In Egypt, Indie Music Finds an Outlet Despite Repression

Even as Sisi clamps down and self-censorship rises, mahraganat thrives through alternative means

In Egypt, Indie Music Finds an Outlet Despite Repression
An impromptu Mahragan festival in Dar El Salaam in Cairo / Mohammed Elshamy / Anadolu Agency /Getty Images

Ask almost any musician about the Egypt of 2011 to 2013, the couple of years following the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, and they’re likely to describe it as “euphoric,” a time of bursting, seemingly limitless possibilities, where visual arts, graffiti, theater and various creative forms blossomed to voice a historical moment. A slew of indie musicians, once at the fringes of an industry dominated by pop icons with little relevance to ordinary people’s lives, came up with anthems that shook the most populous Arab country’s youth at the height of its “spring.”

Singing from makeshift stages at protests and lamenting political oppression, a new generation of socially engaged artists was born. And with the rise in digital audio streaming platforms, such as SoundCloud, YouTube and Anghami in the late 2000s and early 2010s, it wasn’t long before this music scene attracted a wider audience and cemented the popularity of these artists.

But this heyday wouldn’t last; when military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in 2014, controlling the music industry that once served as a unifying voice for the opposition topped his agenda. From last-minute concert cancellations on alleged “security measures” to forcing venues to obtain various permits and imprisoning artists under supposed terrorism charges, Sisi’s regime has been waging a war against the indie music industry. The free theater, concerts, film screenings and art exhibitions, like Al-Fan Midan, that typified the cultural activism of the time are a thing of the past.

The same year that Sisi was elected, the Egyptian constitution was amended. Article 67 of the 2014 constitution protects the right to freedom of expression and prohibits the arrest of any artist, writer or performer for their creative output. Drafted after the military’s power grab from the Muslim Brotherhood, the amendment stipulates that artistic and literary creativity are constitutional rights. In practice, this legislation isn’t applied.

“The current constitution is very clear in prohibiting the arrest or conviction of artists, in alignment with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Egypt has ratified and pledged to abide by,” says lawyer Mahmoud Othman, the founder of the Cairo-based organization Legal Assistance and Consultation for Artists. “As long as an artistic work does not incite racism, discrimination or hate, its creators can’t be jailed. … So it’s not about the legislation in place; it’s about the fact that it isn’t applied.”

One widely known case of artistic censorship in Egypt is the ban on Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila from performing in the North African country after their November 2017 concert in Cairo, which attracted over 30,000 fans. Seven people were arrested at the event — including LGBT activist Sarah Hegazy, who committed suicide two years later while living in Canada — for raising a rainbow flag in solidarity with the band’s openly gay lead singer.

Another case involved Ramy Essam, an Egyptian rock musician once deemed “the bard of the revolution” who has lived in exile in Sweden and Finland since 2014 after being arrested and tortured. In 2018, seven men were arrested under terror-related charges for their involvement in producing Essam’s 2018 song “Balaha” for mocking Sisi as a “shiny, brown date.”

Esam’s song lyrics were a play on prominent composer and anti-colonialist Sayed Darwish’s iconic century-old song “Ya Balah Zaghloul,” which mocks political despots by likening them to sweet dates. Despite its historical, patriotic and cultural significance, Darwish’s song was also banned in 2020. The same year, “Balaha” video editor Shady Habash mysteriously died in prison after his health deteriorated while in solitary confinement.

In violation of the constitution, the state has used a stringent regulatory environment to police musicians and restrict artistic content it deems as threatening to its grip on power. In 2017, the regime ordered the closure of the major bookstore chain Alef for its alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. A 2018 decision set out near-impossible conditions for holding concerts or festivals and allowed the culture minister to arbitrarily cancel concerts. Even with the announcement in October that the nationwide state emergency would end after nearly five years, the state has at its disposal antiterrorism laws that permit indefinite pretrial detention, refer civilians to military trials and unduly place individuals on terrorist lists. Much like the “Balaha” crew, various filmmakers, writers and musicians have been arrested under the guise of terrorist-related charges in recent years.

“Under the current environment, with hefty policing and the current security measures, the unrealistic permits required — and the prospect of arrest if you miss one — the harsh executive power at hand and the historically tyrannical censorship makes things very difficult for emerging artists. … These confines serve hegemonic political interests,” says a musician-turned-lawyer who requested anonymity out of fear of state reprisals.

