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Recalling the Past: The Battle over History, Collective Memory and Memorialization in Egypt

[A memorial in Tahrir Square, February 2011. Image by YasminMoll/Flickr.] [A memorial in Tahrir Square, February 2011. Image by YasminMoll/Flickr.]

History is inescapable in Egypt. Foreign tourists drawn to the abundant physical remains of Coptic, Pharaonic, Hellenic, and Islamic cultures are reminded of the contemporary past as they head downtown from the Cairo airport past the triumphant October War Panorama, a war museum commemorating the 1973 war with fighter jets parked out front. Numerous place names—Sadat City, the Twenty-sixth of July Street, Talaat Harb Square, the Sixth of October Bridge—are constant evocations of persons and events raised to iconic status by former regimes.

In the past year, a new, unsanctioned layer of historical memory has been added to Egypt’s villages, towns, and cities in the form of graffiti, wall art, banners, and flags—artifacts of the popularly named “January 25 Revolution.” “Virtual” additions to the historical record, accessible via the World Wide Web, are less visible but increasingly influential.1 Collected by activists, artists, scholars, journalists, and ordinary people, millions of scanned photos, documents, oral histories, tweets, films, videos, and audio clips portray and preserve alternative views of the tumultuous past year. Media airwaves and mobile phones convey popular revolutionary songs and video clips to remote villages. Some material is focused on remembering and honoring injured and dead civilians, while counter-revolutionary forces are fighting back with their own content. Digital technologies are now serving as platforms on which different versions of history do battle daily.

Egypt is no different from other countries where historical narratives mirror conflict and its resolution. The Mubarak regime, like those preceding it, effectively manipulated historical memory to serve its own purposes. With Mubarak’s removal in February 2011, the fight over historical narratives has become more overt. It is most intense with respect to events taking place in the year since the onset of the January 25 Revolution, but it also involves efforts to rewrite Egyptian history over the past sixty years.

This article addresses the following question: how have protagonists in Egypt’s “transition” used historical narratives and memorialization to promote their diverse agendas since the fall of Mubarak? It argues that evidence of the unfinished nature of Egypt’s transition is found in state efforts to control access to historical materials, and in controversies about interpreting Egypt’s contemporary history. It also provides examples of four different processes through which memory is created, manipulated and conveyed by ordinary people: the collection and storage of materials using digital technologies; demonstrations, marches, and memorial services; renaming of civic spaces; and artistic activism.

Memory and Conflict: A Double-Edged Sword

Nearly a century ago, French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs argued that memory is socially constructed and influenced by family, religious, geographic, and other connections. His distinction between history (reaching for an objective, truthful account of events based on professional scholarship) versus collective memory (selectively constructed perceptions of the past formed through complex interactions among individuals, social groups, and their surrounding environment) has influenced generations of historians, philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists.2 The notions that human understanding is influenced both by written history and collective memory, and that societies reconstruct their histories rather than merely record them, are now commonplace, although the definition of collective memory and whether or how it influences personal memories remains elusive and contentious.

Memorials, archives, museums, and monuments are generally viewed as contributing to collective memory, as are various processes and practices designed to draw attention to the past. In transitional or post-conflict societies, the forms they often take include: Constructed sites (museums and commemorative libraries, monuments, and virtual memorials and archives); found sites (graves, killing and torture centers, and prisons); and specific processes (anniversaries and celebrations of key events, exhibits, place renaming, parades, demonstrations, vigils, performances, and public apologies).3

A wide variety of actors initiate and guide memory projects according to different political agendas. Civil society actors notably include individual victims, survivors, and their families, as well as scholars, artists and non-profit organizations. 

Government authorities and emerging state actors also play a large role in conceiving and promoting memory sites and projects.4

Memorialization cuts two ways. It can help victims and survivors obtain acknowledgement that they were wronged and promote social recovery (what some call “reconciliation” or “healing”). But it can also crystallize a sense of injustice and strengthen the desire for revenge. Used by protagonists throughout the conflict life cycle—before, during, and after conflict ends—the documentation of historical events, preservation of materials, creation of memory projects, and memorialization are highly politicized processes that reflect power dynamics within society.5

Representation of historical memory, including reform of national history textbooks and creation of interpretive museums, is part and parcel of transitional justice but generally receives less attention than criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, and lustration. It plays an essential but understated role in contributing to the formation of national narratives about the past and in affecting how societies talk about and project their futures.

