Art RevolutionEgypt: Walls of Freedom
The murals of Cairo’s graffiti artists in Mohamed Mahmoud Street chronicle the revolution, and their martyrs’ gallery became famous around the world. Mural artist Ammar Abo Bakr tells their story. Read More
Mural artist Ammar Abo Bakr is one of Egypt’s best-known revolutionary artists. We were so deeply touched by the story he told to us that we decided to publish it in its full length. It helps to understand the confusing situation in Egypt, and is definitely worth reading every single word:
The newspaper of the revolution
What we did in Egypt in recent years was not about presenting art, at least it wasn’t to me: We used walls as a newspaper.
We learned to do so out of a need: The TV presenter and satirist Bassem Youssef was a doctor, but then he learned to use YouTube. Mosab El-Shamy Rassd was studying medicine, but then he took his camera and took to the streets.
Me, I was a fine arts assistant professor. I left the faculty to report on the revolution on the city’s walls.
January 2011: Friday of Anger
The revolution in Egypt started on 25th January 2011, but the big day was on the 28th.
On this “Friday of Anger”, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest against autocratic president Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, who had been in office since 1981. Under his leadership, the repression of the people, corruption and abuse of authority were the orders of the day.
The protesters gathered on Tahrir Square in central Cairo, and their frustration exploded. Many lost their lives in violent clashes with the security forces.
Of course, no official newspaper reported about what occurred that day – every journalist was afraid of being punished or prosecuted. But people began writing on the walls: “We want to topple the regime.” Suddenly, all kinds of information was on the walls. And from the first day on:
The walls demanded that president Mubarak step down.
During these days of protests, I felt I wanted to do something for my country. And like so many others, I started writing. I wrote everywhere! I carried a big bag full of spray paint cans and wrote on every wall, without caring what the writing looked like: “Fuck you Mubarak”, “We discovered your plan and it’s so dirty”.
When I was writing, I forgot that I was an artist, I just followed the people.
The dialogues on the walls became almost sophisticated, and people entered into deep discussions. We were documenting, answering and commenting on each other.
The graffiti was also the first sign for the people at home that something big was happening. On 28th, people sprayed: “down with Mubarak, down with the regime” on an army tank at Tahrir square. When the picture of this tank appeared on TV and social media, even the people at home realised: if the military allowed the people to write this slogan on the tank, then the military must be against Mubarak!
February 2011: The wall on Mohamed Mahmoud Street
The protests ended after 18 days. Mubarak handed power over to the Armed Forces and the newspapers finally reported that the regime had fallen. People started writing on the walls that they were proud to be Egyptians, and that we have to remember the people who have died: our martyrs.
Among the graffiti artists, we wanted to remember the martyrs in murals. But of course we didn’t know every one of them, we didn’t have photos of all of them, and we didn’t know all the names. In fact nobody did, not even the media.
That’s why we chose to paint the most symbolic martyrs on the wall of the American University on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. This street connects the Ministry of Interior and Tahrir Square. The wall of the American University became the newspaper of the revolution: all the most important murals, the famous martyrs’ gallery and the recent pink camouflage, were painted on this same wall.
If you follow the murals on Mohamed Mahmoud Street over the last four years, they tell you everything that happened.
November 2011: Lost Eyes
After the toppling of Mubarak, the transitional government’s violence led to large demonstrations again. Many of these protests took place in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and over the years, the military and the Islamists closed the street off several times.
The first time they closed it was on 19th November 2011. The protesters had reoccupied Tahrir Square to demand the dissolution of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the security state fought them with live ammunition, tear gas and paid thugs.
During this time, the security forces’ snipers targeted protesters’ eyes in particular, blinding many. People wearing eye-patches suddenly became a commonplace in Cairo.
That was when we decided to paint our first huge gallery in Mohamed Mahmoud Street: the portraits of the people who lost their eyes.
February 2012: Killing the Peoples' Army
During the first year of the revolution, in 2011, the wall on Mohamed Mahmoud Street was quite low. But on 25th January 2012, it was made higher to stop the demonstrators from jumping on it to look out for the police. Making it higher and the surface smoother was supposed to hinder the revolutionaries. But this was our chance: now it was a big and very stable wall – perfect for our art!
