North Africa, West Asia

Angels caught in a tightening noose

Many disregard the recurrent stories of prison deaths, police torture and rape because - on the other hand – Egypt's streets are empty after curfew and the walls are freshly painted; surely a clear indication that the state has succeeded in restoring security and defeating terrorism.

Soraya Morayef
13 November 2013

On Tuesday November 5, Egypt’s Minister of Local Development, Adel Labib, announced a new law criminalizing graffiti with a maximum jail sentence of four years and a fine of 100,000LE. Interestingly, Labib categorized graffiti as a crime equal to dumping trash on the streets.

According to the Al Masry Al Youm report [Ar], anyone caught in possession of spray cans or other graffiti material would be arrested, and neighbourhood patrols would be delegated to apprehend and arrest street artists. The wording of the law is worrying: the word ‘offensive’ is left vague, meaning the definition could be left up to the authorities, who would presumably focus on anti-regime graffiti.

This appears to be one of the government’s latest tactics in cracking down on opposition and immoral behaviour, and in superficially demonstrating its control over the country. Following the anti-protest law as well as the recent arrest of four students caught in possession of graffiti material and accused of making anti-military graffiti, Cairo’s artists should be worried.

Whatever popular support the graffiti scene may have had in the past two years seems to have decreased considerably; at least in my own personal circle. Several artists I spoke to told me about their being verbally and physically assaulted in recent months, with many of their friends arrested and detained by police. Demoralized and depressed, they attributed this new aggression against them not only to their street art but also to their expression of anti-regime sentiment, which automatically categorizes them as supporters of the deposed President Mohamed Morsi.

While always marginalized as a street subculture, many of these graffiti artists find themselves increasingly sidelined and ostracized for their political opinions as supporters of the January 25 revolution; neither with the military nor supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. Increasingly, the space for them to express themselves as ‘others’ is diminishing, the noose is tightening.

When I wrote about the new graffiti law on Twitter, many people I interact with regularly voiced their support for the law. ‘City walls have been destroyed thanks to ‘graffiti,’ one person told me. ‘Tasteful graffiti represents only 1% of graffiti in Cairo. I hope this law passes.’

Another told me: ‘Every church I’ve been to has hate speech all over its walls. I’m happy my kid can’t read yet’, while another – rather dramatically said that opposing the anti-graffiti law was equal to supporting hate crimes against Christians, given the sectarian graffiti found on many churches across Egypt.

While these few tweets may be miniscule in their representation of the Egyptian population, to me it’s indicative of how much we’ve changed in one year. The Egypt today is very different from the Egypt of September 2012, where under heavy public pressure the then-Prime Minister Hisham Qandil had to publically condemn the defacement of the Mohamed Mahmoud mural, denying his complicity in its removal. It was a milestone in the recent history of graffiti in Egypt; the head of the government directly addressing the very subculture that the regime had attempted to criminalize.

Today, we live in a country where repeated psychological oppression and intimidation of civilians has taken its toll on the mindset of many, where I hear daily attempts at justifying the state imposed curfew with the arrests and humiliating assaults that it entail. Many disregard the recurrent stories of prison deaths, police torture and rape because - on the other hand – the streets are empty after curfew and the walls are painted afresh; a clear indication that the state has succeeded in restoring security and defeating terrorism.

It seems that many of my peers have chosen to overlook the death of an 18-year-old boy who was shot by a police officer in broad daylight for being part of a pro-Morsi demonstration, as well as the death of a 12-year-old Christian girl in a drive-by shooting outside a church wedding in Warraq. Both deaths happened in Cairo in recent months, a clear indication that neither stability nor security is restored; yet many will brush these deaths off as isolated incidents compared to the nationwide stability (cough *Sinai* cough).

How is this related to graffiti? Look at this photograph.

Graffiti Egypt November 2013

Soraya Morayef. All rights reserved. View larger version of this image.

This mural of 18-year-old Belal Ali was painted alongside the mural of 12-year-old Mariam, both made by Ammar Abo Bakr on the wall of the Armenian Church in Downtown Cairo. The fact that both were placed side by side on the church wall was inspiring and evocative, as were their angel-wings, equal in size and detail. In death, both were equally victims; and neither will be vindicated nor will their murderers be brought to justice.

Just days after Mariam’s mural was painted, her face and that of Belal were defaced with black paint; someone had taken offense at the sight of these victims and the memory of their death.

Ammar made something beautiful, something that mattered to the families and friends of these two martyrs. So, if I have understood this law correctly, then an artist like Ammar deserves four years in jail for offending someone with these murals, yet the victims’ murderers live freely with little chance of their being brought to justice. This isn’t fair.

Yes, graffiti can be lewd and offensive, and in recent months it has been appropriated by different sides, many of whom have advocated messages of hate and violence. But to ostracize the already marginalized street artist community for individual acts committed by others is not right; especially since they have played such an important role in the visual representation of the January 25 revolution and its ideals.

Supporting a law that further oppresses free expression in Egypt’s current climate is dangerous; it is equal to banning a satirical TV show, for investigating journalists reporting another angle to the same story, for censoring authors and columnists for disagreeing with the state rhetoric. It enables a society of bullies that find legal recourse in shutting down disagreeable and unpopular voices, based on taste, propriety and offensiveness.

It isn’t right, but little in Egypt is right just now. 

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