prayers for the dead. That day, the Copts hold a public mass at Tahrir Square safeguarded by Muslims.

“The sign of the crescent embracing the cross was painted on walls and protest signs everywhere. Muslim and Christians protesters proudly stood side by side, chanting together in solidarity.” This statement is written in Walls of Freedom (2014), a powerful portrayal of the first three years of the revolution, gathering art work among other of Ammar Abo Bakr, Ganzeer, Hanaa El Degham, Hany Khaled, Magdy El-Shafee and El Seed.

Ted Swedenburg (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A continuum in revolutionary symbols

At the time of the popular uprising in 2011, Egyptians had already a “revolutionary tradition and a collective memory crowded with symbols, martyrs, moments, poems, and songs”, writes Sinan Antoon in Jadaliyya. The overlapping crescent and the cross is one of them.

Viola Shafik tells us in her book on Popular Egyptian Cinema (2006) that it “dates back to the 1919 unrest that saw a strong mobilization of hitherto politically marginalized segments of society, such as women and Copts, who joined forces to protest British occupation.”

Before the 1919 revolution became popular, Egypt endured, according to Ziad Fahmy, assistant professor of modern Middle East history at Cornell University, a period of preparation. He discussed the articulation of an Egyptian national culture within popular culture in Ordinary Egyptians. Creating a Modern Nation through Popular Culture, 1870-1919 (2011). Fahmy: “In this book, I investigate the agency of ordinary Egyptians in constructing and negotiating national identity.”

Like in 2011, a politicization of the national cultural identity had taken place during the popular uprising of 1919. Paolo Gerbaudo in his article ‘The ‘Movements of the Squares’ and the Contested Resurgence of the ‘Sovereign People’ in Contemporary Protest Culture’ explains that “popular identity has a strong connection with the national, in accordance with Antonio Gramsci’s observation that ‘popular’ and ‘national’ can be considered as synonyms.”

The imaginary of the nation as a unifying symbol appealing to a diverse population created the potential to mobilize the Egyptian masses. The street art as a creative pulse of the people was permeated with national symbols. Ordinary Egyptians shaping the national-popular taste has its revolutionary social implications as argued by Fahmy. He finds his backing for his argument in the actual popular revolutions like the 1919 and January 25th revolution that the country experienced.

Muslim or Christian, Egyptians are religious

Master Barsum has an eye for aesthetics. His poor lodgings are brightened up with Virgin Mary and a flag of a crescent enclosing the cross on the wall. “The ultimate sign of national unity during the uprising”, states Shafik. Master Barsoum is Looking for a Job (1923), Muhammad Bayumi’s short comic silent movie, is considered one of the first native Egyptian productions released around the time of the 1919 revolution.

In relation to the religious identification, Christians mark the most visible minority of Egypt. Shafik: “Most of them belong to the Coptic-Orthodox church, one of the oldest in the world. It dates itself back in Egypt long before the Arab-Muslim conquest. Copts represent therefore, along with Nubians, the closest descendant of the country’s ancient Egyptian population.”

The Coptic identity is integral to the identity of Egypt. This led to the strategy of “foregrounding and backgrounding” as Bassiouney calls it, of religion in Egyptian identity in public media. While the differences in religion are backgrounded, religion in itself is foregrounded. Whatever the religion may be, Egyptians are religious.


This article was written by Marlies Van Coillie

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