Middle East
5:56 am
Sat October 6, 2012

A Whitewashed Wall Erases Egypt's Revolution

Originally published on Sat October 6, 2012 8:43 pm

A massive graffiti mural in Cairo's Tahrir Square documenting the political turmoil in Egypt was whitewashed earlier this month. The next night, several hundred artists and supporters were back, covering the wall in new images and anti-government slogans.

Medical student and painter Doaa Okasha, 20, was outraged when she found out the original mural was gone.

"It's our history there. This wall explains a lot of what happened in the last months, and it's very important to us," she says. "They easily come and erase everything, and we don't accept that."

The square in the heart of Cairo was the focal point of the 18-day uprising last year that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, and it's been the site of numerous protests since then. The new Egyptian government is renovating Tahrir, but Egyptians disagree on how to memorialize their revolution.

Several weeks ago, during protests against an anti-Muslim video, the police moved in and pushed demonstrators out of the area, which is a major traffic intersection, along with hordes of street vendors. A constant presence there since the revolution started, the vendors sold tea, food and nationalistic knick-knacks.

After the police action, Prime Minister Hisham Kandil posted a video on his Facebook page, calling on citizens to provide ideas about how to memorialize the revolution in the square. Hundreds have responded.

One called for building a massive archway to commemorate the revolution's martyrs. Another wanted nationalistic songs played at low volumes around the square.

These days, workmen are shoveling sand and laying down bricks for sidewalks. There's new turf planted in the center of the square. Urban planning expert Mohamed el-Shahed hopes that cleaning up the square signals a change in how the government deals with Cairo's neglected infrastructure.

"Maybe [we could be] using this opportunity to remake the management system, the municipal system of the city," he says, "and without falling into the trap of doing these big, bombastic monuments, and rather focus on the everyday needs that cities require."

Mahmoud Mohammed Orabi, a cook at a pastry shop, is enjoying a sunset picnic with friends on the newly planted grass in the middle of Tahrir.

"Frankly, all that I wanted is to come to Tahrir Square, sit down and eat. To see what I see now: flowers, gardens, people are safe. I want to feel free in my country," he says.

Nearby, student Moheb Emad says Tahrir doesn't need to be renovated or beautified because it will always be a symbol.

"To us, Tahrir Square is sacred, because people died here. It will not lose its significance," Emad says. "And we are not waiting for renovations, the way the government speaks about them."

Our graffiti is enough, he says, and Tahrir itself is enough.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tahrir Square is getting a facelift. The square in the heart of Cairo was the focal point of the 18-day uprising last year that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. It has been the site of numerous protests since then. Merrit Kennedy reports that the new Egyptian government is renovating the square, but Egyptians disagree on how to memorialize their revolution.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: A massive graffiti mural in Tahrir Square, documenting the political turmoil in Egypt, was whitewashed earlier this month. But the next night, several hundred artists and supporters were back, covering the wall in new images and anti-government slogans. Twenty-year old medical student and painter Doaa Okasha was outraged when she found out the original mural was gone.

DOAA OKASHA: It's our history there. This wall explains a lot of what happened in the last months. It's important to us. And they easily come and erase everything, and we don't accept that.

KENNEDY: There are other, more popular changes happening in Tahrir Square - a place where people have gathered for open political debate since the uprising began.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVELING)

KENNEDY: Workmen shovel sand and lay down bricks for sidewalks and plant new turf in the center of the square, a major Cairo traffic intersection. Several weeks ago, during protests against an anti-Muslim video, the police moved in and pushed demonstrators out of the square, along with hordes of street vendors.

PRIME MINISTER HISHAM KANDIL: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: After the police action, Prime Minister Hisham Kandil posted a video on his Facebook page, calling on citizens to provide ideas about how to memorialize the revolution in the square. Hundreds have responded. Ramy Abbas Abbas calls for building a massive archway to commemorate the revolution's martyrs. Urban planning expert Mohamed Elshahed hopes that cleaning up the square signals a change in how the government deals with Cairo's neglected infrastructure.

MOHAMED ELSHAHED: Maybe using this opportunity to remake the management system, the municipal system of the city, and without falling into the trap of doing these big, bombastic monuments and rather focus on the everyday needs that cities require.

KENNEDY: Mahmoud Mohammed Orabi, a cook at a pastry shop, is enjoying a sunset picnic with friends on the newly laid grass in the middle of Tahrir.

MAHMOUD MOHAMMED ORABI: (Through Translator) Frankly, all what I wanted is come to Tahrir Square, sit down and eat. To see what I see now: flowers, gardens, people are safe. I want to feel free in my country.

KENNEDY: Nearby, Moheb Emad, a student, says Tahrir doesn't need to be renovated or beautified, because it will always be a symbol.

MOHEB EMAD: (Through Translator) To us, Tahrir Square is sacred because people died here. It will not lose its significance. And we're not waiting for renovations, the way the government speaks about them.

KENNEDY: Our graffiti is enough, he says. And Tahrir itself is enough.

For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.