The Musicians’ Syndicate, a union that ostensibly serves artists’ interests, has become another tool the state uses to control the music industry. In 2015, under the Sisi regime, the syndicate was granted judicial investigation powers, and the head of the syndicate was given authority to deny performance permits as well as ban musicians and even entire genres.

Led by renowned pop artist Hany Shaker, the syndicate has issued warnings to numerous artists over the years, limiting the growth and visibility of genres and musical forms it deems inappropriate on moral or political grounds. Shake is an icon of Arabic pop since the 1980s, and his role in furthering the regime’s tone of homogenous, out-of-touch genres is more than just a move to maintain the status quo. In some ways, it’s almost as jarring as Kanye West rallying behind Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, except Shaker is a state-backed figure living under an authoritarian regime.

After building a career on soft-voiced romantic lyrics, Shaker is now at the helm of smear campaigns that demonize rappers and take aim at female artists for the way they dress. “With the Musicians’ Syndicate’s lack of support for artists and the shift in public opinion demonizing some artists for vague, arbitrary and even obscure reasons like violating ‘family values,’ making music of any real substance or value becomes almost impossible,” the musician-turned-lawyer explains.

In October, the syndicate banned chart-topping rapper Marwan Pablo from performing after the Palestinian rapper Shabjdeed introduced Pablo onstage as “Lord.” The syndicate deemed this as offensive to Islam, although rights groups agree that neither artist did anything illegal. Under the pretense of protecting Islamic values in the moderately conservative Arab country, the state decides what is acceptable in the music industry.

“What’s frustrating is that censorship or denied permits today are less about specific standards or actions that may or may not be permitted, and in actuality about who gets to perform and who doesn’t. The current censorship standards aren’t clearly defined. It’s almost like we’re up against either [the syndicate’s and the Censorship Board’s] whims or the directives they get from above,” explains Wael el-Sayed, an accordionist who has performed with countless musicians of the generation who acquired fame at the height of the 2011 revolution, such as the Wust el-Balad rock band, singer and composer Dina el-Wedidi, and countless others.

Most prominently, the syndicate has prohibited live performances of mahraganat, a genre combining drum-heavy Egyptian shaabi lyrics about tackling poverty and social problems with elements of hip-hop, rap and electronic dance music.

The mahraganat genre has exploded in popularity since the Arab Spring and has a large, loyal fan base across the region. In Egypt’s urban spheres, it’s common to hear the music being played at every street corner. The Sisi regime is opposed to mahraganat music, in part, because the mediums on which it is played — like the streaming apps Anghami and Youtube — are not under the state’s control. The music also marks a shift from the outdated, homogeneous-sounding pop music of the late 20th century embodied in the music of now-syndicate head Shaker. But more than that, the state fears the music may inspire the kind of dissent it is determined to silence.

After months of Shaker bashing the genre, the syndicate’s first deputy officer, Mohammad Abul-Yazid, recently announced on a popular talk show program that some mahraganat musicians may soon be permitted syndicate membership under a host of rules, such as changing their rapper-styled stage names to familiar birth names. The official claimed these guidelines had been in place although they hadn’t been officially announced. All the move seems to have done is to create layers of ambiguity and barriers to perform this music genre. The mahraganat has been stripped of its defining characteristics while authorities’ indignation of artists is on full display.

Egypt’s mainstream music industry had long been controlled by an oligarchy of private investors, including Saudi billionaire and Rotana Media Group owner Prince Al Waleed bin Talal. Since 2018, the Arab country’s media landscape has become increasingly controlled by Egyptian Media Group, which is owned by the government intelligence agency, in a bid to take hold of the entertainment industry’s tone and systematically manipulate it as a propaganda stream. This growing state-backed monopoly of film and drama production, broadcasting and online media takes surveillance one step further, allowing the Sisi regime almost unlimited control of the creative landscape. With the authoritarian state taking on both regulation and ownership, it controls who is given a platform and who isn’t.

Since Sisi came to power in 2014, artwashing has become the norm. Artists’ success has been conditional on their support for the political status quo and whether they can be leveraged in the state’s propaganda campaigns. For instance, Sisi’s integration of the arts in the government-orchestrated sustainable development national agenda called Egypt Vision 2030, which is comprehensive albeit recognized as little more than lip service, comes with new layers of surveillance that make any diversion from the regime’s preferred form of cultural production virtually impossible.

