Tag: Egypt

Cairo’s street music mahraganat both divides and unites

Stroll through Egypt’s capital and you can count on hearing two kinds of music. The first has been around for decades: the rich, sedate voice of Egypt’s favourite diva, Umm Kulthum. The second is a more recent phenomenon. A raucous mishmash of auto-tuned rap and pounding drums, this is mahraganat – Egypt’s latest musical genre.

The rise of mahraganat – which translates from the Arabic as “festivals” – has been as relentless as its drumbeats. Its stars have millions of YouTube hits, have appeared at European festivals and at sprawling street weddings, and recently hosted British grime and dubstep DJs for a week of collaboration.

“It’s the ultimate thing in music,” boasts Diesel, AKA 24-year-old Mohamed Saber, one of mahraganat’s most innovative artists. “Everyone listens to it – even those who criticise us.”

Diesel’s words hint at a vexed relationship with some Egyptian listeners. Popular though it is, mahraganat’s roots within Egypt’s underclass mean its artists strive for wider acceptance and a place within Egypt’s formal music industry. Things are changing, butmahraganat musicians often record their music at home, rely on peer-to-peer distribution via the internet or flash drives, and are rarely played on mainstream radio or television. “May God end my life,” winced a representative of Egypt’s musicians’ union after listening to mahraganat last year.

The genre first emerged in 2008 in Madinet al-Salam, or Salam City, a rundown district on the fringes of northern Cairo. Its pioneers began to mess around with drumbeats on basic mixing programs such as FruityLoops – downloaded for free online – and recorded simple auto-tuned vocals. Then some of them began to play their frenetic creations at sprawling street weddings and carnivals – hence its name – and a genre was born.

Mohamed El Deeb, a 28-year-old rap and hip hop singer, poses during the making of his music video, in front of a wall with graffiti near Tahrir square in Cairo June 4 2012. (Reuters)
Mohamed El Deeb, a 28-year-old rap and hip hop singer, poses during the making of his music video, in front of a wall with graffiti near Tahrir square in Cairo June 4 2012. (Reuters)

“People were shocked when it came on,” recalls Sadat – AKA al-Sadat Abdelaziz, 27, one of mahraganat’s trailblazers and probably its biggest star. “But [our] subjects and issues went straight to people – and that’s why it got bigger.”

According to Mahmoud Refaat, the founder of one of Egypt’s most influential contemporary music studiosmahraganat’s lyrical appeal lay in its honesty. Unlike schmaltzy Egyptian music from the 60s and 70s – or the pop artists of the 80s and 90s who “just sang about love and hair” – mahraganat was the first genre to properly deal with issues affecting the poorest Egyptians.

“It’s the very first time, for as long as I’ve heard Egyptian music, that I can say there is truly music for the people – [music] that actually expresses the reality of young people,” says Refaat. “The way these musicians were thinking is very radical and very minimal. They had no shame of dealing with their struggle, using their dialect that they and their friends and the community had developed. And that made it very new.”

British DJs who visited Cairo in March to collaborate with mahraganat artists compared the sound to London’s grime – for both musical and social reasons. “It’s a bit quicker in tempo – grime is about 140 beats-per-minute, and this is around 150bpm or 160bpm – but it’s got the same energy,” says London DJ Faze Miyake, who visited Cairo with the British Council.

Mahraganat stayed largely in Salam City and the surrounding suburbs until 2011, when the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak brought its artists greater exposure. Sadat released a series of songs over the internet that dealt directly with politics. Tracks such as The People and the Government and The People Demand Five Pounds of Phone-Credit (a riff on a revolutionary chant) gave him and his colleagues a prominence far beyond their hometown.

But mahraganat artists resent the oft-made suggestion that theirs is a genre born of the revolution. They started making music long before Mubarak fell. And though their lyrics are often political, Sadat says they feel cut adrift from a national tug-of-war that often ignores the basic needs of struggling communities such as theirs.

“Journalists think everything is related to the revolution. This music has been going on for a while,” says Sadat. “Not all the Egyptians are part of the revolution – the slum areas until now are not interested in anything other than eating. If these masses started to move, it would get messy.”