                                                                          [A memorial for martyrs in Tahrir Square, July 2011.
                                                                                                Image by Lilian Wagdy.]

Access to Information

Proof that Egypt’s transition to democracy is far from complete is evident in state policy and practices regarding access to historical documents. Nothing has changed since the January 25 Revolution; one still needs a security clearance to use materials stored in Egypt’s National Archives (NA), a process that can take months. It is not a public place accessible to non-specialists. According to Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy, the old mindset that the NA is a storage warehouse, not an interactive space to promote learning and knowledge, still largely prevails.6

Requiring NA users to obtain security clearances dates back to the 1980s.  Law 356 of 1954, which governs the NA, mandated only that a committee be established to develop procedures for handling its holdings. The NA’s board of directors decided to protect themselves from accusations of mismanagement by inviting state security officials to review requests for NA access.7

The question of access was one factor stalling a promising initiative that took shape in the weeks following Mubarak’s removal. The Director General of the National Archives and the National Library nominated Dr. Fahmy in February 2011 to form a group called “The Committee to Document the January 25 Revolution” with a mandate to collect material to be deposited in the NA. Chair of the History Department at the American University in Cairo, Dr. Fahmy was given the power to compose a steering committee to guide the project, and the Ministry of Culture issued a decree appointing him as chair. He agreed to take on the project on the condition that all the collected materials would be digitized and made freely accessible on the World Wide Web, without security restrictions. The committee envisioned a collection that would feature not just official documents but also oral histories, photos, newspaper articles, cartoons, NGO reports, and other materials contributed by ordinary Egyptians. The committee then began to address a series of challenging issues, including identifying types of materials for inclusion; developing digital storage protocols and expanding the capacity of the NA’s website; and developing a media campaign inviting the public to participate in the project.

By the fall, however, the project stalled over complications that reflected larger battles in Egypt. On the information access front, security officials refused to lift the security clearance requirement and prevented Egyptians invited to give oral testimonies and deposit materials from entering the building. The capacity of the NA’s website was too limited to support open access to large amounts of material, and the NA building was not configured to accommodate many visitors. As violence against protestors continued in November 2011, it was also clear that many Egyptians would not participate freely in the project unless there were legal protections in place ensuring that materials they entrusted to the NA could not be used to incriminate them. While these issues remain unresolved, the project is still under active discussion and negotiation, according to Dr. Fahmy.

Interestingly, the NA’s Director General was not opposed in principle to wider access, but this was not his priority. Egyptian law, largely unenforced, requires government offices to hold their records for fifteen years, after which they are to be deposited in the NA and made available to the public after another fifteen years.8 Some seven years earlier, proposals to amend law 356 to compel government agencies to turn over their documents and/or face penalty failed when journalists, fearing it would force them to reveal their sources, lobbied against it. Over the spring and summer of 2011, revision of law 356 became the focus of multiple meetings during which the NA’s Director General called for public discussion of the old bill. Discussions bogged down over two issues: how many years sensitive historical documents should be withheld by the NA from public access; and whether private individuals (such as important novelists) should be forced to deposit their personal papers in the NA.

Even if these issues are resolved soon and the NA law is strengthened to promote better management of and access to state documents, Egyptians interested in understanding their country’s pre-2011 contemporary past through study of historical documents face a practical problem. Because access to materials dating from after the 1952 revolution is problematic, writing about some chapters of Egypt’s contemporary history is largely unmoored from the official documentary record. According to historian Yoav Di-Capua,  

“…deprived of basic archival infrastructure of the post-1952 era, history writers could say and write whatever they wanted, but the overall sum of their activity cancelled itself out in a future, magic-like cycle of one undocumented account competing against another.”9

Further, he claims that “rumor has it that a few years ago, when the Palestinian peace negotiations team asked the Egyptian government if they could consult their records on the Camp David Accords…the Egyptian government could not even locate the relevant files. Lost, or simply denied, the result is all the same.”

Problems at a different Egyptian institution underscore the continuing problem of access to historical materials. On 17 December 2011, a fire destroyed the Institut d’Egypte, which was set ablaze during demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s office. Dr. Fahmy described his feelings as he and others entered the burning building to rescue rare manuscripts dating back to the Napoleonic invasion: 

“My greater anger vis-à-vis the sudden interest in the burning of the institute stems from the fact that we are not addressing the real problem that has led to it. It is not that the building was unequipped with fire-fighting devices, or that the army failed to secure it. The real tragedy is that nobody — not even scholars — knew of its existence in the first place, nor did those who lament the lost manuscripts ever bother to read them." 

                            [Saving books from the burnt Institute of Egypt, December 19, 2011. Image by Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr.]

Two other issues have also received attention during the transition. The first, ensuring the public’s broader right to information, is a standing concern of Egyptian human rights organizations; in 2009, they called for the formation of a coalition promoting that right. In September 2011, the United Group, a collection of legal researchers and human rights activists, issued a draft constitutional article based, in part, on a generic law crafted by the World Bank. Early in 2012, activists kept up the pressure by submitting recommendations to members of parliament, while the Justice Ministry prepared a draft law for consideration. The second issue stems from concern about the government’s gradual shutdown of different elements of the country’s Internet and phone systems between 25 January and 6 February 2011, in a vain attempt to quell the uprising. Perversely, that had the unintended effect of launching hundreds of thousands of people into the street, outraged by the government’s action and searching for information. To date, no definitive progress has been made on revision of law 356, ensuring the broader right of access to information or limiting the government’s ability to switch off the Internet and mobile phone systems at will. 

Meanwhile, over the past year, multiple other venues have become focal points of the information access struggle. During the initial eighteen days of the uprising in January and February 2011, protestors attacked and in some cases destroyed more than ninety neighborhood police stations. Some were seeking revenge against hated officials who violated human rights with impunity. Others were stirred to action when police (claiming self-defense) fired upon residents. Many, however, were looking for documentary evidence of detention and torture of themselves or their family members.

On 5-6 March 2011, protestors stormed the Ministry of Interior and other state security offices, including a secret facility near the Cairo airport allegedly used to detain and torture “rendition” victims flown in from abroad. They were responding to allegations that documents were being shredded and burned to destroy evidence that could incriminate former officials.10 A variety of documents, photos, videos, and audio materials were recovered in those raids, including, it was alleged, proof of state involvement in an Alexandria church bombing on New Year’s Day, 2011, and of torture, spying, and other acts committed by security officials. Some protestors turned seized materials over to government authorities, while some were posted on whose organizers and contributors remain anonymous.11 Others sought assistance from German experts experienced in handling the East German Stasi secret police files to help them reconstruct shredded documents. In the weeks afterwards, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) sent millions of SMS messages via mobile phones, threatening punishment of anyone who made captured documents public. There were also rumors of vans loading up remaining materials held at security offices and relocating them to more secure army facilities.

                           [Protestors take control of the central office of State Security Police in Nasr City, which hosted
                        Mubarak's largest torture and interrogation facility, March 5, 2011. Image by Hossam el-Hamalawy.]

Official Historical Revisionism

Over the past year, the importance to those in power of “rectifying” the historical record has been revealed. Even as the transitional government’s financial reserves declined by more than half and poverty deepened, the regime has turned its attention to history education. In April 2011, the Ministry of Education announced that a committee was formed to scrub elementary and junior high school history texts of fulsome accounts of the Mubarak regime, and to develop new chapters on the January 25 Revolution. The committee also indicated that it would correct other falsifications in the texts—such as erasure of Mohamed Naguib as Egypt’s first president, after Gamal Abdel Nasser put him under house arrest for eighteen years. The new curricula are to be readied for the start of the 2012 school year. Meanwhile, recent internal elections in the People’s Assembly for positions on parliamentary committees suggest that further controversy about textbook content lies ahead: the elected chair of the Education and Scientific Research Committee is MP Shabaan Ahmed Abdel al-Alim of Al-Nour, a conservative “Salafi” party, while MP Sheikh Gaber El Gahlan of the “Islamic Group”, a group previously banned for its support of terrorism, is an elected member. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose members include public school teachers, has already generated and used unofficial curricula about the group’s role in the January 25 Revolution, causing outrage among activist groups.12

