Interview with Mona Abaza on Graffiti and the Egyptian Revolution

Mothers of the Martyrs (Photo: Mona Abaza)

To accompany the publication of Mona Abaza’s TCS article ‘Walls, Segregating Downtown Cairo and the Mohammed Mahmud Street Graffiti’, Roy Boyne interviews her on the Muslim Brotherhood, neoliberalism and the role of street art in popular revolt.


We’ve also made available here an extensive gallery of Mona’s photos of Egyptian graffiti as supplementary material.


And, for a limited period only, we’ve made Mona’sfull journal article free to access by clicking here.


Roy Boyne: Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood is filling the void left by the defeat of Nasserite Islamic socialism?
Mona Abaza: This has been argued by numerous analysts to explain the rise of Islamism as a response to the great disappointment with Arab secularism. The 1967 defeat led to a collective shift to growing religiosity, not only among Muslims, but also among Christians through the appearance of Virgin Mary in the popular quarter of Zaytoun in Cairo. This idea was often brought up well before the January revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood has been using a populist language of mobilisation but nevertheless, they transcend nationalism to encompass the wider Umma of the Muslims, which clashes often with national concerns and interests. However, this is not a novelty. They have been successful before January 2011 as an underground, well organized and yet banned organisation. We should also be reminded that it was former president Sadat who introduced the Islamic Sharia to the constitution of the state. In order to curtail leftist and secular forces, Sadat brought back from Saudi Arabia several figures of the then banned members of the Brotherhood to Egypt. Simultaneously he increased the amount of religious programs on television. He also allowed Islamic magazines to proliferate. His rapprochement with the Western world was tied by making alliances with Saudi Arabia. He called himself the “faithful president”. He issued discriminatory laws regarding the Copts by issuing restrictions on constructing or renovating churches, while favouring the construction of mosques through tax exemption. I would say that he was the mastermind behind sectarian strife, which continued to escalate for the past four decades. Until, ironically, the monster that he raised assassinated him.
During the Mubarak era the Muslim Brothers had managed to obtain seats in the parliament, not as members of the Brotherhood but as independent parliamentarians. They managed to infiltrate various sectors of the state. Thus, Egyptian society has been witnessing an increasing “Islamization” of the public sphere for at least four decades.  Mubarak used the logic of the  “threat” of the Muslim brotherhood to earn credibility internally as well as in the West, specifically after 9 /11. However, the Brotherhood had already managed successfully to infiltrate the state, maybe as unwanted players, but still present since Sadat. This was mostly felt in the sphere of culture and the arts where they gained a growing power for the past three decades by imposing a rigid public morality through censorship. Once it pertained to culture, freedom of expression and censorship both Mubarak ´s NDP ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood had a great elective affinity. During Mubarak´s time, both the Muslim Brotherhood and the NDP ruling party were quite united regarding the issue of censoring books, films and artistic production. We need to look back at the debates in parliament in the nineties on the banning of novels, and the censoring of the classical Islamic works like the One Thousand and one Nights or Ibn Arabi ´s mystic writings to see that the logic of intolerance and censorship was mutual among both the ancient regime of Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood. We tend to forget that it was Sadat who flirted with religion and pushed it further into political life by giving growing powers to the religious institution of al-Azhar (as the main producers of religious advice) in deciding upon cultural matters. This growing interference of the clergy continued during Mubarak. However, Mubarak had co-opted in his government, in particular in the Ministry of Culture a significant number of “secular intellectuals” who as “enlightened” state employees, were manoeuvring with the Islamists, struggling against them at times and making concessions at other times.  It is not a coincidence that the Ministry of Culture often clashed with the Islamists on the issue of the veil, on publishing novels, and screening films.
The Middle Easthas experienced a long history of the triumph of populism that we are still witnessing today as a continuation with Islamist politics.  It is true that had not Nasserism failed, or rather had not the post-independence populist regimes failed, the Islamists would not have gained so much momentum.  The military authoritarian regime of Nasserwas ruthless towards both the communists and Islamists by incarcerating and torturing them.  We can see today that six decades of authoritarianism has left a fantastic political void.  But I am equally convinced that the Islamist card received much backing from Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, which in the late fifties and sixties, represented North American interests in the region (and in Southeast Asia). The grand pax-Americana  project in the region echoed a fierce antipathy towards nationalist independence movements like Mossadeq in Iranand Sukarno in Indonesia. The emergence of Islamist movements at a specific moment received backing from the Americans, as in Indonesiaand later in Afghanistan, to counteract the communist regimes.