But for Noov Senarye, who manages a number of mahraganat stars, including Sadat, the more liberal environment created by the 2011 uprising did expose them to bigger and wider audiences. Senarye’s involvement is a case in point. Previously a human rights lawyer, she heard their music by chance in early 2011 – and, inspired, went to Salam City that March to offer to manage them. “In the beginning,” she remembers, “they couldn’t understand why a girl from different community and [social] level came to see them.”

Three years on, most mahraganat artists’ primary source of revenue still comes from playing at sprawling street weddings – thousands crashed Sadat’s own ceremony last year just to see him perform. And they still gauge their popularity not by radio airtime, or album sales, but by how often they hear their music blasting from Cairo’s mopeds and tuk-tuks.

“I know it’s doing well when I’m in the street and I hear it everywhere,” says Diesel. “Some songs will take a week to get to their peak, very few will take more than a month and a half. If they take longer than that – then that’s it.”

But much change has been afoot. For one, says Figo, the DJ known as the movement’s godfather, the music has become more sophisticated. “When it all started the lyrics were meaningless,” says Figo, whose real name is Ahmed Farid. “But now we sing about the revolution, drugs, harassment.”

A song by Sadat that deals with Egypt’s endemic street harassment, “Catcall yes, grope no”, is a much-cited example – even if its condemnation of sexism is only partial. Meanwhile, big companies have tried to co-opt mahraganat’s popularity – with some artists recording tracks for phone, food and Viagra adverts. And as the British collaboration shows, there is a drive to inject the genre with new musical ideas – a move accelerated by younger artists such as Diesel.

“That was the main intention of the studio to work with these musicians – to formalise this as a music genre, not to look at it as wedding-party music,” says Mahmoud Refaat, the studio owner who has taken some mahraganat artists under his wing. But as this evolution gathers pace, some are wary of selling out, of abandoning their roots for international influences. “People like this music as it is. The change and development of this music should be about the way we sing – not to change the core of the genre,” says Sadat. “It’s about what you sing for the people, it’s not about what you sell to the people.”

Meet Super Sisi, Egypt’s new game hero

On Egyptian streets Abdel Fatah al-Sisi – the top general who ousted ex-president Mohamed Morsi last summer – reached superhuman status months ago. Now the digital world has caught up: developers have released a Sisi-themed arcade-style game for Android users, billing the strongman as an Egyptian superhero.

Super Sisi sees a two-dimensional version of Egypt’s likely next president fly through a cartoon Cairo, attempting to save the country. In real life, Sisi’s picture looms over most main roads in Cairo, with many seeing his leadership as the answer to three years of political instability. In the game, Sisi’s avatar flies over the pyramids and the river Nile dodging bombs and explosives – a plotline that might remind some of a real-life wave of militant attacks aimed at soldiers and policemen.

Super Sisi is available in the Android App store.
Super Sisi is available in the Android App store. (Screenshot)

The game is the latest in a string of unlikely memorabilia aimed at cashing in on Sisi’s cult status. Elsewhere, Sisi’s face adorns tat ranging from underpants, fast-food packaging and, most famously, chocolates – at least until police raided the patissiers who made them last month.

But popular culture has not all been favourable to the man many expect to be elected Egypt’s next president in late May. In late March hundreds of thousands took to social media to express disgust at the general. Using the slogan “vote for the pimp”, it was a reminder that many Egyptians revile Sisi for his role in a crackdown that has seen at least 16 000 political dissidents arrested since regime change last July, and thousands killed.

After months of speculation as to whether he would stand for the presidency, Sisi resigned from the military in March, paving the way for a return to strongman leadership for Egypt.

Sisi had been spoken of as a potential head of state after he removed Morsi last July, following days of mass protests against the Islamist-slanted government.

A poll from late March by Egypt’s leading pollsters, Baseera, suggested that 39% of Egyptians would vote for Sisi in an election. This dwarfs support for the two other well-known candidates currently in the race – the rightwing football club chairman Mortada Mansour and leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi, who moulds himself in the image of Egypt’s 60s autocrat, Gamal Abdel Nasser. But it is a marked drop from Baseera’s February poll, which gave Sisi 51%. Most voters say they are yet to decide, but their choice is already limited by the withdrawal of two leading candidates who say that the race will be neither free nor fair.

