From the protests in Tahrir Square to broken advertising billboards, Cairo’s creative community has taken inspiration from uncertainty, Frederick Deknatel writes
The art of dysfunction
Cairo’s billboards are empty, but the lights are still on. Along new desert highways and packed city roads, billboards don’t illuminate advertisements for Vodafone, or the latest luxury desert compound: they just house a jumble of crooked, fluorescent light tubes.
These empty billboards, which stay lit through the night, advertising nothing, fascinate Daniel Rode, an artist who has been living in Egypt for the past four years. “I see an unexpected beauty in this bond of errors,” he writes in Cairo: Images of Transition – Perspectives on Visuality in Egypt 2011-2013, edited by Mikala Hydlig Dal. The light bulbs are installed manually, so “the patterns are full of little errors and irregularities”.
Rode created a sculptural installation modelled on such a billboard, or what he calls an “object of structural aesthetic”, and titled the series Work is our Only Solution.
The slogan came from an anonymous campaign that popped up in Cairo and on the desert motorway to Alexandria soon after the 18-day uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February 2011: “From Egyptian to Egyptian, WORK” – in huge, garish red letters, the signs declared – “is our only solution.”
Neglected, broken billboards might sound like a minor example of Cairo’s larger dysfunction. But seeing the visual meaning in the signs around Egypt’s capital is one of the surprises and delights in Cairo: Images of Transition, a record of the cultural life and artistic dynamism that has thrived there in the last three years, sometimes because of, and others times despite, the larger political upheavals.
From Mubarak’s resignation to the popular protests and subsequent military takeover that toppled president Mohamed Morsi last summer and brought General Abdel Fattah El Sisi to centre stage, Egypt’s artists and writers have had plenty of material to work with.
Cairo: Images of Transition reads like a snapshot, as was intended. “The creative energy unleashed by the toppling of an outmoded autocratic regime and manifesting across media and political thresholds demands a record, however temporary this may be,” Dal writes, as if to assure readers.
Morsi is still in power in the book’s pages, and the political frames of reference are the military rule that came with Mubarak’s removal and the electoral rise and authoritarian streak of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A revolutionary spirit flows through many of the book’s contributors. Samia Mehrez, a professor of Arabic literature at the American University in Cairo, writes of a project to translate “the language of Tahrir” – from chants, banners and jokes to political manifestos, speeches and military communiques.
By taking Tahrir and forcing Mubarak out, Mehrez writes, Egyptians “reclaimed the right to be together as empowered bodies in public space exercising their right to linguistic, symbolic, and performative freedom”.
There’s some resignation in reading these lines today, given the current political realities.
A new law passed by Egypt’s military-backed government last November, designed to supposedly regulate protests, effectively bans them: now any public gathering of more than 10 people is illegal without the government’s permission.
Such efforts to reassert authority directly challenge the uprising’s first victory: the recovery of squares, streets and the city at large as public spaces. Under Mubarak, much of Cairo was simply walled off, segmented by fences, security cordons and traffic barricades, all the better to limit the threat of people gathering. Top-down urban planning strategies perpetuated the regime’s ownership of urban space, from selling state-owned land in the desert to build tracts of speculative, cloistered housing and commercial developments, to giving retired generals plum jobs as governors of Cairo or Giza.
This strategy of urban control and popular resistance to it since January 25, 2011, is the subject of one of the best essays in Cairo: Images of Transition by Mohamed Elshahed, an academic researcher who founded the popular blog Cairobserver. Part of the Mubarak regime’s urban policies, so focused on attracting crony investment to Cairo’s desert edges, was the neglect of the city centre. Tahrir and other public squares deteriorated from the garden-parks they had been in the 1960s under Gamal Abdel Nasser, according to the edicts of state security. These policies “led not only to the decline of public space,” Elshahed writes, “but also the inexorable deterioration of cities and the erosion of civic pride”.
This state of affairs is captured in the massive construction pit – fenced off in the 1970s, Elshahed says, for a series of vaguely defined projects that were never completed – which fronts the Nile Hilton and the Egyptian Museum on one end of Tahrir. It is, in effect, Mubarak’s Cairo legacy. The area was the site of clashes during the 18-day uprising, when Mubarak loyalists attacked the square; protesters made barricades out of the sheet metal siding that enclosed the site.