Back to today’s Egypt, I am afraid that the Muslim Brothers can become the ideal agents of the counter-revolution. We have only seen so far, that they are mainly emulating the logic and practices of the old regime. Ironically after many years of much repression, they became enamoured of their victimizers and ended up emulating the practices of their torturer. It is not a coincidence that President Morsi ´s new cabinet has practically no representative from the young revolutionaries. His government looks like a perfect blend between the old NDP Mubarak bureaucrats with the Muslim Brothers. It also seems that he has no problem in closely collaborating with the old business elite. Thus, so far nothing has really changed regarding the old regime’s mentality.  Since January 2011, we have experienced the Muslim Brotherhood as an organisation that systematically acts contrary to what it is saying.  In other words, it is ready to betray the revolutionaries by grabbing even more power through excluding the Other. It kept on changing positions for sheer opportunistic ends. Since last January, we saw that the Muslim brotherhood shifted positions. Thus, they argue that it is legitimate to demonstrate and occupy Tahrir when it fits their interests.  Once they conquered the parliament, they attacked the protesters with the same tactics of the old regime and condemned them for continuing the politics of the street. We also experienced for the first time protesters lifting their shoes as a sign of protest when the Muslim Brotherhood put on the Quran in Tahrir in January 2012 as a form of pushing their opponents from the Square. I think that this is the first time that the people had the courage to object to the danger of mingling politics with religion.  One thing is clear that the Muslim Brothers have been constantly lying by using the famed slogan “the ends justify the means”.  The Muslim Brotherhood has a history of sectarian politics. However, the running argument I often hear is that at last if people experience them on a daily basis, their sanctity will definitively corrode. This said, grand politics is one thing while my concern is personal, will I have to pay with my own personal freedom if I want to live the rest of my life in Egypt?  Like many who experienced the violence of the revolution, I feel frustrated that after that more than one thousand people were killed, (the revolutionaries argue that the victims have reached three thousand) and some five thousand disfigured and mutilated for life, the way to democracy, let alone social equality is still very long.
I might sound naïve in expressing disappointment through the fact that evidently those who carried the revolution are not those who are in power today. I feel powerless at the thought that our lives are effectively strongly decided by global political interests.  The American role in manipulating internal affairs is not insignificant.  The need to maintain open market economies, to defend neo-liberalism, to give priority to Israel’ s security, counts more than ever.  If neo-liberal market economy is to be maintained by an authoritarian regime like the Muslim Brotherhood (who came to power after having guaranteed not to touch Israel’s security, and to ignore the level of US military aid to Israel), the Americans and Europeans can praise the Islamists even after a decade of staunch Islamophobia in Europe. But in our part of the world, neo-liberalism, market economy, American and European interests in the regions, namely the vitality of oil, do not seem to fare well with democracy and human dignity. After all the Egyptian army was supported by the Americans in order not to wage a war against Israel and Mubarak was for long years perceived by the West as bringing stability to the region which was in a way true from one perspective if one discards the internal contradictions like the blatant social injustice, corruption and human right abuse. I am among those who believe that a deal has been sealed under the benediction of Washington to change what I call the old “service providers”
So, the army with the new agents  will be still neo-liberal, but “Islamic”, tycoons. I am afraid that the coup inside a coup that led to the change of power in the army reveals that there was already an alliance between the middle ranking officers and the Muslim Brotherhood who have been given freer hand with foreign funds from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Significant funds which were used in their political campaigns and in the elections. Ironically the Muslim Brotherhood was never attacked for being foreign agents, unlike al-Baradei or the 6th of April movement. The profile of Muslim Brother multi-millionaire tycoon Khayrat al-Shater who has been recently sold to the West as a Muslim Martin Luther (while there is indeed no connection between the two) tells us that what we will be experiencing is the continuation of a kind of Mubarakism with beards.  In the long run, perhaps sooner rather than later, a curtailing of freedom of expression will become evident.
The Islamist dominated parliament that lasted only a few months before it was dissolved, certainly revealed how controlling women’s bodies turned to be an obsessive male fantasy and how insulting were the debates concerning the curtailing of women ´s freedoms after long years of struggles and a century of Egyptian feminist politics. Obviously, there was a wish to humiliate women, mostly protesting women, women who take to the streets, mainly because Tahrir gave the free hand to the point of no return and both women and men lost fear.  It is as if these parliamentarians had nothing else to rescue but women’s chastity through enforcing female circumcision precisely after a revolution happened demanding dignity and the abolition of injustice. This is typical of a complete denial of reality precisely when nothing is more obvious than the class inequalities and the economic disaster, which the Mubaraks have left behind them.  What I am mostly concerned about though is the collapsing failed state and the frightening descent to chaos in our daily lives, that is going hand in hand with a vertiginous collapse of the economy. So far, the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to come up with any welfare project, or projects for social equity, which was a crucial demand of Tahrir. The question is will they manage to solve the acute vital existential problems like the shortage of water that mostly affects the slums, the fact that huge spaces of agrarian land are irrigated by sewerage water, the problem of air pollution, the threatening garbage problem in the all the cities, the electricity shortage, the multiplying number of street children, poverty, the growing violence, and institutionalised thuggery (partly created by the ancient regime and partly through the collapse of the brutal former police system), and the police system that has not changed since Mubarak. Last but not least, would the Brotherhood issue a law on minimum wage? And how would they deal with the mounting working class protests?  Many fear that the Muslim Brotherhood want to quickly jump to the bandwagon of the neo-liberal capitalist system. This is a concrete possibility.  On the other hand, this revolution produced a tremendous change: mentalities have changed and people lost fear. I am still faithful that those who removed Mubarak will certainly not shut up. However, the price will be certainly more bloodshed.


