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“Nobody Cheers for the General”: Egyptians Are No Longer Singing Sisi’s Praises

Over the past decade, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s regime has employed an interesting repertoire of producing music in support of the state and its objective. But the effectiveness in co-opting support for the regime is nearing its end.

During the last weeks of October 2023, the Egyptian government briefly allowed for pro-Palestine street protests to take place. This rare exception to Egypt’s 2013 anti-protest law was not entirely benign. Right after the president’s call for Egyptians to take to the streets to show their support for Gaza, multiple celebrities posted a pre-made poster to their social media accounts, declaring their support for the president to protect both Egyptian land and the Palestinian cause. Many mahraganat singers, a heavily censored underclass music genre, also published monochrome videos pleading people to join pro-regime protests at the Unknown Soldier Memorial in Madinet Nasr, Cairo. By then. It became clear that Sisi was attempting to recreate the protests of July 2013, when people granted Sisi a “mandate” to take on violence and terrorism. This mandate was later used by the president to justify the Rabaa massacre in August 2013. 

However, these protests did not meet Sisi’s desired outcomes, with many social media users deriding the scenes of singers burning down the Israeli flag as mere theatrics. On the other hand, dissident protesters gathered in other mosques, like Al-Azhar and the Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque in Cairo, and El-Qaed Ibrahim Mosque in Alexandria, expressing their simultaneous support to Palestine, and their opposition to Sisi. “This protest is for real, not a mandate for anyone,” protestors chanted repeatedly. In fact, hundreds of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square chanting the now-infamous January 25 slogans, before the police dispersed them and arrested dozens of them. Earlier, on October 2, the government similarly failed in its aim to turn the celebrations of the golden jubilee of the October 6, 1973 military victory into sites of mass mobilization of popular classes demanding Sisi run for a third presidential term. In fact, one of those street concerts turned into a protest, where people chanted against Sisi for the first time in years. 

Almost a decade after the street celebrations of the 2013 military coup and Sisi’s first elections in 2014, the strategy of relying on street music and singers to convince underprivileged people to show their support for the president by dancing in the streets and the polling stations, seems to be reaching an end. This piece seeks to analyze this gradual withering of music as an instrument to orchestrate popular support for the autocrat. We speak to a number of music scholars and artists to understand the reasons behind this cultural bankruptcy.

Soundtrack to a coup

If some songs are era-defining, then “Teslam El-Ayadi (Bless Your Hands), and “Boushret Kheir (Good Omen) are the musical signatures of Egypt’s Sisi years. What is peculiar about those songs is that, unlike previous patriotic and state propaganda music, those two tunes marked an unprecedented reliance on the aesthetics of sha’bi music. Sha’bi is an Egyptian music genre strongly associated with popular and underprivileged social classes. For decades, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, the government censored this music on the grounds of “moral decline.” In terms of music, the use of the maqsoum rhythm, an urban folk dance music rhythm, and the use of street instruments like finger cymbals, goblet drums, and Egyptian rebab (a two-stringed fiddle), all made the two songs tunes the public could dance to, replacing the styles of marches and anthems that dominated many of Egypt’s patriotic songs. Further, among the 11 singers who participated in “Teslam El-Ayadi”, three were sha’bi singers. The song follows the style most popular in Egyptian patriotic songs—the operetta, a group performance where every artist sings a different verse with a recurrent chorus. Mostafa Kamel, the Musician Syndicate’s general secretary at the time and still as of present, wrote and composed this operetta in July 2013, to celebrate the army’s restoration of power after toppling the first democratically elected president. Playing, singing, and dancing to “Teslam El-Ayadi” became an act of allegiance to the military, and was used to politically tease the Muslim Brotherhood. The song also became the emblematic soundtrack people used to celebrate the Rabaa massacre committed by Egyptian police against the Muslim Brotherhood in August 2013. 

The two songs were instrumental in turning the 2014 elections into a huge dancing carnival

In May 2014, while Sisi was preparing for his first presidential election campaign, the Emirati singer, Hussain Al-Jassmi, released an even more passionate dance song called “Boushret Kheir” (Good Omen), to encourage people to vote. Journalists described the unprecedented popularity of the song as “mass hysteria.” The two songs were instrumental in turning the 2014 elections into a dancing carnival. Scenes of dancing female voters became iconic images of the counter-revolutionary moment in Egypt. Commenting on the popularity of these songs, ethnomusicologist Kawkab Tawfik, who conducted her PhD on music, identity and politics, said that “these songs are the strongest example of state appropriation of sha’bi music, [and was used] to show popular social classes supporting the regime.”

