Nothing has Changed in Egypt

Tahrir Square has become the most troublesome of metaphors in a country beset by problems of representation.

Tahrir Square in November 2011. Image by Gigi Ibrahim.

On the third day of 2012, millions of Egyptians voted in the third round of elections. In the capital, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has placed barbed wire barricades and walls stand around Tahrir (‘Liberation’) Square. Protesters have been attacked as enemies of the revolution. Western hopes invested in Egypt have been betrayed. Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books, claims “a liberal Egypt was briefly alive among the people in Tahrir Square who desperately wanted to be a part of the modern world.” As if the fight against elite interests were modern, or the struggle over. On the BBC, historian Eric Hobsbawm said that the ‘Arab Spring’ reminded him of the revolutions which swept through Europe in 1848 (though it’s important to realize he wasn’t actually alive then).

Mona Anis, writing in Al-Ahram, makes a clever modification: Egypt may in fact be imitating Paris in 1871, where the revolution started by radical occupiers of the capital city was betrayed by the latent conservative culture of the rest of the country. As Mukhtar el-Mallah said: Egypt is not Tahrir Square. During last month’s frenzied violence the makeshift hospitals set up in the square were apparently burnt by the military police. Today the square seems to have contracted into a band of ragged tents surrounded by an explosion of commercial enterprise, and the ebb and flow of demented traffic. As a first-time visiter to Cairo, it is unclear whether this is business as usual. As my host Hossam Sakr, a painter and professor of art, said “If you go to Tahrir today you will not understand anything about the revolution.” This traffic island has become the most troublesome of metaphors in a country beset by problems of representation.

As you serenely descend the escalators in the arrivals lounge of Cairo airport, the words of Italian ‘Prime Minister’ Silvio Berlusconi appear: “There is nothing new in Egypt, Egyptians are making history as usual…” Next to this, a quote from Barack Obama: “We must educate our children to become like young Egyptian people…” For those who have dealt with the Egyptian education system this is a troubling statement. These are advertisements for the telephone company Mobinil, owned by France Telecom, run for many years by Naguib Sawiris, a member of the business dynasty allied to Mubarak. The revolution has been monetized.

And then there was the attempt by Vodafone to use the revolution to sell mobile phones. Egyptians cannot forget that Vodafone and Mobinil, like all Egypt’s providers, suspended networks during last year’s civil unrest. You’ve got to be careful who you accept praise from; the revolution will be betrayed by flattery. Think of those unspeakably gross images of Sarkozy and Cameron wringing the hands of Mustafa Abdul Jalil, leader of the Libyan Transitional Council. Talk about desperation.

Last week I spent several frantic days in Cairo, seeing as much art as possible, meeting some key supporters of Egyptian contemporary art, and trying to work out how art has survived the past year. It is clear there are Egyptian artists who for some time have been making work which expresses a rigorous disgust at these political iconographies. Over the next month, as the anniversary of Mubarak’s downfall approaches, we’ll be running a series of posts on how contemporary art has responded to – and intervened in – the events of the past year.

Further Reading