The fight over the city has continued ever since, in marches and street violence between police and protesters, and, more recently, in other sites around Cairo, like the square in front of the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque, where supporters of the ousted president Morsi staged a sit-down protest last summer, before the security forces brutally dispersed them. All this has created a new map of Cairo, Elshahed contends, “that is articulated by sites of protest, scenes of political clashes, and routes of demonstrations”.
Egyptian architects and urbanists have seized on the opportunity to change how Cairo and other cities are planned, developed, studied and understood. Cairo is now home to a number of new initiatives and organisations. One group, Megawra, describes itself as a “built environment collective” and “an architectural hub for young student architects”, and hosted a design competition last January, known as Our Urban Futures, organised with a research website called Cairo from Below. The winning entry proposed turning an abandoned, 7.5 kilometre stretch of metro tracks in the Cairo district of Nasr City into a combination of parks, bike lanes and markets. The proposal seemed to represent what architect May Al-Ibrashy, who founded Megawra, told me from the front steps of its unassuming building in Heliopolis last winter. After all the excited, overdue talk of reimaging Cairo’s future in the months after Mubarak stepped down, she said, “we need to slow down now and single out a few things that are actually possible”.
Urban transformations form the third, final chapter of Cairo: Images of Transition, as if to underscore how much of the city’s cultural and artistic activity since the winter of 2011 is tied to the city’s pace and politics. The book otherwise focuses on familiar signs of Egypt’s revolution, from graffiti to the candidate posters of the first democratic elections in November 2011 to jarring photographs of street clashes and protests. More than 40 Cairo-based artists and writers contributed short essays on, in Dal’s words, “the shifting status of the image in revolutionary Egypt as a communicative tool, a witness to history, and an active agent for change”.
This is far from the usual political conversations about Egypt. Most of the language in Cairo: Images of Transition is refreshing; some of it, however, is frustrating in its opacity.
Still, the vitality of artistic and cultural activity in Egypt emerges from the book’s well-designed pages and in essays on both individual art projects and broader reflections on the misconceptions of the 2011 uprising and where, possibly, the country is headed. Egypt’s transition may be woefully incomplete, but it would be a mistake to only despair. The political class may be failing, but they cannot extinguish Cairo’s cultural life.
“The revolution continues” is a popular slogan among many Egyptian activists and was also the name of a young, left-leaning political coalition in the first parliamentary elections in late 2011 that won few seats and has since disbanded. But perhaps the phrase could be updated: “Cairo continues.”
A city of constant movement, even if snarled in traffic, Cairo’s already thriving cultural scene was one of the prime beneficiaries of the uprising that toppled Mubarak.
Galleries flourished and new art and cultural spaces opened. Cairenes not only read new newspapers, which proudly proclaimed a connection to Tahrir Square, but new magazines and other publications.
Even if Cairo seemed even less functional – with the traffic worse in the absence of police, and unregulated building across the city with the authorities preoccupied or just lax – the city had a new face: the bright colours of graffiti, celebrating revolution, commemorating martyrs and ribbing the powers that be, whether they were clerics or generals.
Mona Abaza, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, explores the gender representations in much of that graffiti, the “gap between the rigid and moralistic discourse on women and the mocking of it by street artists”.
Egyptian authorities, from the military and police to the Muslim Brotherhood when it was in power, have projected misogynistic attitudes about female protesters, and Egyptian women in general. The image, beamed around the world, of military police beating and dragging a veiled woman in December 2011 and exposing her blue bra, is just the most blatant example of a rise in violence against women in Egypt.
But that blue bra became a subversive graffiti tag, stencilled onto concrete walls next to calls for an end to the emergency laws and military trials for civilians. A Cairo graffiti artist known as Keizer, who spray-paints images of western mass culture, went further. Keizer’s graffiti depicts Snow White cradling a machine gun and a smiling housewife holding a hand grenade. Perhaps his most famous tag around Cairo, though, is a simple phrase: “You Are Beautiful.”