Falling on deaf ears: growing indifference toward the state’s music production enterprise

Following July 2013, the state became more active in co-opting music genres associated with underprivileged classes. This happened through two main strategies. The first included increasing the numbers of sha’bi singers participating in state-produced operettas. The second included broadening the scale of street concerts, where both sha’bi and mahraganat musicians entertain the masses. 

The expansion of the state’s music production of patriotic songs throughout the past decade is only comparable to the post-colonial era of the 1950s and 1960s

The expansion of the state’s music production of patriotic songs throughout the past decade is only comparable to the post-colonial era of the 1950s and 1960s. From 2013 onward, the armed forces’ Department of Morale Affairs, the department responsible for the army’s media and psychology centers, has produced operettas on various occasions, including in celebration of the October 6 military victory, and Martyr’s Day, designated to celebrate the soldiers who lost their lives in combat. Army-sponsored operettas attempted to cultivate an image of Sisi as a pan-Arab leader, akin to Nasser, or as a war leader, like Sadat. In 2021, the armed forces produced an operetta called “Kammel Oboorak” (Continue Your Crossing) for October 6, suggesting Sisi is continuing what Sadat had achieved with crossing the Suez Canal in the 1973 war. Another operetta called “Lametna” (Our Gathering), was produced in 2022 for the same occasion, featuring artists from Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine. The performance style is reminiscent of the famous 1960s operettas El Watan El Akbar (My Greater Homeland) that celebrated Arab unity under Nasser. Moreover, the state has produced religious operettas on Islamic occasions, police-celebrating ones on Police Day, operettas for people with disabilities, and so on. Most of Egypt’s mega stars, like Sherine, Ahmed Saad, and Medhat Saleh took part in these operettas. More importantly, many renowned sha’bi singers including Hakim, Hamada Helal, and Moustafa Hagag, also took part. Here, we see a consolidation of co-opting sha’bi music into the state’s propaganda machine of music production. What is most remarkable about this extensive scale of state-sponsored and state-encouraged musical production is that, unlike the songs of 2013 and 2014, almost none of these songs truly received popular success. Except for journalistic coverage and airing these operettas on state television channels, audiences were indifferent toward the music.

The curious case of co-opting mahraganat

While the containment of the sha’bi music was taking place, the state was employing a more complicated strategy in dealing with the novel underclass dance music genre of mahraganat. Mahraganat is an electronic dance music genre that came into existence in informal neighborhood street weddings in the early 2000s, whose artists are predominantly impoverished urban young men. Both mahraganat and sha’bi are associated with underprivileged social classes. But while high-brow critics banish mahraganat as noise and sonic pollution, sha’bi is currently enjoying a relatively more prestigious status. The state’s policy toward mahraganat music could be described as disjointed. On the one hand, the music and its artists have been the target of relentless the state’s censorship campaigns. On the other hand, the interdiction of mahraganat did not stop the state from exploiting these songs’ popularity for political ends. 

During Sisi’s second election in 2018, the ministry of interior directly asked multiple mahraganat artists to produce songs that supported him, and to have live performances in various squares in the country during public celebrations. Ahmed, a mahraganat artist who was asked to sing in the festivities that accompanied the 2018 elections, explained to TIMEP how he was recruited. He had received a call that informed him that he had to be in one of Egypt’s security directorates the next day for something very important. “I was really frightened and thought I was going to get arrested. I warned some friends and told them what to do if [they did not hear back from me].” When Ahmed arrived at the directorate, he had to wait quite a long time before meeting a high-ranking police officer who told him he had to sing the next day in one of Cairo’s popular neighborhoods. The officer enumerated the five songs Ahmed was required to sing. He also informed Ahmed that he would have to play for free, but that he would be receiving a “small gift” in exchange. Amr, a social media specialist who works for some mahraganat artists, also recounted to TIMEP how the artist he worked with in 2018 received a phone call from a police officer demanding him to produce a song that supported the state and the president. The officer implicitly threatened the artist if he did not comply. Amr explained that this threat meant canceling the artist’s public and private performances, banning the broadcasting of his songs in radio and television channels, and even preventing him from conducting concerts outside Egypt. “Unfortunately, all these things are within their powers,” he added. Harassing mahraganat artists to produce pro-state songs, and to perform in state-sponsored street celebrations, did not translate into state appreciation of this music; for no mahraganat artist was ever allowed to perform in front of the president on any occasion. 