RB: How far would you see the forces in contention in Egypt, and in the Muslim and Arab world generally, in terms of a three-way battle between the forward-looking modernisers, self-serving neoliberals, and defensive traditionalists?
MA: The clear-cut divisions or classifications are problematic, because of the long history of weaving state and religion that was engrained in the post-colonial state. The secular, liberal intellectuals of the last century, when they dared to analyse Bible studies by historicizing and contextualising religious text, faced tremendous resistance.  We have then to be reminded that in the early days of the revolution, the Muslim Brothers did not want to participate to  the demonstrations of Tahrir, and the Square ended up being  full with younger generation Muslim Brothers who stood side by side with seculars and unveiled women.  Egyptian journalist Noha El Hennawi wrote about the clashes that happened in the early days of the revolution between Morsi who was against participating in Tahrir´s protests during the memorable “ Battleof the Camel” and the younger generation members of the Muslim Brothers.  Nevertheless, the younger members disobeyed and were strongly present in the Square.  However, the dichotomy between those demanding a “ civilian state” and the Brotherhood’s initial ideal of applying the Islamic Sharia was sharpened  as we saw in the attempts at drafting the new constitution. I can very well understand the worries of the Copts, after several violent incidents that led to deporting entire families from their villages. The spectre of further sectarian conflict will surely increase.
A basic problem though with the revolution is that it is a “decentred” movement, and the liberals are weak and poorly organised. It could be argued that the Muslim Brothers coming to power might be a learning process for them. They will have to learn that they cannot be a secret organization, and that they will have to be more inclusive. The secular camp still has a long way to go in building institutions and more importantly through becoming more active in doing social work and finding practical solutions to the mountain of acute problems.



RB: Is the Muslim Brotherhood the acceptable face of Arab neoliberalism?
MA: It is in economic terms, but not politically.  Actually, the Brothers are staunch capitalists, with obvious consumerist middle class appetites. I think they will continue to carry on an “Islamized” American dream that will probably profit their clientele, probably the middle classes that have worked in the Gulf countries and have adopted the khaliji (from the Khaliij, meaning the Gulf) life styles.  I do not see that the Muslim Brothers have a clear vision of what a social welfare state means. They speak of charity work and kindness towards each other, of individual initiatives and donations but so far never practically of rights and duties, let alone the absent notion of citizenship. Once again, it is ironic because the indignation that led to revolt was all about dreaming to destroy dictatorship and be a free citizen.
As a sociologist, I am thrilled to see how the class alliances between the tycoons who emerged during Mubarak, the army as a sector that still controls some 40% of the economy, and the Brotherhood as the new tycoons, will develop over the next few years.  Some depict a Saudi Arabian model, capitalist-consumerism tainted with a religious public morality.  Except that this cannot work in Egypt because of the established tradition of a huge bureaucracy that is hard to penetrate, long-standing institutions like the journalists and judiciary, the huge film industry, and  the large number of intellectuals and artists who will for sure clash with the Brotherhood.  Egypthas neither oil, nor money, unlike Saudi Arabia.  Neither does it have foreign workers who run the economy. It will be harder to “discipline” Egyptians on the Wahhabi form of Islam. But who knows, the sudden blooming of Salafis over  the past year – they did exist previously in the countryside – is for sure done through foreign money. While so far the Brotherhood have been authoritarian by allowing little negotiation with their opponents (over the constitution or women’s issues, for example), the question is will they emulate the Turkish model ?  I do not think so. Turkish Islamists have a long interactive relation with Europe and more precisely the impact of the immigration to Germany, which the Muslim Brothers lack. Some observers have drawn analogies with Germany ´s rise of Nazism or Iran. I doubt that too.  However, the spectre of a possible large scale regional war, with Israel at the centre is very possible.  Whatever happens, the Muslim Brothers will certainly try to further Islamize the institutions of the state and enhance control over education and the media.
Egyptian society has drastically changed. Tahrir did bring in politics to daily lives. Already the amount of jokes running against the Muslim Brothers is abounding exactly like the hilarious jokes that spread against the army.  It is possible to say that the street is denoting a kind of collective desacralization of the old gods. I imagine that it must have been extremely humiliating for the army to see the graffiti all over the streets. Involved in that, were not only jokes and insults, but also an entire unmaking of an ageing patriarchal male institution by so called unruly, eternally laughing kids. Many saw that the army had already lost morally through the public insults, graffiti and jokes that were spread everywhere in the streets, on facebook, and in the press. But still one possible scenario will be that they turn into a highly repressive regime backed by the army. Nevertheless, I think that the Brotherhood will be overwhelmed by massive protests about food, power, health, jobs  and education, that they will have to forget about veiling women or repressing youngsters, at least for the time being,. They have to deliver some goods and if they don’t, the street will give them hell.



