Recent controversies in Egypt over heavy metal music continue to highlight findings in the 2010 Freemuse report “Headbanging against Repressive Regimes”, wherein the music and its fans remain misunderstood and victims of conservative policies and societies.
Freemuse Egypt stringer, Shahira Amin, explains the recent events around heavy metal concerts, the role of the Musicians Syndicate and its leader, and the scepticism that continues to surround the music style as a Western and demonic import.
The news from Egypt has been so outrageous lately that Bobby Ghosh, managing editor of American news site Quartz, wrote on Twitter in late February 2016 that it was “like reading The Onion” – the American farcical newspaper that publishes fake news stories.
Among the jaw-dropping headlines that made their way around the internet that week were:
Four year-old boy sentenced to life in jail for committing four ‘murders’ when he was just one;
Policeman shoots dead driver who demanded he pay the fare; and
Author Ahmed Naji sentenced to two years in prison for violating ‘public modesty’.
And just as Egyptians thought they had heard it all, Egyptian tabloids and regime-loyalist newspapers on 21 February 2016 published yet another eyebrow-raising headline: “The Return of the Devil Worshipers!”
Hani Shaker, a popular singer and current controversial head of the Musicians Syndicate, made several appearances on privately-owned tv channels on 20 February 2016, claiming that he had canceled two heavy metal concerts in a bid to prevent “Satanic bands” from performing.
But just a week later, another surprising headline hit news sites: Egypt’s Music Syndicate head returns to headlines with ‘verbal resignation’. The story comes as pressure continues to mount on Shaker over his tumultuous leadership that he undertook just seven months ago in July 2015.
“I feel there are some people who are attacking me, though all my decisions are for the interest of music and those who work in the field. I cannot work in such an atmosphere,” he told Laha Magazine.
The recent attacks stem from Shaker sending out mixed messages on his motives for the concerts’ cancellations.
The beginning of the current controversy
Shaker explained that Alaa Salama, head of the syndicate’s resources committee had alerted him of a “Satanist concert” being held at The Sheharazade, a downtown Cairo pub on 19 February 2016 and that he, in turn, had alerted security officials. When police arrived at the scene however, they found that the concert had ended and the fans had left. Shaker complained that the musicians had not been given clearance to perform.
In Egypt, musicians need prior approval from the syndicate to hold concerts at cultural venues, theatres, bars or music halls. According to Shaker, the bands from Qatar, Bahrain, the US and Egypt, had been planning to hold another concert at Amoun Hotel in the upscale district of Mohandeseen but had called it off for fear of arrest.
In a telephone interview with talk show host Lamis El Hadidi on Sunday 22 February 2016, Shaker accused the musicians of “trying to spread chaos and misguide and confuse our youth”. Asked what had led him to speculate that they were “devil worshipers”, he replied that he had obtained a video recording of the concert held at The Sheharazade and that “the bands’ music [heavy metal] and the clothes the performers wore indicated they were Satanists”. The musicians had reportedly worn heavy make-up and were clad in leather jackets with what Shaker described as “the masonic Star of David” printed on them. That for him was proof enough that they were “devil worshipers”. He insisted that the concerts were “part of a foreign plot to destroy Egypt” and thanked the police and colleagues from the syndicate for “their quick response in foiling the evil masonic plan.”
However, according to an Ahram Online article on 28 February 2016, Shaker denied in tv interviews that he intended to cancel the concerts, and was rather concerned that the musicians lacked the appropriate licenses to perform.
As for Shaker’s resignation, it was denied by the board of directors, who insisted on having him as their representative and released a statement declaring their “unconditional support” for him. One member, Hassan Fikry, went so far as to say on satellite channel CBC that the “whole board would resign” if Shaker quits.
In the weeks leading up to the concert there had been controversy among rock/heavy metal fans in Egypt over the inclusion of Inquisition in the concert. Some of the more conservative fans had warned on social media networks that it could hurt the reputation of Egypt’s heavy metal scene and attract unwarranted attention from authorities. A few even went as far as boycotting the concert altogether.
A heavy metal fan who spoke to the independent Mada Masr newspaper on condition of anonymity said that the concert held in downtown Cairo, was part of a rock music festival known to fans as ‘Masters of the Middle East’. He added that it included performances by Perversion, a Dubai-based band, Inquisition, a Columbian/US group, and organizer Nader Sadek’s own rock band. Two other rock bands – a Bahraini and an Egyptian – had pulled out of the event because of a disagreement with the concert organizer over payment.
Sadek told Daily News Egypt that he had all the legal permissions necessary and that authorities knew about the concert and “didn’t show any concern”. He added that about 200 people attended the concert, which ran without any problems from the police or public.
Society still sceptical of metal
Unlike in the West, where heavy metal music has a passionate and loyal fan-base, this music genre is regarded with scepticism in many other countries, including conservative Egypt and some of its neighbours.
In a 2010 report by Freemuse – Headbanging against Repressive Regimes – it notes that the heavy metal scene emerged in the Middle East and North Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to increased availability of satellite television, ease of international travel and the circulation of underground music, all happening at the confluence of the “youth bulge” – the explosion of young people as a percentage of the population. This “bulge” was challenging to political and religious leaders, as well as to traditional social structures, and it was not surprising that the nascent rise of heavy metal music became a target for those forces to latch on to.
