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.’


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant


24