Egypt’s New Rulers Declare War on ... Graffiti

(Photo: Maggie Osama)

By: Mohammad al-Khouly

Published Thursday, November 10, 2011

From Ali al-Halabi to Ahmad Samhan and Janzir, the list of artists being harassed by the Military Council for bringing art to the street is a long and growing one.

Cairo – Over the past months, Egypt’s Military Council has mounted what amounts to a “war on graffiti,” targeting the political artworks that are now widespread in Egyptian cities. Graffiti works calling for demonstrations, demanding the completion of the revolution, and advocating solidarity with labor’s demands are now being treated as the enemy.

January 25 transformed Egyptian graffiti normally reserved for sports slogans into an effective method for raising awareness among citizens about their rights.

Ali al-Halabi and Ahmad Samhan, members of the April 6 Youth Movement, were arrested on October 19 on charges of damaging public property, and drawing on the walls of a military establishment. Their case was referred to the office of the military prosecutor, and they were released on bail after seven days of dentention, allowed for in Egyptian law. Almost four months earlier, the designer and graffiti artist Janzir was arrested on charges of “affixing a poster detrimental to public security.” He was released the same day.

Graffiti artist Haytham Salah the war going on between the Military Council’s security apparatus, and graffiti activists is now out in the open. It is commonplace for young men she says to be seized for distributing pamphlets in the street, or arrested for rallying citizens to participate in the parliamentary elections.

“From the point of view of a large segment of the Egyptian populace, graffiti is a new art form,” Haytham said. “We use it to get our ideas across in a simple way, without using political terminology that can be hard to understand.”

Toward the end of 2010, three activists were taken into custody for writing phrases critical of the parliamentary elections. The charges were for publicly posting and distributing publications. The office of the prosecutor general looked into their case that same day and released them, as the the police report did not contain adequate grounds for a case.

Al-Halabi and Samhan’s defense attorney, Rawda Ahmad, also represents the executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information. She remembers this event as the turning point inaugurating a period of continual harassment of graffiti artists, despite the regime change, which had seemed to promise greater freedoms of expression.

“The military council suffers from a state of extreme confusion, and is using the exact same procedures it inherited from Mubarak’s regime for harassing activists and preventing them from expressing their opinions.” Rawda says.

This is despite the leniency afforded to those writing slogans in support of the Military Council, according to her.

“Interacting with civilians in the street is a new challenge for the armed forces, and for this reason they are relying on the experience of generals from the Ministry of Interior, and using procedures from the former regime to interact with activists,” she adds.

Graffiti artist Jihan Saad explains that the art of drawing on walls started in Egypt with some soccer fans, and was later used to draw the iconic victims of the deposed regime, such as Khaled Said and Sayid Bilal. Jihan noted that at the time the interior ministry “viewed this art as a crime because it criticized the police, and called people to participate in demonstrations denouncing the use of violence in the various branches of the police and prison system.”

Jihan sees graffiti as a way to condemn oppression, due to its strong historical connection to oppressed groups. “This art form started out in the 70s among Americans of African descent who suffered from racial discrimination and persecution in the United States. They started drawing on city walls and on old trains to express their situation.”

Ok, so it’s about oppression…but where does the law stand with regard to all of this? “We have a disaster in the Egyptian legal code,” says Rawda Ahmad. She explains, “we have a sprawling legal code that doesn’t always serve its function properly, and the police apparatus thinks it can lay down the law on its own. So the police produce an interview transcript that implicates the activists on a number of charges, because they know that Egypt is not under the rule of law, and that police reports are about corruption rather than executing the law.”

Ali al-Halabi’s friends organized several demonstrations protesting his detainment, and at all of these gatherings they repeated their famous slogan: “Let the flower go, let its petals open; Ali al-Halabi is one of us; we will never give up on him.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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