Sensitivity about the historical record of the Mubarak era was revealed in June 2011 when the dean of Egyptian journalists, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, asserted that Hosni Mubarak played a minor role in air strikes conducted by the Egyptian Air Force in the 1973 war with Israel. Dozens of angry officers petitioned the General Prosecutor’s Office to charge Heikal with defaming the Air Force. Curiously, his interest in restating the historical record to undermine Mubarak was undercut by his assertion: “I don’t think you should be putting the future on hold while you are getting a balance sheet of how the past was conducted.” A former editor-in-chief of a leading government newspaper under Nasser and Sadat, Heikal was clearly reluctant to encourage a thorough re-airing of the past.

Four months later, the annual October 6 celebrations marking the 1973 Arab-Israeli war provided the regime with an opportunity to massage the historical record. Field Marshall Tantawi, the head of SCAF and de facto ruler of Egypt’s transitional period, delivered a speech emphasizing the leadership role played by Anwar Sadat and downplaying Hosni Mubarak, who had taken outsized credit for the war after he assumed the presidency. State media also used the anniversary celebrations to praise the armed forces as the protector of the state, stressing the personal sacrifices made by the troops in 1973 and thereafter. Ruling authorities were not alone in their interest in revisiting Egypt’s war record. In October 2011, the family of the disgraced war hero Saad Eddin El-Shazly published his memoirs in an effort to set the record straight. In them, El-Shazly, the army Chief of Staff from 1971-1973, revealed his disagreements with then-President Anwar Sadat during the 1973 war over withdrawal of troops from the Sinai. In his own memoirs, Sadat claimed that El-Shazly had to be removed from his post because he collapsed, an assertion El-Shazly denied. In 1978, they also parted ways over the Camp David Accords, which El-Shazly sharply criticized.

                  [Murals commemorating the martyrs of the 1 February 2012 Port Said massacre. Image from Gigi Ibrahim.]

Civil Society Initiatives

Four processes have been at work over the past year to establish and convey alternative versions of the recent Egyptian past. Largely initiated by civil society actors inside and outside Egypt, they include efforts to collect, preserve and organize historical materials related to the revolution; to recapture public space through place renaming; to remember and honor victims of the conflict through memorial marches and demonstrations; and to promote activism through artistic expression.

Preserving Historical Materials

Controversy has been greatest over the historical record of events occurring just prior to and during the January 25 Revolution. Official versions of events fostered by SCAF, and conveyed through state media, have been countered by myriad initiatives undertaken mostly by civil society activists to document recent developments from alternative perspectives. Some initiatives appear to be motivated largely by scholarly interests, while others have been mounted by protestors and used as spurs to action. One of the most successful examples of the latter type is the creation of a virtual memorial site on Facebook, We Are All Khalid Said, which became a rallying point for youth activists after it featured photos of the mutilated corpse of 28-year-old Khalid Said following a public beating by Alexandria police on 6 June 2010. The site helped build momentum for the massive demonstrations that followed seven months later. Now with 2.1 million members, it remains a living memorial on which new postings and materials about latest developments in Egypt are added daily. A growing number of websites have emerged to memorialize the dead. A recent addition is Lan-Nansahom (“We Won’t Forget Them”), which provides biographical information about and images of those killed and injured since protests began on 25 January 2011.

A new civil society initiative has created a virtual platform, Tahrir Documents, to collect and scan thousands of posters, banners, leaflets, and other materials used by demonstrators to convey their messages in Tahrir Square, searchable by date and subject. The initiative describes itself as “an ongoing effort to archive and translate activist papers from the 2011 Egyptian uprising and its aftermath. Materials are collected from demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and published in complete English translation alongside scans of the original documents.”

The American University in Cairo, whose rooftops allegedly were used by snipers to fire upon demonstrators in Tahrir Square, is documenting the past year’s events through its University on the Square project, headed by Professor Bruce Ferguson. It seeks to develop a “comprehensive and transparent record of the January 25 Revolution” by “soliciting photographs, videos, visual art, written testimonials and oral histories, as well as archived millions of web documents.” It also provides “long-term access to revolutionary papers, presentations, datasets and lectures.”13 Its collection includes physical objects, among them bullet and tear gas casings from Tahrir that were subsequently removed by state security officials as “evidence.”

Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), a state-sponsored institution, established a project called Memory of Modern Egypt several years before the onset of the January 25 Revolution. Designed to collect “documents, speeches, photographs, movies, audio [materials], maps, books, essays, news, covers, currency, medals, stamps and advertisements” from all over Egypt, it has added new materials relating to the past year’s event during a period in which BA’s close ties to the Mubarak family brought it and its director, Ismail Serrageldin, under fire. 

R-Shief, a non-profit data-mining project that collects, aggregates and analyzes data from Twitter and the web, is preserving and analyzing “Arab Spring” tweets and web-based materials. Since 2008, it has culled content in English and Arabic and, as of November 2011, had collected some 128 million tweets. A variety of other websites and Facebook pages provide interesting materials and analysis, including The Martyrs of the Freedom—Egyptian Revolution Heroes Project; Jadaliyya; Egypt Remembers; and The Archival Platform.

SCAF has fought back. In recent months, statements by SCAF leaders and their supporters have shifted blame for violent acts from the baltagiya (thugs) to mysterious “third parties” and “foreign forces.” SCAF’s new narrative folds into a larger critique targeting its biggest critics: the Egyptian human rights and activist organizations documenting military and government abuses. It accuses them of carrying out foreign agendas as the price for receiving foreign funding. In response, a new activist campaign fostered by the Revolutionary Forces Alliance (a group of twenty parties and movements) emerged in November 2011, following demonstrations outside the prime minister’s office. Askar Kazeboon (Lying Military) and SCAF Crimes are two recent online initiatives led by activists that collect and edit video images of assaults on civilians. The videos are made available online and people are encouraged to download and share them. Since the Kazeboon videos were launched in November 2011, activists around the country have aired them in neighborhoods across the country. The success of these initiatives in reaching the broader offline public prompted SCAF to establish “The National Military Media Committee” in early January 2012 to counter the activists’ versions of current and past events.

Memorial Demonstrations and Marches

During the past year, numerous events and activities largely initiated by civil society have honored victims of violence. Indeed, as the injury and death toll has risen, and those alleged to be responsible remain largely unaccountable, anti-government demonstrations and marches now routinely include victims and survivors calling for justice on behalf of the dead and injured.

One of the first initiatives was the construction of a memorial to fallen activists by demonstrators in Tahrir Square immediately after Mubarak was removed in February 2011. As they worked to clean the square, bagging litter, replacing uprooted cobblestones, and repainting curbs, activists built the memorial with pictures of many who lost their lives during the uprising. It was dismantled soon afterwards by the authorities. 

On 11 November 2011, Coptic Christians organized a march from the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya to Tahrir Square in which the women dressed in Pharaonic costumes and the men wore black T-shirts inscribed with the ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of eternal life. The march included the carrying of a symbolic coffin and large pictures of twenty-seven Copts killed as they demonstrated in the Maspero neighborhood of Cairo on 9-10 October 2011 to protest attacks against Coptic churches in Upper Egypt.

Another memorial demonstration was organized by twenty-three political parties and movements on 2 December 2011. This was done in honor of forty-two persons killed nationwide, primarily on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near the Ministry of Interior, as they called for an end to military rule. Condolences were accepted from 1-4 PM that day at a memorial tent erected in Tahrir Square, followed by a march with symbolic coffins draped with Egyptian flags and then by a memorial service. A number of participants wore symbolic eye patches in honor of the many blinded by snipers.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square on 31 December 2011 to mark the New Year, lighting candles to commemorate the dead. According to one newspaper account, “emotions boiled over when the mother of Mohamed Rashid, murdered on 28 January…took to the stage and read a poem including—in her own words—a ‘message from heaven from all the martyrs killed during the revolt against Mubarak’s regime…Continue the revolution, never give up justice.’” Activists have also called upon the government to declare a national day of mourning, to be known as Friday of the Martyr’s Dreams, on January 20, marked by commemorations and parades around Egypt. Large marches and demonstrations also took place throughout Egypt on 25 January 2012 in honor of the day the mass uprising began on National Police Day (renamed Revolution Day). In a demonstration in Tahrir Square, activists evoked an ancient Egyptian symbol when they displayed a huge Pharaonic-style wooden obelisk inscribed with the names of all the Egyptians “martyrs” killed during the previous year.

