Egypt’s dizzying ride over the past three years since the toppling of former president Hosni Mubarak has not only shaken up the country’s politics. It has revolutionized its pop culture scene, from language to music and art, bringing in a vibe of rebellion and voices from the urban poor.
New phrases have been coined and have become an inseparable part of everyday language. Graffiti has emerged as a new and popular art form, putting politics on city walls and chronicling the mood on the “revolutionary street.”
Popular music has become dominated by young and rebellious musicians from urban slums who were once dismissed as vulgar. Their songs, blaring from Nile party boats, minibus taxis and the motorized rickshaws known as tuk-tuks, have come to provide a soundtrack to Cairo’s bustling streets.
The changes bring new platforms for airing grievances and voicing demands for change — and have spread with stunning speed among various levels of society.
What joins them is the spirit of el-meidan, or “the square.” Initially, the term was just a shorthand reference to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of the 2011 uprising that brought down Mubarak and of protests since. But the term evolved to become a symbol for bringing together Egyptians of all social classes, ages, professions and sects to collectively demand change.
The term has kept its resonance even as Egypt has become more bitterly divided over the country’s post-Mubarak path. Islamist and non-Islamists are now pitted against each other following the military’s ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
“The square brought together people who would normally never meet,” said Ammar Abu Bakr, a graffiti artist.
“People opened their hearts to one another and were no longer afraid of each other. Artists of all disciplines performed in the square, not to show off, but because everyone felt he or she can do whatever they like,” he said.
El-meidan is not the only word that has gained new meaning as politics and turmoil infuse Egypt’s rich dialect of Arabic.
“Sheep” has become an insult used by anti-Islamists against members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood — a dig at their vows of obedience to their leaders. Islamists fire back with “worshippers of boots,” to refer to supporters of the popularly backed military coup that ousted Morsi after a year in office.
“The lemon squeezers” are secular and liberal Egyptians who voted for Morsi in the 2012 presidential election only to prevent his opponent, Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, from winning. It refers to an Arabic saying that if you’re given a terrible dish, all you can do is squeeze a lemon on it to make it more palatable.
More than any other form of pop culture, graffiti has epitomized the revolutionary mood. The images have traced the arc from defiance during the anti-Mubarak uprising and joy at his fall, through opposition to the military and then Morsi, and now back to anger at the military and at Mubarak regime remnants — or feloul — who revolutionaries believe are trying to rewrite history to dismiss their uprising as a foreign-backed plot.
Little seen before 2011, graffiti now provides a substitute for galleries and museums that only a tiny minority of Egyptians bothers to visit. The canvas of choice for graffiti artists since 2011 has been a wall of the American University in Cairo running around 100m down a street from Tahrir.