The power of arrest and the future of music in Egypt

Two incidents took over the Internet on November 11. The first was the surprising release of Hossam Bahgat, leaving everyone elated with the perceived victory in having successfully exerted pressure through social media. The second had no direct effect on many — those willing to seriously discuss it would have found little engagement. While I do not think a conspiracy was behind the timing, I believe that had the second incident taken place at any other time it would likely have generated much more attention. (Congratulations Hossam, by the way!)

This incident was Minister of Justice Ahmed al-Zend conferring powers of arrest on Hany Shaker, the head of the Musicians Syndicate. Facebook users, those of whom are interested in the music industry, shared the news accompanied by a photo — from privately owned newspaper Youm7 — of Shaker with his tired smile and light stubble. In the same photo was Zend, not looking much better. In their faces, we read the long hours of a heated meeting that might have stretched over an entire night. The news read that Shaker had received judicial police powers from the minister. Thus the appointees of the Musicians Syndicate are now officers. People with these powers have the “right to enter and inspect all work places to verify the application of the provisions of law, examine related books and papers and request documents and data from employers or their representatives.”

Shaker and Zend.jpg

Shaker and Zend

Friends and colleagues working in the music industry, as well as many musicians whose pages I follow, predominantly found that decision petrifying, their reactions ranging between tension, questioning, surprise and anxiety.

A syndicate’s role is to be useful to its members. A syndicate is a union of members of the same profession that exists for the sake of common interest to ensure basic results, such as solidarity and unionizing for their rights and privileges.

This is not true, however, in the case of the Musicians Syndicate, whose sole function it seems is to prevent musicians getting on stage without a syndicate permit. (If I decide to form a band with my friends, rent a stage at El-Sawy Cultural Wheel and invite a small audience, each band member would have to be a syndicated. To get syndicated, each would have to pass a test in front of a syndicate committee. Imagine those employees responsible for deciding whether or not you are artistically qualified, how broadminded and progressive they are.) 

Abdel Halim Hafez was rejected because he was not conservative enough. He may not actually be qualified as a musician, but that’s not the issue. The issue is the size of the gap between the syndicate and the audience. The only goal here is to generate income for the syndicate. It undertakes no worthwhile efforts to improve the working conditions of musicians in Egypt. At most concerts, syndicate representatives show up to accept a bribe disguised as a syndicate permit. They accept money for not canceling the concert, a sort of “royalty” to guarantee that the non-syndicated performers will not be reported to security. There is no broader relationship between the syndicate and the artist.

The bribe depends on the representative’s negotiation capabilities. If he finds you in a suit, he might ask for a US$1000 for each musician on stage. If he finds you in jeans, perhaps LE500 for the entire crew. It also depends on the venue. I once asked a representative how they go about setting a price for permits. He stammered and fell into contradictory statements. Asked if it depends on the artist’s fee, he’d say yes, only to deny it on finding that the fee was not high. Asked if it depends on the profit made from ticket sales, he would concur, only to contradict himself on finding that the profits barely cover the concert’s cost. He would then decide that the price depends on the “quality of the artist.” If he’s a big artist we ask for more money, he says. If he’s small, we take less. I engage him in a discussion about the subjective nature of big and small; for the artist is either big in status (measurable in his fees), number of fans (measurable in ticket sales) or in size (measurable in liters perhaps). Either way, he made no points to credit himself or the bribe requested. At the end, after agreeing on the size of the damage, I get a cash receipt, which is not legal proof of a permit.

These are some of the concerns surrounding the syndicate, its role and the necessity of its existence. After years of contesting such bribes with the syndicate, judicial powers were bestowed on November 11. The issue is not that this decree curtails personal and creative freedoms or other shiny concerns, because the truth is that no one can curtail the freedom to create, which can be exercised anywhere — and a fragile entity such as the Musicians Syndicate can do very little to change this. On a daily basis, musicians upload work onto Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook. Any efforts to prevent this only results in more free publicity for the work at the center of the dispute. 

The real problem has to do with the introduction of a new card to the daily negotiating table for any concert. This card bluntly states that the syndicate’s representative can put me in jail. The problem is not my fear of jail — the government knows very well that declaring war on persons whose professional task is, partially, to acquire fans will not have a happy ending. The problem is that this law primarily affects wedding singers and instrumental musicians.

The televised clips of El-Sobky Film Productions, whose musical content also falls under the scope of the Musicians Syndicate, will not be affected because El-Sobky is capable of paying royalties. (I have not heard of a single banning of any of these movies, which are full of all kinds of pop music not particularly preferred by the conservative teachers of the academy.) Even independent artists, such as Salelem, Masar Igbari and Dina al-Wadidi, can depend on the support of their audiences, who have the awareness and connections to prevent clashes with the syndicate. But those targeted by the syndicate in wedding halls and the miserable remaining cabarets have no support among fans who can adopt hashtags on their behalf or change their profile photo, to let’s say Abd al-Salam the keyboard player. They’re the ones who will suffer because of these judicial powers.

The syndicate is now mutilating the lifeless corpse of the music scene. It becomes even more difficult to practice professionally, for a performer on stage, a mahraganat singer or a DJ at a wedding. The independent music scene is already a creative desert because practice is confined to a single category of music as a source of personal joy with a degree of integrity. Those earning a profit from music are no more than 3 percent of musicians. 

The syndicate has exchanged the negotiating table with a morgue table. Musicians have nothing more to negotiate; no more bribes than what’s already been paid and no financial or artistic return to protect. Unless we try to start a campaign now to set the record straight or resort to a hashtag, it may be #the_day_the_music_died.

This article was initially published in Arabic on Ma3azef on November 11, 2015.

Charles Akl 

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