                    [Obelisk covered with the names of martyrs of the revolution, January 25, 2012. Image by Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr.]

Place Renaming

There are many recent examples of efforts to reclaim civic spaces through renaming. Ten days after Mubarak was deposed, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq ordered streets to be renamed after “martyrs.”14 Days later, in the first of many similar actions that followed, the Suzanne Mubarak Specialized Hospital was renamed Red Crescent Specialized Hospital. Another place name—the Mubarak metro stop in central Cairo, located under Ramsis Square—also quickly became a prominent focus of interest. The day after Mubarak was deposed, a Facebook campaign called upon the government to rename the stop after Khalid Said. On 21 April 2011, an Egyptian court issued a verdict requiring the removal of Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak’s names from all public places. The Minister of Transport swiftly indicated this would include the Mubarak metro stop, which was renamed al Shuhadaa (The Martyrs). At the same time, the Ministry of Education promised to rename some 549 schools around the country named after one member of the Mubarak family or another. 

This verdict was soon challenged and suspended by another court on 5 June. An appeals court then announced it would issue a final decision by no later than 18 July. Meanwhile, mounting pro-Mubarak sentiment was expressed on the Facebook page Ana Asif Ya Rayas (I’m Sorry, Mr. President). By mid-September 2011, it was one of the largest, most visible pro-Mubarak Facebook groups.15 Its members took credit for using graffiti to restore Mubarak’s name on the metro stop in August after it was renamed Martyrs in April.

Another telling incident occurred on the campus of the American University in Cairo, where students, in mid-March, forcibly pried off a wall sign for the Suzanne Mubarak Hall. A month later, the university formally suspended the use of the name and announced that it would organize a conference on “Public Names, History and Memory in Political Transitions.” In general, however, there has been little discussion about the merits and demerits of retaining old place names and memorials that provide opportunities for “teachable moments” to reflect upon and educate about the past.

Artistic Activism

Independent cultural producers—artists, musicians, actors, and others—have played a key role in promoting alternative historical narratives and documenting revolutionary acts. One innovative example is a collaborative effort to use crowd sourcing to combine documentary material from multiple contributors into a single film, called 18 Days in Egypt. The group’s website invites visitors to upload their materials for inclusion.

A filmmakers’ collective, Mosireen (Insisting), also seeks web submission of documentary materials countering state media coverage of events. In July 2011, the same group organized a public film festival, Tahrir Cinema, during which it screened alternative documentaries about the revolution in Tahrir Square, along with cartoons and other materials lampooning mainstream narratives. In January 2012, the collective uploaded a short video entitled Don’t Mess With the People, which was viewed by 41,583 people within ten days. Like many alternative sources, it featured the voices and views of Egypt’s underclass, whose perspectives remain largely marginalized by state media.  


Some groups tested the weakness of the regime by using civic spaces that were off-limits under the Mubarak government. One example was the holding of an open-air arts festival, al Fann Midan (Art is a Square), in Cairo’s Abdeen Square in April 2011, organized by the Independent Artists Coalition. The coalition itself was initiated by Culture Resource, an Egyptian non-governmental organization with regional reach that built the first stage and provided sound equipment during the January/February demonstrations in Tahrir. Since April, the coalition has organized monthly arts festivals in fourteen cities around Egypt. It joined forces with another group, the Coalition for Independent Culture, to mobilize the arts community to join demonstrations and sit-ins. Another online/offline initiative, Tahrir Monologues, invites people to submit their stories and testimonials about the revolution in writing and video. The collection was recently staged as a play in a local Cairo theatre.

Protest songs, accompanied by music videos, have proliferated over the past year and a half, including spontaneous chant and response songs created during demonstrations. Some have become hugely popular; they are circulated by television, radio, and mobile phone and are downloadable from the web. 

