Egypt's wave of censorship takes aim at street music

A ban was issued on a popular genre of street music.

February 22, 2020, 3:00 PM

CAIRO -- Egypt's restrictions on what it deems inappropriate forms of art have reached a new height with a ban on a popular genre of street music, striking a chord with conservatives and drawing sharp rebuke from intellectuals and young music enthusiasts.

PHOTO: In this Thursday, March 5, 2015 photo, youth dance at a local wedding in Salam City, a suburb on the outskirts of Cairo.
In this Thursday, March 5, 2015 photo, youth dance at a local wedding in Salam City, a suburb on the outskirts of Cairo. Since the 2011 uprising, the music of "Mahraganat," Arabic for "festivals," has emerged from and spread through impoverished communities, where local musicians play, especially during weddings, their auto-tuned beats and songs that tackle social, political and cultural issues.
Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP Photo

Singers of mahraganat, which literally translates to "festivals" in English, were earlier this week banned from performing by the Musicians Syndicate -- a union that is responsible for issuing permits to performers. It operates under the auspices of Egypt's culture ministry.

The justification was clear -- they have crossed the line after the lyrics of a YouTube megahit, sung by two novice singers, were considered too lewd by the union's standards. One particular verse infuriated the union's head Hany Shaker, a veteran singer who rose to prominence in the 1970s with a string of soft-voiced romantic hits.

PHOTO: In this Thursday, March 5, 2015 photo, youth dance at a local wedding in Salam City, a suburb on the outskirts of Cairo.
In this Thursday, March 5, 2015 photo, youth dance at a local wedding in Salam City, a suburb on the outskirts of Cairo.
Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP Photo

In the video for "Bint Al-Giran" (The Girl Next Door), which has been viewed on YouTube more than 115 million times since its release in early December, a man threatens to "drink alcohol and smoke hashish" if his lover abandons him.

"Mahraganat songs fall well below the standards of this country. Those songs rely on sexual suggestiveness and inappropriate words, which are totally rejected … how can we protect our children from that?" Shaker said in a television interview with MBC Masr satellite channel.

PHOTO: Night club in Cairo.
Night club in Cairo.
David Degner/Getty Images

Mahraganat, which typically involves fast-paced and loud beats, is hugely popular among young, working class Egyptians, but has also made an impact on the country's music industry, and the genre is now commonplace at weddings and parties thrown by the younger members of the elite.

It's not clear how damaging the ban could be on the future of mahraganat, but a spokesman for the Musicians Syndicate believes the union has what it takes to enforce it.

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