Joel Abdelmoez on one of his field study trips to Egypt. Photo by Ahmed Abdelmoez

Blessed hands and silenced voices


After the Tahrir Square protest in 2011, there has been considerable research into Egyptian protest songs. Interest in nationalistic watani music is however surprisingly meagre, according to Joel Abdelmoez, scholarship holder at the Nordic Africa Institute, who is currently researching Egyptian popular music.

“There seems to be a desire among many researchers to discover signs of democratisation. Exaggerating the importance of the protest song, while at same time downplaying watani music, fits well with this narrative, which consciously or unconsciously draws parallels with the emergence of European democracies. But we can’t understand political development in today’s Egypt by applying a European democratisation template,” Abdelmoez says.

He argues, moreover, that the rapid pace of subsequent events has made research material from the time of the Tahrir Square protest in 2011 obsolete.

“The political winds have changed fast in Egypt. I was there for six months of field studies in connection with the dismissal of Mursi in the summer of 2013 and then again when the New Suez Canal was inaugurated in summer 2015. The waves of nationalistic homage to the military that swept over popular culture as a result of these two events should not be underestimated. A woman I spoke to told me she was crying when she saw the canal inauguration on TV, even though she was well aware that the whole ceremony was directed down to every last detail by Ministry of Interior propagandists. I’ve had similar testimonies from many informants during my field studies,” Abdelmoez says.

But the most powerful reason, he asserts, for the dismissive treatment of watani music by many researchers is their view of it as too propagandistic to warrant deeper analysis. “Of course it has a political agenda and a clear sender, often ill-concealed. But that goes for protest songs as well. Furthermore, this music is not as one-dimensional as many seem to believe. When we talk about watani, most people have an image of military choirs performing grandiose anthems to the nation and the army, but watani is a collective term for vastly different genres.”

Watani comes from al-watan, the Arab term for the fatherland. A branch of watani music has its roots in obreet, the traditional operetta form with military choirs or other ensembles, which became popular in the Nasserite 1960s. Another branch is related to shaabi, a vernacular genre that gained in popularity among the working class in the following decade, after Nasser’s death. Mostafa Kamel’s 2013 megahit Teslam El Ayadi (Bless these hands), is an example of how these two branches have melded. It is performed by an ensemble comprising both obreet and shaabi singers. In the summer of the same year, Ya-Obama, a pop song critical of the US by actress and belly dancer Sama El-Masry, went viral on the internet. This a case of the rejuvenation of watani music through influences drawn from more modern music styles.

“Mostafa Kamel and Sama El-Masry are in many ways opposites. He’s the chair of the musicians’ union and his music must be regarded as being directly commissioned by the Ministry of Interior. She’s a TV star with a scandalous reputation. Using a lot of humour and sex appeal in her videos, she kicks out in many different directions – against Mursi, against Obama, against the Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalist Islam. El-Masry is anything but orchestrated by the military regime. Yet both their music styles fit within the watani concept.”

Watani music is best summed up by its nationalism, idolization of the army, socialism, folksiness, cult of Nasser, anti-imperialism, and to some extent its opposition to Israel. It also takes a clear stand in favour of President el-Sisi, who is often portrayed as a modern Nasser. The prevalence of watani music can also be explained by the fact that many musicians take up the genre for crass career and livelihood motives.

”The climate is tough today in Egypt for musicians who choose the lonely path. El-Sisi’s military regime has clamped down fiercely on all forms of freedom of expression, not least on critical protest singers. The case of Rami Essam speaks for itself. Widely known for his role in the protests against the Mubarak regime, his song Irhal (Resign) became a sort of an official anthem for the whole Tahrir uprising. After the riots he was arrested by the army, tortured and forced into exile. Today he’s living as a refugee in Malmö and has next to no chance of working as a musician in el-Sisi’s Egypt,” Abdelmoez says.

FACTS ABOUT  Joel Abdelmoez

The scholarship holder at the Nordic Africa Institute for spring 2016 is Joel Abdelmoez. He has previously researched freedom of the press in Egypt and masculinity in the Egyptian army, and has recently published on them in Babylon: Nordic Journal of Middle Eastern Studies and Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies. He is also one of the initiators behind Menatidningen (Mena Journal) and Menaföreningen (Mena Association), which aim to disseminate knowledge of the Middle East and North Africa in Sweden.

Egyptian singer-songwriter Rami Essam performs his revolutionary hit Irhal (Leave) on New Year’s Eve 2011 at the Tahrir Square in Cairo. Photo: lorenzkh.
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