Articles

Art and Revolution During the Egyptian Protests [UPDATED]

by Danny Ramadan on January 31, 2011

Cairo — As I write this story, I am in my room overlooking the main square of Cairo, ironically called Tahrir Square, which means Liberty in Arabic. The square is buzzing with what news agencies estimate is as much as half a million protesters, chanting together. People want to overthrow the president.

Egyptian people took to the streets demanding the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, their president for the last 30 years. The demonstrations, which started five days ago, are becoming life-altering events to those witnessing it from the ground.

A view of the National Museum from Tahrir Square. (click to enlarge)

Meters away from Tahrir, the National Egyptian Museum, home to a famous and massive collection of Egyptian antiquities, is protected by three military tanks. No efforts, however, are taking place to put out the fire in the National Democratic Party headquarters and the Press Club building that started on Friday evening and continues into its third day.

A view of the National Museum through the obstructios of a construction site. (click to enlarge)

The fire looks much weaker now than on Friday night; yet it is still getting closer to the landmark museum. I tried to get a closer look Sunday morning but was stopped by guns pointed at me.

“No one comes this way,” says one of the Egyptian military officers. “We are protecting the museum with our tanks so you don’t need to worry about it.”

The officer, who declined to give his name, explained that “after the events on Friday, we placed tanks on all corners of the museum and we have a lot of soldiers whose job is to protect the artifacts.”

Reports that the museum was vandalized Friday night by nine convicts are circulating in the news. The convicts reportedly broke several objects and attempted to steal two mummies. Who saved the mummies? The protesters claim that they organized a museum watch group who managed to capture the thieves.

The soldiers, who waved an obvious “no” in my direction when I attempted to take photos, were gathering in the Egyptian Museum garden, sitting around some of the statues there, and using some of the monuments as chairs and tables for their tea cups.

The carcass of NDP headquarters from Tahrir Square, the National Museum is visible on the bottom right. (click to enlarge)

In the background, however, the fire in the NDP headquarters is still smouldering.

Zahi Hawass, the Head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, claims that about 1,000 people looted the museum’s gift shop and grounds. “Later,” he famously said to the media, “nine people carrying mummy skulls were arrested as they tried to leave through emergency exits.”

People in the streets, however, do not believe a word the current regime says, and Hawass is no different.

“I have been here since Friday evening,” says Ahmed Magdy, one of the protesters who refused to leave Tahrir square since the beginning of Friday’s demonstrations. “I heard about the museum looting news but I can confirm that none of the protesters were trying to steal anything from the gift shop in the museum. The protesters are not looking for any personal gains here. They just want to get their country back.”

“I remember the gift shop to be extremely small from my visit to the museum last year, I don’t think it would fit one thousand people,” he adds sarcastically.

Other museums are being protected by the Army tanks as well. The Mahmoud Khalil Museum in the Dokki neighborhood of Cairo is guarded by two tanks at the moment, yet some of its most valuable items have been missing for months.

A painting by Vincent Van Gogh, “Poppy Flowers” (c.1877), was part of the museum collection, but it was stolen in broad daylight earlier last year. At the time, none of the Museum’s alarms, and only seven out of 43 surveillance cameras, were working, causing a controversy about security in the nation’s museums. The issue of museum security is in the headlines again and it seems that the Army is making sure history won’t repeat itself.

“We woke up on Saturday morning and found them here,” says Ayman Abdul-Samad, who owns a small kiosk across the street from the Khalil Museum, “they are not allowing anyone near the place and they are making sure everyone passes from the other side of the street.”

Aside from the ancient legacy, a new art form has been reborn in Egypt even though it appears to have been forgotten for centuries — the art of graffiti.

Graffiti on a small building in front of the National Museum reads "No to Stealing," "Overthrow Mubarak," "No to terrorizing the country," and a poem is obscured by the tree on the right. (click to enlarge)

Egyptians might be some of the first graffiti artists in history with their famous hieroglyphics and carvings found everywhere on ancient Egyptian tombs, but this new wave of art is different. Graffiti in Cairo today is dominated by anti-Mubarak messages on city walls, military tanks, and smartly-written signs carried by frustrated people, and it is taking over the streets and being used to protest against the current government.

