- Middle East/North Africa
Days after the first anniversary of 25 January, tensions between anti-regime activists and loyalists to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have now reached the cement walls and streets of Cairo.
The graffiti war, a showdown between revolutionary street artists and a fanatical nationalist team who whitewash their work, is a new and disturbing manifestation of pro-Army popular sentiment.
In recent months, activists have used the walls to diligently spread messages denouncing military rule and military trials of thousands of civilians, and calling for another 25 January revolution. At the same time, military loyalists have just as attentively erased these graffiti pieces, leaving their own pro-army and nationalist messages.
This war, completely unimaginable during Mubarak's time, has come to a head on one wall: tank versus bike.
This massive mural under the 6th of October Bridge in Zamalek is considered by many to be the most iconic piece of graffiti in post-revolution Cairo. A collaborative work by graffiti artist Ganzeer and his friends, and a blatant criticism of the Egyptian military, the mural has remained surprisingly untouched since May 2011.
But in early January 2012, unknown artists painted new additions onto the imposing mural, adding a row of protesters carrying "V for Vendetta" masks, a pool of blood under the tank and bodies collapsing under its wheels — a clear reference to the 9 October Maspero attacks, when Coptic protesters were run over by military tanks.
Interestingly enough, these additions incited a reaction of their own: A group of pro-SCAF civilians called Badr Team 1 vandalized the mural 10 days later, erasing everything they found offensive to the Egyptian army. This meant erasing everything, except for the tank, that is.
In an amateur video allegedly captured on 20 January, Badr Team 1 (who also called themselves the Badr Battalion) accused graffiti artists of being foreign agents and traitors to Egypt. The team called on all honorable Egyptian youth to erase graffiti, as it was "a method for agents and traitors to spread their violent ideologies against the police, the army and Egyptian traditions.
This rhetoric is all too familiar to Egyptians who, for the past year, have had to listen to SCAF members broadcasting such accusations in the media.
Graffiti has spread like wildfire throughout Cairo in the past 12 months, and is used by young Egyptian activists to commemorate the victims of the uprising, and to raise awareness of political injustices and crimes committed by the Egyptian military. In the face of the mainstream media's campaign to tarnish protesters as criminals and cover up military crimes, many activists have turned to graffiti as an alternative means of reaching the average Egyptian on the streets.
And while this shaky amateur video produced by these antagonists of street art can easily be disregarded as a minor incident, the level of ignorance, paranoia and aggression propagated by the video is worrying.
Its incitement of attacks on graffiti artists, though, is sadly a natural consequence of the past months of hostility bred against all forms of criticism of the Egyptian military.
The irony that Badr Team has made graffiti to denounce graffiti is clearly lost on them. They say members of the April 6 Youth Movement were responsible for the mural, even though an easy internet search would have led them straight to Ganzeer.
The video also shows the stencils of several martyrs' faces, which were made after the revolution to commemorate those who died during the 25 January revolution. The stencils once carried their names and the words "Glory to God." Now, the names are erased, and the words read "Glory to Egypt" instead, showing Badr Team's fanatical nationalism.
"These drawings contain Masonic and anarchist codes and symbols," Badr Team's statement reads. Badr Team often circles those "Masonic" symbols drawn by the Graffiti artists: a sad and fat panda, a bird, a child clasping his hands in prayer and the words "Power to the People."
They are all, ironically, clear symbols inciting violence, especially the panda.
The V for Vendetta masks — often used by revolutionary artists, most likely as symbols of defying totalitarianism — are particularly bothersome for army loyalists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. It is worth noting here that a recent article in the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party newspaper warned of anarchists wearing the "B for Bendetta" masks, a spelling mistake that has been ruthlessly lampooned all over the Egyptian Twitter-sphere.
At any rate, the graffiti community has been quick to respond to attacks by army loyalists, especially the erasure of SCAF's victims from the famous tank mural in Zamalek. Badr Team 1 had whitewashed all references to SCAF's atrocities, leaving the solitary tank standing in all its glory with any reference to the Maspero massacre, the martyrs and the revolutionary protesters wiped out.
Striking back at Badr Team 1's pro-SCAF erasure of the mural, a giant green monster of a military policeman chewing on the body of a protester next to stencils of Mona Lisa, Lenin, military leader Hussein Tantawi and other faces, were sketched next to the tank. The new additions have been made by a group calling themselves the Mona Lisa Battalion, a tongue-in-cheek hat-nod to the Badr Battalion. The new graffiti faces are whimsical, funny and blatantly political; yet it's quite possible that the Badr Battalion will not understand that this art is directed at them, that this whole joke is on them.
When asked to comment on the Badr Team video, the original mural's creator, Ganzeer, said that he was initially happy to have this visual dialogue happening in reaction to the tank mural.
"But when I saw the YouTube video by the 'Badr Battalion', I felt a certain kind of sadness that this act was done by a group obviously soaked in ignorance and blind nationalism," he wrote. "Clearly they've been brainwashed by our horrible school textbooks and official media, so brainwashed to the point of stating that 'The Army, police and people are one hand,'" he remarked.
Ganzeer couldn't resist adding the jab, "It's also obvious that these kids have no sense of aesthetics whatsoever."