Young Egyptians, who say they’re still fighting for the unmet demands of the January 25 uprising, held demonstrations in November for the first time since mass protests resulted in the military takeover of power this past July. Muralists and activist graffiti artists contribute their own media to these voices. During this November’s demonstrations, they painted over massive murals on Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street, marking the second anniversary of violent clashes that occurred there in November 2011 in a space youth have come to claim as their own.

“Most people my age didn’t have any feeling for their country before the January 25 Revolution,” said twenty-two-year-old Wassim Khaled, who took part in the January 25 and Mohamed Mahmoud protests. “My education, everything that I have, my family did for me. The government didn’t provide anything for us young people.” The revolution’s aims of ending the mismanagement and corruption within the security state have been hard to achieve, however. According to Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, Egypt ranks 114 out of 177 countries. Laws forbid disclosure of military activities, even those in the commercial sector, and the military has de facto immunity from prosecution. The new constitution up for a referendum January 14-15 ensures the military budget remains without civilian oversight. And in a country that witnessed mass uprisings that toppled two governments in less than three years, a new protest law severely restricts public gatherings. Three of the country’s most well-known activists associated with the April 6 Youth Movement have now been prosecuted and handed down three-year jail terms for not abiding by this new law. 

In an alternate interpretation of events, however, the military government built a memorial they said was intended to honor “the martyrs of the two revolutions” of January 25 and June 30. The hastily erected, yellow-brick monument in the middle of a Tahrir Square traffic circle was finished in just two days. Less than twelve hours after its inauguration by the prime minister and the governor of Cairo on November 18, youths destroyed it brick by brick. It has since been rebuilt with new landscaping, and police direct traffic around the circle. Artist Ammar Abo Bakr, who’s worked on earlier murals portraying the revolution’s fallen on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, explained, “The military government made a kind of fake memorial to those they killed, and they build the institutions that kill us, so we need to answer that.” His team’s new 150-meter (492-foot) work on the wall, which encircles the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Downtown campus, critiques the relationship between the media, the general public, and those in power. 

Youth say their furor over the state’s monument is really about the impunity with which Egypt’s security state operates, especially the police, and for the continued crackdown on demonstrators and activists since the January 25 uprising. “When I saw the government monument, I was so upset; the names of the people killed aren’t even written on it,” said Wassim. “I want justice for all those young people who were killed—fair trials and fair verdicts, not monuments.”
This past November, around 1,000 demonstrators gathered in the street to mark the second anniversary of the November 19, 2011 clashes between the police and demonstrators protesting military rule, which left 50 killed and 3,000 injured. Demonstrators hung a banner at the corner with Tahrir Square that read: “No Entry for Fulul (remnants of the Mubarak regime), the Muslim Brotherhood, or the military.” As demonstrators chanted into the morning hours of November 19, a team of around fifteen worked on the new mural. A camouflage pattern was painted in pink and red—“the colors of love!” Abo Bakr explained. He continued, “There’s a kind of love fest with this new military government, and Sisi’s picture is on cookies in the bakery and even on lingerie.” The brightly colored wall starkly contrasts with the old AUC building above it with its shattered windows, and can be seen from the government memorial. 

Three years since the January 25 uprising, Mohamed Mahmoud’s wall holds history within its layers. “Some people were upset because we painted over the portraits of the martyrs,” Abo Bakr said. (The pink camouflage covered one of Abo Bakr’s earlier artworks from 2012, a gruesome portrait series of four young men as they looked upon their deaths at the hands of the security services.) “But this wall needs to reflect events and should change. We don’t paint the martyr to immortalize him, but to ask where his killers are,” he said. “In this street we’re indicting the killers of all these young people, not just the iconic faces you see everywhere, but the anonymous ones too.” Salma Samy, the only female artist in the group, agreed, “I didn’t want to paint in Mohamed Mahmoud to celebrate the dead, but because I felt like we could do something for the living.”

Wassim said it was difficult for him to watch the portrait of his friend Atef El-Gohary painted over to make way for the new mural. El-Gohary died from a gunshot wound to the face in protests against the Defense Ministry in Cairo’s Abbasiyya neighborhood on May 4, 2012, “At first I was so upset when I saw Ammar cleaning the wall,” he said. “But Atef was always helping people and if he had been here, he would have told us not to care about his portrait, but about the revolution, so I accepted this too.”

The mural’s emotional portrait is of someone mostly unknown to activists, based on a photo of 11-year-old Said Khaled in Tahrir Square. Said’s brother was killed in the so-called Camel Battle—when camel-mounted assailants attacked anti-Mubarak protesters on February 2, 2011. Wanting to follow in his brother’s footsteps, Said attended all the major demonstrations—until he too was killed in the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes of November 2011. “These people are so young and just killed in the street like this,” said Abo Bakr. “They were there fighting for their rights and a better life.” 

In addition to their role as critical media, Mohamed Mahmoud’s murals also serve as a gathering space. It’s rare for women to work in the street, and painting this mural was something existential for Samy, a thirty-year-old graduate of fine arts who also works as a costume designer. The corner of Mohamed Mahmoud and Tahrir Square had become notorious for sexual assaults. “As a woman, I had a problem with this street and even know someone who was assaulted,” she said. “But I can’t just stay home hiding. When we were working, it felt like the spirit of January 25 and I wasn’t afraid.” In addition, the camouflage patterns were painted with roller brushes, making it easy for anyone to join in and help, turning the space into a kind of open-air atelier. “I really liked that we worked as a group,” said Samy. 

As Egypt approaches the three-year anniversary of the June 25 Revolution, Abo Bakr and his fellow artist-activists say the country’s ups and downs are an expected part of the struggle. “These three months of curfew [between August and November] gave people time to think, but the revolution is not a memory, and this dialogue on the wall is a part of that.” The murals have come to represent the revolution for so many young people: “When the wall’s cleaned it’s like a fresh canvas,” Wassim says. “For me, this wall and Mohamed Mahmoud represent freedom, and the Egypt I loved and will love. I feel the soul of January 25 is still with us and will evolve.” 

Angela Boskovitch is a Cairo-based writer, researcher, and cultural producer.