Unlike their normally viral songs, not a single pro-regime mahraganat song became popular

Willingly or not, mahraganat artists have shown up, en masse, in pro-Sisi rallies since 2014. Many of them produced songs that glorified the regime to avoid angering the police. But unlike their normally viral songs, not a single pro-regime mahraganat song became popular. Is mahraganat music harder to co-opt than the older, more widely-accepted sha’bi music? And if so, why? Or is it that deteriorating economic conditions make it difficult for the state to distract people with propaganda music? Mohamed El-Feky, A PhD student at Cornell who studies mahraganat and satire, described the situation to TIMEP by saying “the state is trying to co-opt mahraganat’s aesthetics, while overlooking its subversive politics.” Many scholars have highlighted the transgressive nature of mahraganat, which probably makes it more unalienable for state co-optation. But part of the failure of this containment could be attributed to this uniquely disjointed state policy toward mahraganat. It is undeniable the state is not mastering this tightrope of stigmatizing mahraganat as degenerate art, while simultaneously trying to co-opt it. 

Booing the singer

In a short video that was widely shared on X (formerly Twitter), we hear a man on stage chanting “Continue O’ president” in a call for Egypt’s current president Sisi to run for a third presidential term. Instead of repeating the call after him, the attendees chanted “No.” This concert turned protest took place in the north western governorate of Marsa Matrouh in October 2023, where singers were supposed to celebrate the golden jubilee of Egypt’s October 6 military victory.

Most of the concerts mainly showed people enjoying their preferred music; however, the Marsa Matrouh concert, headlined by sha’bi singer Ahmed Shiba, quickly turned into an anti-Sisi protest

In the build up for the October 6 celebrations, various sha’bi and mahraganat singers announced their participation in state-organized concerts in a number of Egypt’s famous squares all over the country, from Alexandria to Aswan. The free concerts had an almost identical model which brought together three singers of sha’bi, mahraganat, and pop music. This formula usually guarantees the attraction of a larger audience; particularly among the lower social classes. The posters the singers published on their Instagram accounts clearly displayed the logo of the pro-regime political party, the “Nation’s Future.” State news outlets like El-Youm Sabea, Al-Ahram, and others, reported the flocking of masses to various squares where the concerts took place, and highlighted how Sisi’s posters surrounded the squares while the audience “called upon Sisi” to run for the presidency. Most of the concerts mainly showed people enjoying their preferred music; however, the Marsa Matrouh concert, headlined by sha’bi singer Ahmed Shiba, quickly turned into an anti-Sisi protest. Hundreds of the attendees tore down the president’s posters and chanted against him. Videos of people asking Sisi to step down while burning his photos seemed unreal in a country where people stopped expressing any kind of public dissent since the issuance of Egypt’s draconian anti-protest law in 2014. Notwithstanding, the state’s insistence on showing popular classes’ support for Sisi’s reelection took place amidst a broader context of incessant state harassment of the only serious competitor he had Ahmed al-Tantawi, preventing him from collecting the endorsements needed for registering his candidacy and repeatedly arresting his campaign members.

Being indifferent toward the state’s musical production is one thing, but booing singers and disrupting state-sponsored concerts is another. Egyptians have experienced serious disillusionment following the previous two elections. With the Egyptian pound ranking among the world’s worst performing currencies, food costs increasing by 70 percent, and billions of dollars being spent on large vanity projects, while poverty rates continue to soar, singing the president’s praise is not necessarily at the front of people’s minds. “The people still do enjoy the music, but they don’t have anything to celebrate with the vast majority of them unable to provide for their families. The sha’bi social classes feel betrayed, and they do not believe that the regime cares about them,” said Tawfik. It is highly doubted that the state will stop its production of patriotic songs and operettas anytime soon. However, after a near ten-year campaign to constrict all opportunities of peaceful assembly, we are yet to see if Sisi has finally given up on using sha’bi and mahraganat music to convince thousands of disenfranchised people to sing and dance for him. 


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