Egypt: Musician in the firing line of the Arab Spring

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Egypt:
Musician in the firing line of the Arab Spring

His songs were inspired by the experiences he had in the eye of the revolutionary hurricane on Tahrir Square. The events gave Ramy Essam the reputation as one of North Africa’s new musical revolution heroes, and the Western media have proclaimed him to be ‘Egypt’s Bob Dylan’.

By Mik Aidt, web editor, www.freemuse.org

When popular uprisings led to the fall of regimes in January in Tunisia and in February in Egypt, music played its part in the firing line. In Egypt, on Tahrir Square in Cairo, loudspeakers carried the voice of 26-year-old singer Ramy Essam to the thousands of protesters who gathered there.

On 28 January 2011 the musician and artist Ahmed Basiony was killed by a sniper’s bullets while he participated in the demonstration in Cairo. The last paragraph he wrote on his Facebook profile was, “Bring a camera, and do not be afraid or weak.”

Ramy Essam was one of the many young Egyptians who travelled to Cairo to participate in the demonstrations on Tahrir Square. He came from the city of Al-Mansoura in northern Egypt, and he brought his guitar along with him. Arriving on 30 January, and on site non-stop over the next two weeks, he spent the nights in one of the tents on the square, and he wrote new songs each day, inspired by the atmosphere and by the demonstrators’ slogans.

Half a million viewers on Youtube
“Let’s get Mubarak to hear our voices. We ask everyone as one hand about one thing: resign, resign, resign! Come down, down, Hosni Mubarak! Down, down, Hosni Mubarak! People want to dismantle the regime. He must resign, we will not leave…” you could hear him sing. The situation was captured on video one evening in the square and put on YouTube.com. Within a few days, an additional half a million people had listened to his song from their computers and laptops.

Especially his songs ‘Irhal’ (‘Leave’) and ‘Jan25 Tahrir’ was played again and again throughout the Egyptian revolution in the month of February 2011.

“It was so intense, even with just him on an acoustic guitar, it literally rocked the Square,” said the American professor and musician Mark LeVine, who also was at Tahrir Square at the time.

Mark LeVine is, among other things, the author of a report on heavy metal musicians’ situation in the Middle East and Asia which was published by the international music organisation Freemuse in February 2010.

Music communicated
“It’s hard to explain how powerful Ramy’s performances were, especially the ones late at night, when only a few dozen or 100 people were still at the square, desperately in need of a shot of adrenalin and of hope as the uncertainty of the future and the possibility of immanent attack by government goons or even tanks, loomed in the darkness. I know that Egypt’s has been dubbed the ‘Facebook revolution’, and social media like Twitter are being described as having played crucial roles in the successful toppling of Mubarak. But I can tell you that from Tahrir Square, the most important means of communication was the drum — or rather, the daf and the darbuka — and poetry, whether of the innumerable chants of protesters or the lyrics of the songs many artists came to perform at the Square. Indeed, what made Ramy’s songs so brilliant was precisely that he took the best chants and made them into the lyrics for his song,” wrote Mark LeVine in one of his reports from Cairo.

Brutal torture
It is still too early to celebrate the newfound musical freedom in Middle East, warned Mark Levine. Even in Tunisia and Egypt musicians take a big risk by standing up in the front line for their revolutions. The authoritarian systems are still more or less in place, and they may at any time decide to crack down on voices that have manifested themselves with criticism.

At the same time democratic elections can turn out to pave the way for fundamentalist religious forces that would want to ban all pop and rock music on religious grounds.

For Ramy Essam what he thought was past history in Egypt suddenly hit him like a bomb on 9 March 2011 in the afternoon:

Armed soldiers unexpectedly stormed Tahrir Square, which had remained a meeting place for many who participated in the demonstrations. Ramy was brought into the National Museum, where his hands and feet were tied, he got kicked on the body and face, stomped on and had thrown shoes in the head. His back and feet were beaten with sticks, whips, pips, wires, and hoses, he got electric shock, his long hair cut was off, and eventually they rolled him around the dusty street with bleeding, open wounds before they let him free.

Shortly after his report and a photo of his battered face and torso circulated on Facebook and blogs world-wide.

Even a revolution does not change the incorporated brutality in police and military from one day to the next. Egypt under Mubarak was an extremely authoritarian society where heavy metal musicians and rappers were hunted. It can happen again.



New hope
Ramy Essam concerts were incredibly important to the protesters. It gave them adrenaline and new hope when he took the best of chants and slogans and incorporated them in his music, says musician and Professor Mark Levine, who was on Tahrir Square during the revolution. Photo by Mark LeVine.


Ramy Essam, performing at Tahrir Square in Cairo during the demonstrations in January. Photo by Mark LeVine


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