Artists have captured civic space in other ways. Egyptian communities are now awash in graffiti and wall art that changes on a daily basis. Some of it is memorial in nature, featuring portraits and names of victims of violence. Striking examples include larger-than-life portraits of demonstrators blinded or killed by snipers in November 2011 on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, just off Tahrir Square. The deaths of seventy-five football fans in Port Said on 1 February 2012 launched another wave of memorial wall art featuring portraits of the dead.

                       [The artist Ammar Abo Bakr painting a mural of the martyr Sheikh Emad Effat on Mohamed Mahmoud
                                                                street, February 2012. Image by Jonathan Rashad.]

The larger political conflict is mirrored in struggles over graffiti and wall art. Perhaps the best known image, produced by Egyptian artist Mohamed Ganzeer and collaborators under the Sixth of October bridge crossing Cairo’s Zamalek neighborhood, featured a black and white tank facing off against a bicyclist balancing a tray of bread on his head. Created soon after Mubarak’s departure, it was updated in early January 2012 by other artists to depict red blood squirting out from under the tank’s tracks and a row of demonstrators facing the tank with their hands up in the air and carrying “V for Vendetta” masks. Within days, members of Badr Team 1, a pro-SCAF civilian group, painted over elements they felt were offensive to the military. The same group released a video encouraging Egyptian youth to remove graffiti, which they view as “a method for agents and traitors to spread their violent ideologies against the police, the army and Egyptian traditions.”

Graffiti artists have also left their imprint on parliamentary election signage. SCAF waited until too late—just days before the onset of parliamentary elections—to issue a decree prohibiting leaders of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) from running for parliamentary seats. So activists took matters into their own hands, splashing the word feloul (remnant) across campaign posters and banners throughout Egypt. The Facebook group Emsek Feloul (Catch a Remnant) was created to “out” former NDP members by listing their names and documenting where they were running for office. Before long, a counter-revolutionary Facebook group, Feloul and Proud, emerged.

Art galleries have documented the political iconography of Egypt. Townhouse Gallery, an independent arts organization located in the car repair district of downtown Cairo, sponsored an exhibition entitled The Politics of Representation that opened in December 2011. It featured an array of signs, posters, and symbols of the political parties and candidates contesting People’s Assembly seats through three rounds of elections in November 2011 to January 2012. Many other art galleries and performance spaces throughout Cairo have also mounted revolution-related cultural productions over the past year.16

To mark the first anniversary of the January 25 Revolution and inspire artists to commemorate the event in cities around the world, Mohamed Ganzeer and other prominent artists communicated through Twitter and Facebook to declare the week leading up to the anniversary as “Mad Graffiti Week.” Work produced that week added new layers of memory to walls in communities throughout Egypt and abroad.


Egypt is in the midst of a transition whose outcomes remain unclear. The running contest over place names, graffiti, and memorials is one way that its protagonists proclaim their positions and keep score. These struggles are reminiscent of timeworn practices in Egypt, where pharaohs removed or appropriated monuments constructed by their predecessors and ancient Christians and Muslims chiseled away or deconstructed statures, friezes, and pyramids honoring previous rulers or disputed gods. In a contemporary reenactment of that practice, a prominent statute in Alexandria of Zeus surrounded by nude mermaids was covered during a March 2011 rally of the Al-Nour Party because it offended attendees’ sensibilities.

What is largely missing in discussions about the formation and representation of historical memory is the pedagogic value of featuring dark elements of Egypt’s past. One example is revealing: laying down guidelines to revise primary and secondary school history textbooks, the Ministry of Education decided to remove all references to the dominant role of the ruling National Democratic Party during the Mubarak regime. According to one education consultant involved in the textbook rewrites, some drafts were rejected because they did not follow this guideline, suggesting that eradication, not reinterpretation, of historical memory continues to serve as a tool of political ascendancy.

Egyptians have plenty of opportunities to preserve and reinterpret memory of the Mubarak regime by keeping physical reminders of the old regime in place. In downtown Cairo, the iconic National Democracy Party headquarters, adjacent to the National Council for Women, was burned and looted in the early days of the uprising. It and other ruined state buildings, including courthouses, police stations, and prisons, could be converted into historic site museums to help future generations grapple with the Mubarak regime’s abuse of power. In the present political climate, however, it seems likely that the NDP headquarters, on prime real estate bordering the Nile, will be torn down by the state or incorporated into the adjacent Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Until the conflict cools, the utility of preserving and interpreting memory of unsavory chapters in Egyptian contemporary history can be expected to receive little attention or support by the state.

