If there is one song that in years to come will immediately conjure up the heady days of June 30, 2013 and everything that has happened since, it is “Tislam al-Ayady” (God Bless Your Hands), a song — or “operetta” — that is epically catchy and has spread like myxomatosis.
Penned by singer Mostafa Kamel, it has become June 30’s unofficial theme tune and is an enthusiastic tribute to the military, to the heroes of 1973, and to the “son of a man” who honored his pledge to “cut off the arm of anyone who touches the Egyptians,” i.e. Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It is a high octane, seven-minute surge of insistent, triumphant nationalism that invokes the familiar tropes of Egyptian military supremacy: the sand of (liberated) Sinai, Egypt’s brave soldiers (the best soldiers on earth) rallying under the war flag or standing on the borders risking their lives to defend Egypt.
“Tislam al-Ayady” is an invocation of the spirit of songs from the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, albeit the rambunctious teenage grandson of the stately anthems that that era of revolution and Egyptian ascendency produced. The 1950s and 1960s too were a time of new beginnings and adoration of the military, whose leader the general public rallied around. Singers such as Abdel Halim Hafez and Om Kalthoum voiced the aspirations of this generation, packaged in Nasser’s special brand of pan-Arab socialism.
These were essentially melodic statements of militaristic socialist principles, penned by the musical stars of that age and emphasizing strength in uniformity and the glory of military might.
With lyrics by poet, playwright and cartoonist Salah Jahin, “Walah zaman ya selahy” (It’s Been a While, Oh Weapon, 1956) declares that the people are like “mountains and seas” and “earthquakes digging the enemy into their grave.” “Al geel al-Saeed” (The Rising Generation, 1960) talks about “one man, one principle.”
“Al-Watan al-Akbar” (The Bigger Homeland, 1960), an ode to Pan-Arabism, eulogizes a unified Arab homeland that is “bigger than el-wogood kolo [all existence], bigger than al-kholoud kolo [all immortality].”
“The classic Nasser-era ‘wataniyat’ are all somewhat similar in style — upbeat, martial, easily singable for the everyday person, at least the choruses,” historian Joel Gordon told Mada Masr.
Gordon believes that these songs were written out of “great commitment” rather than on state orders, but recounts a story told to him by composer Kamal al-Tawil.
“In 1966 they [Tawil, Jahin and Hafez] had lost that enthusiasm and decided not to write the annual Revolution Day anthem. But they were threatened with, among other things, losing their passports. So they sat down together and wrote the most memorable of them all: “Sura.”
“Sura” (Picture, 1966) is a joyful 30-minute snapshot of Nasserist Egypt containing the familiar motifs: farmers, doctors, “soldiers like lions” and “men like sugar” at their desks, all brought together in one picture to be recorded by the ages.
“Sura” is one of the very few songs from that era that were blasted out of speakers during another, very different, social upheaval 60 years later.
But overall, the January 25, 2011 soundtrack, much like the events themselves, was a blip in Egypt’s musical catalogue. In Tahrir Square protesters chose songs very different to the anthems of Nasser’s era.
There was no happy, industrious society working for the greater good in these songs. These were the anthems of the underground, the downtrodden. Particularly popular were those of legendary duo El-Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm, songs composed in the 1960s and 1970s that described the dark realities of Egyptian society — while artists of the establishment warbled their utopian fantasies.
In her 2012 PhD thesis, “Stories of Peoplehood: Nasserism, Popular Politics and songs in Egypt 1956-1973,” Alia Mossallam says that these songs mobilized an existing audience that either knew the songs by heart because they were the generation of the 1960s and 1970s, or because they belonged to a later generation that inherited the nostalgia of the struggle of the period.”
“After all, for years, people had chosen the arts of the 1950s and 1960s as the language with which to articulate the politics of change and social justice,” she adds.
Negm’s poem “Taty rasak taty” (Lower Your head) was made most famous by singer Ramy Essam in the wake of the revolution. It powerfully destroys the myth of a contented Egyptian society peddled by the mainstream.
When you work diligently and are concerned about the country’s wellbeing,
and it turns out your work is pointless and only the scoundrels get to the top,
lower your head, you’re living in a democratic country.
And then there was “Shayyed osoorak” (Build Your Palaces), which challenges the establishment to, “release your dogs on us in the street … lock us up in your cells.”
In “Ezzay” (How, 2011), pop legend Mohamed Mounir asks how Egypt could ”leave him in his weakness,” why it wasn’t “standing in my corner,” while in “Ehna al-Sha’ab” (We are the People, 2012) pop group Cairokee put to music “Al-ahzan al-‘adeyya” (Ordinary Sorrows, 1981) by legendary vernacular poet Abdel Rahman al-Abnoudi.
Abnoudi’s vision of Egypt is a world removed from the sunlight-filled carefree existence described by Jahin, Tawil and others from Nasser’s era. Abnoudi’s people are the people who are “hit with the snout of a shoe and the point of a heel,” who know about “towns hated by the light.”
“We are two people/look where the first is [compared to] the second,” Abnoudi writes. It is this line which captures the spirit of the songs of 2011 and indeed the uprising itself.
The songs appear defeatist, resigned, but their power lies in their voicing the unspeakable, in their bringing down the facade of the imaginary Egypt presented by the state — which is what protesters did or sought to do on the “Friday of Anger,” when the symbols of state dominance (police stations, the National Democratic Party headquarters) and the lies and oppression that they perpetuated were temporarily brought down. Tahrir Square was a fleeting vision of this other Egypt beyond the state and its confines, but it was a bubble, a community too fragile to exist beyond its borders once the battle ended. Two lines of “Sura,” whose happy notes often rang out in Tahrir, were popular with protesters precisely because they describe the communality of this splendid isolation:
We’ll come closer together
And anyone who distances himself in the square will never be in the picture
The 2011 uprising was an earthquake that came from below and put the people in confrontation with the state and its institutions, and this was reflected in the songs that accompanied events. On June 30, 2013 people again took to the streets but their gripe this time was with Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Policemen were carried aloft in protests, protesters called on Sisi to intervene. This time the state, and in particular its security forces, was savior and in the months that followed not only “Tislam al-Ayady” but a slew of songs lionising Sisi and gushing about the Interior Ministry have appeared.
“Masr le kol al-Masryeen” (Egypt for all Egyptians) is a celebratory riposte at the Brotherhood, variously accused of attempting to turn Egypt into their own fiefdom or divide the country. Several unknown singers screech their way through themes such as national unity, terrorism and the glory of the army.
The stirring “YaMasryeen” (Oh Egyptians, 2012), sung by pop starlet Amal Maher, is a mild rebuke at the general public for allowing Egypt to get into the state it is in. “Allah ya regaletna” (Oh Our Men, 2013) is another Band-Aid type effort, whose theme is exactly what its title suggests.
“I love you, Sisi,” a squeaky child says at the end, in English.
Gone is the individuality — in both message and style — of the 2011 songs. These offerings are largely cookie-cut repetitions of each other, collections of singers in studios warbling about absolute loyalty to the army, the videos montages of library shots of Sisi and the police on training exercises. These are songs that throw themselves into the arms of the state and nestle there. As with the songs of Nasser’s era, these are songs that celebrate a victory. They sweep all the country’s ills under the carpet of security, focus their gaze beyond the country’s borders on the threat coming from the outside. They have none of the soul searching, none of the introspection of the Tahrir songs, where defeat is an everyday reality and fuel for the fight.