Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Egyptian Revolution Inspires Artists

Political upheaval leaves its mark on popular culture, generating new music and street art.  
By Mohamed El Dahshan
  • Rain or shine Ramy Essam could be found entertaining the crowds in Tahrir Square. (Photo: Mohamed El-Dhashan)
    Rain or shine Ramy Essam could be found entertaining the crowds in Tahrir Square. (Photo: Mohamed El-Dhashan)
  • One of Hany Khaled’s graffiti art murals. (Photo: Mohamed El-Dhashan)
    One of Hany Khaled’s graffiti art murals. (Photo: Mohamed El-Dhashan)

The Mogamma is the immense, stern government building in the south of Tahrir Square – a temple of Egyptian bureaucracy. Only the attitude of its employees is more uninviting than its façade.

But today, if rather than braving the metal detectors at the main entrance you go around the building, you will find something colourful, artistic, charming and delightful.

This is the work of graffiti artist Hany Khaled, whom I caught up with as he was putting the final touches to his street fresco.

Artistic expression is among the purest forms of emotion – and of dissent. The January 25th revolution has left Egypt with a small fortune of original art, including music, painting, and graffiti, which was not only inspired by but also born on the streets of the revolution.

We stood back to view his work. I could tell he was proud of it.

“My favourites? Well, I like the ‘Helwa Ya Baladi’ one (My homeland, you are beautiful – the first verse of a popular song),” Khaled noted. “I also like the ‘We are All Khaled Said’ tag, there in blue. People seem to like this one, plenty of people are getting their photo taken with it.”

Like many revolution artists, Hany first started off on the streets as a protester, before opting to express dissent in other ways. He was later joined by others.

“I brought my colours, and I started alone. But then those guys joined,” he said, pointing to three other graffiti artists working behind him. “I don’t even know their names.”

“I’ve been painting at home mostly – but not in the street, because it was forbidden,” he continued. Now the 23-year old graphic designer is hopeful that, more than just being tolerated, his favourite form, street art, will be welcome.

“Before January 25th, graffiti was underground,” he added. “Now, we want it to break free. Give us a chance.”

Also breaking free is the man who was dubbed the singer of the revolution, Ramy Essam. Rain or shine, he could be found in the square, singing.

“I am from Mansoura, and after a few days I came to Cairo to join the protests in Tahrir,” he told me. “A friend suggested I bring my guitar and I almost didn’t, given that I’d be sleeping on the square.

“I ended up singing all day long. At first it was on the street, then some kids with a speaker put a mic in front of me, and the next day someone set up a stage – and I was there. I sang non-stop.”

Unlike most established singers who hastily put together - generally awful - songs around the end or just after the revolution, Ramy started writing and composing on the spot, putting together a small repertoire of songs satirising the president and his son.

“I sang my own music,” he recalled. “I wrote songs specifically for the revolution – when I had a free moment on the square, I wrote. When something happened to us, I wrote. The most popular song was when I took some of the slogans we’ve been chanting and put those to music… we needed that. Music does that to you – it can soothe you, and it can fire you up.”

We spoke between two studio sessions. “I’m finalising my album,” he said. “And you’re the first journalist I’ve told that to: my album will be titled El-Midaan (the square) because I want the people who weren’t there to get a feel of what it was like in the midst of it, in the heart of the revolution.”

As for the future, “I’m going back to work. I’ll keep writing my lyrics and music. And I hope that we, as Egyptian artists, can raise the standards of what we sing.”

Two days after this interview, Ramy was back on Tahrir Square, where he was attacked, kidnapped, and beaten up by the army. A translation of his testimony is available in English, along with a photo of him after his ordeal (Rami Issam’s Testimony of his torture by Egyptian Army).

Mohamed El Dahshan is a journalist and development economist based in Cairo.

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