In Egypt, the unfavourable perception of heavy metal dates back to the infamous “devil worshipers saga” of the 1990s when a group of some 100 teenagers, who had been partying in the El Baron Palace (an unrestored and neglected old mansion in the upscale district of Heliopolis), were arrested in a police raid. They were charged with “possession of drugs and organizing sexual orgies” and were also accused of practicing demonic rituals such as “slaughtering cats”. The suspects were branded “devil worshipers” by government-loyalist media. Their homes were stormed by the police and their music CDs were confiscated. For several years afterwards, anyone wearing a black t-shirt or a belt with a large buckle and listening to hard rock was viewed with suspicion by conservatives in the society.
Journalist and blogger Hossam Hamalawy, who was with the group at the time of the police raid, denies that any “demonic rituals” had taken place.
“It was just a regular party where young people were having fun,” he explained.
While no official charges were brought against the teenagers in the end, many who vividly recall the incident believe the saga was a distraction at the time to steer attention away from the pressing problems of a faltering economy. Similarly, many observers see Shaker’s accusations against the heavy metal bands as a “false alarm”, insisting that the government –currently under media and public scrutiny for police excesses – wants the media spotlight shifted away from it and concentrated on something else.
“It’s a way of diverting people’s attention away from the main issues: an economy in dire straits, abuse of power by the police and the government’s failure to deliver on any of its promises,” film producer Ramy Francis told Freemuse.
“It’s shameful that in this day and age there is still talk of devil worshipers,” Francis continued. “We thought this was a thing of the past when people were still naïve and believed such lies. We thought they had matured and become more politically aware after the 2011 uprising and the unfolding events since.”
But not everyone is in the sceptics’ camp. Appearing on the privately-owned Mehwar Channel on Saturday 20 February 2016, pro-regime tv talk show host Sayed Aly hailed Shaker’s efforts to rid the country of “the Satanic culprits who had come to Egypt with the intent of wreaking havoc”.
Fear of foreign influence
Egypt has witnessed a surge in xenophobia in recent years fueled by a media narrative that persistently vilifies foreigners and propagates the idea of “foreign conspiracies against Egypt”, going so far as advising Egyptians against talking to foreigners, as evidenced in a 2012 media campaign.
“They could be spies and use the information you give them against Egypt,” warned public service messages produced by the Armed Forces’ Morale Affairs Department and broadcast on many of the privately-owned satellite channels.
In January 2016 an American student who had been chatting to young people in a Giza café was arrested after informants reported him to the police. He told the police that he was in Cairo to study Arabic and had been practicing his Arabic with the youth. Police charged him with “fomenting unrest” and deported him soon afterwards.
The latest accusations against the visiting heavy metal bands are a manifestation of the atmosphere of mass hysteria and fear prevalent in Egypt today. They also demonstrate the Music Syndicate’s tight control over the music scene and its attempts to “filter” the music young Egyptians listen to and to influence public taste – a clear violation of free artistic expression.
This story was written by Freemuse stringer Shahira Amin
Photos of Nader Sadek and the Metal in the Middle East show from Facebook
» Read Freemuse’s report on heavy metal here:
HEADBANGING AGAINST REPRESSIVE REGIMES – Censorship of heavy metal in the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia and China
» Daily News Egypt – 1 March 2016:
Fighting weird t-shirts and makeup: Metal concert controversy
» Ahram Online – 28 February 2016:
Egypt’s Music Syndicate head returns to headlines with ‘verbal resignation’
» The New Arab – 27 February 2016:
Egypt: Musicians’ union leader quits amid ‘devil-worship’ scandal
» Ahram Online – 26 February 2016:
Egypt’s metal fans divided after fresh satanism accusations
» The Times of Israel – 22 February 2016:
Egypt author jailed for violating ‘public modesty’
» Daily Mail – 20 February 2016:
Four-year-old Egyptian boy is sentenced to life in jail for committing four ‘murders’ when he was just one
» AlAssema TV Youtube channel – 20 February 2016:
Hani Shaker: Satanist concerts attempt to influence the minds of young people and the West is determined to war against Egypt
» Ruptly TV Youtube channel – 18 February 2016:
Egypt: Policeman shoots Cairo taxi driver dead after payment dispute
» The Guardian – 12 June 2012:
Beware foreign spies, Egypt warns, in ridiculous but dangerous ads
» Mada Masr – 21 February, 2015:
Stara highlights tense gap between state, commercial and alternative arts
» Qantara.de – 15 October 2009:
Heavy metal in Egypt: Respectable rebels
» Artsfreedom.org – 23 February 2016:
Egypt: Author imprisoned for ‘violating public modesty’
» Freemuse.org – 25 January 2016:
Egypt: Arts unions granted legal powers to self-police
» Freemuse.org – 14 January 2016:
Egypt: Union president suspends six singers from performing
» Freemuse.org – 20 September 2015:
Egypt: Resolution against revealing clothing and “vulgar” lyrics