One of the first works of graffiti I spotted was drawn on the Qasr al-Nil bridge, which was the scene of a huge battle on Friday between protesters and Central Security forces that resulted in protesters taking over Tahrir Square. The tear gas, which people later discovered was expired and extremely dangerous, was used heavily on protesters, who were picking up the small canisters and throwing them back at the CS forces or into the Nile.

The graffiti, which looks magnificent under the large lion statue standing at the mouth of the bridge, reads: Game Over Mubarak.

After the military forces took over control of security in the city, they were welcomed by the protesters with relief; the chanters often repeated, “We and the army are on one side.” Army officers were hugged and kissed. They reacted nicely to protesters as well.

“The army will never attack its own people,” one of the reporters in a newsroom I joined says. “They will act nicely with people, even if it was only for show to allow a military leader to become the new president.”

The tanks of the military are being used as billboards for graffiti. The clean, yellowish vehicles are now spotted with slogans cursing the current president, asking him to leave the Egyptian people alone, or asking for the support of the army.

The f-word was used prominently on one tank and followed by the name of Mubarak; the officers didn’t seem to mind. Everyday people have been standing next to the tanks, or even on the vehicles, and often posing for photos. Sometimes they even ask the officers to take photographs with them. One of the officers asked a 9-year-old girl carrying the Egyptian flag to join him on top of one of the tanks. Her father was extremely proud.

A young protester holds an upside down image of embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak overlaid with the words, "Leave you coward." The graffiti behind the youngster reads: "30 years of humiliation and poverty." (click to enlarge) (Ed.'s note: thanks to @aliciad3 for translation help)

The chanting became stronger and more colorful when two F16 aircrafts circled Tahrir Square around the beginning of the 4pm EET curfew today — it’s a rule that the protesters choose not to obey. While the aircrafts were zooming around, chants such as, “we will never leave until you leave” and “you can threaten us, but you can never terrify us” were getting loader.

Finally, that is all I have to report, and this may be the last article I write for a long time. The internet has been blocked all over Egypt except for the hotel that I am staying in at the moment. The management of the hotel has decided to evacuate all of their guests fearing the responsibility of having so many journalists staying on the premises. My house in Cairo was in an area that was being looting yesterday evening, and I might be a refugee at a friend’s house starting midday today. Tweeting is the only activity that is keeping me sane right now and I will be deprived of that soon enough.

I don’t fear the protesters, who are extremely peaceful, welcoming, and respectful, but I do fear the government and what the regime might do to hold on to its power. The chanting, however, is calming me down as I end this article; they are calling this protest a peaceful one. Egypt might be on fire at the moment, but I remain positive about its people and its future. Though I would be more positive if they brought back my Blackberry services.

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All photographs courtesy the author and reproduced here with permission.

Ahmed (aka Danny) Ramadan is a Syrian journalist who has been working and living in Egypt since 2003. He has worked for a number of websites and entertainment magazines covering Arab and Western culture, lifestyle, and entertainment. Ahmed published his first collection of short stories in 2004 and his second collection in 2009. He is currently working on his first novel. He is also working toward a diploma in English Literature at at the University of London. Ahmed is passionate about fitness and has worked as a certified fitness instructor.

Follow Ahmed on Twitter @DannyRamadan.

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This morning we received a note from Ramadan that the hotel has allowed the journalists to stay for one more night and that means one more night of an internet connection, but there was also some distressing news:

I got beaten up by people in the street today who thought I was a reporter for Al-Jazeera and they are blinded by what the government says on national TV about the way Al-Jazeera supposedly spreads rumors against the Egyptian people.

He also tweeted the following messages:

We hope Ramadan stays safe during these difficult and tumultuous times.

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For follow up posts from Ramadan, visit Part 2 and Part 3.

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