Patrick Kingsley for the Guardian

Egypt’s pork farmers get their sizzle back

The overthrow of Mohamed Morsi last year did little to help Egypt’s economy. But for the butchers and pig breeders of the slums around Cairo, it has been an unexpected fillip.

Five months ago, pork was so scarce in Cairo that a butcher like Bishoy Samir sold pig meat just twice a month. Now Samir reckons he sells an entire pig’s worth of pork every day.

Five years ago, the Egyptian government culled most of Egypt’s pig population, leaving Samir’s family with nothing to serve. “It was very rare to find something to cook,” Samir says. “We used to work one week on, one week off.” But five months ago things started to pick up, and “now we’re preparing one pig a day – and others are doing two or three.”

Pork’s comeback began slowly after the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, when some farmers began to breed tiny herds of pigs again and hid them in their basements. But the revival was limited until the fall of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood last July. Pig farming is still illegal, but here and there smaller-scale breeders say they are now more brazenly rebuilding a process that was decimated in 2009.

“Under Morsi, everyone was afraid – people hid the fact we had pigs as they feared the government would come to kill them,” says Sayeed, another pork butcher in Cairo, who rears a now-expanding herd on the roof of his house in the east Cairo slum of Manshiyet Nasr.

“But after Morsi left, that was that – it was freedom,” says Sayeed. “Now the government is happy acting like they don’t know there are pigs here.”

Pigs piled up in the back of a truck before getting culled and buried on the outskirts of Cairo on May 14 2009. (Pic: AFP)
Pigs piled up in the back of a truck before getting culled and buried on the outskirts of Cairo on May 14 2009. (Pic: AFP)

Today, there are 50 000 to 80 000 pigs in Manshiyet Nasr, estimates Ezzat Naem, the head of the local workers’ union – far fewer than the 350 000 in 2009, but double or triple last year’s figure. A year ago, Samir’s family was one of just two or three butchers who secretly grilled pork in Manshiyet Nasr, known internationally as Garbage City. Now locals say there are a dozen or so, as more residents again turn parts of their homes into makeshift pig sties. Outside space is limited, so the swine live on the roof, or in converted bedrooms.

In 2009, government workers killed Egypt’s pigs in brutal fashion – many of them buried alive in the desert, and covered in acid. Ostensibly, it was to ward off swine flu, then considered a major threat. But World Health Organisation officials said the pigs had nothing to do with the spread of the disease, leading many of Egypt’s Coptic Christians – who form about 10% of the population and who run the pork industry – to view the cull as another bid to marginalise their minority.

They felt victimised for economic as well as social reasons. The Christians of Manshiyet Nasr and half-a-dozen other Cairo slums are collectively known as the Zabaleen, or “garbage people”. They collect and recycle about two-thirds of the 15 000 tonnes of rubbish that Cairo generates daily – and once fed the organic waste to their pigs. But that ended with the cull.

“It was revenge on the Christians of Egypt,” claims Father Barsoum Barsoum, a Coptic priest. This feeling of alienation rose under Morsi, when policemen and vigilantes besieged Egypt’s largest cathedral and fired teargas over the walls.

It was felt the president had done little to condemn the violence. “Morsi didn’t care about the country – he just cared about his group,” argues Abu John, who used to own one of the largest pig herds in Manshiyet Nasr, as well as a chain of butchers. “As Christians, we felt like we couldn’t live in Egypt.”

Now Abu John feels more at ease and is breeding more pigs again – 10 times more than last year, he says.

The local price of pork reflects this rise. A kilogram of pork at a nearby butchers costs about 50 Egyptian pounds (£4.30) down from E£70 last year (though still higher than the £20 it would have cost five years ago). “In the past four to six months, people have realised that it’s more profitable again,” says Ezzat Naem, the union leader and head of the Spirit of Youth, a local non-governmental organisation.

But for the moment, the renaissance remains limited to subsistence farmers in districts such as Manshiyet Nasr, where the influence of the government is weak. Egypt’s two pig slaughterhouses remain closed, and the men who once bred the country’s largest herds of pigs have refused to reopen their farms – and thereby spark a larger revival – while the practice is still illegal.

