How Egypt silences popular and dissident music

In Egypt, groups of musicians are invited to perform at wedding ceremonies like the one pictured here in October 2015 in Ramses, central Cairo. The most popular are those who sing ‘mahraganat’, a genre of electro-rap that has become extremely popular in Egypt over the last decade. (Mohamed el Raai)

For Faris Hemida, a well-known singer of Egypt’s wildly popular musical style known as mahraganat (‘festivals’ in Arabic), 16 February 2020 did not go well. At 15, his career as a singer for the group Shobik Lobik, founded five years ago, seemed already to be coming to an end. That day, president of the Egyptian Musicians’ Union Hany Shaker banned mahraganat from being played in clubs, bars, and cruise ships, a measure he justified as necessary in the fight against al-Fan al-Habet (kitsch) and indecency. According to Shaker, singers of mahraganat will no longer receive permission to perform in public. Those who do not respect this prohibition risk three months in prison.

In recent years, this so-called ‘union’ (not recognised as such by the International Federation of Musicians, FIM) has become a propaganda arm of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military regime and one of the most effective weapons for repressing dissident artists. In the aftermath of the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in July 2013, then-president of the union Mustafa Kamel and other singers released the song Teslam al-Ayadi (‘May Allah Bless These Hands’), which became the anthem of the new regime. In 2015, the union banned the performance of songs by Hamza Namira, a dissident singer living in exile. In 2016, it excluded six female singers accused of wearing indecent clothing and dancing suggestively on stage.

After the media, cinema, television and theatre, mahraganat songs have become the latest target of Egyptian authorities.

The simmering conflict between the authorities and performers of the mahraganat boiled to the surface following the success of the song Bent al-Jiran (‘The Girl Next Door’) by Hassan Shakoush, which was one of the most listened to songs on the music sharing platform Soundcloud in January 2020 and has been viewed over 300 million times on YouTube. The song sparked major controversy with its lyrics encouraging the use of hashish and alcohol, which many perceived to be a moral affront. On 18 February 2020, a group of lawyers filed a complaint against Shakoush for “inciting debauchery and drug use”.

Since 2019, the Shortet al-Mossanafat al-Fania, Egypt’s police of artistic works, and the Musicians’ Union have banned six concerts by the famous singer Hamo Bika in different governorates. Bika is also being prosecuted for public indecency and violation of the union’s laws. Indeed, only members of the union have the right to sing in public and require the union’s permission to do so. Last February, a Hassan Shakoush concert in Alexandria was also cancelled.

In a press release, the FIM points out that the right of workers to organise in unions binds unions to protect their members from any attack against such right. The federation further argues that the union president’s decision “violates both the right to freedom of expression and labour rights”.

Mahraganat songs: the sound of poor neighbourhoods

Since Egypt’s military-led revolution of 1952, the Egyptian government has always tried to control culture and the types of art that enter Egyptian homes. All artistic works must be ‘approved’ before being broadcast on national channels and antennas. In order to appear on television or radio, artists must also join official unions. The introduction of private channels with the launch of Nilesat satellite television in the late 1990s, followed by the democratisation of the internet, gave artists more space to operate outside of state control. But art in Egypt maintained to a certain degree the same tone of respect for supposed moral authority until the late 2000s.

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Things began to change in 2008 with the emergence of mahraganat, also known as electro shaabi, in Cairo’s working-class neighbourhood of Matarya. Three singers, Oka, Ortiga and Shehta Karika, revolutionised music by creating a mixture of styles inspired by techno, rap and traditional Arabic music. Within a few years, mahraganat, which are generally intended to get large audiences of young people dancing at festive occasions, often outdoors, had conquered Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, eclipsing other musical genres. Mahraganat singers became a huge success in concert halls as well as at the weddings of all social classes. Many groups, such as Dakhlawia, Madfagia, Sadat we fifty and Shobik Lobik, performed in Cairo and Alexandria.

