“Democracy is about dialogue. It is not about shutting down ideas or artistic expressions which may be in opposition to the majority or the ruling system. Due to restrictions and censorship, this dialogue is not possible in Egypt now,” writes Egyptian singer and activist Ramy Essam in this opinion-piece which was first published by Al Jazeera.
By Ramy Essam
Ever since my song ‘Irhal’ became known as one of the most important songs of the Egyptian uprising, there has been a myth about the way the song was written and how I emerged as a “singer of the Revolution”.
The story goes like this: I was an unknown singer who was moved like so many other Egyptians to come to defend the still unsure revolution on January 30, 2011, from my hometown of Mansoura. After listening to the street chants for a day, I wrote ‘Irhal’ (Leave!) in a fit of inspiration and began playing it for increasingly large crowds. Within a few days, it had spread across Tahrir, Egypt, and the world thanks to a video uploaded to YouTube. By the time Hosni Mubarak was forced from power, I had been transformed into a symbol of the revolutionary youth who toppled ‘The Pharaoh’.
The broad outlines of the story are true, but there is one very important piece of my history missing. I did not show up at Tahrir and write “Irhal” out of nowhere. I had been writing political songs for several years – songs that I’d never had the chance to play in public until the revolution – to capture the anger, hopelessness, and yet, hope, of my generation. ‘Irhal’ was the result of a long process of political development that I and so many of my peers had undergone in the previous years.
After the 25 January revolution, music and politics were fused together for me, just like art and politics were for all the amazing artists who painted the murals on Muhammad Mahmoud Street.
No better place to sing
There was something about Tahrir that was special, transcendent, even when there weren’t many people, or it was pouring rain, or the police were shooting at us – there was no place I would have rather been at, and no better place to write a song.
Something changed, however, during the rule of Mohamed Morsi. Politics started to feel like it had under Mubarak. Revolutionaries were pushed from the political stage, and it became harder for me to practise my art, or spread a revolutionary message. After the Ittihadiyya protests of late 2012, when the Muslim Brotherhood actually fought alongside security and military forces against pro-democracy protesters, it was clear the revolution would have to rise up against Morsi. But what the millions of people who marched against Morsi didn’t understand was that the military was not our friend.
Perhaps because I had felt the full force of the military’s brutality when they tortured me in March 2011, and seeing so many of my friends and revolutionaries beaten, imprisoned, tortured and killed by the government, I never could trust the military to bring Egypt closer to democracy. And I knew that my job as an artist was to constantly remind my fellow Egyptians of this fact.
That is why I couldn’t simply support the Tamarrod (a pro-military youth) movement when they led the massive protests against Morsi. I could see Tahrir Square changing as the protests grew. It was no longer the Tahrir I knew. People didn’t know the songs of the revolution, and they were supporting the military, and even the police – the group against whom the revolution started. As I feared, once Morsi was removed on 3 July, Tahrir and Egypt became a very different place. It was not a revolutionary space – although I know it will be again. The victory of the counter-revolution was confirmed when 1,000 Egyptians were massacred by the government, with hardly any protest from Egyptians.
By the summer of 2013, it was almost impossible for me to play anywhere. By the time the third anniversary of 25 January came around, there was very little space for any revolutionary voices. I could upload my music – and in fact new songs could get 100,000 views in a day – but I couldn’t be with Egyptians, with my guitar, on the street, where I always felt most at home.
The situation has only become harder, and ultimately impossible for me as an artist; I have not been able to perform freely in Egypt and my songs are being censored by state media.
I didn’t have it the worst by any means, as so many friends and comrades had been arrested, jailed and awaiting trials. Journalists, bloggers, civil society activists – everyone was being targeted, and when their families would protest their illegal detention and mistreatment, the best they could hope for was for themselves to be arrested and held for trial too. This disaster was epitomised by the imprisonment of blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, and then his younger sister Sanaa Seif, during which time their father, the human rights pioneer Ahmed Seif, died.
No matter what has happened, I refused to stop addressing social and political issues in my songs. As an artist and citizen, I feel an obligation to be engaged in my society and add to the democratic process.
Still, the situation has only become harder, and ultimately impossible for me as an artist. As important, because of travel restrictions imposed on me, I have also had to turn down offers for concerts and lectures abroad.
Democracy is about dialogue. It is not about shutting down ideas or artistic expressions which may be in opposition to the majority or the ruling system. Due to restrictions and censorship, this dialogue is not possible in Egypt now. Nothing is more evident of this than the ongoing arrests and long-term imprisonment of young Egyptian activists, such as the 23 who were sentenced to three years in jail less than two weeks ago.
In a situation where there is little room for revolutionary art, the Swedish city of Malmo generously offered me a two-year residence as artist. During my stay in Europe, I will continue to disagree with the government on many issues, including its oppression of university students, who have to live with constant harassment, monitoring and attacks on their campuses.
I have just finished recording my first song in Sweden, ‘Nashid at-toulab’ (‘The students’ anthem’) to support the students as part of a new album of revolutionary songs. I will continue to write, perform, and reach out to artists and audiences in Europe and beyond to help my generation continue the struggle for freedom, inside and outside Egypt. The revolution must – and will – continue.
Ramy Essam is began his first US tour in mid-November 2015. He is currently finishing a new album, ‘Mamnoua’ (‘Forbidden’), to be released on 25 January 2015, the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution.
The piece was written in Arabic and English, translated and edited by Mark LeVine, and first published on www.aljazeera.com. Re-published on freemuse.org with permission from Ramy Essam and Mark LeVine.