“If the government want to check on anyone, we’re the first on the list – so we don’t want to take the risk,” says Ihab Israil, whose family once owned Egypt’s largest pork business, but who are now reduced to importing mortadella. “I’m not going to start unless I get official documentation from the government. What we need is the slaughterhouses back.”

In other Zabaleen slums people are reluctant to talk about the pigs’ return. “No one here is slaughtering pigs,” says Barsoum, whose parish is on the other side of Cairo. “And of course I miss it. There’s nothing like barbecued pork.”

Patrick Kingsley for the Guardian

Cairo University chief blames woman’s dress for sexual harassment

The head of Egypt’s leading state university has provoked furious condemnation for claiming that an on-campus sexual harassment case was the fault of its female victim, and saying that she may be punished.

The Cairo University student was surrounded on Monday by a group of male students who sexually harassed her as she walked across a busy campus. The woman was later escorted from the university by campus security, and the incident was filmed by bystanders – many of whom appear unconcerned, or eager to join in – and uploaded to social media.

One male student can be heard saying: “Guys, I’m going to upload it on Facebook – whoever wants to watch this video, come to my page.”

The university’s president, Dr Nasser Gaber, added to public outcry when he told a television talkshow the incident had resulted in part from the woman wearing colourful clothes, instead of a more conservative cloak, or “abaya”‘. He also said that she may face punishment for the incident along with her harassers, and possibly expulsion.

Gaber told OnTV, a private Egyptian network: “The girl took off her abaya inside the university and appeared with those clothes – which was a reason for what happened … we don’t require a uniform here but clothes should be within the tradition of our society.”

He added: “The girl’s mistake doesn’t justify what happened to her at the hands of those students. We referred the whole incident to an investigation and everything is recorded by the university cameras. We will find out who is guilty – whether the girl or the [other] students – and we are going to punish them with the proper punishment, which might be expulsion from the university.”

‘Insanely appalling’
Women’s rights activists reacted furiously to Gaber’s remarks. Soraya Bahgat, the founder of Tahrir Bodyguards, a group that rescues women from mob sexual assaults during protests, said: “I find it insanely appalling that the head of arguably the most important university in Egypt said that her clothes were to blame. It was very alarming – but part of me is glad that this has come out, because it highlights one of the things that is wrong with this society, which is to blame the victim [of sexual harassment] for what happened.”

Following criticism of his remarks, Gaber said he had been misunderstood. “It is clear that a false perception has been generated among some people that I placed the responsibility for what happened on the student,” he told the website of the official state newspaper. “I assure you that this is not true and I apologise for the misunderstanding.

An Egyptian protester holds up a knife during a demonstration to demand an end to sexual violence against women on February 6 2013 in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. (Pic: AFP)
An Egyptian protester holds up a knife during a demonstration to demand an end to sexual violence against women on February 6 2013 in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. (Pic: AFP)

Although Gaber said that the incident was a one-off, sexual harassment is endemic throughout Egyptian society. In the past 18 months many more people have begun to mobilise against it, but sexual harassment still remains an accepted part of Egyptian life. According to a UN survey, 99.3% of Egyptian women reported being sexually harassed, with 91% saying they felt insecure in the street as a result.

Women are frequently blamed for harassment, while the crime is not properly defined under Egyptian law, which makes prosecuting perpetrators difficult. When women try to file complaints under more general harassment and assault laws, their cases are not taken seriously by police, and only there have only been a handful of convictions.

Egypt’s first Oscar-nominated film not shown at home

Directors of Egypt’s first Oscar-nominated film will be walking the red carpet at the Oscars ceremony this weekend in Los Angeles, but most Egyptians have yet to see the hard-hitting movie that chronicles the country’s unrest over the past three years.

Far from being widely celebrated in Egypt, the film has not been shown at Egyptian film festivals or theaters after running into problems with censorship authorities. The filmmakers say they have been blocked because of their portrayal of the country’s military-backed governments. They still hope to get approval for wider distribution.

