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.’



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