I was sad to hear yesterday that several of the murals on Cairo’s Mohammed Mahmoud Street have been whitewashed. Yet once I move past my own sense of nostalgia, this development seems to represent more an opportunity for renewed resistance than a defeat of previous efforts. Far from diminishing the symbolic power of the city’s street artists, the removal of these murals in fact provides the impetus for activists to reassert their agency over their surroundings.
The notion of ‘contested space’ may seem an abstract concept dreamed up by those who spend too much time in a library but in Cairo especially, this is far from the case. Egypt’s ruling junta have overseen the erection of a number of walls in downtown Cairo. Carving straight through the bustling roads that lead to Tahrir Square, these have divided communities and denied citizen access to the symbolic heart of the revolution. In addition, they serve as an everyday reminder that the military do indeed hold the power to control the space in which civilians live. In this context, the notion of asserting agency over one’s surroundings becomes far more alive than a simple acadmic construct.
One such space for dissent was Mohammed Mahmoud Street. The site of pitched battled between protesters and the Central Security Forces back in November, its walls later became well-known for their powerful murals; walk the length of the street and one would will see images of the ruling junta overlaying the faces of those who died in the Port Said stadium massacre. Yet to some extent, the power of these murals lay in their novelty. They were at their most arresting on first glance, as the faces of vilified political figures were immediately recognizable amongst the riot of colour. But as the months wore on their ability to attract attention has diminished as they became an accepted part of the surroundings.
Now, the decision to whitewash these walls only nudges Cairo’s street artists into their next move. And the response has been swift. As these photos attest, yesterday’s blank canvas is today being transformed into a new picture of resistance. Tomorrow may mark the first presidential election of the post-Mubarak era, but Egypt’s transition is far from over. As political elites vie to cement their power at the top, the nation’s walls will continue to document the struggle from below.