Demolition crews are tearing down the wall on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo that became iconic for its successive layers of massive graffiti murals memorializing dead protesters and key political moments since 2011.
Area residents and international observers alike were outraged when images of the wall tumbling down circulated on social media Thursday, with critics accusing the government of wanting to erase the graffiti’s political messages. But Khaled Mostafa, spokesperson for the Cairo governor’s office, told Mada Masr that the destruction has nothing to do with the graffiti itself.
Instead, the wall is being removed because the science building that lies behind it in the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Tahrir campus is slated for demolition, so that a public garden can be built there as part of the Tahrir Square beautification project, Mostafa said.
“It has nothing to do with removing this wall in particular. The entire building will be removed,” he explained.
Rihab Saad, head of AUC’s Media Department, corroborated Mostafa’s explanation in remarks to the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. She said the science building has been deteriorating since 2011, and Cairo Governorate officials were pressuring the university to either restore it or tear it down. As rehabilitation costs were prohibitive, AUC decided to destroy the building and collaborate on the city’s beautification project, she asserted.
Sections of the Mohamed Mahmoud wall were torn down so that bulldozers and other machinery could pass through to access the building, she said, but before demolition work began, AUC staff photographed the graffiti and said they would exhibit images soon in a gallery.
In November 2011, at least 50 people were killed in week-long clashes with police forces on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Since then, graffiti artists have painted tributes to those killed in the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes and other deadly post-revolutionary events. Iconic works had included portraits of Mina Danial — a Coptic activist killed by military officers in the brutal dispersal of an October 2011 protest in front of Maspero — and Sheikh Emad Eddin Effat, an Al-Azhar cleric allegedly shot to death by military police when they dispersed a protest in front of the Cabinet building in December 2011.
Since the first iconic murals began to appear after the 2011 clashes, the wall was whitewashed several times, each time to public outcry — but street artists always returned, sometimes creating new works at the same time that municipal workers were covering up the old ones. More recently, ownership of the wall’s historical legacy was contested between different stakeholders as foreign-funded initiatives commissioned new murals based on what some claimed were politically suspect themes.
Now that sections of the wall have been removed entirely, however, the whitewashing and repainting cycle will come to an end. On Thursday critics took to Twitter to express their outrage that “the revolution’s history” was being destroyed under the hashtag MohammedMahmoudgraffiti.
“You cannot criticize IS [the Islamic State] for destroying the world’s history,” activist Wael Eskander tweeted, “while you are demolishing our modern history.”