Editor's Choice

Laughter in the Dark: Egypt to the Tune of Change

Dylan Schleicher

July 14, 2023


Yasmine El Rashidi gives us an update on the situation in Egypt through the lens of the country's hip hop scene.

LaughterInDark.jpgLaughter in the Dark: Egypt to the Tune of Change by Yasmine El Rashidi, Columbia Global Reports 

There was a time when it looked like the use of social media could help people crush autocracies and democratize the world. The height of that time was 2011, and the place was Tahrir Square, when the Egyptian Revolution that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak was organized online before it occupied the streets.  

Now, what seemed like a power the common people could wield against oppression has turned into a system of surveillance. What looked like a tool for effecting political change has turned into another example of crass consumerism and materialism.  

Yasmine El Rashidi’s new book, Laughter in the Dark, offers a look at what has become of the revolution and the forces that led to it. It is “intended for the millions who had followed the Egyptian revolution with intrigue, and have since turned their attention elsewhere.” I am one of those millions. But it is not about social media in the main. It is about Egyptian hip hop, a genre of music known as mahraganat. It is a music born during the revolution and that has spread rapidly in the discontent of its aftermath. For all the hope of those heady days in Tahrir Square, El Rashidi writes: 

As I write this, late in 2022, I think it is fair to say that Egypt is at its most oppressive point in its modern history.  

She writes this as someone who was raised in a culture of silence around politics. “Politics,” said Otto Von Bismarck, “is the art of the possible.” While many abhor the topic, nothing is possible if you can’t talk about politics.  

And for thirty years, under the rule of the late Hosni Mubarak (1981–2011), citizens did not dare speak of politics, for fear of the deep-state, with its troops of secret police and informants, notorious for their ruthless methods of kidnappings and torture. 

That changed almost overnight in 2011, and while it seemed that a new era had dawned at the time, many of the people who spoke out and protested are still paying the price today. “Although figures are hard to come by,” El Rashidi tell us, “it was estimated by human rights groups that up to 60,000 political dissidents were being held in jail as of late 2022.” 

A friend of the authors, Alaa Abdel Fattah, was imprisoned for a Facebook post. At least six women are currently in jail for videos posted online that were deemed to be in violation of “family values and principles upheld by Egyptian society”—one a divorcee whose crime was wearing tight clothing and dancing with her boyfriend in front of a phone’s camera. But nothing is upsetting the status quo and traditional values of Egyptian society quite like mahraganat. It is, like hip hop everywhere, a strong and subversive art form. As the genre and the artists that make the music have become more popular, it has also, as in other places, tended toward flashy displays of excess that reinforce individualism and materialism. This dichotomy in the culture is at the heart of the book.  

Like many across the world, I was introduced to hip hop culture by the movie Beat Street. I was four years old when it was released, and probably saw it for the first time around that age. I remember it being on television a lot as my three brothers and I were growing up, and we came to know the songs and storylines by heart. I grew up with the genre, tuning into A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul in the late ‘80s and eventually diving into a rich culture of underground hip-hop that exploded across the country in the 1990s. It was decidedly anti-mainstream, an example of the indie ethos that permeated the time just before the internet came and swept away both the major labels and the culture of four-track recordings and bootleg cassette tapes being passed among those who knew. The artists talked about their struggles, and more about owning their own music rather than owning fancy cars or clothes. A lot of it poked fun of the mainstream movement for its flashy displays of wealth and excess.  

There is a similar dynamic playing out in Egypt. The young culture’s beefs and diss tracks echo our own here in America, as do the genre’s beginnings. Long interested in the genesis of hip hop here in America, I was fascinated by her chapter “Beginnings” tracing the roots of Egyptian hip hop culture, and the longer history of political music in Egypt. It has grown from similar socioeconomic roots. “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, was a story of economic hardship after all—of the most disadvantaged citizens of our society falling through the seams of a fraying society and deteriorating social safety net, with him rapping that he:  

can't take the smell, can't take the noise  
got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice. 
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back 
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat 
I tried to get away but I couldn't get far 
Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car 

It sounds a lot like rappers from Alexandria and Cairo rapping about economic hardship and the lost souls around them. 3enba, rapping from Cairo, writes:  

Deadbeats abound in abundance 
(Abundance, I say, abundance, abundance) 
Good-for-nothings, there is no hope 
(Go hard) 
Get away from me, my nerves are tired 
You addict kids drowning 

“Don't push me,” said Grandmaster Flash, “cause I'm close to the edge. I'm trying not to lose my head.” 

