Any student of sociology or anthropology could recognise how rich Egyptian popular culture is. Culture is a sophisticated concept, and one that has various definitions. Popular culture is a specific pattern of culture. It is a number of values, mores, ethics, beliefs and patterns of social action reflected in society. There are multiple platforms for expression of popular culture, including cinema, music and writing in general.
There is a specific relationship between popular culture and society in Egypt. There are social classes in Egypt who are not represented except through popular culture. Egypt still suffers a lack of political consensus between multiple political forces, and the absence of effective political coalitions within parliament.
There are social classes in Egypt that resort to popular culture as a tool to express themselves, since politics failed to represent them. Different social classes have different means of expression via various tools. And a number of themes are dominant within Egypt’s popular culture. Music is no doubt one of the main tools of expression in Egyptian political culture. Grievances are among the priorities of popular culture in music. Complaining about certain conditions is one of the goals of music in Egyptian society.
There is more than one genre in Egyptian music that deals with grievances. In Egyptian popular culture, “mawwal” — a style of singing spread in the Arab world — has its own identity. Its target is to deliver popular or folk wisdom, beliefs and mores through simple but meaningful language. The genre, which is quite dominant in popular culture, is more of a moral message representing society than a musical track.
The mawwal also includes various characteristics of Egyptian popular culture; things like fatalism, patience, moral codes of relationships and lamentations about time, or zaman in Arabic. Zaman relates to both history and religion. Yet the manner of expression varies between one place and another, specifically between Upper Egypt, on the one hand, and the Delta, on the other.
Music can sometimes be a commercial act, and at other times it could be an actual representation of society, with all its grievances and concerns, which is the genius of popular culture. In Egypt, folk art has always been part of the culture, but the intervention of the music industry in the matter has given it more privileges. It is always inaccurate to relate a musical genre to a specific social class; music is always enjoyed by several strata within society. However, there are always segments of society that react to specific representations of popular culture.
Recently, a new genre in Egyptian music has materialised and started to make considerable profit and gain significant popularity. Mahraganat songs is a genre that grew within society over the past few years. It is a combination of non-significant lyrics and industrial music aided by the tools of music technology present in Egypt nowadays.
This music is not exactly what popular Egyptian music sounded like; it is a new pattern when it comes to words, beat, melody and performance. However, despite how unusual it is to the artistic taste of Egyptian popular culture, it gained ground with fans from a specific class. This is not a classist judgement on a genre of music, but merely an observation about the transformations within society. The idea is to say that those who do not express themselves institutionally, will manage to express themselves in their own way.
The public sphere in Egypt needs to be more open, to include social classes that do not relate to the institutional political process. If the Egyptian state can manage to combine all social classes of Egyptian society into an institutional political mechanism, it would mean that we will witness less cross-class conflicts.
Moreover, there is no right or wrong in forms of expression as long as they are non-violent. Music, specifically, is open to any new genre of any kind. But political culture is not only affected by artistic direction; it is also heavily affected by state policies.
It is almost impossible to control popular culture and the kind of creation that comes out of it to represent society, but it is always possible for the state to design new cultural policies that would assimilate this dilemma.
*The writer is director of the Programme for the Mediterranean and North Africa Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.