A third of Egypt’s population lives under the poverty line of $1.45 a day. In Cairo, an estimated 63 percent of the population — or 11 million at least — live in slums, in addition to millions more living in poor neighborhoods. All of these people have limited or no access to clean water, sanitation, safe housing or health and education services. Yet they still fall in and out of love, feel pain, celebrate — and sing. With no training in music, they created mahraganat music.
Mahraganat builds on a tradition of popular music that Egyptian authorities always disdained and censored. As my Dartmouth colleague Andrew Simon has explained, the state always controlled the definition of “respectable” music, relegating the rest to the margin. The spread of cassettes in the 1970s led to an explosion of demand for those “marginal” musicians who, ironically, sold millions of copies while the officially sanctioned singers fell behind.
A similar phenomenon occurred since 2007, where YouTube, SoundCloud and other websites offered those singers a platform. Today, their music has tens of millions of views on YouTube; a song by artist Hassan Shakosh was the second most listened to on SoundCloud globally.
Unlike Hosni Mubarak, who ignored the oppressed as long as they didn’t challenge his authority, Sissi sees the state as an agent of social transformation. His model is closer to Gamal Abdel Nasser who, in his semi-autobiography, hailed the military as the only part of society that can and should lead Egypt out of its mayhem. Nasser presented this leadership role as temporary, until the Egyptians acquire the qualities that enable them to act maturely. Sissi, however, seems to believe that Egyptians have never lived up to these expectations.
Instead of just banning this popular music from radio, as was the case since the 1970s, his regime banned the mahraganat singers from performing anywhere, including at weddings. It also wrote to YouTube to remove their recordings from the website. And to add a little religious touch, the religious authority issued a fatwa prohibiting listening to mahraganat.
This would have been a rather funny episode if it were not part of a comprehensive program of public reeducation. Since its return to power in 2013, Egypt’s military has been actively cleansing public space from any cultural expression that challenge its exalted image of a respectable, pure and strong Egypt.
To achieve this, it extended its control over the media, creating its own television and radio channels and buying out or subduing independent outlets.
While social media networks escape its direct control, Egyptian users do not. The regime has imprisoned those whose voices challenging its narrative, such as Shadi el-Ghazali Harb, a surgeon who has been in jail for almost two years, and the American Egyptian Reem Desouky, both accused of “spreading false news” on social media.
Similarly, the regime extended its control over drama production, deciding to create its own soap opera content and silencing independent producers and actors. It has also used the registration process for new books to censor unwanted material and pressured publishers and bookstores to remove unwanted books from their lists. Those who don’t comply could end up in jail and have their books excluded from Cairo’s book fair, as was the case was the publisher Khaled Lutfi, who is currently serving a five-year sentence.
Even academic research is subjugated to state scrutiny. University presidents and deans, themselves appointed by the state, are now required to ensure that professors seek a security clearance before traveling abroad, attending conferences, submitting papers or engaging in research projects.
And, it has jailed a long list of various “deviants.” For example, in 2017 it jailed seven young people for waving rainbow flags at a concert. It also jailed a blogger who advocated atheism, a writer who used obscenities, a belly dancer who was “inciting debauchery,” a theater group who disrespected the army, a satirist who tricked soldiers into waving inflated condoms and a singer who insulted the Nile River.
This campaign of cultural discipline is, unfortunately, supported by segments of Egypt’s elites. Self-righteous liberals who refuse to acknowledge the endemic nature of poverty in Egypt, paternalistic nationalists who want the state to lead society toward “progress” and Islamists who never miss an opportunity to enforce rigid morality — all cheer the military’s reeducation program. Some even call for a more systematic indoctrination, starting at childhood.
In “The Man in the High Castle,” the American Reich managed to superimpose an image of propriety and discipline on a heavily oppressed population. But the worship of state power and discipline destroyed the humanity of everyone involved and finally brought down the regime.
Egypt’s Reich will also fall, but like fascist regimes before it, it will leave deep scars that will be hard to heal and too many wasted lives.