A battle for existence: How the combined forces of censorship and security shaped Egypt’s music scene in 2017

The restrictions imposed by the state on musicians and their art throughout 2017 have been numerous and wider than ever in scope and reach, affecting mainstream divas, mahraganat sensations and independent artists alike. Censored songs, cancelled concerts and prison sentences — the “punishments” varied, but were all driven by the same force: the triple efforts of the security apparatus, the Censorship Board, and the Musicians Syndicate, often fueled by a conservative society adamant on keeping its “morals and values” intact.

Earlier this month, on December 8, a concert by Egyptian rock band Cairokee, whose stardom rose along with the Egyptian revolution and who haven’t shied away from declaring their opposition to the regime throughout the years that ensued, was set to take place. The sold-out and highly anticipated event, organized by the band itself and titled “Cairokee Empire,” was cancelled only one day beforehand. No explanations or written orders were given to the band, they were only informed by the managers of the venue, Fifth Settlement entertainment center Cairo Festival City, that the concert was no longer happening because of the “trouble with Jerusalem,” in reference to US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem only a few days before.

In a moving display of solidarity, fans of Cairokee refused to return and refund their tickets, in an attempt to prevent the inevitable financial loss that would have affected the band as a result of the cancelled event. “Out of 20,000 sold tickets, only 300 were returned,” recalls the band’s lead vocalist and songwriter, Amir Eid. “We had planned an unprecedented concert, in terms of organization, sound and light equipment and other technical aspects — it was incredibly disappointing to have it cancelled with absolutely no logical or solid explanations.”

Days later, the band would surprise their fans with an announcement that the concert was back on, and that it would take place on December 22 in the Manara International Convention Center in the Fifth Settlement, to the dismay of many. “Some people were upset because it’s a military-run establishment, but we didn’t arrange the concert with any state officials,” Eid explains. “Our co-organizers, event management company Hedgehog, booked the venue because we were looking for a large space in the Fifth Settlement to accommodate our equipment and audience, it was the most suitable place for an event of this size. And the concert wasn’t going to be held in the Manara theater itself, but in a plot of land owned by the convention center.”

Post celebrating the ‘Cairokee Empire’ event after all 20,000 tickets released were sold

Once again, however, the band had to apologize to their supporters and inform them that the concert would not be happening, this time because the funeral for the military victims of the Arish airport attack, which took place on December 19, was going to be held in the venue. In a Facebook post, the band announced that the concert would be pushed to February 23, but fans were not as understanding as they had been the first time around. “People started returning their tickets, of course,” Eid says. “The date is still two months away, and the event has started to lose its credibility. Our fans are frustrated, and so are we.”

Through it all, Eid tells Mada Masr, there have been no official notices, and no entity has claimed responsibility for the decision to cancel the concert. “We had all our permits, all the paperwork was done — censorship, security, the fire department,” he says. “We still don’t know what went wrong the first time. We’re constantly dealing with assumptions, and nobody tells you anything directly.”

Eid says the band is not yet ready to make an official statement about the incidents, and that he and the other members are still waiting for more information to unfold before determining their next steps. “This is a true test for us,” he reflects. “Do we keep on going at the same rate? Is it worth it?”

Cairokee’s concert was the last in a line of mysteriously cancelled music events over the past three months. The hysteria started with Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila’s concert on September 22, held at Cairo Festival City as part of the Music Park Festival, where members of the audience raised a rainbow flag, declaring their support for LGBTQ individuals and the band’s openly gay frontman, Hamed Sinno. Over the next few days, and after pictures of the raised flag appeared online, social media outrage and a mainstream media frenzy led to a brutal backlash by the state. A witch hunt targeting people perceived to be LGBTQ was set in motion, with security forces leading a campaign of public arrests that reached 57 individuals, many of whom had nothing to do with the incident. A number of those arrested were sentenced to between six months and six years in prison on charges of “inciting debauchery.”

Moreover, the Musicians Syndicate banned Mashrou’ Leila from performing in Egypt, declaring that “these kinds of concerts will not be held in Egypt ever again,” and that the “syndicate stands against all abnormal art.” Cairo is home to the band’s second-largest fan base after their hometown of Beirut, with 35,000 fans attending the controversial September concert, which otherwise went “very smoothly and without any hiccups” according to Bahgat Alaa, who manages Wideeye, the organizing company behind the event.

“The flag was raised for about thirty seconds, and none of us even noticed at the moment. It was a spontaneous act that was blown way out of proportion, and I think it’s the pressure from the people and different media outlets that turned it into a matter of public opinion, which eventually led the state to interfere,” Alaa says.

“As an events organizer, I respect Mashrou’ Leila, they were very responsible and did not cross the line in any way during the performance,” he asserts. “However, dealing with them now is dangerous, and they are sure to be avoided by all events organizers in Egypt, because the state is officially against them.”  

