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Yasser El-Manawahly: Music as political act

After an eight-month hiatus, Yasser El-Manawahly is back with a protest song that targets the current political order

Amira Howeidy, Saturday 22 Feb 2014
Yasser El-Manawahly
(Photo: Hussain Abd Al-Wahed)

Yasser El-Manawahly’s latest song Rima went viral only a few hours after it was released online early this month. The song plays on the Arabic proverb of Rima “who went back to her old habits,” in an indirect reference to the return of the old regime.

The not too subtle metaphors of the song allude to the 3 July political order that followed the deposition of Mohamed Morsi as “the change” which brought Rima back and, with her, the old story of the “raised whip,” “censored talk” and “people dying from bullets and hunger.”

Like all his vernacular song lyrics, laden with Egyptian idioms and puns, El-Manawahly’s underlying political message protests the status quo. But what made Rima’s reception different this time around is that it served as a reminder of the conspicuous absence of protest songs in the past seven months, during which the pro-military Teslam El-Ayadi (Bless the Hands) -- with all its politics -- prevailed as an anthem of sorts.

Rima coincided with the resurfacing of the indie rock band Cairokee and the release of their first single in months, Nas Betor'os We Nas Betmout (Some Dance, Others Die) which also condemns the consequent surrealism of a divided nation. The timing of both songs also coincided with a noticeable rise in dissenting voices in the political sphere.

“I needed time to understand what is going on and where we are headed to,” El-Manawahly told me when we met in Diwan’s Heliopolis branch two days after Rima’s release. Evening had descended upon the bookstore's patio and he had just replaced his eyeglasses with the tinted shades he’s famous for.

“Of course I could see what was going on – it was a coup and a counter revolution – but I needed to figure out what was behind it and how to address it.”

He had no qualms voicing his other concerns: his personal security. “I was so audacious under [The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] SCAF and Morsi and overtly criticised them both. I said to myself if you’re going to be silent now then keep it that way and don’t talk politics again.”

It wasn’t easy, the father of two says. “I decided I won’t be silent” -- and Rima was completed, two months ago. At least two more songs are underway, including Ikhwanophobia (Brotherhood Phobia) which he wrote shortly after police dispersed a massive pro-Morsi protest camp, killing hundreds in the process. 

El-Manawahly shot to fame after the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 among a slew of talents that manifested a genre of fresh, revolutionary and political underground music. While many of them faded into oblivion over time, El-Manawahly and others struggled to remain in the music scene after the initial revolutionary fervour began to subside.

And it wasn’t without a struggle. However popular, post-revolution political songs are not a lucrative genre, rather due to the way music companies do business than for a lack of demand. El-Manawahly has been funding his video releases out of pocket and has yet to secure financing to produce an album. Meanwhile, all his songs are available online for free.

A self-taught guitarist since the age of 11, El-Manawahly has been writing his own lyrics, composing music and performing mainly in the privacy of his bedroom. “I’m used to singing to myself all my life and I don’t bother with my facial expressions," which often confuse people into thinking he's blind.

Having struggled in his childhood with polio, he often found himself bed-ridden with bandaged casts for months, which granted him ample time with his guitar placed sideways. Paralleled by some specialists with the Brazilian bossa nova, his music mixes Latin-American guitar sounds (he employs the oud on occasion), with powerful echoes of folklore in the lyrics. The shocking revelation that he cannot read music notes yet manages to compose so many different tunes highlights his nonconformist style.

It wasn’t until friends persuaded him to record one of his songs in a semi-professional studio in the aftermath of Mubarak’s downfall that the then businessman and car dealer’s life changed at the age of 43.

The song was El-Qella El-Mondassa (The Minority Infiltrators), a scathing and humorous critique of the state-run media coverage and propaganda of the uprising’s 18 days. Protestors were called agents of “external hands” – mostly Iranian – who served a “foreign agenda.”

“I spotted a girl with a banner in the square, is this Persian or translated in Lebanon? Does it say this pretty one is from Tehran?” the song went, “Or is she carrying the Iranian flag? I came close and saw that she was Egyptian, her banner read: Why are we being humiliated?”

The day it was uploaded on YouTube, the song was also broadcast on TV. A week later, he recorded another song, which was also picked up by TV channels. It wasn’t until ONTV’s star host Yosri Fouda invited him to appear on his popular political talk show in September 2011 that “things opened up” for him.

El-Manawahly has come a long way since, despite having produced only 16 songs in the past three years. And because they are all inspired by political developments they also serve as a chronicle of the uprising’s watersheds. If post-revolution Egypt had a soundtrack, this would probably be it.