“One of the characteristics of this type of music lies in the subject matter is deals with, often linked to the poverty, violence and policy brutality that occur in their neighbourhoods,” Fayrouz Karawya, independent researcher of the history of music in Egypt, tells Equal Times.

According to her, the particular vocabulary and simple rhetoric that characterise the marginalised and unrepresented classes in other musical genres are behind the success of these songs, which have broken certain taboos by talking about sexuality, violence, and the power dynamic of families in working-class neighbourhoods.

Ten metres from the entrance to the working-class district of Ezbet Mohsen in Alexandria, a typical noisy scene takes place: honking toktoks compete with the cries of street vendors. From an old building, a different sound can be heard, blending into the noise of the street. The building houses the recording studio of Shobik Lobik. The group, made up of three boys from poor families, managed to attract the attention of the whole of Egypt after posting a mahragan on YouTube in which they describe the relations between the families in their neighbourhood and the lack of trust between them. The song has thus far received over 136 million views and attracted the attention of one of Egypt’s major film producers who included it in his 2015 film Eyal harifa (‘Young Professionals’).

“We set up our studio in an apartment which costs less than 1000 Egyptian pounds (US$63) to rent,” says Mahmoud Hussein, known as Hamo Rabso, Shobik Lobik’s director of marketing. As he explains, the group’s studio, like those of other mahraganat singers, operates discreetly; mahraganat, which spread quickly over the internet, has angered many conservatives. “These songs which describe poverty and violence also paint a negative picture of Egypt,” Hassan Donia, deputy president of the association of composers and musicians, tells Equal Times.

Keeping singers in check while benefitting from their success

Initially, the singers of mahragana were frowned upon but tolerated. But once they began attacking the regime, their art was perceived as a threat to power. In September 2019, when an Egyptian businessman formerly employed as a subcontractor by generals in the Egyptian army called for demonstrations against the regime, several mahraganat songs encouraged people to mobilise. The government responded using the same strategy, repeatedly broadcasting on public channels the song ‘They Want Chaos’ by popular actor and singer Mohamed Ramadan.

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“The government wants to contain mahragana while at the same time using its success to praise its achievements,” says researcher Karawia. “Singers now have to avoid topics such as poverty, violence and politics if they want to continue singing,” she adds.

On 5 March 2020, the Musicians’ Union announced its intention to issue one-year public singing permits to mahraganat singers, provided that they pass a test before a union jury. Recipients of these permits would also have to comply with union rules and rules regarding censorship. According to Donia, the objective of these conditional permits is to “monitor the lyrics of the mahraganat.”

Generally speaking, dissident musicians in Egypt who talk about politics, regardless of their musical genre, pay the price of artistic repression. These singers, who became the voice of the 2011 revolution, have been subjected to severe restrictions since General el-Sisi came into power in 2013. Most of them have been forced to leave the stage or sing in exile. Those who choose to resist these restrictions have had to endure repeated cancellations of their concerts.

In July 2018, for example, a military court sentenced Galal al-Behairi to three years in prison for writing the song Balaha, which mocks the president, sung by Ramy Essam, a singer living in exile. UN human rights experts have called for the poet’s release, expressing concern over Egypt’s criminalisation of artistic expression. On 2 May 2020, it was announced that Shady Habash, who directed the song’s music video, had died in prison, shocking the international community and shedding a light on the treatment of artists in detention. The 24-year-old had spent more than two years in pre-trial detention and several NGOs had questioned the state of his health. Five other people are currently being detained in the same case.

Faced with dangers that can range from censorship to prison, the only way for many artists to continue working is to toe the regime’s line. On 5 March, Hassan Shakoush, whose song Bent al-Jiran stirred so much controversy, released a patriotic new song entitled Shemoukh al-Nisr (‘Pride of the Eagle’), in which he praises the achievements of the current government and the army’s efforts to restore security. The song has become a new anthem on public stations as well as those owned by Egyptian Media, the private media group owned by close allies of el-Sisi.

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