RB: The events in

Tahrir Square


witnessed youth and middle class rebellions against the political and bureaucratic status quo and the privilege of small, wealthy and often corrupt elites at a time when the majority can no longer earn a decent wage?  Is this a fair representation of what underlay the protests?

MA: Yes and no. Even though I myself did not expect the scale of the revolution, neither did I predict it to happen in such a way, I still believe that it happened after an accumulative process. The 6th of April movement were on the scene and they had a few years earlier launched a “Stay Home Campaign” as a form of civil disobedience.  Some saw it as failed attempt, but I am not sure of that. I found it then very innovative to boycott shopping, purchasing newspapers and going to work, for three days. I perceived the 6th of April as a movement that built an experience through trial and error, and which culminated with the success of January. The last decade witnessed  the highest number of strikes since the Second World war.  There were sit-ins of tax collectors, protests  by bus drivers, university professors, students,  and citizens collectively dissenting against the policies and the symbols of authoritarianism.  These were often very violent.   It is true that the Egyptians have to thank the Tunisians for the inspiration, their courage and for lending them techniques and ideas for conducting revolutionary street politics.  However, January would not have been possible without the huge successive demonstrations in 2007 and 2008 that included some 27 thousand-textile workers from the town of Mahalla al Kubra, which ended by putting the town under siege after extremely violent confrontations, nor without the persistent role of human rights organizations in exposing police brutality.  The January revolution was triggered by the 6th of April movement, by face book members, intellectuals and university professors, but also by the thousands who took to the street without having in their lives used face book.  Several young men and women I know were far from being politicised when the first demonstrations happened, they took to the streets, because they were attracted by the way the marches called upon the people from their homes. Some of them ended squatting in

Tahrir Square


for the entire 18 days.  Many of these middle class young men and women were not economically deprived, but they saw no way forward.  Egypt was turning into an impossible absurdity.  There was simply a generalised feeling across classes, even amongst the elite that enough was enough. They felt themselves threatened by the uncontrollable internal security police system.  During the first days of the revolution, the attacks on police stations, the symbol of brutality and shameless violations of human right, took place mainly in popular quarters. It was an act of popular justice. The arrogant police officers had to be humiliated, stripped of their clothes and beaten up in public.  Then the square was occupied and all classes were participating.  Perhaps the Western media was mesmerized by the presence of women, of articulate “Westernized” women and these appeared more than others in the media, but the square attracted literally all classes, all sorts of women, veiled, with head scarves, in jeans, upper class women and many came from the provinces. The media concentrated on

Tahrir Square


which was unfortunate in some ways, because there was little coverage about what happened in the rest of Egypt’s provinces



