Egypt: Singing a revolution.

by Hatim Suleiman

Egypt is back in the news, like one year ago: demonstrations, millions marching and sitting in Tahrir Square, clashes with security forces in the heart of Cairo. One year after  the 25th of January “planned demonstration” that turned into a revolution getting millions out, in what came to be known as “the liberation squares” around the country. Named after the biggest: Tahrir (liberation) Square in Cairo. “Occupying” – or actually – regaining control of  their squares and streets from President Mubarak’s security forces and refusing to leave until their demands are met. Mubarak eventually stepped down the 11th of  February 2011, handing over power to the army’s military commanders known as the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces). SCAF immediately paid homage to those killed in the revolution and vowed to carry on with its demands in a transitory period.  One year later however the revolution continues, the  slogan DOWN with SCAF rule replacing last year’s down with Mubark’s rule.

All along songs are used. There’s no way to document the songs of a revolution that simply had not ended and that continuously evolves. Loads of young musicians, amateurs and professionals took the chance to present their music directly to the street public or via social media. This is only a quick sketch of some of the musical moments of this revolution that gave it part of its soundtrack and image (due to the inseparable video clips).

During the Tunisian revolution, a Tunisian rapper (General) brought out a clear message in his song dedicated to the president (Rays Leblad). A song that starts with the child’s silence and fear facing the forced paternalism of Mr president himself: a scene, telling one of the motives of the rebelling youth :

The success of the Tunisian revolution in overcoming the fear and ousting their dictator on January 14th 2011, inspired a handful of Egyptian activist youth groups and bloggers to call to go into the streets in Egypt’s cities on the 25th of January. Indeed, the call got accompanied by a message of the Egyptian Rapper RaMy DoNjEwan: to demonstrate: “Dehd El-hekouma” (against the government). A song that starts with Mubarak smugly joking to his entourage that he wouldn’t bother himself with the details of all what’s going in Egypt, would he !?

The 25th of January (The day of rage) managed to gather thousands in Tahrir Square to be driven out after midnight by security forces. This video made after the events of the day made more than a million views on YouTube within a week.

On Friday the 28th, and after hours of  battling in the streets that left thousands injured and a few hundred dead, the demonstrators overwhelmed the security forces with their numbers and persistence and took over Tahrir Square. This began the suspenseful historic two weeks ending by Mubarak’s stepping down on Friday February the 11th.

During those glorious days, songs were used by the rebels to mobilise, support and sustain the revolution. Tahrir Square became its own free public with people from all around Egypt helping each other to survive and defend their free grounds. It also had become an open stage for all sorts of artistic expressions. Like unknown soldiers, some marched around the square with their ud’s, drums, guitars or only their bare voices: singing forgotten songs of love of motherland, mocking those who had the power, promising victory to the rebels after the long years of oppression and injustice, and glory to the martyrs. Music reaching from improvised folk tunes to rap, old patriotic songs to rock. Many songs spread to the outside world as YouTube clips giving a soundtrack to scenes of the revolution. The image in many cases was just as strong as the song itself, clips made primarily for YouTube and Facebook were later shown on TV stations.

Ramy Essam singing a spontaneous song in the square made out of the slogans chanted on the square’s demonstrations, like “Yasqut yasqut Husni Mubarak”  (Down with Mubarak).

Actor Ahmed Mekky feat. Mohamed Mohsen in a rap defending those standing in Tahrir Square :

Mustafa Said promising victory is near:   “Ya masr hanet” (it won’t take long now). Mustafa Said is a young ud virtuoso and a composer who’s influenced by the classical Egyptian music traditions of the early 20th century. Setting him –musically – apart from most of his contemporaries.

Most pop stars got caught by the surprise of the quick events and kept silent during those indecisive days. One rock song however recorded by the pop star Mohamed Mounir one month before the revolution came out beginning of February. It featured a video clip dedicated to the revolution and very suitable words asking a simple question, “Ezzay” how come? “How come I try to make you better, and you only try to bring me down?” As a cry from the youth putting their life on line, it touched a string and became a huge success. State TV then banned it then claiming it was too aggressive:

Hany Adel and Amir Eid’s Sout El-Hourrya (Sound of freedom), coming out just one day before Mubarak stepped down, at a time when the tension was high about the situation in Egypt. It seemed at one point that the whole world was waiting on the break through (Wyclef Jean’s Egypt ). The song’s soothing sound, incorporation of a sampled piece from one of the revolution’s best poems by Egyptian poet Abdel Rahman el-Abnudi and -most of all- its lovely video of optimistic and determined Egyptian faces made it a nice sound track to what was thought to be the end, the sweet freedom after removing Mubarak from power. Its  huge success can also be seen simply by the number of views on YouTube:

Directly after the stepping down of Mubarak, a flood of songs dedicated to the martyrs who died on the streets followed. The most successful was this one. An ode to the martyrs, mainly based on an old sweet melody by Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdy (1932-1993). State and private TV stations opened up to airing long banned political songs of Sheikh Imam (1918-1995) and to young music groups who earlier performed only in private alternative theaters never having a chance to appear on TV or produce album. (For example: Masar Egbari, Amir Eid’s various bands , City band …etc). The group “Eskenderella” was one of those groups. Distinguished by singing fine poems written by three generations of the family of the great Egyptian poet Fouad Haddad. Taking them to the streets of Cairo, performing on street festivals (a phenomenon that didn’t exist before the revolution), youth gatherings, political rallies and also making many live TV performances. The group’s cornerstone and leader is Hazem Shaheen, an excellent ud player and composer inspired by the music of Sayed Darwish (1892-1923) and sheikh Imam (1918-1995).

By the summer however, the political situation deteriorated. Mubarak and allies were having a slow show trial while revolutionary youth and demonstrators were being arrested, subject to military trials,  beaten up, and even killed on the streets. The songs reflecting the disillusionment with the ruling SCAF and doubts in their motives and plans started pouring in:

Rapper RaMy DoNjEwan was back with a song this time against Field Marshal Tantawi (the head of  the SCAF):

Ramy Essam was standing with his guitar again in Tahrir Square, this time calling out: I’m back to Tahrir, because I feel nothing had changed… down with the militery rule (Yasqut Yasqut Hukm El-Aaskar), Mustafa Said was back asking the leader of the army to leave, Eskenderella was calling to go back out on the streets for the sake of the (new) martyrs, and vowing that the revolution will continue until it it reigns. The street man in Tahrir wondering here in the  typical Egyptian sense of humor if Mubarak is returning to power ? “CityBand” came out with a  human voice and body cover of the that revolution song of Mohamed Mounir “Ezzay” (how come? ):

A popular movement called “kazeboon” (Liars) by voluntary youth started in December showing videos on public squares around the country of all what SCAF’ had done wrong to the Egyptians and their revolution while claiming to protect it. The people in Egypt went out again to the streets on the 25th of January 2012. A day that gathered millions in demonstrations around the country. The military rulers became the liars in this rap by Yasser Salem. A call for a general strike on the 11th of February to pressure the SCAF to hand over power quicker to a civil administration is already out. One year further, Egypt’s revolution is still fighting enormous powers of oppression and great demoralization caused by decades of corruption. In this long process of creating her history through all the pain, tears and blood, she is creating her song too.

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