Egypt has just entered a tunnel darker than the one that, just a year ago, produced Mohammed Morsi and ushered in the short, sad reign of his Freedom and Justice Party. With the military’s ouster of the country’s only freely elected president, a new era begins with little promise of lasting solutions to the problems that plague the country.
It’s not that most Egyptians are nostalgic for the authoritarian regime of Mubarak (although some are), or hostile toward the Muslim Brotherhood (a large number are). It’s that they are losing what was already a precarious hold on crumbling economic ground. Egyptian society is quickly running out of gas, figuratively and literally, and nowhere is this more apparent than among the young men giving voice to the condition of poor, urban populations through Mahraganat music, sometimes called “electro-shaabi.”
Their narrative matters because half of Egypt’s 85 million people are under 25 and Egypt continues to be the epicenter of learning and culture in the Arab world. While partially eclipsed by recent programming originating in the Gulf states, Egyptian music, television and films are still the most influential in the region.
Mahraganat, which refers to the Arabic word for festivals, originated in Salam City, just east of Cairo, home to one DJ Sadat, as close to an originator of the genre as anyone in the contemporary Egyptian music scene. Sadat works with DJ Amr 7a 7a, or Amr Haha (7 is the Arabic aspirated H), who provides the music accompanying Sadat’s rap. Other performers go by such titles as DJ Alaa Fifty Cent and DJ Figo. The music is like early hip-hop combined with a deafening electronic beat and auto-tuned vocals. Although they don’t speak English, Sadat and his fellow rappers draw inspiration from Bob Marley and Tupac.
Like their predecessors in the South Bronx decades ago, these artists started in poor neighbourhoods and use the language of the street. Most striking for Egypt and the Arab world is the overtly political language used by the young and marginalized.
The new wave of Egyptian music, shunned by traditional media outlets, found its audience through live street performances and via YouTube. Like their predecessors in the South Bronx decades ago, these artists started in poor neighbourhoods and use the language of the street. Most striking for Egypt and the Arab world is the overtly political language used by the young and marginalized. Even the T-shirts worn by the young revelers in Mahraganat music videos carry a message of alienation and resistance, bearing such words as “NO,” “Same Same” and band names such as The Clash.
As Mubarak was going down, a popular Mahraganat tune, “The People and the Government,” carried the following message:
The people and the government, the machine guns and clubs;
Egypt rose up, and even those who didn’t steal dove into it;
I’ll talk about those standing, the survivors and the dead;
I’ll talk about the church, the mosque and the Brotherhood.
Talk today is a little less revolutionary, and considerably more downbeat. It reflects the disappointment of people revved up for a better life who are quickly running out of rope. Listen to “The People Want Five Pounds of Credit” (that is five Egyptian pounds, or seventy cents, of cell phone credit):
The people want something new;
The people want five pounds’ phone credit;
The people want to topple the regime;
But the people are so damn tired.
This message can be viewed as sounding the death knell of the Morsi government. It is also an unmistakable cry of exasperation that is echoing throughout the Middle East. It can be ignored by elites, including the Egyptian army and whomever it allows to rule, for just so long. Aid, investment and trade that does not reach down to improve their lot will mean continued misery and long-term political instability — regardless of who is in power.
Originally published by iPolitics