The author doesn’t write about it, but it also brought to my mind a long tradition of subversive poetry in the Middle East—indeed around the world. (Whenever literary types lament the poor state of American poetry to me, I remind them of hip hop’s existence.) I’ve read of a samizdat-like cassette network of live performances and recordings once being passed around places like Cairo that circulated poetry, like that of Muzaffar al-Nawwab, that had been banned and censored in most of the region. This sounds a lot like what is happening with mahraganat today, which has now officially been banned entirely as a genre—if I’m reading it correctly, twice. 

El Rashidi gives us quick tour through the scene and the young men who make it up, from those like 3enba still struggling to exist, to people like Mohamed Ramadan, a popular actor turned rapper who flies by private jet to the most exclusive enclaves of the Middle East, and Hassan Shakosh, a footballer turned musician whose song “Bent El Giran” (“The neighbor’s daughter”) took mahraganat from the poor neighborhoods and fringes of society to the mainstream and upper class—which was also the impetus that got the genre banned by the country’s Music Syndicate that issues licenses to perform in the country. 

But it is all a lens that leads back to conditions on the ground in Egypt—of a widening wealth gap, political oppression, perhaps even of cultural decay. Whether the genre is a part of that decay, or whether it could lead to a renaissance is a topic of debate. What is not up for debate is that the Army is not only ruling with an iron fist over the country, but it is also increasingly commandeering all economic activity and profit in the country. 

As the government and its circle of contractors, developers, and army generals make huge profit margins on all the construction in the country, the wealth gap widens. Dozens of gated compounds sell villas with starting prices of $1 million. On the long stretch of Northern coastline, the cheapest beach property starts at a half million dollars and go upwards of $10 million. And on the roads of the city, Range Rovers, which cost £E5 million, have become commonplace. “We’re talking of a new class of billionaires, not millionaires,” a former newspaper publisher told me. And that wealth is out on the streets for everyone to see.  

That wealth is being built on public debt. At the same time, sixty percent of Egypt’s population is under the age of twenty-nine. It is heavily male, and “unemployment in the 15–29 age bracket,” the primary audience of a now mostly banned music genre, “stands at 62 percent.” So: 

As the Army gets richer, the people quickly get poorer. Everyone is feeling it. On the back of public spending and borrowing, inflation is in double-digits, and the Egyptian pound is steadily declining in value. 

But the privileged elite aren’t the only ones flaunting wealth. Although the genre has been banned and the artists who created the genre are struggling to make music and survive in Egypt, the most popular mahraganat stars are still being flown on private jets around the world to perform for princes and other wealthy patrons, and they flaunt their wealth and material excess on the same kind of platforms that a previous generation once raised a revolution on. Their young male fans, increasingly disenfranchised and despondent of a better future, emulate the lifestyle of the most successful and flashy artists without the means to live it out. They are turning to openly drinking and using drugs on the streets in a society that has never seen such behavior before. El Rashidi say she has found herself “increasingly uncomfortable around these groups.” And in a place where it was always safe to walk the streets at night, people (especially women) are now afraid to walk alone at any time of day. As El Rashidi see it: 

[W]hat I have come to realize, is that for the majority of these youth, the music unleashes the energy that is pent up—of grim futures, of unmet material wants, and a sense of futility in imagining a tomorrow any different from their current situation. 

The book’s title, Laughter in the Dark, is, I believe, a reference to groups of young men laughing as they break their beer bottles in the night—giving no mind to previous societal and cultural norms nor to the people around them.  It is an unnerving and, according to the book, a now all-too-common scene. It is a powder keg, and no one knows in which direction it might explode. El Rashidi shows us that there are still artists struggling on the margins underneath a ban on their music, focused on making music and artisitic expression over living a lavish lifestyle, focused on the culture and giving a voice to the struggles of their community. This is the story of hip hop everywhere to some extent, and of the neoliberal order itself, but every place is unique so how it plays out here is and will be uniquley Egyptian. What seems to be clear now is that: 

The story of Egypt, and of its revolutionary fervor, is not yet over.


About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of Porchlight since 2003. After beginning in shipping and receiving, he moved through customer service (with some accounting on the side) before entering into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the marketing and editorial aspects of the company. Outside of work, you’ll find him volunteering or playing basketball at his kids’ school, catching the weekly summer concert at the Washington Park Bandshell, or strolling through one of the many other parks or green spaces around his home in Milwaukee (most likely his own gardens). He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.

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