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Striking a Chord

From the taxi cabs, tuk-tuks (miniature three-wheeled vehicles), and vendor stands crowding the busy streets of Cairo blares a genre of music featuring heavy synthesizers, rapid-tempo beats, and trap influences. It’s known as “Mahraganat,” the Arabic word for “festivals,” or sometimes by the moniker “electro-shaabi.” This style of music, which is often made at home using cheap computers, originated in Cairo’s lower-class neighborhoods in the early 2000s. Mahraganat rapidly gained popularity during tumultuous years that included a revolution toppling long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, as well as multiple leadership changes thereafter. In response to this political turmoil, Egyptians increasingly demanded music that addressed the real problems that they were facing every day, and Mahraganat fed this demand directly.

Mahraganat’s popularity, however, is far from uniform. The genre has stirred up moral panic among more conservative Egyptians, leading to a state-supported ban on the genre from radio and live performances. Recently, the spokesman for the Egyptian parliament described Mahraganat as “more dangerous than coronavirus for Egyptian society and for all Arab societies.” Setting aside the absurdity of comparing a musical genre to a global pandemic, the spokesman’s words do capture something of the genre’s potency; Mahraganat’s rise in both popularity and controversy reveals an inextricable connection between economic inequality in Egypt, the continual repression of the Egyptian people by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, and the role of art as a channel for protest. 

The most widespread criticism of Mahraganat primarily takes issue with the lyrics found in many of the genre’s songs. As an outlet for addressing societal taboos and the youth experience in Egypt, Mahraganat engages with subjects such as class struggles, sexuality, drug and alcohol use, and political frustration, often using “offensive” language to do so. The music is raw, real, and independent, and represents, as Billboard wrote, “a triumph of poor communities that have otherwise been slammed by neglect and brutal economic woes.” With roughly one-third of Egyptians living below the national poverty line of $1.45 per day, including more than 11 million in Cairo alone (63% of the city’s entire population), it’s no surprise that Mahraganat would strike a chord with so many people.

"But none of these repressive actions are surprising to Egypt’s poor, who have suffered doubly as a result of the government’s failure to correct societal problems, and the incredibly harsh suppression of any form of protest."

Still, the content and production style of Mahraganat has outraged conservative members of Egyptian society, who accuse the genre of seeking the moral corruption of society and the degradation of Egypt’s cultural traditions and reputation. When making the latter accusation, critics claim that Mahraganat’s tradition of low-budget production and provocative lyrics brings shame to Egypt’s history of producing globally renowned classical singers like Umm Kulthum, a 20th century Egyptian star who captured the world with her powerful voice and romantic lyrics.

The Egyptian government and other societal elites have overwhelmingly adopted this conservative cause. In February, the head of the country’s Musicians Syndicate, Hany Shaker, declared that Mahraganat singers would no longer be allowed to work or perform their music in Egypt. In an interview, Shaker declared that Mahraganat “is based on promiscuous and immoral lyrics, which is completely prohibited, and as such, the door is closed on it. We want real art.” Mahraganat has also come under attack from individual radio stations; one station banned a Mahraganat song entirely in 2016, claiming that its explicit lyrics “do not match Egyptian customs and traditions.” Even more extensive steps have been taken to choke the genre, including the submission of a government-written request to YouTube to remove Mahraganat songs from the platform, and the drafting of new legislation that would imprison rappers for up to three years if they use “offensive language.”

But none of these repressive actions are surprising to Egypt’s poor, who have suffered doubly as a result of the government’s failure to correct societal problems, and the incredibly harsh suppression of any form of protest. Even before the Mahraganat ban, the country had for years endured the wrath of President al-Sisi and the consequences of his relentless quest to snuff out all forms of criticism and opposition to his authoritarian vision for the country. Thus, the firestorm surrounding Mahraganat reflects much more than mere concerns over the moral or artistic direction of the country; it directly attests to President al-Sisi’s all-consuming antipathy towards any form of dissent or criticism of his job performance. Undoubtedly, the increasingly severe repression of Mahraganat is an extension of al-Sisi’s goal of “actively cleansing public space from any cultural expression that challenge its exalted image of a respectable, pure and strong Egypt.”

At its core, the controversy over Mahraganat betrays an uncomfortable truth: al-Sisi and Egyptian elites, in refusing to address popular backlash to their attempts to control the nation’s cultural and artistic narrative, are perpetuating stigma and discrimination against poor and working-class stories and struggles. So-called “real art” can and should reflect the realities, hopes, and frustrations of those whom Mahraganat speaks to, be they rich or poor, young or old. Music, beyond its aesthetic value, serves as a sacred form of protest for the politically, culturally, and economically oppressed, as well as a conduit through which the joys and struggles of everyday life are expressed. The ability to decide what constitutes “legitimate” or “acceptable” art cannot and should not ever be exclusive to societal elites. The actions of al-Sisi and the Egyptian government only offer the latest proof that they are unwilling to uphold the value of art as a reflection of human experience. Instead, they are falling into a pattern as old as history, one in which the oppressor seeks to silence the art of the oppressed when that art challenges the system of oppression itself.

About the Author

Christopher Kobel '21 is the Associate Section Manager for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Christopher can be reached at christopher_kobel@brown.edu