For Egypt's Graffiti Artists, Revolution Brings Inspiration and Uncertainty

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A counter-culture arts scene is helping Egyptians make sense of the new world they live in — and their ability to make a mark on it

Art as protest, a means to express complex political and social ideas, is not a novel concept: just think of Picasso's statement on the tragedy of war in Guernica, or Banksy's murals on the West Bank barrier. But in Egypt, where the Ministry of Culture controlled all public expression, protest art was hard to find — at least until this January, when 18 days of mass revolts toppled President Mubarak's regime and unexpected freedoms flourished, including the right to make art.

Yet to tell it this way isn't entirely fair; art wasn't just a product of the burgeoning democracy. From the very beginning of the revolution, street art and artists played a significant role in the protests. On January 27, TheAtlantic.com published translations of a 26-page illustrated pamphlet being handed around Cairo. The pages explained how to protest, including how to prepare for clashes with riot police, and specifics of what protesters might do. The author was anonymous, but the design, layout, and illustrations bear a striking resemblance to the subsequent work of popular artist Mohamed Fahmy, who goes by the alias Ganzeer, or "chain" in Arabic.  When I asked if he was the person behind the pamphlet, Fahmy declined to comment, but with an emoticon wink. You can judge for yourself below.

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The two page spread on the left is from the protestor pamphlet. The flyer on the right was created by Ganzeer for Mad Graffiti Weekend.

Fahmy is skinny, with a halo of black curls and a wry smile. He is a private man, especially for an artist. He mostly uses his alias online, and before the revolution he appears to have been cautious about maintaining distance between it and his real identity. Tracking him down took several days: queries of domain registrations, tracking an IP address to a server host, a call to Maderia, Portugal, and endless Google searches.

His style is playful and heavily influenced by comic books, even in his more formal work completed pre-Revolution. At a show in 2010 called "Why Not," attendees were made to walk through a door decorated as the mouth of a huge face, using a wooden ramp painted as a tongue. He told the reviewers at Almasryalyoum, "With a tongue, I can do good or I can do evil. I can tell so many stories with the tongue."

In an interview over email, he told me why he rejects being labeled as a mere graffiti artist, explaining that he reacts to things in many different ways. On February 11, Fahmy began his Martyr Mural series on walls around Cairo, painting large portraits of the men and women who had been killed in the colors of the Egyptian flag. The murals were an expression of grief and an answer to the popular desire to see the martyrs commemorated publicly -- as well as a big middle finger to Mubarak's vanquished Ministry of Culture.

Like any artist who attempts to provoke, Fahmy has gotten himself in trouble. He was arrested on May 26 for pasting stickers of what he called the "Mask of Freedom," depicting a mannequin with a gas mask and text that read, "Greetings from the Supreme Council to the free youth of the nation." He was released unchastened later that day, a sign of how much things had changed, or at least of the new military leadership's disinterest in a young graffiti artist.

Fahmy has at times angered even those who initially supported him, like the gallery owner who donated her wall for one of his martyr murals. When he painted instead the minister of defense and the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces walking arm and arm with Mubarak, surrounded by red hearts and a caption referring to the men as "regime lovers," the owner was outraged. Shortly after Fahmy completed it, the mural was vandalized and partially covered up.

"As soon as Mubarak was ousted, there was an explosion of overly nationalistic patriotic street art," Fahmy recalled, "I think that sort of street art has dwindled down, and we're starting to see more and more of a critical social and political commentary sort of street art. The battle now seems to fall entirely in the realms of media, propaganda, and public opinion." He disdains the military leaders who have taken control after Mubarak.

"The military's obviously trying to direct most media outlets into standing by its side, and spreading a general sense of insecurity amongst people, convincing them that in exchange for security, people have to trust the military and let go of most of the principles they revolted for," Fahmy wrote. "Those who see the ploy try to use whatever media they have access to, to communicate otherwise. This media is mainly the internet and the street."

Fahmy isn't the only one promoting street protest. Sad Panda, Kaizer, and El Teneen are the familiar aliases of others artists who've gained fame tagging the cityscape. On Friday, May 20, Fahmy organized a "Mad Graffiti Weekend" in Cairo, bringing together street artists to collectively produce large-scale works. He has even created a real-time Google Map to help locate the different pieces. His work that weekend culminated in a mural portraying a bicyclist holding a tray of bread, a familiar food in Cairo known as aish, a word that also means "life." Facing off the bicyclist was a tank with a soldier in the gun turret, aiming at the bread.

The 2010 review of "Why Not?" quotes Fahmy saying that his work explores the human condition. "It's not entirely clear what [he] thinks of humanity, but it is certainly something playful, and at the same time disturbing," the reviewer wrote.

"My work is more socially driven than anything else," Fahmy said. "It all depends on what I want to touch." That said, he's realistic about the uncertainties of his country — where plains-clothes security forces still raid news offices and a recent soccer rally turned deadly. When asked about Egypt's political future, he commented, "He who succeeds will most likely be he who wins the most amount of people to his cause."

In this atmosphere of disparate popular appeals, perhaps the uncensored, tongue-in-cheek, political commentary of Ganzeer and other street artists is just what is called for to help Egyptians make sense of the new world they live in — and their ability to make a mark on it.

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Lois Farrow Parshley

Lois Parshley is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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