The day the music died in the Arab world?

From Morocco to Egypt, Arab governments are trying to settle scores with revolutionary artists.

Moroccan revolutionary rapper El Haqed is once again in jail [AP]

As I write these lines, Moroccan revolutionary rapper L7a9ed (El Haqed, the “enraged one”, whose real name is Mouad Belrhouat) is once again in jail, after being arrested on May 19 at a football match for allegedly scalping tickets and assaulting a police officer. L7a9ed has already spent over a year in prison for his anti-regime rap songs, most infamously “Klab Dawla” (Dogs of the State), prosecuted for assaulting a pro-regime activist and insulting the police.

In our recent conversations, L7a9ed expressed growing concern that he’d soon return to prison, especially after the release of his new mixtape, Walou (Nothing). He previewed the album for me and other artists and activists during the 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting in Amman a few months back, a gathering which itself was dominated by the ongoing detention of bloggers, artists and social media figures from Egypt, Syria, and other Arab countries.

It was clear upon first listen that fans who worried that L7a9ed might tone it down after his stint in jail (at a press conference upon his release he intimated that he would focus more on his studies and less on politics) could rest easy – or better, again be as “enraged” as L7a9ed – as one song after another excoriated the ongoing corruption, police brutality, inequality, lack of freedom, and particularly hopelessness, that characterises life in what for most Westerners remains one of the most “modern” and “moderate” Arab monarchy. As L7a9ed raps in the title track, “Walou”, mixing defiance and despair:

“Nothing satisfies us… We are so sick. No culture, no art, no creation… No , no way. We won’t back down. It’s my slogan. Choose my side or theirs… Put this in your head: Never give up your rights… This country is ours, not his [the king’s].”

A prosecutable offense

The lyrics represent a far cry from the “nothing” of the title. In a country where even substituting FC Barcelona for the king in the slogan “God, Country, Barca” is a prosecutable offense, such a direct attack on the king’s majeste is not likely to go unanswered.

Once upon a time in the not too distant past, just being a rapper or a metalhead in the Arab and larger Muslim world could get you beaten by cops, jailed and even threatened with death by religious authorities. Underground scenes began to win more public and official acceptance during the last decade as both governments and “moderate” Islamist movements realised that policing the tastes of young people was not a productive way either to win their support or avoid alienating them completely.

Underground scenes began to win more public and official acceptance during the last decade as both governments and ‘moderate’ Islamist movements realised that policing the tastes of young people was not a productive way either to win their support or avoid alienating them completely.

But the tolerance did not extend to more overtly political music, as evidenced most famously by the jailing of a then still largely unknown rapper, El General, at the start of the Tunisian revolution. As the revolutions grind on, young artists have become among their countries’ most important public intellectuals.

Whatever the gains of the protests, the reality is that their growing politicisation – of their music itself as well as their extracurricular political activities – has occurred in what remains a highly and in some ways increasingly restrictive environment.

As a new report by the global anti-music censorship NGO Freemuse and the Egyptian Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression describes Egypt: “Artistic expression… is one of the most tightly controlled forms of expression, subject to numerous restrictions, both official, in the form of laws, regulations, and state institutions charged with implementing these codes, and social, in the form of constraints imposed by mainstream culture.”

While religious and sexual themes or provocative video clips can still get a song banned from the airwaves, political expression remains a crucial arena were governments attempt to use the law to silence oppositional voices – not just by keeping their music off the radio or TV, but by keeping them from performing and otherwise being a public presence. As Freemuse Executive Director Ole Reitov explained after the launch of the report at Cairo’s Townhouse Rawabet Theatre on May 21, “The censorship practices in Egypt [are] a labyrinth where you know how to enter but do not know how to exit.”

Lost in a labyrinth

Governments love labyrinths, never tiring of using well-worn laws to prosecute free speech even when such practices violate the language or spirit of the post 2010 constitutions guaranteeing freedom of expression. Physical violence is also routinely deployed on artists, just as it is upon ordinary citizens.

Ramy Essam was tortured; L7a9ed has been brutally beaten by police, most recently during his latest arrest. Other artists have suffered worse fates, as epitomised by the assassination of Syrian singer Ibrahim Kashoush, whose throat was slit by Assad’s forces in July 2011. More banal but ultimately quite effective, regimes keep music off state-controlled and allied radio and TV and make it very difficult to perform live.

Ramy Essam’s recent experience with security forces summarises precisely what artists like he and L7a9ed are up against as they attempt to continue writing relevant music at a time when counterrevolutionary governments seem secure in their power. Upon recognising him at a checkpoint new Suez, an officer walked up to him singing his song “Taty Taty” (Bow your head) and playing a video of him performing an anti-military song on iPad. After being taken to the local security headquarters, he was interrogated continuously for five hours.

“Three officers asked me over and over about two things. First they asked about my international travel and awards, why these organisations chose me and how much they paid me, and why they support me to sing against my country. Second, they were very concerned about any possible collaboration between revolutionary groups and the Brotherhood and accused me of being a member of the Ikhwan… My activist friends called me after and explained that this is the way it goes the first time: They pretend to be kind to you, ‘the soft hand system’, as it’s called. But they warned me that the gloves will be off next time; the second time will be horrible. They will beat and hit me from the beginning. ‘You won’t sit answering questions again,’ I was told.”

International support

For now, the wide support shown to Essam and L7a9ed by local and international comrades and fans, as well as activists and the media, have perhaps kept them from experiencing the harsh fate – long term detention and torture, or worse – suffered by so many pro-democracy activists. Within days of L7a9ed’s latest arrest, other political rappers and rock artists publicly came to his defense, with tweets, facebook posts and a media campaign lambasting the charges and the ongoing harassment against him. These supporters called on international artists like Alicia Keys, Robert Plant and Justin Timberlake, all of whom are scheduled to perform at the monarchy-sponsored Mawazine Festival in June, to speak out on his behalf.

The media attention to their plights might give L7a9ed and Essam a modicum of protection compared with the average citizen, but the situation could change at any moment. Next time Essam is picked up he might be alone; cameras might not be surrounding L7a9ed. As we’ve learned time and time again, the judicial system remains aligned against activists (L7a9ed’s pre-trial detention was extended for another week after prosecutors introduced an unsigned accusation at his hearing). Anything can happen in a jail cell, while a simple prison bus can suddenly become a death chamber.

In this context, it’s worth paying close attention to how the revolutionary artists of the Arab world fair in the coming period, as the revolutions either continue to become dormant or explode again into open conflict. However bad they might have it, for the average citizen of the Arab world, it’s likely going to be much worse. Indeed, at the same time L7a9ed’s trail was being postponed and his pre-trial detention extended, 11 members of the February 20 movement were sentenced to a year in prison. In Egypt, yet another activist was sentenced to two years imprisonment and security forces raided the offices of a leading human rights organisation and, according to witnesses, sexually harassed female employees.

The revolution continues, indeed.

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.