Before the street, there was the screen — and the stage. In Syria and Egypt pre-2011, citizens used soap operas, plays and songs to voice political commentary — slipping criticism in between lines and lyrics. Then, the Arab Spring began, collapsing this natural order and impaling the region’s most powerful and traditional motors of media production in Egypt and Syria.
But though much soap opera production relocated to the Gulf (notably Saudi-owned MBC), or acquired even more Gulf funding, and the radio in Egypt now blares patriotic songs written by the military’s propaganda arm, parody and satire has not gone extinct in the Arab world. It has simply moved. Indeed, social media and street art have become the locus of cultural expression. And never before have grassroots formulations in image and text been so roundly threatening to the Arab ruling order. The regime of Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, for example, has engaged in a campaign to claim back the word on the street, painting over revolutionary art that equates Mubarak, the military, and the Brotherhood as an authoritarian oneness. With Sisi now an official presidential candidate on his way to being officially anointed leader of the nation, state control of public space is set to intensify.
Though it doesn’t make Western headlines as frequently, cultural life has been just as heavily contested as politics over the past three years. Players in the cultural scene who were viewed as servants of old-regime power were immediately targets of popular anger in Egypt and Tunisia, overturning state-backed discourses that had made them heroes or defining figures of a genre. Take, for example, actor Adel Imam. He owned the Pyramids Theater on Pyramids Road in Cairo, which was the permanent home of his play al-Za’im (The Leader). Imam was a loyal servant of the Mubarak regime who did a series of films in the 1990s ridiculing the Islamist movement. His theater was one of the targets for mob attacks in January and February 2011, along with the NDP headquarters by Tahrir Square and sites of neoliberalism and crony-capitalism such as the Arcadia Mall and Shagara Casino along the Nile nearby.
The battle over culture shifted with the appointment of an Islamist minister of culture under the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi: Alaa Abdel-Aziz’s appointment appeared to signal a seminal change in the nature of artistic production as prominent figures — in a sector still dominated by the state — were sacked, such as the heads of the Opera House, the Egyptian General Book Authority, and the Fine Arts Sector. The uprising and Mubarak’s fall had created an opening for a new approach to culture that would be less state-led and more grassroots based, but it didn’t happen. Yet the Brotherhood government led by the first democratically elected president chose to work within the same framework as before.
The plot twisted again after the military took power back from the embattled President Morsi. Today, Egypt’s cultural life has veered back violently towards pre-Arab Spring secularism. Culture is once more dominated by authors and intellectuals who disappeared in the 1970s but are now “rising from the ground like zombies,” as one critic put it. Sisi has displayed typically republican concern for culture: He rounded up leading lights for a meeting several months into his autocracy to discuss using the cultural sphere to promote the new order. And the military’s Moral Affairs department — its propaganda wing — has taken an active role in producing plays and churning out jingoistic songs blared incessantly on state television and private channels (often involving children). The message of these productions: Egypt is in danger and everyone must stand in line behind the military in its fight to protect the integrity of the state against the deconstruction of international Islamism. The impression is that, like 1967 or 1973, Egypt is in fact at war (this time with the Islamists).
Certainly, instability in Egypt, and actual civil war in Syria, have dramatically impacted the state of cultural production: Before the Arab Spring, Syria and Egypt’s soap operas were accessible across the region on satellite, often during Ramadan, and aired again on the national channels that buy the shows. With Egypt’s economy barely surviving and relying on Gulf hand-outs, production has plummeted and many actors and directors have quit the country (for work in the Gulf or just an easier life) or gone silent. In Syria, civil war has achieved much the same.
Crony capitalist Gulf networks such as MBC, Rotana, and ART have emerged in this context as a citadel for old regime art — a defense of the post-colonial Arab order — producing soaps by Egyptian and Syrian directors, and featuring a mix of, mainly, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan and Lebanese actors with a smattering of Gulf stars (mainly from Kuwait and Bahrain). Some of this may be produced in Egypt itself, Lebanon (an alternative to previously popular Syria), or in the Gulf. Cinema output has plunged since in the unstable political environment people prefer to consume their drama at home.
Generally speaking, the emergence of the Gulf as a central player in pan-Arab popular culture is a historical phenomenon linked to the rise of petrodollar states, the discrediting of Egypt-led Arab nationalism and the rivalry among individual Gulf polities. Since 2011, Gulf-based production has been used conspicuously to promote sectarianism in the interest of ruling dynasties. The TV series, Omar, which was shown in July and August of 2013, overtly promoted Sunni views and challenged Shia perspectives. During Ramadan, shows on MBC1 have sent blatantly anti-revolutionary messages. In Khawatir (Thoughts), presenter Ahmed al-Shuqairi travels to different countries to demonstrate ways in which Muslims can improve their societies by borrowing from others, a theme that was transformed post-2011 into the message that Muslims should revolutionize their personal behavior before they think of change in any greater political sense. So the opening titles of each episode in one recent season would begin with a graphic of protesters chanting “the people want,” but instead of completing the Arab revolutionary phrase “to bring down the regime,” the word “regime” appears on a placard with a red cross boldly scoring it out, suggesting the devout Muslim should not utter such profanities. The song accompanying these images went on to talk about how the people in reality just want to end corruption and other social ills.
Just as important as these political maneuvers by states, however, has been the Arab Spring-inspired emergence from below of social media and street art as the locus of grassroots cultural output and expression. In Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia the word and image on the street was fundamental in creating a narrative that challenged state authority — and the party line perpetuated through soap operas and other popular shows.
Cairo streets still bear a fair amount of revolutionary, anti-military graffiti, but army and police are going systematically around the main neighborhoods and removing it. In Bahrain, Shi’ite villages are full of art work denouncing the ruling Al Khalifa family and glorifying opposition leaders in jail; police remove some of it closer to the main roads but deep inside neighborhoods the revolutionary imagery is rarely absent.
So, what will happen to street art and other forms of culture with Sisi as president in Egypt? First off, there will be more pro-Sisi slogans and imagery on the streets, as various institutions outbid each other to glorify him. Revolutionary street art will recede further. At the same time, the state will expand its use of the cultural sector to promote a manufactured national optimism — an effort to rally the nation around the military and other key institutions of state to overcome challenges real and imagined to Egypt’s progress. Sisi’s main message to the people: Everyone must sacrifice to save Egypt. But the imagery of protest is likely to survive efforts to paint it over or drown it out.
Andrew Hammond is a Middle East and North Africa Program policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His research covers Islamist movements, human rights issues, Arab media, and cultural affairs in Egypt and the Gulf. Andrew has authored three books: Popular Culture in the Arab World (2004), What the Arabs Think of America (2007), and The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia (2012).