Graffiti Reclaims Egypt's Revolution From Marketers Companies in Egypt now reference the revolution in their ads — even some of the phone companies that gave into the regime's request to shut down service during the uprising. "The revolution is not a cow; let's not milk it," one man says. Street artists hope to reclaim the uprising's message.

Graffiti Reclaims Egypt's Revolution From Marketers

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GUY RAZ, host: Here's something else companies are cashing in on: images from the uprising in Egypt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Advertisers in Egypt are using scenes of young protesters to sell everything from Internet service to mobile phones to soft drinks. And that marketing has sparked a backlash among young Egyptians.

NPR's Eric Westervelt has this story from Cairo.


ERIC WESTERVELT: Here on the 15th of May Bridge in Cairo's typically atrocious traffic, people are weaving in and out, fighting their way home from work. There's a big sign above greeting people: Make Tomorrow Better: Coca Cola, just one of many instances of companies trying to use the revolutionary-type slogans to sell their products.


WESTERVELT: A few blocks away, there's a poster with a raised, clenched fist, holding a pair of sunglasses. It's an ad for a Red Sea resort, and says Support Egypt's Tourism. Another billboard shows people cleaning the streets, as many volunteered to do after the revolution. It says The Country is Ours. The ad is for soap. It's not just billboards. Mobile phone and Internet companies are filling the TV airwaves trying to cash in.

Here's an ad for a cell phone company Mobinil. It's built around images of Egyptian's waving flags set to a classic patriotic song called "Egypt is my Mother."

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL AD) (Singing in foreign language)

WESTERVELT: Some in the advertising industry here are calling it revo or revolutionary branding.

YOUSSEF: If you can play with words to get your slogan to sound like it birthed the revolution, then you're cool. You're going to be, like, revo brands, as I call them.

WESTERVELT: That's Youssef, a 26-year-old Egyptian advertising writer and composer. He doesn't want his full name used because he worries he'll lose his livelihood. Youssef says for many young Egyptians who took great risks in Tahrir Square to help bring down a dictator, the commodification of the revolution is offensive and stupid. Egyptians aren't dumb, Youssef says, and the ad writer has come up with his own unofficial slogan in response.

YOUSSEF: The revolution is not a cow, let's not milk it.

WESTERVELT: To Youssef and others, the marketing also marks a heavy handed attempt by companies to try to rewrite history. Some of the telecommunications companies now trying to associate themselves with the uprising are the same ones who quickly gave in to the Mubarak regime's request to help shut down service on January 28th, just a few days into the revolution.

YOUSSEF: Everyone sold us down the river. So all these people coming now and claiming that their phones, their kitchen appliances, their whatever has helped the revolution, nothing has helped the revolution but the people that did the revolution.

WESTERVELT: For years, Egypt's media were reigned in and censored by government and military minders. That practice of intimidation has continued somewhat under the transitional military council now ruling the country. Egyptian journalists have been hauled before military interrogators for merely reporting on critical comments made about the army's ruling council.

Adham Bakry is a freelance graphic artist who camped out protesting in Tahrir Square during the uprising.

ADHAM BAKRY: The government has a lot of experience in, like, propaganda and media manipulation, and advertising has been hand in hand with them in that. They're playing the same game all over again. It just goes to show you that not a lot has changed.

WESTERVELT: Bakry is now fighting back with his street art. After the revolution, he started stenciling on walls around the city the faces of two discredited leaders of the former ruling party, the NDP, holding on to prison bars. Not long after, the two politicians were arrested on corruption charges.

Bakry sees the rise of Cairo's street art and graffiti scene as a kind of politicized push back against those using the uprising as a marketing tool.

BAKRY: They just want to overwhelm people with this notion that this is the new Egypt and, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, and keep using the same slogans, and it bothers me.

WESTERVELT: Bakry notes that his generation was raised on a steady diet of propaganda glorifying the Egyptian military. There are giant, Soviet realist-type murals in most every city and town showing Hosni Mubarak as the great commander leading soldiers into the Sinai against Israel. It was that kind of propaganda that helped buttress decades of authoritarian rule here.

BAKRY: Really bad murals, too, really badly done. You know, I feel that graffiti is a way to reclaim the streets. I want to see more graffiti that's more critical, that's the work I want to do.

WESTERVELT: In parts of Cairo, someone has started anonymously stenciling giant boxer shorts speckled with army helicopters, calling them Tantawi's underwear in mocking reference to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who now heads the ruling transitional military council.

As one street artist put it, maybe more citizens will see that and start to break the fear barrier they still have against criticizing Egypt's military rulers. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Cairo.

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