RB: You use the idea of spectacle in your work. Can you explain what you mean, and elaborate on the relation between image and reality?
MA: Indeed Judith Butler speaks of performativity and  Jeffrey Alexander, and my colleague Samia Mehrez,  speak of performance, or of the power of the “spectacle” as pervasive in reconfiguring new self-perceptions. Here Baudrillard comes first to my mind.  Speaking of the spectacle, it is the act of seeing and being seen by the entire world that turned out to be crucial in the making of the self-esteem for millions of Egyptians.  Photographing and being photographed since then has become a systematic act, perhaps even an act of pride.  We should not forget that very many have felt for decades a feeling of humiliation, from successive defeats in wars, and because of mistreatment as the modern “slaves” to the rich Arabs of the oil producing countries. The discrepancy between the dreams of a wonderland experienced through American and European films on television and the accessibility of new visions through the internet, on the one hand, and the ever-increasingly hard material life, on the other, became impossible to cope with.  So the horizon of imagining a better life rocketed while reality was ghastly.  The act of seeing and being seen, of being photographed, much like the act of screening the early days of the revolution in Tahrir Square, changed something in the collective representation.  The “liars campaign” against the army that screened all over Egypt the violent acts perpetrated against the protesters was fascinating because for even those who were in Tahrir, they could get a holistic picture of what happened in the other provinces and places of Egypt even though they might have been in Tahrir Square. Much like if you are in the centre of the Square you could not see what happens at the edges.  Circulating the images of Tahrir worldwide was perhaps one reason why the spectacle is much celebrated.  Filming and documenting the marches and the protests took place from day one. Photographers and journalists both Egyptian and foreigners did a fantastic job in recording the moment. Since then, we are witnessing a new generation of amazing professional photographers and filmmakers and  some of the younger Egyptian photo-journalists are becoming cosmopolitan. They are now travelling and getting international recognition. There were already several cultural spaces before the revolution that offered photography courses and which hosted foreign professional photographers. This has now gained even more popularity. Tahrir too democratised photography. For the first time popular and poor Egyptians were proud to photographed in Tahrir, thanks to mobile phones that are cheap and available to everybody. In the early days, the fact that Egyptians had to rely on Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic and satellite channels was a revelation that times have changed. We are no longer in 1967 when Egyptians, thanks to the state propaganda and media did not understand that they had lost the war.  The fact that you could see in the square men and women who carried English text messages with misspellings, in the hope that they will be photographed and their message spread to the world. It was simply a wish for wanting to communicate that freedom has no borders.
Cosmopolitanism in our part of the world is often associated with colonial culture and with colonial elites. Not that I personally like this association. I would rather use the classical term of internationalism, but with definitively a genuine Egyptian flavour, in the way the jokes, the text messages, and the songs (either borrowed from contemporary media or referring to the classical Sufi tradition) were expressed and paraded. The effectiveness of some slogans, like the very short ones for example reveal that definitively there must have been serious reflection and preparation that was perhaps borrowed from political activism from elsewhere. However, there were local jokes which only Egyptians, or someone well acquainted with local culture could grasp. For example, I very well recall in Tahrir several men who stood with very large jars on which was written “waiting for 30 years”. There is a popular saying that if you want to make sure that an unwanted person will never again step into your house, you break a jar after he leaves. These men were waiting for Mubarak’s downfall to break the jar in Tahrir.  Carloss Latuff is a Brazilian cartoonist who has gained a controversial reputation for his pro-Palestinian daring cartoons.  Latuff has never come to Egypt and yet, the hundreds of fantastic and sardonic cartoons we received via facebook accompanied us since the early days of the revolution. His biting humour and attacks on the army and the ancient regime made his art so popular that it is often displayed and paraded in Tahrir. I am mesmerized by his prolific production that is right to the point and followed so closely the political events in Egypt. I often wondered how does he get such a clear political vision while residing in Rio de Janeiro. We know that Latuff could not come to Egypt because he would have been immediately jailed. I think that he is the best example of the velocity in communication. As if he is living in two places simultaneously, as one way of reading the time-space compression.
Football is another internationally binding force that proved paramount for the revolution.  The prime  example concerns the fans of the Ahli Ultra team, who  proved not only to be remarkably courageous, but they also proved to be among the best organised groups in defending the space of Tahrir, and attacking the police forces with sophisticated planning.  It is probable that the massacre was planned and carried out against them by the army in the Port Saidstadium in February 2012, as a way of gaining revenge.  They remain the most feared and organised force.  It was later revealed that they learned their demonstration and attack tactics from the Argentinean Ultras fans. 


RB: Mobilisation is a mass movement, and is often grounded in years of less visible activism. What were the principal events leading up to