For all the defiance of the city’s artists and writers in Cairo: Images of Transition, there is also, for some, frustration and regret. That is most apparent in a frank, open letter that seeks to dispel connections between the Arab uprisings of 2011 and the revolutionary ferment of 1968 by Philip Rizk, a German-Egyptian filmmaker, writer and activist. “2011 was an uprising of discontent,” he writes. “2011 was no intellectual revolution; there was no burgeoning of ideas.” Rizk focuses on the massive 2006 labour protests in the Nile Delta factory town of Mahalla that provided a model for organisation and collective action. The protests were also, crucially, forms of resistance from the disenfranchised working class to the dominant, neoliberal economic order.
Yet much of the world forgot or ignored Tahrir’s links to Mahalla and the wider public dissatisfaction, not only with an aged autocrat, but a larger political and economic system that benefited so few and marginalised so many. Instead, the focus was on a few telegenic activists. “We fit the part,” Rizk admits, “middle class, internet-savvy, young and thus revolutionary.” Along the way, they became the symbols and “translators” of a mass movement and collective uprising “we were far from representative of”. That included a view of the 18-day uprising as completely non-violent, even though angry Egyptians stormed police stations on January 28, “seeking vengeance for years of unaccounted-for-torture”. “Did you see the Molotov cocktails prepared by women and lowered from their balconies to avenge the maiming of their sons and neighbours?” he wonders. In a line that might seem to indict some of the contributions to Cairo: Images of Transition, Rizk even asks if January 25 is “a movement that goes beyond the meaning you’ve given to the few images you’ve seen”.
The Cairo Governorate is housed in an old, rambling, but still ornate building in downtown Cairo, next to Abdin Palace, the former seat of the Egyptian monarchy. Last January, three days after the second anniversary of the uprising that brought down Mubarak, I went through its high gates to meet Khalil Shaath, an architect who works for a German development organisation that helps run the governorate’s informal housing unit. After discussing new housing policies under the Morsi government and how to overcome housing problems in the “new Egypt”, Shaath brushed aside the ambitious talk, from both the old regime and the new, of outsized plans to deal with Cairo’s myriad problems in a few grand, capital projects. “We need reformers,” he said, “not politicians, not revolutionaries.”
Two days earlier, an Egyptian court convicted 21 Port Said football fans – but no police – for their role in a bloody riot at a stadium in February 2012. Soon, the cities along the Suez Canal erupted. The police got off scot-free, while only Port Said fans were punished, even though many Egyptians suspected the violence was a set-up, sanctioned by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) as payback against the visiting Cairo club, Al Ahly, whose supporters had been instrumental in the anti-Mubarak protests. Protests spread in Cairo, and the night after I met with Shaath, demonstrators marched on the Cairo Governorate building. They clashed with police on the plaza in front: Molotovs flew, police fired tear gas from inside the building, and activists fashioned barricades from what lay in the street.
It was a familiar sight in Egypt’s sputtering, sometimes smouldering transition. But the contrast between Shaath’s comments from his governorate office and the Molotovs flying outside the building later that day only underscored the gap between officialdom and the streets. While politicians cut deals and seize opportunities for power, and technocrats lament what really needs to be done, revolutionaries still fight and real reformers remain absent.
The terms of debate in Egypt have shifted once again with the third anniversary of the uprising. The military is back in charge, but now led by a general, El Sisi, who often appears to be attempting his best impression of Nasser, but in a vastly different time and context. Morsi’s authoritarian presidency is gone, but crackdowns on civil society groups and the Islamists have returned. But even amidst increasing polarisation, there is another track for change, created by Cairo’s artists, writers and architects.
Last January, a day after the clashes outside the Cairo Governorate, I met with Omnia Khalil, a young architect. She had taken part in marches in Cairo the day before, and seen protesters seize a police armoured personnel carrier in Tahrir and set it alight. Khalil spoke of the difficulty of pursuing the ideals of the revolution in the streets and in her job, studying informal urban development and advocating for housing rights and participatory urban planning. “It’s like believing in the revolution itself: you have the same beliefs and principles in your professional career as you do protesting. And we are all learning how to be an activist within whatever we’re doing.”
But all that was getting harder as the political violence and fragmentation sidelined the once-clear demands that had brought people out to call for Mubarak to go. “In a moment, I felt, OK, I’m very happy we’ve done that,” she said of the marches through downtown Cairo that ended in Tahrir and with the captured police vehicle in flames. “And after you get out of the square you think, what next?”
Frederick Deknatel is a staff editor at Foreign Affairs.