Scenes from a Revolution
Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy
The Egyptian revolution was an uprising of all classes and all ages in which over 800 people lost their lives. It was also a war of words and images, a creative outpouring of anger and hope, in which Egyptians joined together to say and to show that they wanted something different.
The morning of January 29, after protesters routed the police, Egyptians woke up to see their cities covered in improbable graffiti: “Down with Mubarak,” “Mubarak: Game Over,” “To Every Injustice There Is an End.” Street art and graffiti, an underground phenomenon before the uprising, have bloomed since, its young practitioners honoring the dead of the revolution and lampooning the military authorities currently in charge.
The insurrection against the Mubarak regime has changed the country’s landscape, leaving it dotted with the burned-out shells of police stations and gutted offices of the former ruling party, the NDP. It has also bathed the country in the red, white, and black of the Egyptian flag. Squads of volunteers have painted walls and curbs across the country, eager to take back public spaces and dispel the myth of their civic apathy. They’ve also moved to erase the former president’s name from the public buildings, gardens, and subway stations where it had proliferated.
In the squares in Cairo and Alexandria where millions gathered, protesters outdid one another in displays of visual wit, creating plays, art installations, and protest signs that became instant classics. Today, the spectacle of Tahrir Square is already being memorialized in countless books, films, and photography exhibitions. The iconography of the Egyptian revolution has been imprinted on the collective imagination.
Chances for self-expression, and the confidence to take them, abound here now. The country’s future is debated in the emboldened press, Facebook groups, underground newspapers, and the flyers and newsletters of dozens of new parties. Phrases and images that once seemed impossible (such as photomontages of the disgraced president and his sons and cronies in jail, or on the scaffold) now barely shock.
The revolution has also inspired inevitable commercial appropriations, from pop-music videos to ads for detergents that claim to “clean the country” or for internet companies that offer to help Egypt press the Restart button. While the protests were still ongoing, street vendors showed their own ingenuity, hawking patriotic accessories, posters of the revolution’s heroes, and stickers mocking the old regime. Today, revolutionary memorabilia has replaced Pharaonic knickknacks in street-side stalls. Egypt’s present and immediate future suddenly seem so much more interesting than its storied past. “Hold your head high,” say the baseball caps for sale in downtown Cairo. “You’re Egyptian.” _______________________ 1/ A man walks past a shuttered storefront with graffiti celebrating two of the revolution’s media weapons: the Al Jazeera satellite station and Facebook.
2/ Artists decorated this boarded storefront on May 1 as part of a consciousness-raising campaign. The mural mocks the Mubarak family and criticizes Israel and the military authorities who currently run the country. Graffiti and street artists are out in force now, although their work doesn’t always last long. This mural has since been whitewashed.
3/ This calligraphy in Midan Tahrir celebrates those who died during the revolution. It’s verse 169 of the third chapter of the Koran, Surat al-Imran: “Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord.”
4/ According to an official fact-finding committee, at least 846 Egyptians died during the revolution. Pictures of the revolution’s shuhada’ (“martyrs”) began appearing almost immediately among the protesters. This stencil, reproduced on many walls in Cairo, honors a man named Mustafa Al Sawy. He was a 25-year-old lab technician. He died on January 25, shot in the neck and chest by police.
5/ A sticker for sale in downtown Cairo shows Mubarak with Libya’s embattled ruler, Moammar Gadhafi, in a Brokeback Mountain parody. It’s just one of many spirited, amateur photomontages ridiculing Egypt’s former dictator.
6/ On January 30, protesters changed the Mubarak subway-station plaque to read “The Martyrs Station.” Subway officials cleaned the graffiti, but protesters reapplied it. The name change has now been made official. Mubarak’s picture and name are also quickly disappearing from the schools, streets, offices, and public gardens where they were once ubiquitous.
7/ A poster from Coca-Cola’s new “Let’s Make Tomorrow Better” campaign by the Fortune PromoSeven agency.
8/ A warning to Mubarak: “The youth will carry you out with their hands.”
9/ For 18 days, protesters tried to get one simple message across to President Mubarak: “Leave now.” They did so dramatically (wrapping themselves in shrouds with “Victory or Death” written on them) and comically (carrying signs that begged the president to resign “so I can go home and take a bath/see my wife/have a shave”). It sometimes felt as though everyone in Tahrir Square had entered an unofficial competition for the wittiest protest sign. The shoe this man carries says “Go” in English and Arabic. (See top photo.)
10/ Protesters converged on the national headquarters of President Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which for decades had a stranglehold on the country’s political life. The building, in central Cairo, burned for several days. The graffiti on the left reads, “Leave, you idiot!” On the right it says: “Put Hosni and [first lady] Suzanne and Gamal [the president’s son] and that dog [Minister of Interior Habib] Al-Adli on trial.” Now discussions have begun over the building’s future. Suggestions have included turning it into public offices for human-rights groups, building a memorial to those who died during the revolution, and transforming the land into a public park. Some activists have argued that the building shouldn’t be demolished but kept as a visual reminder of the people’s fury.
11/ After Mubarak was charged with corruption and ordering the police to fire on demonstrators, the state-owned magazine October (which until recently had toed a sycophantic, government line) ran this cover story, entitled “The Day of Reckoning,” speculating on whether the former president might face the death penalty.
12/ The red, white, and black of the Egyptian flag have never been so popular. The colors are seen here in a ubiquitous sticker modeled on Egyptian license plates.
13/ Vendors in downtown Cairo have traded their Pharaonic souvenirs for revolutionary memorabilia. One enterprising vendor uses a parked car to display his wares.
14/ This Egyptian-flag clutch is by the designer Nadia Zarkani’s NuniZ label.
15/ These two images come from the website Tahrir Documents, which was founded in March. “Our modest goal is to archive and make available political writing from the uprising and its aftermath,” one of the site’s editors writes. It collects most of its documents—newspapers, flyers, pamphlets—from Tahrir Square.
The flyer shown here (“How to Revolt”) gave protesters a crash course in demonstrating amid great danger. It included escape routes, tactics (“You can fill [plastic bags] with liquid soap and throw them on the tank tread from a distance”), and basic tips (bring a kaffiyeh and “light snacks”).