Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Arab streetwise: the counter-culture of the revolutions

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have been sustained by an active countercultural scene, discovers Lorenzo Fe

August 25, 2012
4 min read

A memorial dedicated to ultra martyrs. Photo: Gigi Ibrahim

A few months ago, an Egyptian friend told me: ‘If you think the Muslim Brothers are well organised, then you should check out the ultras.’ The ultras are associations of hardcore football fans. Those of Cairo teams Zamalek and Al Ahly, now united in the Tahrir Square Ultras group, have played a crucial role in defending the revolution and politicising the youth from the slums.

On 2 February 2011, the ultras took a leading role in defending the sit-in in Tahrir Square against armed aggressors riding horses and camels, in what came to be known as the ‘Battle of the Camel’.

A year later, on 1 February 2012, there was another battle. The revolutionary youth didn’t believe for one second that the massacre of 74 Al Ahly ultras in the Port Said stadium of Al Masry was a mere accident. The police opened the barriers separating the opposing factions of supporters while the exits on the Al Ahly side had been welded shut. Then they just stood and watched the carnage.

The Al Masry ultras, accused by the media of carrying out the killings, pleaded innocence and pointed to a large presence of infiltrators, which has been confirmed by several witnesses. The Tahrir ultras interpreted the events as a retaliation, instigated by the ruling military council and other leftovers of the old regime, to punish the revolutionary ultras. The riot that followed tore down the wall built by the military in front of Cairo’s interior ministry but ended with 12 new martyrs.

The ultras movement is not the only youth counter-culture to come to the fore with the revolutionary events in Egypt. Hip hop and street art went through a similar process of radicalisation. During the months following ex-president Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, Cairo’s walls have been transfigured with graffiti celebrating the revolution, political slogans, logos of revolutionary groups and rebellious stencils. As the powers-that-be are too busy to take care of this sort of ‘crime’, the artists paint openly during the day and feel no need to conceal their identity, which is easily traceable on the internet. Among the most notorious vandals – who often reject the ‘street artist’ label – are Ganzeer, Sad Panda, Keizer and El Teneen.

In the west, El Général – a Tunisian – was the best-known symbol of the role played by rap in the Arab Spring protests. In November 2010 he released on YouTube the track ‘Rais Lebled’, denouncing Tunisia’s social miseries. During the uprising he openly attacked the elite with the piece ‘Tounes Bladna’. This led to his arrest on 6 January 2011, which in turn resulted in him becoming a national star and some sort of saint for western media.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, El Général became close to the Islamist right now in power. This alignment is exemplified by the track ‘Allahu Akbar’, which together with religious lyrics delivered in a quite aggressive fashion features a couple of unmistakably anti-semitic rhymes.

Fulvio Massarelli, journalist and Tunisia expert, explains: ‘All of his post-January 14 pieces are deeply conservative, and it’s not surprising that his new album is being funded by the government. After all, rap music is by now a traditional tool for Islamist propaganda among the youth, not just in Tunisia. The revolutionary movement has criticised and menaced him – he can hardly perform in Tunisia without being contested.

‘MCs that are authentically followed by the revolutionary movement are Klay BBJ, Hamzaoui Med Amine and Vipa.’

In Egypt, the Arabian Knightz fly the progressive flag. Their hits ‘Rebel’ and ‘Prisoner’ are among the most-listened-to soundtracks of the uprising, along with the songs by singer-songwriter Ramy Essam. In their recent interviews, they have shown their warm solidarity with the Occupy movement, which is perfectly in tune with the Guy Fawkes masks that appeared everywhere in the latest North African protests.

The more underground and militant movement is represented by the MCs and producers gathered around the label Revolution Records. Their last single ‘Kazeboon’ exposes the role of the military council in the massacres carried out by the security forces between October and December 2011. But the anti-military rule track to which I’m most attached is ‘Al Afan’ by Mohamed Aly Talibab. Aly says: ‘By using the voices of a kid aged 17 and of an old worker, I’ve tried to address the silent majority, especially the working class. To tell them how the military council is trying to manipulate them, to terrorise them by saying it’s either us or chaos.’

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe


24