The people of Cairo’s response to the whitewashing of murals and writing created during Egypt’s revolution has been very telling about the role of art in uprising. For the newly empowered authorities, the upheaval is over and there is a need to return to “order.” The people’s reaction has been far different. They want the revolutionary artwork there to inspire them and they will not allow that history to be erased. Contrast this to London’s response to MEAR ONE’s controversial mural challenging the global elite. Those in power can not allow anything that will stir up the people to remain visible. And that is the power of the aerosol movement that started in the subways of New York and has spread to throughout the world. Aerosol culture connects the youth to Freedom, to the ability to express their identity and their outrage against injustice. There is a natural attraction for the masses and a natural disdain from those in power, who want to maintain the status quo. As the prison industry and surveillance society ramps up, is it any surprise that sentencing for so called “graffiti vandalism” has increase from 5 days to 3 – 20 years? This demonstrates the power of the writing on the wall.

Last month the authorities in Cairo whitewashed a mural that had become an international shrine to anti-establishment street art, raising the question of whether graffiti should be protected on the grounds of free speech.

The wall in Muhammad Mahmoud Street paid tribute to the martyrs of the revolution, a memorial to hatred of the army and police, and to the rebellious spirit unleashed during and after the uprising. The day after the clean-up, graffiti artists of all persuasions gathered to restore the memorial. They wondered why the authorities were in such a hurry to efface images which for months had attracted tourists and analysts from all over the world. Some suspected that overzealous officials, encouraged by the new Islamist regime, might be tempted to censor pictures supposedly banned by Islam.

But it seems that the motives of the newly appointed authorities are much more prosaic. In the past few weeks the new governors appointed by President Mohamed Morsi have been busily cleaning up the streets of Cairo and Alexandria with an enthusiasm only equalled by the widespread disrespect for the authorities that developed under formerPresident Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak kept social unrest under control by allowing whole swaths of the population to work and find housing with total disregard for the rules. At best such policies fostered indifference to the law, but in many case they fuelled outright hatred of the authorities. How is Egypt‘s new-found democracy to put down roots with such a legacy?

In the absence of any far-reaching reforms the public space has become, since Morsi’s election, the focus of a wild drive to patch up appearances. Apparently inspired by some unrealistic desire to turn over a completely new leaf, the Muslim Brotherhood is determined to clean up the streets of Egypt, before even beginning to purge the rotten apparatus of state.

Around Tahrir Square, stripped of its tents, gardeners are planting flowers and palm trees. Meanwhile squads of police track down any errant graffiti and harass the thousands of roaming vendors who clog the city streets. Surely this is an unfortunate initiative in an overpopulated megacity where the informal economy represents more than a third of gross domestic product.

On 7 September the police in Alexandria raided the historic used-book market on Nabi Daniel Street, kicking over stalls, tearing up books and smashing shelves. This operation caused such an outcry that the culture minister in person expressed his disapproval.

As part of their cleaning frenzy the Brothers have also instructed several groups of well-meaning youths to deal with the heaps of rubbish which block the streets of towns all over Egypt. This cosmetic initiative drew sarcastic comments from the rag trade, which has been struggling to cope with the problem for decades.

The victims of the police clampdown are not fooled by the authorities’ dreams of flowerbeds and superficial tidying. Skulking in the entrances to buildings, street vendors are quick to voice their resentment. “To restore confidence the government should start by making gifts to people, rather than depriving them of the little they have,” said one trader struggling to keep hold of his goods. “Apart from the rubbish,” he added, stumbling over a heap of junk.

Any hopes of graffiti being legalised seem extremely unlikely, even if on the day after the destruction of the Muhammad Mahmoud mural the prime minister, Hisham Qandil, expressed reservations, condemning the whitewash and encouraging street artists to produce new graffiti on Tahrir Square “true to the spirit of the revolution”.

The response was almost immediate. “If you change your trousers without having a wash you get a rash”, read the message on a wall inTalaat Harb Street. And in Muhammad Mahmoud Street itself there was a face poking out its tongue in defiance and saying: “Erase it again, you cowardly regime”.

• This article appeared in the Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde