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.
The tradition since the revolution has been for artists to routinely whitewash over old work and start anew. Now, says artist Alaa Abdel-Hameed, an informal deal has been struck among graffiti artists to abandon the practice and instead expand on existing work.
The images there speak of anger at the military. One shows a Dracula-like soldier with blood dripping from his mouth. Underneath him are skulls labeled “bread, freedom and social justice,” the slogan of the 2011 revolution. There is also the image of a chimp carrying a framed picture of a gorilla wearing a military cap, a dig at the adoration of the military leadership.
“Down with everyone who committed betrayal,” declares a scrawled slogan.
Abdel-Hameed this year tried another form of street art. He made 200 sculptures of eagles, Egypt’s official symbol adorning its national flag, and plastered them upside-down on city walls.
All but a handful have been demolished, likely by opponents of Morsi who took them as a criticism of his ouster — though in fact Abdel-Hameed put them up before the coup.
The other art form on the streets is heard, not seen — mahraganat, or “festival,” music, which emerged from the densely populated slums encircling Cairo.
“It is the only genuine musical movement in Egypt now ... It has no boundaries,” said Mohammed Gamal, author of a book on Egypt’s hardcore soccer fans known as the Ultras, who are among the most avid mahraganat fans, and a close follower of pop culture.
Mahraganat musicians, in their late teens and early 20s, fill their rapid-fire songs with street slang — often lewd — about the life of the unemployed youth trying to get by, hitting topics of love, drugs, partying and politics.
“Poverty has taken hold, we reached the stage of hunger, if the hopes go, I will stage another revolution,” goes the lyric of one popular mahraganat song.
“In Egypt, there are the rich, the poor and those who are below poverty,” Ahmed Mustafa, a mahraganat singer better known by his stage name Ortega, said in a recent television interview. “I am below poverty, but I will do whatever I like.”
Mahraganat’s style emerged before 2011, but it spread rapidly because of the loosening of societal restrictions attributed in part to the uprising. Now it is heard everywhere from weddings to the car stereos of upper-class youth.
“The country has been in a revolutionary mode, and people take interest in underground forms of music as well as everything else that is not mainstream,” said Salma el-Tarzi, who directed a documentary on the journey of three mahraganat singers from obscurity to the mainstream.
At a recent concert in the poor Cairo district of el-Marg, the mahraganat band el-Dawshagiyah — or “the Noisemakers’’ — sang one of their songs to the crowd: “Hey girl, give me a kiss and I will give you my wallet. Give me a kiss and I will stop chasing you.”
“We sing about the reality on the ground in Egypt, the youths who are jobless and the revolution,” said Ahmed Shaaban, one of the band members. “The upper classes used to have nothing but contempt for us, now they look for our music.”