Over eighteen momentous days in 2011, protestors occupied one of Cairo’s main road junctions, Tahrir Square, and stood their ground against attacks by security forces until Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down. This was a time when Egyptians forgot their ethnic, religious and social differences to come together as one, demanding social justice for all. Graffiti was just one of the many forms of expression released as ordinary people found their voices. After years of enforced silence, they rushed to express themselves in political debate, via social media and on the walls of towns and cities all over Egypt.
Today, the mood in Egypt has darkened. After a military coup led by General Fattah el-Sisi, the military are back in power and thousands of people have been killed, injured or imprisoned by the new regime. Freedom of speech has been severely curtailed, with three Al-Jazeera English journalists currently imprisoned on charges of terrorism.
The Cairo-born, Berlin-based graphic designer and activist Caram Kapp looks back to 2011 with considerable nostalgia. “Tahrir had the carnivalesque atmosphere of a people who were in revolt and enjoying it,” Caram wrote afterwards. “There was freedom of speech and assembly, camaraderie and food. After thirty years of leaving the rest of Egypt outside as soon as they entered their flats, people came together in this place to celebrate values and rights they barely even remembered under Mubarak’s dictatorship.”
How much of a role do you feel street art played in the 2011 revolution and does it still have a role now?
Apart from chants, graffiti became the most popular public mediums of self-expression in an ongoing battle for territories. Walking through the various city districts you could see tags and street art on almost every surface that could be written upon. It served as both a reminder of aesthetics long absent from the public sphere and as artists’ commentary on events.
As one of the most well-documented aspects of the revolution, the walls serve as an immediate memory of the last three years, whether it be the martyrs, elections, or return of the military to power. Street art also served as an easily shareable medium for opinions. The visual nature of graffiti allowed it to become an understandable source of information for those outside Egypt following events and help to connect them with the struggle.
Today I believe that graffiti still plays an important role in the direct communication of messages on the streets. It will continue to do so as long as artists and activists have topics and counter-narratives to communicate. It also still plays a role in youth empowerment through workshops and as an indicator of political processes in Egypt and beyond its borders.
What remains of the love that you felt so strongly in Tahrir Square – after the Sisi coup and the violence that has followed?
The ‘love’ that permeated Tahrir for those 18 days – a united standing behind a cause – started fading soon after the ousting of Mubarak. There remains a strong emotional bond between individuals involved in various stages of the uprising, but the love quickly gave way to the interests of political parties and individual factions. When the people took to the streets they never thought they were unleashing a political process, and they were apparently not quite ready for that outcome. Within Egypt it has become difficult to talk of a deep unconditional love in light of recent events, although all parties profess to love Egypt and strive to improve it. Unfortunately, this seems to prove the old saying that you always end up hurting the one you love.
You wrote about the inclusion and respect for women as one example of a socially inclusive atmosphere in Tahrir Square. Has any of that survived?
From observation and discussion, I can’t say that the condition of women in Egypt has improved. They have become politically manipulated in ways that they were not before and harassment continues unabated. Yet Egyptian women have their ways of defending themselves and making themselves heard, while many occupy senior positions in cultural and societal organisations.
Women have always been a strong part of Egyptian society, due in part to the repression they have suffered. There is a growing class of well-educated women who see that they can affect change. I believe they will ultimately improve the situation – not only for themselves but for country as a whole. This will not happen on a governmental level, but rather through their individual actions and collaboration between women of all classes in society.
To what extent has freedom of expression been repressed since 2011?
Freedom of expression since the Sisi coup has been on a downward spiral. There have been arbitrary imprisonment of journalists and activists as well as an active campaign against critical opinions from outside Egypt. The military and the state are attempting to take control of the national narrative. The recent introduction of the term ‘terrorist’ to describe anyone expressing opinions counter to the official line is an attempt to turn Egyptians against one another.
Most media outlets have become mouthpieces of the current government after threats of closure and editorial reshuffles. The journalists syndicate has declared its allegiance to the state and those that control it. Coming after two years in which it had become easier – and necessary – to express your opinion publicly, it is sad to watch freedom of expression in public space affected by repressive new laws, a strong military presence and a wide distrust of anything out of the ordinary.
I get the sense that we are far from the end of the story. What is the next chapter for Egypt?
Many elements remain volatile and unpredictable, so the next chapter is hard for anyone to predict. Events are definitely ongoing and we will move past the current return to military rule, but it is an ongoing process that may take many years to unfold. The elections in 2014 will happen but are likely to be used to reinforce an outward impression of democracy while clamping down on activists and critics of the system at home. Egypt will continue to be polarised, but I would not expect spontaneous mass expressions of political opinion in the near future. I hope to be proven wrong.
I would like to believe that we will see an ongoing strengthening of civil society and a continuation of the resistance and criticism of the system that began in 2011. Eventually, this should lead to a more just Egypt that treats its citizens with equality, providing them with education and freedom of expression. It is difficult to say when this process will become visible, but as long as there are individuals and networks who do not lose the courage to fight for their respective causes, at the very least, there is hope.
Caram’s incredible essay, “The Utopian State of Tahrir,” appears in Walls of Freedom, a collaborative book project on Egyptian revolutionary street art, out March 2014.
To read more from Egypt Now: youth, music, street art and revolution in today’s Egypt, pick up a copy of Huck 43 – Street Photography With Boogie.