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In an uncertain Egypt, street artists rein in their outrage

A girl walks past graffiti on a wall near Tahrir square in Cairo July 21, 2013. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih
A girl walks past graffiti on a wall near Tahrir square in Cairo July 21, 2013. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

By Tom Finn and Noah Browning

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian rappers and graffiti artists who captured the spirit of the youthful rebellion that toppled president Hosni Mubarak are toning down their outrage as the path to democracy has become more complicated.

Three weeks since the military ousted Mubarak's elected successor, the Islamist Mohamed Mursi, street artists who want neither religious nor military rule see little place in today's exhausted Egypt for their once defiant world view.

"Emotions are high. The country is divided...it's too soon," said Cairo rapper Mohammed al-Deeb whose lyrics once tapped into growing discontent with life under Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood.

Last year, al-Deeb rapped: "Trials slowing down, corruption is rampant, it stinks like armpits, the police execute orders like Robocop."

Now that the Brotherhood is out of power and its supporters hold massive sit-ins and rallies that have repeatedly led to deadly clashes with the military and with other Egyptians, his hopes for peace have muted the raps that once aimed to provoke.

"We still don't know where this is headed. The army is in power. We have a temporary president. We have to put our revolutionary feelings away, at least for now," he said.

Sculptor Alaa Abdel Hameed, 27, has stopped a provocative art project he began last month: gluing onto street walls brightly colored plaques of the eagle from the armed forces' insignia, upside down.

After the military toppled Mursi on July 3, many of the eagles were ripped off by passers-by who chastised him for insulting the symbol of those they see as the nation's saviors.

Abdel Hameed relented, telling detractors: "If you don't like it, you can take them down."

"Now is not the right moment to direct our message at the army or any one party, because we don't think average people are on one side or the other," he told Reuters.

Art against the army, left over from the 16 months of military rule following Mubarak's fall in 2011, has mostly been defaced.

Only in a few forlorn alleys can you still see sprayed slogans such as: "Down with the field marshal!" - referring to Hussein Tantawi, the army chief who ruled Egypt immediately after Mubarak's ouster.

"WHO AM I WITH?"

The demonstrations that led to the toppling of Mubarak were accompanied by an explosion of daring new art that challenged the norms of a conservative Arab country.

But paintings of martyred youths and grimacing leaders fading on Cairo's walls are now relics of past upheaval, no longer rallying cries for action.

Walking Cairo's streets with a paint spattered satchel and matching bright green shirt and shoes, graffiti artist Ammar Abo Bakr said it was now time for more reflection.

"We already lived through the bloodiest days and painted martyrs covered in flowers," he said.

"It's not time to say the things we've said before. We've passed this period of suffering. It's time for dialogue and to preserve Egyptian identity, not just talk politics," he said.

Abo Bakr is skeptical about the June 30 demonstrations which toppled the Islamist president, seeing them as a settling of old scores between remnants of Mubarak's government and Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood. Still, he insists it was no coup.

His latest work, by a parking garage, is a mural in shades of soft sky blue depicting an Egyptian woman wearing an elaborate beaded necklace, her face painted in shimmering gold like the Pharaonic-era statues of queens and goddesses.

Abo Bakr said his work reaffirmed Egyptians' continuity with an ancient past spurned by the Islamists.

Ahmed Nagy, 27, from the poor Cairo suburb of Giza, started rapping and writing poetry after a friend was shot by police during anti-government protests in 2011.

His lyrics from the time evoked the pain of his loss and the unfairness of poverty. He says the protests that toppled Mubarak made him feel fulfilled as a citizen and as a person for the first time.

These days, though, he's wary of backing any side and keeps politics out of his rhymes.

"I'm not with the Salafists, I'm not with the liberals or the army, so who am I with?" he said. "The people don't want a military dictatorship or rule by Islamic fascists."

But the sense of caution felt by many street artists may border on self-censorship.

Graffiti artist Omar "Picasso" Fathy created a well-known piece near the Ittihadiya presidential palace depicting the faces of ousted rulers Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi and Mursi, one behind the other in a series.

It ended with a white question mark in a black-silhouetted face wearing an army beret, suggesting that the military would seize power next.

But he later revised the mural, smoothing away the beret.

"I didn't want to ruin the happiness of the people around Ittihadiya, who at that time wouldn't understand my point of view," Picasso wrote on Facebook.

"But I'm still convinced of what was in the (original) picture ... Maybe I'm wrong. I hope I am."

(Editing by Crispian Balmer and Robin Pomeroy)

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