Tahrir Square



MA: I would single out the history of growing protest.  Egypt witnessed previous to January a nearly two decades of mounting protests, all very political but often paradoxically with a weak presence, or rather a clear absence of the role of political parties. That is perhaps also why the revolutionary movement suffers today from “being decentred”.  Protests and civil disobedience though took various forms from blocking roads after people were killed in car accidents, to attacking police stations after violent incidents or water shortage, or cutting train lines which did happen at the turn of the last century.  There were various peasant protests, in 1990 a million people were evicted from tenancy land that was returned to the old feudal system. Civil disobedience was organised via professional groups, like tax collectors, bus drivers, engineers and doctors.  Judges and academics protested against the curtailing of freedoms and the usage of violence in universities.
In addition, the obvious escalation of the violation of human rights, the brutality inside police stations and the killing of Khaled Said by stuffing his throat with a plastic bag full of drugs and by disfiguring him. I think the fact that he was a good looking middle class, educated computer freak young man, was what triggered a widespread anger that the regime was no longer defendable.  Nevertheless, that alone is not a sufficient explanation of the revolution. It was the spread of the images, the facebook campaign  – “we are all Khaled Said” – and the wide internet distribution about police brutality which speeded things up. To experience visually on YouTube the sodomizing of a protesting bus driver a few years before 2011 was very powerful in spreading anger.
Lastly, I would add the bombing of a church in Alexandriaduring Christmas 2010-11 causing deaths of women and children, almost certainly to disguise the regime’s contradictions after so much rigging and fraud in the elections.  It was the last attempt to draw attention away from the fact that the country was run by a handful of crony capitalists who were all connected to the Mubarak family.



RB: “Al-Shab Yurid” [the people want], and “I dreamed of being a people” – part of Ahmed Fouad Nigm’s “As if You are Nothing” a poem composed in October 2010, connects to an associated call, some would say a more important one.  How important is the tension between the demand for freedom and the call for the people to be one?
MA: I will answer this question in a personal way.  There is an unresolved tension between “individuality” and the “collective” and the masses.  The idea of the individual melting into the masses is for me personally not an evident or a natural act.  I am by nature claustrophobic and do have to struggle with the idea of moving among large masses. I have experienced in my youth very few demonstrations that turned to be very violent.  I am not a political activist and some of my friends were much more regular in going to the marches and the protests than I did. Yet whenever I went to Tahrir, or to the marches even when these turned to be called the “ Kandahar“ Fridays (because they were dominated by the Islamists) it was a memorable experience. There is something fascinating about collective emotions. Once one moves along the masses, an indescribable sense of solidarity that can be very moving builds up. Some of the slogans can instantly make me cry. However, it takes me a while to think that everything will turn to be fine. Much like there is something magical about the space of Tahrir as a microcosm of the entire Egyptian society, revealing the collective popular inventiveness, a very special collective genius in dealing with instant moments, revealing the hopes and dreams, but also the misery afflicting all classes of society that came out, and became more than ever publicly visible.  Like there is something magical about the fact that Tahrir allowed such a rich interaction and communication and vicinity among people who would have never spoken to each other. Anyone who experienced Tahrir would tell you about the encounters with people, the great discussions and the interactions between for example street children and the middle classes that made them conscious of their misery. Nevertheless, far from idealizing that encounter, if your read blogger Sand Monkey you will realise how complex the situation was when the street children were adopted by the revolutionaries but these ended up stealing laptops and the belongings of the middle class youngsters who were squatting with their tents.
I experienced the night of the 2 of February 2011 and was thankful that I found shelter with my daughter in the flat of Pierre Siyoufi facing

Tahrir Square


. It was quite traumatizing to experience people being shot dead. We thought that night that we will not survive the flat being attacked. That night I also realised that I am a coward and that I do not want to be in the middle of the square, but rather stay in the flat of Pierre, even more so because I had my daughter with me. I was torn between thinking I was irresponsible to have taken my daughter and yet  there were many of her friends who ended up in the flat. This calmed me down and made me think that we are not better than them. I could see why so many young men and women died because they were fearless. I however, could not cope with the violence of that night. This made me later even more cautious, when I sensed that Tahrir and some of the marches would be attacked, I avoided going. During last November mustard gas was spread in Tahrir, it was quite horrible. We went with friends and my daughter joined me. Some of our friends spent several nights in the Square with masques. I felt sick after only a few hours in the Square and did not dare enter the street of Mohammed Mahmud, which had already turned into a war zone.

I experienced some of demonstrations and marches that took place during 2011 and 2012. However, I have to admit that it takes me always a while to rationally overcome my panic when I am in the midst of the thick masses. The fear that things can go wrong is always there.  The fear of attacks of thugs and of stampeding when a generalised panic occurs is always possible.  There is a tendency amongst the young revolutionaries to stress altruism, as if the fate of the triumph of the revolution is associated with eating its children. The popular slogan “We either get their blood (the blood of the martyrs) or die like them” is to me highly disturbing. The tension lies in the argument that for the revolution to win, more bloodshed must be spilled. It is for me an unacceptable stand, especially that most likely, it is the poor, as it was witnessed in

Mohammed Mahmud Street


who pay the price with their bodies.



RB: Intimidations from state-run radio and television have seemed to increase.  Was this one of the reasons that the artistic forms in

Tahrir Square


transcended their functionality and emerged from being the expressions of emotions, to become acts of revolt?