Marageeh (Swings), produced in March 2011, voices concerns about SCAF -- which assumed power when Mubarak stepped down -- for not purging remnants of the old regime. Inqisam we Amal (Division and Hope) captured the early signs of the political polarisation that infested the revolutionary bloc and the dangers it poses on post-revolutionary Egypt.

Afarfesh Nafsi (I Cheer Myself Up) – released in September 2011 – is a denunciation of the military-Muslim Brotherhood alliance. Eh El-Gedid? (What’s New?), a melancholic melody, found little to celebrate in the June 2012 presidential election run offs between the Brotherhood’s Morsi and Mubarak’s last premier Ahmed Shafik.

Under Morsi’s single year in office, El-Manawahly released two songs critical of the man and his policies. But Sandouqoh (The International Monetary Fund) stands out as his first biggest hit, both for its wit and biting sarcasm. At the time it was produced, Egypt was very close to signing a $4.8 billion loan agreement with the IMF in the absence of a parliament or public debate, prompting a campaign by some left-leaning opposition forces to overturn a more dangerous version of Mubarak-era economic policies.

Yet no downtown Cairo protest conveyed the message better than Sandouqoh. The lyrics, written by El-Manawahly, move between wry humour -- “Help me, shackle me with your loan/ Graze in our country and consider it your land/ You are my partner in my thoughts, you plan our future and then confiscate my decisions”-- to sober questions: “Why did we have a revolution? Why did people die? Explain what dignity means, what ‘hold your head high’ means? And why did we chant ‘down, down with...’?”

The other two songs, released towards the end of Morsi’s rule, are an expression of disappointment and hopelessness in the man. He released only one, but by the time he was done with the other (La Hayata Li Man Tonadi - No Hope) in June 2013, the military had deposed Morsi among nationwide demonstrations against his rule and declared a roadmap.

El-Manawahly wholeheartedly supported the massive 30 June protests that demanded early presidential elections, but remained sceptical about the anti-revolution forces that had lobbied for it. “Something smelled rotten. How can the same people we revolted against be my partners?”

He nevertheless continued to support 30 June and even performed, with other singers, in anti-Morsi functions in front of the presidential palace. But when the military deposed Morsi on 3 July and declared a roadmap, El-Manawahly’s doubts were confirmed.

“That’s not what we demanded. We wanted early presidential elections and if this was too much, then a referendum on that demand.”

As a result, his second song was put on hold. “I lost my appetite and couldn’t release it…I admit, I’m one of those people who were fooled.”

His hiatus since has been symptomatic of many pro-revolutionary forces. Even TV hosts like ONTV’s Reem Maguid and Fouda went off the airwaves. So did satirist Bassem Youssef. Meanwhile, the crackdown on the Brotherhood and Islamists extended to secular activists, many of whom languish in jail. This climate of intimidation also feasted on harsh accusations (such as "fifth columnists" and "agents" of foreign powers) levelled at revolutionary activists and critics of the post-3 July political order.

But there are numerous signs of a possible change as, recently, more and more voices appear willing to challenge this climate -- which explains the timing of Rima, a song that exposes the pro-military alliance of "fat cats and religious edicts." A week ago he appeared on Fouda's talk show. 

Reflecting on the past three years, El-Manawahly told Fouda he felt as though he’d aged 30 years. But the cautiousness he expressed when discussing his future music plans when we met a week earlier had vanished. And out of nowhere, El-Manawahly, who was squeezing in as many songs as possible in the limited time on air, decided to sing Ikhwanophobia, a song he was waiting to release in a “more tolerant” political climate which pokes fun at the official narrative since Morsi's overthrow.

“I was lost when I discovered they [the Brotherhood] depleted the Ozone layer, terrified when I found out they burnt Rome with Nero,” the sarcastic lyrics went.

When I asked him later why he ventured into the taboo area, despite his original reluctance, he said he felt compelled to speak truth to power and simply seized the opportunity. “I hope I didn’t cause Fouda any trouble,” he said.

But the song also reiterates, on a more serious note, his political stand which rejects both military and Brotherhood rule: “I’m not destined to be militarised or declared an apostate.”

Yasser El-Manawahly will be performing at the Cairo Opera House's Small Hall, tonight (Saturday 22 February), 6:00 pm in a memorial held for  Ziyad Bakir a graphic designer with the Opera House who was killed during the January 2011 uprising.

Yasser El-Manawahly -- Keizer
Left: Yasser El-Manawahly in Keizer's graffiti, Right: Yasser El-Manawahly logo

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