Shortly afterwards, something terrible happened: 74 football fans from the Al-Ahly Ultras were killed in just one day in the Port Said stadium. The media said it was a fight among football fans. But it wasn’t.
The Al-Ahly Ultras were a kind of people’s army of revolutionaries. Each time they came to Tahrir Square, as I remember, they arrived with at least 5,000 people at a time, all shouting with one voice. Football in Egypt has long served the regime’s interest by pacifying people. But instead of using football to keep people quiet, the Al-Ahly Ultras used it to rally crowds and make their voices heard.
During the matches, they held up huge banners criticising the military and showing everyone who was arrested or had died. Imagine tens of thousands of people in the stadium chanting “down with the military”. And everybody watching the match on TV heard them shouting “down with the military”. Of course, the police, the military and the Islamists wanted to get rid of them.
That’s why they destroyed these young people. After the match, they closed the doors, turned down the lights, and 74 were killed in clashes, with many stampeded to death. One of the youngest was Anas, just 15 years old. No one could escape; no one could see nor take any videos. But people were messaging from inside the stadium: “They killed our friends.”
When I received these messages, I felt something really dark had happened. I had just come to Cairo from Luxor to buy some materials and was supposed to go back afterwards. But I decided to stay and paint. I stayed from February to April.
Together with other graffiti artists, we occupied Mohammad Mahmoud Street for these two months.
During this time, we painted what became known as the martyrs’ gallery: the portraits of the victims of Port Said, a metaphoric tomb for our fighters.
March 2012: No walls
Between November 2011 and February 2012, the Ministry of the Interior built more walls near Tahrir Square: seven walls were erected around the ministry’s building. We painted on all of them.
We had this event called “No Walls” to re-open the streets that were barricaded. We wanted to show that these were places where normal people lived. If neighbours wanted to visit each other, they now had to take long walks around the barricades – all for the sake of the ministry’s security.
The artistic concept we chose was trompe-l’oeil: On the wall blockading Sheikh Rihan Street, for instance, we re-opened the street in a picture.
June 2012: Preparing for the elections
As elections were coming up, the media and the political parties began pushing Egyptians to vote. But as artists, we refused to accept an election under military rule. We didn’t feel that the military had lost its power for even a moment, and we were sure that they were just using the Muslim Brotherhood for their own purposes.
I painted on Mohamed Mahmoud Street again. On top of the martyrs’ portraits I wrote:
“Forget about everything that happened, forget about everybody who died, keep going and follow the election.”
On Facebook, people started to tag me in photos, saying: “Look what they did to your painting: there’s a stupid sentence about the elections.” So finally I made a video revealing that I was the one who had painted the sentence. In the video I explained: “I think you don’t need to see the martyrs’ faces anymore, because you didn’t follow the way of the revolution. An election under military rule has nothing to do with what the martyrs were fighting for.”
June 2012: The mourning mothers
Right before the elections, I decided to paint a second layer on the martyrs’ gallery: I wanted to depict the mothers of the martyrs, mourning for their children who died for the revolution. It was intended to remind the people of the true goals of the revolution.
I knew this would have a strong effect, because people loved the martyrs’ gallery very much. We painted very quickly; in the days when everybody was very busy with the elections – the police, the parties, the Islamists.
And on the first day of the elections, people found it on the wall.
June 2012: Egypt is not the Muslim Brothers
People were saying that the military wouldn’t let the Muslim Brotherhood win. But I was sure they would. The military did not want to lose the Islamists at this moment.
I painted a mural on a wall in Berlin of a man in traditional clothes sitting next to a grave, symbolising that real Islam has not woken up yet. The text says: “Egypt is not the Muslim Brothers.”
Morsi won on 30th June.
A few months later, the police whitewashed Mohamed Mahmoud and once again occupied the street where more than 1,000 revolutionaries died.
We came back in the night to paint and to show them that we didn't care. We wrote:
“You’re a shame! You’re supposed to be our security forces, but you are afraid of paintings and graffiti.”
November 2012: The new martyrs
In November 2012, on the first anniversary of the fights against the security forces in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, I came back to paint a martyrs’ gallery again. But this time, I painted them with really gruesome faces – exactly as they looked after they died. I wanted to give the people a sign that there would be more bloodshed. From an artistic point of view, this picture and its technique are also much more complex.
