Colourful Challenges: Street Art from the Middle East

The author looks at Street Art in the Middle East (Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran and Palestine). He draws attention to how in some parts it became an apparent means for protest, while in others it is more widely used to endorse the current regime.

By Dallin Van Leuven, 13th October, 2013

The Arab Spring brought far more than a change of leadership to nations in the Middle East and North Africa.  Its political upheaval introduced a marked increase in the freedom of speech, as well as a challenge to the definition of public space.  At the intersection of these two currents lies street art.  Street art – rather than graffiti – is an appropriate term, with vibrant, poignant expressions of free speech capturing the attention of both residents and passers-by.  But this was not always the case. Although it was already a common tool of resistance in Gaza and the West Bank, it gave new revolutionary artists in Arab states a medium to reach the masses and further an ideal. Emboldened by popular protests, street art erupted upon streets and squares across the region, invading the public sphere with defiant statements or ridiculing depictions of leaders.

However, the advent and use of street art is certainly a contentious issue.  When radical Islamist supporters of the now-deposed President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt violently cleared an opposition sit-in surrounding the Ittahadeya Palace on December 5, 2012, they came with paint cans to paint over graffiti they deemed an “insult” to the president.  In fact, the Syrian revolution began in large part over this issue, when 15 young boys in the southern town of Daraa were arrested and brutally tortured for scrawling anti-regime statements on walls. The subsequent public outcry eventually resulted in the bloody civil war that still rages across Syria.  The power of street art to challenge authority and convey meaning to the public is apparent to artists and authorities alike.

Compare that to art in Iran, where it is used to augment – rather than challenge – the influence of the state.  Depictions of martyrs from Iran’s resistance to the invasion by Iraq can be seen in every town, as well as murals of Imams Khomeini and Khamenei.

Enclosed is a selection of street art from across the Middle East and North Africa, to allow the medium to speak for itself.  All images are property of the author.

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(Cairo, Egypt – March 2011) Many of Egypt’s youth activists had hoped that the goodwill inspired by the revolution would translate into better inter-religious cooperation and respect.

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(Cairo, Egypt – November 2011) This piece depicts Mubarak (though incarcerated then) still orchestrating the civil strife in the country through the military, between thugs, police, and political parties (labeled from left to right).

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(Cairo, Egypt – November 2011) A wanted poster for Mahmoud Sobhy Al-Shennawy, a police officer. He was later found guilty of intentionally shooting out the eyes of protesters with rubber bullets and sentenced to three years in prison.

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(Cairo, Egypt – December 2011) The brutal actions of Al-Shennawy and officers like him made eye patches a symbol of the revolution.  This section of a larger collection lined the street where many protesters lost their eyes.  The street was renamed by some activists to the “Street of Freedom Eyes.”

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(Cairo, Egypt – July 2013) A bearded Islamist shouts, “Legitimacy!”  Supporters of the former President Morsi frequently cited the legitimacy of Morsi’s election as a defense against those who criticized his problematic rule.

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(Cairo, Egypt – July 2013) “This is good, God!” exclaim a pair of Morsi supporters.  This piece arose out of the accusation that the Muslim Brotherhood incited violence in an attempt to gain sympathy from the international community out of their own victimization.

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(Cairo, Egypt – July 2013) “Mubarak, the Military, the Muslim Brotherhood.”  Who is next in the line of despots in Egypt?

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(Beirut, Lebanon – November 2012) Painted on this bullet-riddled building, a garbage man sweeps away bullet casings – remnants of Lebanon’s bloody, 15-year-long civil war.  He is flanked by doves of peace.

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(Bayda, Libya – April 2011) This mural celebrated the support rebels received from countries around the world, while the civil war raged on and NATO bombings had begun.

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(Bayda, Libya – April 2011) The word carved into this man’s back is freedom, by the knives labeled oppression, dictatorship, and corruption.

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(Bayda, Libya – April 2011) This expert piece recalls the violence wrought by Qaddafi’s “bloodthirsty” regime.

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(Benghazi, Libya – April 2011) In one of the late Kais Al-Hilali’s most famous caricatures, he refers to Qaddafi as the “monkey of monkeys of Africa…and everywhere else,” a play on Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s reference to himself as the “King of Kings of Africa.”  Al-Hilali was murdered under mysterious circumstances at a checkpoint.

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(Tehran, Iran – August 2012) This large mural leaves no doubt as to the Iranian government’s feelings towards the United States.  Written in red below is “Death to America!”

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(Tehran, Iran – August 2012) This collection of street art is on display outside the former US Embassy in Tehran, now affectionately renamed the “US Den of Espionage.”  They mark a defiance to the US, and not the current regime, contrary to the other examples here.

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(Ramallah, West Bank – July 2011) And finally, a simplistic reminder from Palestine.

Dallin Van Leuven worked as an educator in Cairo.  He is currently a graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.  His focus is on transitional justice and human security.


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