It appears, however, that Mashrou’ Leila isn’t the only Arab band the state has issues with. Slightly over a month after Mashrou’ Leila’s concert, the Ashkal Music Festival, set to take place on November 3 and boasting a lineup of Arab and African artists with solid fan-bases in Egypt, was cancelled only a week in advance, with no explanations by the organizers, who refunded the sold tickets. Algerian musician Souad Massi, Moroccan singer and songwriter Oum, Palestinian band 47 Soul and Grammy-winning band Tinariwen from Northern Mali, were all part of the cancelled event’s lineup.

Mada Masr tried to speak to the managers of Nacelle, the main organizers of Ashkal, but they preferred not to comment. We did, however, speak to Mahmoud Youssef of Sawt Music, the managers of Massi who also informally took part in organizing the festival.

“The festival was cancelled because we were unable to obtain permits from the Censorship Board for some of the bands,” says Youssef. “Right now, any political or revolutionary content is being censored or rejected. The board considered the Palestinian band 47 Soul a ‘rebellious’ band, and Tinariwen are known for  their opposition to the Qadhafi regime in Libya before and during the revolution. Even though these artists are not openly political in their performance or lyrics, their political backgrounds and ideals are not welcome by the Egyptian state.”

Youssef sees a connection between the aftermath of the Mashrou’ Leila concert and the cancellation of Ashkal. “It is now more difficult to issue permits, more papers are being required of us and we are dealing with a much higher level of security attention,” he says. “We are currently required to answer to the Department for the Investigation of Artistic Products and Intellectual Property, not the regular Censorship Board. This is a higher authority, and we are now obliged to supply them with the name of each and every performer that goes up on stage so they can investigate them.”

Youssef says he does not mind the additional security measures, even though they mean additional costs for the organizing entities. “The safety of the audience is a priority to us, so if this is the issue at hand we are ready to comply,” he asserts. “My concern, however, is the ban that is stamping down on any traces of political content.”

Promotion for Ashkal Music Festival, which had been circulating online for weeks when the cancellation was announced

This “ban” referred to by Youssef, is reflected in the first blow dealt to Cairokee in 2017. In July, months before their repeatedly cancelled concert, the Censorship Board had rejected four of the songs on the band’s new album, Noata Beida (A Drop of White): Dinosaur, Akher Oghneya (The Last Song), Hodna (Ceasefire) and El Sekka Shemal F Shemal (Wrong Way Blues). According to Eid, the board would not negotiate the lyrics as is the norm, and rejected the songs in their entirety.

Because the band would not release an incomplete version of their album in the market, they resorted to releasing it online instead, making it available for free on their YouTube and Soundcloud channels, and also releasing it for sale on iTunes, where it soon became the year’s best-selling album in the Middle East. Currently, the album has more than 200 million views on YouTube, and Al Keif (The High) is Egypt’s most-searched song on Google in 2017.

In spite of this, Eid says the band had been instructed by the Censorship Board not to perform the above-mentioned four songs in live concerts. “We used to sing them anyway, but before this last cancelled concert, there was more stress than usual that we shouldn’t,” he explains. “What’s the point in keeping us from performing a song to 20,000 people when it’s available to millions online? I have no idea.”

Cairokee’s decision to skip releasing a physical copy of their album and launch it online instead was echoed one month later with Lekhfa, a collaborative effort by musicians Maryam Saleh, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh and Maurice Louca. The choice stemmed from a desire to bypass going to the Censorship Board all together, in an attempt to save Teskar Tebki (Drunk, You Weep Like a Child), a song with explicit lyrics that has become one of the most popular on the album, from being dropped off the track list. “We were in a position where we had to weigh our options: let go of the song, or hold on to our choices, accept their consequences and release the album as it is, digitally. And so it was,” Saleh tells Mada Masr. “It’s true that it’s no longer profitable to release an album physically in the market and that being online brings you way more listeners, but it’s still important for musicians to sell CDs, because it says something about our presence,” she continues.

The conflict over Teskar Tebky wasn’t Saleh’s first experience with censorship. Her debut album, Mesh Baghanny (I Am Not Singing, 2012) had been passed by the board with no trouble, until one full year later, she started being advised not to perform Hasr Masr, one of the songs on the album, in her concerts. “People had suddenly started sharing it online with the claim that it’s anti-military, which I’d never considered,” Saleh recalls. “I did stop performing it for a while in the beginning, but then I decided I would not censor myself.”

Highlighting the inconsistencies in the board’s decision-making mechanisms, Saleh continues that during a visit to the board three years later for her second album Halawella (2015), which she collaborated on with Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan, she was met with an official who chided her about the song. “‘Oh, so you’re the Maryam who sang Hasr Masr?’ — that was the first thing he said to me,” she recounts. “He went on to say that he thought the song was very well composed, but that the lyrics are rather harsh, and he actually warned me ‘not to do that again.’ It was as though they were roughing me up or pulling my ear, even though they had passed the song themselves — just because of some social media talk.”

The board is very susceptible to public pressure, says Saleh, and in her opinion it is society-imposed censorship that constitutes the real obstacle. “As a society we are incapable of confrontation, of facing our reality, and that I think is the actual problem. I feel that with Lekhfa we were unintentionally capable of challenging that,” she says. “I find similarities with the show Sabea Gar (The Seventh Neighbor) and the controversy it’s stirring. People are unwilling to think or question what they know. Instead, they hurl accusations, and it is precisely this kind of attitude that empowers the censors and prompts them to reject artistic works.”

