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Work by Egyptian artist and designer Ganzeer shows a military man on top of a pile of skulls. / Sarah Lynch

CAIRO - For Egyptian engineer Hassan Saber, 42, the vibrant street art that coats Cairo's walls has become a critical part of the landscape where he works in the heart of Egypt's capital city.

But turning toward a stenciled wall on a recent afternoon, Saber said he noticed artists aren't creating new works as often as they did before a law restricting the right to protest was enacted last November.

"It's a crisis," he said, noting the work is important since it reflects Egypt's political situation and history.

Production of street art, which for a period mirrored Egypt's fiery political life and underscored an atmosphere of freer expression, has slowed over the past year amid a clampdown on dissent and a spike in pro-military fervor. Some artists say that has heightened security concerns and many of them are still known only by a single name. Motivation has reached a new low.

"Nowadays I feel even the most optimistic person is deflated," says Keizer, who is producing street art less frequently than he used to. "The revolution was stolen from beneath our feet," he said, referring to the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

In a separate development Monday, rights groups slammed an Egyptian court after it sentenced Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed to at least seven years in jail on terrorism-related charges - expanding concerns over speech and media freedoms in a country that three years ago swelled with optimism for democracy. The trio insist they were simply doing their jobs when arrested while covering protests in December.

"In Egypt today anyone who dares to challenge the state's narrative is considered a legitimate target," says Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

The verdict shows the extent to which space for freedoms has shrunk since early 2011. While some street art existed before the uprising against Mubarak, it surged as Egyptians took to the streets demanding his ouster.

"There was a sudden sense that the public space had been returned to the public," said Soraya Morayef, who has documented street art in Egypt on a blog.

But there is a huge difference between then and now, she said, noting concern for artists who still feel it's their right to advocate for a cause or make art in support of what they call the Jan. 25 Revolution. "We're in a very, very bad time right now," Morayef said.

Since now-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi last July, authorities have killed hundreds of people and jailed thousands more. Unapproved protests have been banned and authorities are allegedly planning for mass Internet surveillance. In November, local media reports said a proposed law seeks to criminalize graffiti.

Egyptian artist and designer Ganzeer, 32, tries to be strategic. In April he created four posters that were critical of the army and could quickly be pasted on walls, but printing houses refused to produce the posters, fearing authorities, he says.

Then, in May, an Egyptian television host accused Ganzeer of being a Muslim Brotherhood recruit - a dangerous claim in a nation where the Islamist movement is labeled a terrorist group and its adherents have been swiftly imprisoned.

Now, he believes that unless work is supporting al-Sisi, it is almost impossible to be a street artist under Egypt's current leaders. "It's just the beginning," says Ganzeer. "And when the time is right they'll crack down on the street artists."

Still, some say they don't fear arrest.

"Why worry about the future when the past is dark and you could have been killed?" asks Ammar Abo Bakr, surrounded by vibrantly painted walls in his Cairo studio.

Yet he concedes there are safety concerns and says he hasn't produced street art since last fall not only because the message he painted then remains relevant and strong but "also to be safe, because we want to continue."

Others say they have been uninspired since a spike in support for military-backed leaders last summer.

"A lot of it has to do with the reaction in the street," says El Teneen. "We all feed on the energy and how people react, and I think right now, many people are not happy with many of the things street artists would like to say."

While there may be a lull in production from seasoned artists, ordinary Egyptians have also taken to the capital's walls. After last summer's power shift, some spray painted slogans like "Sisi killer." Ahead of the recent presidential poll, "vote for the pimp" also surfaced.

"I'm not saying it's supposed to be pretty or beautiful or fine art," says illustrator Amro Okacha, who recently saw a band of high school students spray painting slogans critical of the education ministry. "But the revolution opened the door for anyone to express himself."

Abo Bakr said that is what matters most.

"If they come to arrest us I don't care," he says, referring to the well-known artists. "People are still writing on the walls everywhere."



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: For Egypt's graffiti artists, the writing is no longer on the wall

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