What has fundamentally changed is who narrates history. Some have called the uprising in Egypt the “Facebook Revolution.” While it is easy to exaggerate the role of digital technologies and platforms in fostering the Arab Spring, these tools have certainly helped democratize the formation and projection of alternative historical narratives. Memory can fade quickly, but ordinary people are keeping memory alive by using digital technologies to generate, preserve, and convey their personal stories and interpret their experiences, often at odds with official and shifting narratives projected by government officials and state media. Commemoration has become highly interactive and dynamic, played and replayed in demonstrations marches and vigils, and recorded in songs, films, and tweets. In the absence of any state-sponsored efforts to commemorate victims of the uprising, civil society initiatives have become the primary mechanisms through which Egyptians are honoring victims and pushing a change agenda. How these practices influence the writing and narration of history about this transitional period no doubt will become the future focus of professional historians.

[A longer version of this article was published by Middle East Policy, Vo. XIX, No. 2, Summer 2012. The author wishes to thank Nora Soliman for her comments on the article and the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre for its support of the author’s research.]


[1] Household Internet penetration has increased substantially in Egypt in recent years. See

[2] Halbwachs, Maurice, On Collective Memory, edited, translated and with an introduction by Lewis A. Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[3] For an overview of memorialization and its relation to conflict, see Barsalou, Judy and Baxter, Victoria, The Urge to Remember: The Role of Memorials in Social Reconstruction and Transitional Justice, Stabilization and Reconstruction Series No. 5 (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, January 2007). Available at

[4] The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is an example of an important emerging state actor, having captured nearly half of the People’s Assembly seats in recent elections.

[5] For more on this subject see Bodnar, John, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992); Jelin, E., State Repression and the Labors of Memory (St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Biggar, N. Burying the Past: Making Peace and Doing Justice After Civil Conflict (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003); Minow, Martha, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998); and Levinson, Sanford, Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998).

[6] Lecture at the American University in Cairo, November 23, 2011.

[7] Conversation with Khaled Fahmy, December 17, 2011.

[8] See the website of the National Archives of Egypt, Also see Lindsey, Ursula, “In Egypt, History for the People,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 12, 2012.

[9] Di-Capua, Yoav, Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: Historians and History Writing in 20th Century Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009): 327.

[10] Some reported that dump trunks were seen exiting from state buildings full of shredded documents. See Stack, Liam and MacFarquhar, Neil, “Egyptians Get View of Extent of Spying, The New York Times, March 10, 2011.

[11] Now suspended, the site was originally located at 

[12] Personal communication with Nora Soliman, a spokesperson for Al-Adl Party, February 1, 2012.

[13] Personal communication with Carol F. Runyon, AUC Digital Collections Archivist, December 1, 2011.

[14] This decree appears to be largely unimplemented. For example, a street in Cairo named after the former parliamentary speaker, Fathy Sourour, remains intact.

[15] As of September 2011, it had over 113,000 members, and was one of approximately eight Facebook groups with the same name. See Carr, Sarah, “Mubarak Loyalists Bring Old State-Run Media Ethos to the Web,” Al Masry Al Youm, August 10, 2011.

[16] For a roundup of arts events and productions related to the revolution, see three articles in the same edition of Al Ahram Weekly, 29 December 2011-4 January 2012: Selaiha, Nehad, “A Year of Revolutionary Theatre,” p. 22; Mourad, Sara, Songs of Revival,” p. 23; and Fouad, Vinous, “The Many Faces of Revolutionary Art,” p. 23.

2 comments for "Recalling the Past: The Battle over History, Collective Memory and Memorialization in Egypt"


Thank you so much for this article, very important work with invaluable links. I will share widely, particularly to those interested in archives and oral history.

ginan rauf wrote on June 28, 2012 at 08:53 AM

Thank you so much for this article, very important work with invaluable links. I will share widely, particularly to those interested in archives and oral history.

ginan rauf wrote on June 28, 2012 at 10:23 AM

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