I also added the Ultras martyrs’ names, but I put washing colour over it, as if it had been cleaned up. It was my form of protest. The Ultras had changed completely. They didn’t support the revolution anymore and said they would follow the court’s decision. But that’s crazy! I mean – then what did their friends die for?
The police and the military, they stole our country. Judges, courts, elections, they’re all the same.
How can you go to the judges to ask them please, tell me, who killed my friends? The system is repression, and everything is a sickness. It’s like cancer.
June 2013: The Military is back
In the beginning of December 2012, the first attacks against the presidential palace happened. The protests became massive on 30th June, exactly one year after the elections.
And suddenly the armed forces were back in power. The media called it a coup. I wouldn’t call it that. A coup can only happen when you topple a legitimate president. But Morsi was just a puppet they had played with.
I decided to leave the city. The Islamists were fighting with the military. This was somehow confusing: Before we had fought both of them; now they were fighting each other. So I felt that this was none of my business. I thought: “Go eat yourselves.” In the end, the armed forces stayed in power.
In my following murals, I focused more on Egyptian identity. With a group of people, we painted a sketch of this beautiful Egyptian woman with wings and a poem. We wanted to defend our Egypt.
For us, Egypt is more than just the Muslim and Arabic civilizations.
It is a country with a history of more than 10,000 years, with different civilizations and religions.
That is the difference between us and the Islamists.
November 2013: The pink camouflage
On 18th November 2013, a memorial was built to the protesters who were killed during the revolution. Everybody had warned us not to go to Mohamed Mahmoud Street that day, the second anniversary of clashes there. Even the activists who supported the revolution! They said the military would catch us and claim we were Muslim Brothers – because everyone who opposed the military was being labelled an Islamist by the military regime and in the media. But we felt we had to go.
So after some young people destroyed the monument, we returned to Mohamed Mahmoud Street and painted the entire wall in pink camouflage. We wrote just one message on it:
“You may kill people, strip them, arrest them, have fun after arresting them – but we won’t forget.
We are prepared for you. We put glue on your back that won’t come off.”
Of course these are very foul words. But that was exactly our intention.
The Islamists never use vulgarity; they always try to express themselves in a very polite way. With these words we wanted to make crystal clear that we, the authors of this sentence, are not linked to the Islamists, even though we were criticizing the military.
In part, we also painted this camouflage to fool the media. They had understood that the paintings on Mohamed Mahmoud Street were important, and on the second anniversary of clashes there, they had rented balconies to get a nice shot.
But when they arrived at 7 am, they only found the pink camouflage: a sign they couldn’t explain to the audience. On TV they said it’s a piece on blood of the martyrs.
They didn’t get it. And that’s what we intended.
New Year 2014: Bassem
The situation in Egypt has become very confusing. In the 2014 presidential elections in April, the former head of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was elected president. Many artists in Egypt support Sisi. The killer. You know, when the security forces rule the country, you’ll never see the crimes.
In November 2013, a very close friend of mine died: Bassem Mohsen. Bassem had lost his eye in the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes back in November 2011. He was arrested during military rule; he was arrested during Morsi’s rule, and ultimately died in December 2013. The police killed him during a demonstration called for by the Muslim Brotherhood, therefore he is said to have been an Islamist. But I knew Bassem well, and he was not: he only fought the police.
Bassem was with us when we painted the pink camouflage mural back in December. He was happy that night. Only a couple of days later, he died.
Therefore, on 1st January 2014, I decided to paint a martyr again. I wanted to paint Bassem, but I decided he should look completely different. I actually loved doing this on New Year’s. Everybody was drunk, so I could paint. I started at 4am, and they didn’t stop me until 6am. I told a police officer that I didn’t like the pink camouflage, because it made jokes about the army. “Why don’t you let me paint a nice portrait of our martyrs? People will like it!” I said. And he agreed. Of course, I didn’t tell him that this martyr had just recently been shot by the police! He let me stay another two days to finish the portrait.
I wanted people to really appreciate this portrait. People don’t know that the image actually shows someone who hated the police and the Islamists. But they love it.
And Bassem too doesn’t know that he’s here now, on the pink camouflage. But he would have loved it! For me, he represents the real revolution. He was 19 years old when he died, and 16 when the revolution started.
The last thing I painted was the fish on his dead eye. Fish are a sign of eye-opening. It says:
Although he’s dead, he will be watching you.