Last summer, during protests in Cairo that injured more than 1,000 people, the Finnish street artist Sampsa met Ganzeer, an Egyptian artist whose fame mushroomed after the revolution, thanks to images he created such as “The Army Above All” — a poster depicting a blood-thirsty soldier standing amid a pile of skulls. A few months later, together with the Cologne-based art collective Captain Borderline, Sampsa and Ganzeer launched the social media and street art campaign #SisiWarCrimes. It called attention to alleged abuses by Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the former head of Egypt’s armed forces, who could become president if he wins the election.
Within 24 hours of the campaign’s launch, the artists and the collective were called terrorists on the Al Kahera Wal Nas TV Network and accused of being connected to the Muslim Brotherhood (in April, an Egyptian court sentenced 683 of its members to death). The station is known for its support of General Sisi and had broadcasted a message from him just the week before. Three weeks later, Egypt’s largest state-owned newspaper, Al Gomhuria, repeated the accusation, and Ganzeer was forced into hiding.
In a blog post titled “Who’s Afraid of Art?,” the artist discussed the accusations leveled by television personality Osama Kamal:
In his report, he claimed that “Political Analysts” say that I am affiliated with the Brotherhood. He did not refrain from mentioning my name, and showing my picture, but he did not mention the name of one actual political analyst who has drawn this outlandish conclusion. This leads me to believe that said “Political Analysts” do not exist, and that the false conclusions drawn are Mr. Osama’s alone. Being anti-Sisi in itself is not a crime. So I guess Mr. Osama thought it necessary to attach a fictitious crime to my name … Does Mr. Osama really want to see me hang for my art? Perhaps Mr. Osama merely wants to send a little scare down my spine so I can alter my positioning?
Sampsa reached out to Hyperallergic via email about the terrorist labeling. “This is not a light accusation — or term to be tossed around so lightly — as the general used the same term for Muslim Brotherhood in order for int’l communities to rally in support of the murder his soldiers were executing,” he wrote. “If we are not terrorists — which is clear — as the only thing we have done is paint against the general — then who else is not a terrorist?”
He believes the artists are being singled out because General Sisi knows street art was a “catalyst” in the revolution. He went on to say he and his fellow artists view the accusation as the culmination of the War on Terror. The term “terrorism,” he said, is tossed around at governments’s whims, much as in the days of the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials anyone could be deemed a threat without evidence.
“It is a disgrace in modern times that artists would be targeted in such a Stalin-ish way,” Sampsa wrote. “This is the democracy that Sisi is offering in Egypt — absolute rule — absolute oppression of dissent.”
In his blog post, Ganzeer wrote that the actions represent a loss for Sisi:
Rather than see us as a threat to the State, critical artists should be seen as a source of information to the State. By paying attention to what we do, perhaps the State can better understand popular grievances and adjust its policies and governance accordingly, rather than invest so many resources into trying to shut us up.
Shutting up is exactly what the artists aren’t going to do. Sampsa says they are currently planning a second phase of the campaign, which he hopes will provoke an international response and inquiry into Sisi’s massacres.