“It’s a kind of politics disguised in bureaucracy,” said Karim Amer, the film’s producer, taking a line that one of the film’s central character uses to describe the government’s counter-revolutionary actions.

The Square, named for Tahrir, or Liberty Square, is built around the geographic focal point of the uprising, where millions of Egyptians gathered to protest Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the rule of the generals who succeeded him and now-deposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. It recounts the country’s recent turmoil, beginning when Mubarak stepped down in 2011 through August 2013, right before security forces stormed two protest camps of Morsi supporters, killing hundreds.


The filmmakers tell the story through the eyes of three protesters hailing from different backgrounds. The self-described revolutionaries are Ahmed Hassan, a streetwise idealist; Khalid Abdalla, a British-Egyptian Hollywood actor raised abroad by his exiled activist father; and Magdy Ashour, a member of Morsi’s Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed and labeled a terrorist organization by the government installed by the military.

The movie follows their ideological trajectories, from hope and exuberance to disappointment and disillusion.

Ashour grows apart from the Brotherhood. He goes to protest in the square even after the group has prohibited members from demonstrating because, he says, the demands of the revolution have still not been met by the country’s interim leaders. Abdalla struggles to convince his exiled father that his activism will bear fruit, and Hassan suffers a head injury while throwing rocks at security forces and falls into a depression.

“The good and free people are being called agents and traitors, and the agents and traitors are being called heroes,” Hassan narrates over scenes of ambulances carrying away wounded protesters.

The film’s director, Jehane Noujaim, who grew up in Egypt, said she wanted to tell the story in a way that would let viewers in 50 or 100 years feel “that energy and that spirit of being in the square.”

Depiction of the military
The footage includes graphic images of bloodied bodies getting smashed by military vehicles, police dragging a protester’s limp body across the street and other scenes of brutality. At one point, a protester kneels on the sidewalk, weeping, with the blood of comrades on his hands.

“Our army is killing us. They are killing us,” the protester says. “They’ve forgotten Egypt.”

That depiction of the Egyptian military, which removed Morsi in July, is the reason the filmmakers believe the film has not been licensed for showing in Egypt.

But the project has gained acclaim in the West, winning audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival and at Toronto and Montreal festivals. It was acquired last year by subscription service Netflix.

In Egypt, it’s only available through YouTube and illegal downloads. After the academy announced the Oscar nominations, the film was hacked and released on the Internet. Amer estimates that more than 1.5 million people have watched it online.

“What’s been fantastic is to see the overwhelming ability of the internet to show truth from fiction,” he said.

Censorship authorities
Ahmed Awad, undersecretary to the Minister of Culture and head of censorship, told The Associated Press that the film has not been banned in Egypt for any political reasons. He said it was not shown because the film’s producers did not file the proper paperwork. He called the filmmakers’ accusations of repression “propaganda” designed to attract more attention.

“I am very happy about the Oscars, because it’s a very high level of art,” Awad said. “We are not against the film, but there are laws. I can’t make exceptions.”

Noujaim said that the team submitted the film to censorship authorities in September and received verbal permission to show it at a festival. But, she explained, the film never received an official letter to that effect, and the filmmakers did not feel comfortable proceeding without a formal permit given the tense political climate. She said they are appealing and submitting additional paperwork.

Some Egyptians who have seen the film say it is designed more for educating a Western audience than interpreting the country’s recent history, that it glosses over some events and does not capture the nuance of post-revolutionary politics.

Joe Fahim, an Egyptian film curator and critic, said the film is not an artistic masterpiece, but he believes it’s an important film for Egyptian audiences because it can serve as a record of the country’s political upheaval.

“It’s a reminder of the turbulent history of the past three years,” Fahim said.

Noujaim, who last month received a Directors Guild documentary award for The Square, said the film is ultimately an ode to the activists who made the revolution happen.

“That’s the only thing that’s ever worked – a dedicated few that stick to their principles, stick to every battle, and once in a while, they’re able to inspire the majority,” she said.

Despite the setbacks, Amer added, what’s fundamentally changed in Egypt is that “the young Egyptian voice that’s been born in that square is unwilling to give up, and I think that’s what our film chronicles and shows.” – Sapa-AP