“Normal citizens are sending notices to the Censorship Board and calling for legal action against artists, all under the guise of upholding morals,” she continues. “Artists in Egypt are used to dealing with the board and know how to, but now we are increasingly faced with crowds of people trying to silence us, and passing harsh judgments without any real attempt to critique the art itself.”

This hostility, Maryam believes, prompts the state to compartmentalize certain kinds of artists  and not take them seriously. “The authorities deal with alternative musicians like us as one monolithic entity. It’s easier for them to put us all under one label, to fit us into some sort of mold,” she says. “They are always keen on differentiating us from ‘the real artists.’ To them we are a bunch of angry kids cursing; a bunch of kids who don’t amount to anything.”

This year, however, public hostility and state intervention in the arts transcended the independent music scene to reach more musicians and performers along the industry spectrum. In November, a video of pop star and media darling Sherine making a joke about the polluted waters of the Nile during a Sharjah concert almost a year ago resurfaced online. The singer was banned from performing for two months, and summoned for interrogation by the legal department of the Musicians Syndicate. “We need to devote ourselves to supporting this nation culturally and artistically during this tough period of its history,” said syndicate president and singer Hany Shaker in a statement following the decision.  

In addition to the ban, Sherine is facing a lawsuit filed by a lawyer named Hany Gad accusing her of “insulting Egypt,” on the grounds that the singer mocked the country abroad, harming the Egyptian government’s efforts to revive tourism. The case is set to be reviewed by the Moqattam Misdemeanor Court on January 30, after being postponed from December 23. It is relevant to note that the outrage against Sherine comes shortly after the second season of her TV talk show, Sherry Studio, kicked off on Abu Dhabi TV, months after it was announced that she was in talks for a new season with military-funded satellite channel DMC, where the show’s first season aired.

“The Egyptian Constitution only gives the Public Prosecution the right to sue artists, in order to safeguard their rights to creativity,” says Mahmoud Othman, lawyer at the Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression. “Yet the law has found a way to allow citizens to file lawsuits directly to the relevant courts in certain cases through ‘direct misdemeanours,’ which is actually unconstitutional.”

Following the release of her latest music video titled Andy Zorouf (Something Came Up), which caused a stir online for what many viewers considered indecent content that “violated public modesty,” Egyptian singer Shyma was next to face the wrath of the Musicians Syndicate. On November 26, the singer’s license was withdrawn, with a statement claiming that the decision comes “in context of the moral role played by the Musicians Syndicate to elevate art.” Days later, on December 13, Shyma, who was honored earlier this year in the Cairo Festival for Media and Artistic Works, was accused of “inciting debauchery,” arrested and sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of LE10,000.

A series of arrests followed in a campaign led by the syndicate and enforced by the police to control what the syndicate brands as “morally degrading art.” A duo of shaabi rappers, Ahmed Mohamed Nafea and Mahmoud Gomaa Qorany, were arrested on December 19, also on grounds of “inciting debauchery,” for their popular mahragan song Dalaa Takatik, and referred to a hasty trial. Both singers will remain in detention until the next court session on January 24. Meanwhile, another singer nicknamed Eghraa faces the same fate after being arrested on December 20 on similar charges, for what prosecution described as a “sexually explicit” video she made earlier this year for her song Ana Ayza Wahed (I Want a Man).  

“Article 67 in the Constitution forbids punishing artists for the content of their work, and this article specifically exists so that a work of art wouldn’t be equated with an indecent act like urinating in public,” says Othman. “Creativity is a separate matter. The regular laws used to enforce public morals, such as the law for combating prostitution or preserving public modesty, cannot be used to assess a work of art.”

As for the Censorship Board, it responded to Shyma’s video and its repercussions by stopping direct permits for song lyrics, and obliging writers to submit the lyrics of each song for review over a one- to two-week period. Only after the lyrics have been approved can the writer and composer get a final permit for the song before recording.

The issue, Eid believes, is more than an attempt to repress freedom of expression. “Most human rights organizations and activists speak about the problem of censorship from a legal perspective, disregarding the aspect that makes it so difficult to deal with,” says Eid. “It isn’t legal and it isn’t logical, it’s this whole intricate web that is designed to automatically destroy you once you reach a certain level of success, without anyone having to consciously intervene.”

Eid says the board had initially rejected Al Keif, even though it’s a song that cautions against drug use, and was even thought too conservative by some. “They only passed it after long discussions where we explained to them what it was all about,” he goes on. “There are no rules that govern their choices, no pattern that you can follow.”

The real objective of the board, Eid thinks, is to render artists the state doesn’t approve of nonexistent. “You have millions listening to your music and buying your album, yet they want to keep you in that corner where you’re still a young band trying to make it: You don’t have a CD in stores, you’re nowhere on TV or the radio—you’re entirely marginalized,” he elaborates. “But we have no interest in being victims, and we don’t want to waste our time and energy battling shadows. We just want to keep making music like we always have.”

Hessen Hossam 

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