What does it say about the state of Egypt’s revolution when Ramy Essam, the “singer of the revolution”, the artist most identified with Tahrir Square, couldn’t risk going anywhere near Tahrir on the third anniversary of its outbreak – for fear of getting arrested, beaten by roving mobs of pro-Sisi celebrants, or worse?
As we sat in his apartment not too far from Tahrir around sunset on January 25, the composer of perhaps the most well-known anthem of the Arab Spring – Irhal [“Leave”] – wasn’t about to give up on the revolution or its goals. But he did lament that Tahrir no longer belonged to him or the revolutionaries. He stood, chanted, camped, sung, and fought with them almost every single day of Tahrir’s occupation since arriving there with little more than a sleeping bag and an acoustic guitar on February 1, 2011.
“They’re singing out of tune,” Ramy shouted at the TV with a laugh as we watched images of the throngs a few blocks away, in Tahrir, singing some nationalist song. The day was filled with syrupy paeans to Egypt and nationalist slogans – coupled with exuberant encouragement for Defence Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to run for president.
In fact, if Tahrir belonged to anyone on January 25, 2014, it belonged to Sisi. Not only was almost every person in the Square holding a photo, poster or placard of him, but his security forces violently dispersed revolutionary protesters at Mustafa Mahmoud mosque in Mohandeseen, and followed that with another assault on protesters at the Journalists’ Syndicate not far from Tahrir.
Not surprisingly, the attack – tear gas and live ammunition which killed one protester and injured many more – occurred not long after protesters began chanting what had once been the revolution’s tag-line: “The people want to the downfall of the system.”
Meanwhile, leading activists such as Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Douma, and April 6 movement founders Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, as well as countless other political figures and journalists, remain imprisoned. Lawyers for newly arrested protesters were beaten by police and threatened with being shot. Even more telling, residents of the Tawfiqiya Market neighbourhood – in which the venerable human rights organisation Hisham Mubarak Law Centre is located – actually attacked its office for its alleged anti-regime activities.
A fascist future?
Many critics of the present government have labelled it “fascist” and “totalitarian”. It’s true that some elements of the Egyptian government’s propaganda machine resemble the well-oiled “big lie” programmes made famous by Goebbels, and the cult of personality around Sisi bears disturbing similarities to that towards dictators of yore. But what’s missing in the emerging Sisi-led system is a deep ideological narrative, and equally important, an economic vision that seeks dramatically to (re)harness the productive forces of society and transform the broader political economy to enable an unprecedented level of economic development and modernisation.
|People & Power – Egypt: Revolution Revisited|
In contrast, successful fascist movements, and their leftist/socialist counterparts, have enacted significant changes in their countries’ basic political economies in order to produce a redistribution of wealth that would raise living standards for a large share of the working and middle classes. It’s also worth noting that Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin all engaged in intensive colonisation projects to help provide the wealth and resources for their development efforts.
In Egypt, Gamal Abd el-Nasser too succeeded precisely because he enacted sweeping economic reforms that fundamentally reordered the Egyptian economy, and, through it, the relationship between the state and the people. Such development was an absolute condition for the country’s assertion of sovereignty and independence half a century ago.
In contrast, the Mubarak and post-Tahrir era governments’ neoliberalism, which saw its start in the mid-1970s infitah [“openness”] policies of Anwar el-Sadat, are devoid of any serious plan to transform Egypt’s economy for the benefit of the mass of Egyptians. Without such plans and a commitment to real redistribution of wealth, it will be impossible to lift thirty-plus million Egyptians mired in severe poverty to a more sustainable existence.
Sisi and the elite know this well, which is why from almost the moment Mubarak was gone they have done everything possible to create a schism between economic and political demands and, in so doing, shift the focus to the latter, so as to ensure the former are not met. To keep people mobilised to the side of the regime and the military, an ever more threatening and powerful theatre of enemies must be created, from Muslim Brotherhood “terrorists” to Sinai Bedouin jihadis to “westernised” and “liberal” activists.
The problem is that this kind of negative identity can only succeed for so long when real economic development that improves the lives of a large share of the people is absent. New enemies will have to be located and repression will have to be ramped up even further – as it was in the last years of the Mubarak regime, causing more and more people to lose faith in the system and ultimately its legitimacy to crumble.
‘We don’t belong to them’
Ramy Essam and other revolutionary artists and activists – visual and written as well as musical – seem to grasp this fact. Thus Essam worked late into the night on January 24 putting the finishing touches on a new song and video, Mahnash Min Dol [“We don’t belong to them”], which had 100,000 views within two days of its January 25 release – a faster spread even than Irhal when it was first uploaded on February 3, 2011. A fire and brimstone groove with near brutal vocals by a singer who rose to fame with an acoustic guitar, Mahnash Min Dol is the sonic equivalent of Bob Dylan plugging in with Megadeth instead of The Band.
The song is a direct attack not just on Sisi, but on the Brotherhood, military and felool who’ve together hijacked and ripped apart the revolution. It ends with Essam screaming, as he defiantly throws a molotov cocktail at a brick wall on which images of Sisi, Morsi, and other leaders are stencilled – just like their caricatures have been thousands of times on the graffiti-strewn walls of post-January 25 Cairo.
Hannah Arendt brilliantly described how totalitarian states use terror and constant mobilisation of the masses to compress the space in which freedom and resistance are possible by those who would oppose the existing order. We can see strong hints of this behaviour by the present government. But just as the brutality of the Mubarak regime pushed young activists onto the internet and ultimately out onto the streets, so today Essam and his fans have taken the anger of Mahnash Min Dol to the streets directly to challenge the propaganda of the regime. On January 28, he played a concert at the Cairo Book Fair in Nasser City – during which his revolutionary hits led to raucous chants against the military, ultimately leading infuriated police to turn off the sound system and end the show.
The crowd surrounded Essam while he made his way outside and into a waiting car. As he explained after the gig, despite the risks in speaking out now – he was severely tortured in 2011, has recently been targeted for prosecution, and is almost always refused permission to travel outside Egypt – nothing was going to stop him from using his music to challenge the ongoing oppression and corruption of the regime.
As Essam and the seemingly ragtag bunch of revolutionaries, lawyers, human rights activists, labour activists, journalists and ordinary citizens who remain publicly willing to oppose the old-new system never tire of declaring: “Tahrir is worth fighting for.” Despite the increasing violence of the government, there is little sign they’ll give up any time soon, even if the majority of Egyptians are again not yet ready to hear their words.
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.