Egypt: the people demand the downfall of the system


Well over one thousand people have died so far to bring the revolution to this insufficient and conflicted place.


Tom Dale
4 June 2012

The graffiti on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, which juts eastwards from Tahrir Square towards the interior ministry, has been an ever-changing visual record of the revolution since late last year.  The walls are covered in the pictures of the revolution's martyred dead, woven with scenes reminiscent of pharaonic art, Islamic traditions -  caricatures of figures of the old regime, Hosni Mubarak and SCAF leader Hussein Tantawi among them.

About a week ago, the loose network of artists and revolutionaries for whom the wall is a canvass added another layer.  A friend who helped with the re-painting offered that it had felt a bit odd.  To paint over the pictures, I asked, which had meant so much?  “Yeah,” he said, “but we decided that it has to keep changing, to be alive.”  The authorities want to remove it, of course, and periodically they cover this or that mural, only to find it repainted – often in more radical form – within 24 hours.  Realising this, the artists know they can't preserve what there is indefinitely.  All they can do is to maintain the walls' relevance.

View down Mansour Street

This realisation is expressed in the most recent changes.  First, in letters twelve feet high, the words “forget what happened, keep behind the elections.”  Second, a twist to the portraits of the martyrs.  This time, they are pictured in frames held by black-robed women we assume to be their mothers.  We aren't just looking at the dead anymore: we're also looking at the families.  We're confronted not just with who has been lost, but who stays behind to live with that loss.

You can see pictures of the most recent addition here.

In the light of the verdict from the trial of Mubarak, a few cronies, and his two sons, and the disappointing admission of Ahmed Shafiq into the second round of the presidential elections, the mural acquires an extra poignancy. 

As for the trial, Mubarak and his former interior minister Habib al Adly each got 25 years for allowing the murder of protestors during the eighteen revolutionary days of January and February last year.  The verdicts will be appealed of course, and many people believe the convictions to be unsafe due to the poor preparation of the prosecution.  Mubarak and his two sons were cleared of corruption and embezzlement, although the two sons are now remanded to face further charges of insider trading.  Six of al Adly's deputies were found not guilty of murder charges.  For the families of the martyrs, it's a slap in the face, and outside the court-room, several broke down in tears.

Ahmed Shafiq may now take the Presidency.  In remarks to an association of wealthy Egyptian Americans, Shafiq laid out his programme.  According to the New York Times, he “suggested that he would use executions and brutal force to restore order within a month”.  Even if this is the sort of hyperbole of which politicians are fond, his record (including an “iron fist” on labour matters), and his other remarks (“the Egyptian people . . . are obedient . . . the state must be the strongest thing”) amply reveal his political character.

Well over one thousand people have died so far to bring the revolution to this insufficient and conflicted place. From my apartment near Tahrir, as I write on Saturday, a few hours after the trial, I can hear the chanting swelling already in the square, “the people demand the downfall of the system” (not just, that is, the downfall of a single man).  I head out to take a look.  There's only a few hundred there at the moment, but as I looked over to the wall on Mohammed Mahmoud, I noticed that some of the painted frames are still blank, as if there are still faces yet to fill them. 

I've spent a lot of time in the last week in one of the 'informal' areas of Cairo, crammed with jerry-built houses.  Many don't have sewage or running water.  People are worried about jobs, and not a few carry injuries from the fighting of the past eighteen months.  There are election posters on the walls, but the parliament hasn't done anything for these people yet.  I'll speak more about all this in future pieces.  But for now, it's clear that today, or another day, there are many battles left to fight.

This article is the weekly-featured-column for Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.

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