In 2019, Lebanese-born pop artist Nancy Ajram released a pro-patriarchy song praising Sisi as “a man of all men” just weeks before a referendum on constitutional amendments that would allow him to remain in office until 2030. There’s also Mohammed Ramadan, an actor and singer who has become a poster child for state propaganda campaigns. Although his music falls under the mahraganat genre typically vilified by the authorities, Ramadan is allowed a platform to sing to the tune of government-endorsed scripts. In one 2019 song, Ramadan raps: “What do you know about the salt of our earth? What do you know about the safety ensured by the police and the army?” in an apparent mock of musicians in exile, like the “Balaha” rock artist Essam.

As much as the Sisi regime brands itself as a guardian of modernity and culture, it has proved itself a vicious opponent of free expression, far beyond any other regime in Egyptians’ living memory. Musicians no longer have autonomy under this apparatus and, reflecting the country’s neoliberal politics, the once-independent artists of the early Arab Spring era are ever reliant on corporate events or commercials as an income source.

“Political decline invariably leads to artistic decline, especially when art is instrumentalized for something other than its paramount role, by institutions against the opposition. Essentially, art then becomes a tool for distracting the public and pressurizing [dissidents],” says the accordionist el-Sayed.

Despite the state’s growing influence over the music industry, its power isn’t without limits. Much as social media once contributed to the 2011 uprisings, digital platforms like Anghami — boasting a listenership of 75 million across the Arab world — make it difficult for the authorities to exert control over the entire industry.

Mahraganat is one genre that has managed to evade the state’s grip, and its rise is undeniably tied to the growth of digital platforms. As chaotic and loud as Cairo’s bustling streets, maharagant defies being hemmed in. The genre is associated with a broader mahraganat culture, subverting artistic conventions by embodying the experiences of disenfranchised youth through working class colloquialisms and sarcastic and catchy lyrics. This is perhaps best exemplified in a recent hit by the young rap artist Pablo: “Always present no matter how absent, poverty we saw, hardness we lived. …You fall again, and say is there any more? Yaa!”

The public performances in the early Arab Spring era and the rise in music streaming platforms brought listeners alternatives to state radio stations. Even as political change stalled and Sisi’s regime tightened its grip on power, mahraganat has remained an outlet to air the experiences of Cairo’s contemporary urban culture. By 2013, the hit “hattee boosa ya bit” (“Girl, come here and give me a kiss”) could be heard at every corner kiosk, in neighborhood coffee shops, and in tuk-tuks and microbuses. Even with the traditionalist, socially conservative Muslim Brotherhood in power at the time, the explicit lyrics took Egypt’s soundscapes by storm, becoming an icon of mahraganat’s birth.

Against all odds, the unconventional, industrious and typically untrained musicians have gained popularity on digital platforms while their peers in other music genres have struggled to survive under the regime’s climate of control. A duo widely seen as the mahraganat’s pioneers, Oka and Ortega, have attained financial independence from an apparatus that vilifies their genre by appearing in corporate TV and digital commercials or performing at weddings, since performing at private events doesn’t require a syndicate permit. Digital channels offer a space to tackle social issues with lyrical narratives and amass tens of millions of views on a minimal budget.

The technology of online streaming services has allowed other genres to maintain a following. In 2017, Cairokee, an Egyptian rock band that rose to prominence during the Arab Spring, had several of its concerts canceled because the Censorship Board rejected its then-novel songs, in line with the regime’s authoritarian direction. When their album Noaata Beda (Drop of White) was denied a commercial release the same year, they opted to release it online. Each track got tens of millions of YouTube views within weeks, proving how out of touch censorship is with audience tastes. Perhaps out of a desire to maintain a public presence, the band has since toned down its political slant, appeasing the authorities enough so that Cairokee concerts are allowed to go ahead.

The resilience of Egypt’s indie musicians, however muted their sociopolitical stances may have become, exemplifies one of the last spaces for free expression under the current dictatorship.

Mahraganat’s rise in an era of persistent state-backed restrictions shows that Egypt’s music and arts scenes can bypass the state’s restrictions by turning to music streaming platforms. Artists’ battle with censorship is furthered by the precarity that the coronavirus pandemic continues to pose; however, an increasingly digitized reality provides opportunities. This is why the push to tackle previously underrepresented issues in music, mainly through mahraganat, remains possible at a time when Sisi’s regime seems intent on driving Egyptians to political apathy.

Egypt’s contemporary music and arts scene may be unrecognizable from its post-revolutionary landscape. However, even as musicians self-censor or battle to escape the grips of political and economic constraints, they have the means to reach a mass audience without relying on conventional, state-controlled distribution channels. The popularity of mahraganat, which persistently tops digital charts in Egypt and nationwide, is a testament to what is possible.

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