MA: State run radio and television have a long record of spreading not only state propaganda ideology, but these have gained the reputation since Sadat for being exceptionally mediocre and once again farcical not only through not providing any significant information, but through the antiquated and unreal way the news, information and culture are presented.  The situation turned particularly comical in January 2011 with the growing role of satellite channels that aired live what went in Tahrir while the images the of state channels were all fake, trying to persuade viewers that Tahrir square was empty. Then at a certain point, the images of the Tahrir protesters have been on several occasions aired as being the pro-Mubarak protesters. Or when violent confrontations were taking place all over the city, I very well recall the screening of the oft-repeated image of the Kasr al-Nil bridge with flowing cars as if nothing was happening while the city was burning.  All this really drove millions to immediately switch to Al-Jazeera or BBC Arabic.  The mistrust towards the government and towards official culture is strongly embedded in the soul of Egyptians, which explains their resistance through a hilarious sense of humour and the torrent of jokes that are produced in every cathartic moment. I will never forget the amount of jokes that circulated with Sadat’s assassination, it was black humour but still great. 
I have lived in Germany for fifteen years and I often think that the blind faith towards the authority of the state, or rather the deep respect, which so many German developed is double edged.  This explains why terrorism in Germany aspired to destroy the authority of the state. It was responding to hidden violence with blatant violence.  I feel that for many Egyptians the distrust towards the state authority is quasi natural. Tahrir gave a free hand to inventiveness, to excel in catching the moment by composing instantly a poem, a slogan, a drawing or an installation.



RB: How did the art and social media inter-relate?
MA: The visual is taking dominance on all levels. This was well before January 2011, face book was already in 2007-2008 spreading thousands of images about handcuffed Mahalla al-Kubra workers in hospitals, images about demonstrations, about torture, about the police stations, images about the horrible bread queues and fights, images about the conditions of slums and street children. The drawings, the cartoons mocking the Mubarak family, and logos of the 6th of April movement were very effective in raising the emotions. The kifaya (enough) movement had years earlier distributed a very effective and simple sticker with just one word “Enough”. Graffiti is everywhere, and documentary films have been blooming. YouTube short films and animated cartoons too. There is an urge to record and document all the aspects of the revolution, the acts of violence, the demonstrations and marches, the testimonies.  Parallel to that we are witnessing a professionalization and training of young men and women on the techniques of filming in situations of danger, on how to store the information in safe ways and how to diffuse it in the fastest possible way. For example the “Liars campaign” against the army screened the films everywhere in Egypt because these could be downloaded via YouTube. All that you need is internet which is now available practically everywhere in Egypt. This would not have been thinkable without the revolution. One aspect of participating in the spectacle is the Western gaze that has accorded international recognition to the graffiti artists, filmmakers, singers, performers, and photographers. The amount of photo exhibitions rocketed both in Egypt and abroad, with it too the idea that one should exhibit collectively and in public squares.




RB: What are the precursors of this event, world-wide, are there some related demonstrations and campaigns that were a topic of discussion and learning?
MA: Certainly Tunisia and the numerous YouTube broadcasts were across the news that was transmitted to Egyptians.  Many people, including me, cried when we saw the courage of women and men who defied the police forces in Tunisia. Then we followed closely Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya.  We tracked  the Occupy Wall Street movement, the events in Spain, in Greece, and the images of protest in Israel. The squatting with tents made many Egyptians smile. They were actually proudly commenting that Israelis are emulating Egyptians and of course Syria creates a lot of concern. I think that we are witnessing a fascinating interconnectedness and also a velocity in borrowing inventive techniques in occupying public spaces and dissenting street politics.



RB: While many slogans expressed demands such as “Leave”, others spoke of aspirations for social justice, freedom and dignity, and many expressed suppressed frustrations and deep hopes for change.  Mohammed Mounir expressed some of these feelings in song.  How significant was this, and were there any other elements of this kind?
MA: Mohammed Mounir is one among so many singers, actors and artists who stood with the revolution. I like Mounir, but I do not think that he is the most interesting singer to my taste. I am mesmerized by the Tahrir effect upon the younger generation of women and men. It just let a hundred flowers bloom in such a spontaneous way.  Ramy Essam became a popular singer because of Tahrir.  He was tortured by the army in March probably because of his ironic songs.  Iskandarella is another interesting group of young singers who revived Arabic singing traditions. The arts are blooming and singing in particular. This is to be traced in the recent award winning film Microphone. It is important though to stress that there already existed a vibrant art scene of singers and graffiti painters.  You realise that through Microphone, which was completed before January 2011.  Most of these youngsters are not professional singers but they have learned to post their songs on youtubes. Some of these bands are hilariously ironic and simply wonderful.  We also witnessed a wonderful collective work on YouTube by numerous actors who narrated in a lyrical wonderful style the moments of the revolution in baladna bil masry: “operette hikayat al-thawra”.  Taxi Band Magnoon, is sung by three young men (, It is an anti-authoritarian, sardonic song about madness and sanity (why it is madness if one want to transform the country).  “The song of revolution” is another well-done video clip in which we see across classes each single person singing in Tahrir. This clip has been quite popular and was appropriated by official state television.



RB: Would it be possible for you to say a little about the forerunners – the history of this type of wall art in Cairo, Egyptand Middle East?
MA: It is possible to trace two trends in graffiti, even though it is premature to restrict it to that. In my article I concentrated on mainly the graffiti of

Mohammed Mahmud Street


, but the genres of graffiti are very different and flowering all over the city. I did not mention Kaizer and Ganzeer who are rising stars in the Egyptian graffiti scene. To my understanding they are highly cosmopolitan in the way they manipulate symbols. They mainly use stencils. You need to look at Ganzeer´s “Mask of freedom”, (to be found on his website), to realise that he will be soon internationally acclaimed. His pervasive black humour has won him invitations all over Europe. Examine Kaizer´s graffiti of Snow White carrying a gun, to realise that these are, I think, Middle class youngsters who have had a Western education or are at ease with Western culture. They play very well with reversals as well as with cosmopolitan dissident culture.

Ganzeer and Kaizer clearly differ from Alaa Awad who is the product of the local national university with a more “classical” training in the faculty of the arts. Because of the degeneration of the national education system, teaching art has turned to be quite rigid and uninventive. Alaa Awad lives in Luxorand is himself a teacher at the faculty of arts. He does not for instance speak English. I think he wonderfully paints murals, rather than stencils that portray his traditional or “classical” training in the academy of the arts.
The return of politics in Egypt is I think manifested by a collective feeling amongst young men and women for wanting to be active in the street and wanting to communicate with people about politics, but it is mainly wanting to continue to protest and express criticism since the revolution is still incomplete. I would rather call it a hijacked revolution. The face book campaign against the erected army walls, al-fann midan (meaning art is square)an endeavour launched by some intellectuals to occupy Abdiin Square for musical performances, free drawing for the public, and displaying works of art. These are all novel attempts at redefining street politics.  It is fascinating to watch the graffiti artists at work because they often attract many people around them. In

Mohammed Mahmud Street


, street-children wanted always to be around and participate. The street children have been victimized by the regime by using them as paid thugs to attack the square in the early days. Robert Fisk mentioned in one of his articles the high death toll amongst them in the early days of the revolution. Many of them ended up being on the side of the revolution, and some are still roaming around Tahrir today.

It is interesting to see how the public is reacting towards the murals. How some passersby slow down and take time to meditate the walls. Some get very emotional when they see the martyrs `portraits. Some want to communicate immediately with you if you happen to stand nearby. However, not everyone likes graffiti. You also get very nasty reactions that this is chaos, which should be immediately removed.  Some don’t understand why people take pictures, and say that walls should not be dirtied by such nonsense. Don’t under estimate the overwhelming conservative forces who believe that things got worse since Mubarak´s ousting. The counter-revolution has been playing on the chord of chaos precisely to increase the nostalgia for Mubarak. Indeed many feel attacked in their sense of order and this is perhaps what change is all about.



Mona Abaza is Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo. Her books include: Twentieth-century Egyptian Art: The PrivateCollection of Sherwet Shafei (American University Press, 2011); TheChanging Consumer Culture of Modern Egypt: Cairo’s Urban Reshaping (Brill/American University of Cairo Press, 2006); Debates on Islam andKnowledge in Malaysia and Egypt: Shifting Worlds (Routledge Curzon, 2002); Islamic Education, Perceptions and Exchanges: Indonesian Studentsin Cairo (Cahier d’Archipel, EHESS, Paris, 1994).
Roy Boyne is the Standard Issues Editor of Theory, Culture & Society and a board member of the recent journal, Creative Industries. He has published books on French philosophy, the sociology of art and cinema, and cultures of risk, and is currently writing a book for SAGE on regional and international cultural strategy.


Click here for free access to Mona Abaza’s article inTCS (available now and to be published officially in 30.1, Jan 2013): ‘Walls,Segregating Downtown Cairo and the Mohammed Mahmud Street Graffiti’

Click here to see the full gallery of photos to accompany the article













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