Political unrest and revolution in Egypt has seen the steady emergence of revolutionary-inspired pop culture in the Middle East today. Since the dawn of this century, the Middle Eastern country has changed by leaps and bounds. Since toppling the administration of President Hosni Mubarak, politics and civil peace have been erratic and volatile. So, too, it seems, is the rapidly changing face of Egyptian trends and self-expression. From the minting of new jargon to the riotous, underground music of the disenfranchised youth, to the seditious artwork displayed freely in the murals of downtown Cairo, the most tenured culture in history is changing.
One of America’s rockiest and most tumultuous political eras (Vietnam and the counterculture movement in the late ‘60’s, specifically) produced art and music that is revered and celebrated today, recognized for reshaping pop culture in modern America. The same, it seems, is true for Egypt after 2010. As the country grapples with a struggling economy and dire political crises, pop culture in Egypt has blossomed into a rich and vibrant expression of rebellion and of the rising dissent among her people. The great equalizer, popular culture in Egypt has drawn together people from all walks of life, ages and professions.
While graffiti was not much a part of life or art before 2011, street art is a common element of life in Cairo today. Downtown Cairo’s “Martyr Square” (Tahrir Square) was the venue at which Egyptians gathered to protest and excuse both former President Mubarak (2011) and recently debunked President Mohamed Morsi (2013). For Egyptians, this site has become a public forum for change, and an arena for figurative and literal fights for freedom. It has also become a venue to champion solidarity, peaceable contention, and civil rights.
Outside of Egypt’s Tahrir Square at the American University, a 100 yard wall has been routinely decorated with revolutionary pop culture artwork since 2011. Dissent over the unstable political climate, as well as frustration over strong divides within communities, have fostered subversive and defiant works from local artists. On public display, the current 100 yard mural near Tahrir is an expansion over existing, base art that has been developed by multiple contributors. Artist Alaa Awad turned to the powerful and recognizable figures of Ancient Egypt to reflect on notions of power, leadership and resistance at the “tomb of Tahrir.”
Distrust of the military and political skepticism are common tropes in graffiti and public murals in Egypt, with the 2011 revolution slogan figuring heavily into inspiration. “Bread, freedom and social justice” are all themes that street artists have continued to explore long after the ousting of the corrupt Mubarak and the exiled Morsi. Also reveling in pop culture expressionism, cartoonists and humorists are also free to publish political views today that were inexpressible before Egypt’s tumultuous revolutionary years.
Music is also part of the popular culture in Egypt that has changed since the chaos of revolution. Just as hip-hop and rap have come to dominate American pop culture, Egypt’s displaced youth have adopted a fast-paced, up-tempo “festival” music called Mahraganat. The style, created in the Egyptian town of Salam and popularized via the underground music scene during the region’s years of unrest, has become the voice of the Egypt’s dispossessed youth.
This revolutionary-inspired music is an Egyptian pop culture phenomenon made possible today largely thanks to video-sharing site YouTube and freeware. The music bears a striking resemblance in many ways to America’s hip-hop or rap, with cloying notes of Egyptian wedding music and a carnival pep. Song creators developed most of the popular music by sampling songs by prominent artists, mixing beats on free programs like Fruity Loops, and the liberal use of autotune. The result is a danceable, intoxicating music that deals with issues that affect Egyptian youth today: poverty, difficulty finding employment, relationships, drugs, party-culture, and political unrest.
Mahraganat reflects the pop culture manifestation of revolutionary counterculture in Egypt, and has become an indie anthem for those who have struggled with Egypt’s many difficult changes. Mahraganat is given to slang, and has been known to include slurs, bold views and offensive language. The popularity of this musical evolution is incredible in that it draws fans from socioeconomic backgrounds on either end of the spectrum, and creates an engaging sound and common expression of frustration over political and economic struggles.In this way, Egypt’s underground music movement has united citizens under the common thread of revolution.
Slang has also developed in line with Egypt’s pop culture movement, with new words being used and adopted to help catalog the frustrations inspired by the revolution. Slang has always been a component of a culture’s youth, developed to create a sense of inclusion, exclusivity and ease. This informal, and occasionally offensive, language helps people clearly and creatively express themselves, in particular to a specific subset of like-minded individuals.
Such is the case with Arabic phrases such as “lemon squeezers”, a derogatory term which refers to masking a bad meal’s taste with the potent bite of citrus. (Secular/liberal Egyptians who voted for Morsi in the 2012 election to thwart opponent Ahmed Shafiq are “lemon squeezers” in this instance.) “Sheep” is an easily recognized figure of speech, and does indeed lambaste President Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and their blind obedience to leadership. In retort, Islamists call supporters of the military coup that deposed Morsi only a year into office “worshipers of boots,” another familiar take on a boot-licking trope.
It is difficult to predict what is next for this Middle Eastern country, a close political and military ally of the United States. Revolution in Egypt has led to change, not just in subversive pop culture so much as in the political state of the country. Citizens will continue to be shaped by the influence of insurgent thought and views that deviate from the mainstream, and no doubt to stand against injustice from leaders. The prognosis seems positive, however, if Egypt’s counterculture movement mimics that of the U.S. at all in practice. Post-revolution popular culture in Egypt, after all, appears indicative of a perspective which inspires spirits that are willing and ready to be lifted.
By Mariah Beckman