Cairo's underground producers defy military rule

As Egypt votes its army back into to power, leading lights of the electro shaabi scene tell us why music is the only thing left young people can trust

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Pro-army supporters celebrate the Egyptian military's electoral victory

An army helicopter flies over Tahrir Square and the crowd cheers. A military convoy tries to pass through despite ecstatic voters jumping on to the tanks and hugging and kissing Kalashnikov-armed troops. A makeshift soundsystem strapped to the back of a truck blasts out pro-military electro tunes rallying people to go and vote.

Last October the army fired live rounds on protesters here, but now hundreds of voters are celebrating the inevitable election of former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi as the new Egyptian president. Initial exit poll results released yesterday show a 93% lead for Sisi, meaning that Egypt will revert back to military rule after the country's first freely elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted last July.

With youth unemployment at around 25% and the tourism industry on its knees, pragmatic Egyptians see the former General Sisi as the man to create the stability needed to fix the country's dire economic situation. But one glaring thing about the lines of people queuing outside polling stations is the absence of young people. On Monday night in a downtown bar, one electoral observer told me: "People are turning up, showing their ID cards. It seems almost legitimate. But the youth have not showed up."

The people that originally drove the Arab spring want nothing to do with their country's lapse back to military rule. "The revolution used to be about freedom, but it's not about freedom any more," says Sadat, one half of electro shaabi stars Sadat & Alaa Fifty Cent. As millions of Egyptians became more interested in youth culture and politics post-revolution, their uncompromising brand of electro music exploded. "There's a 500 pound fine for not voting. I'll pay 1000 pounds, I don't care. They are not going to force me to take part in this fake election."

A movement created in the working-class district of Salam City, electro shaabi (or mahragan, meaning "festival") is the sound of struggle. It's a natural extension of Egyptian folk and pop sounds, brought into the present day with synths, FruityLoops and an underdog spirit of disenfranchised youth. Young Egyptians distribute the music themselves via media sharing sites, YouTube and internet cafes, where five Egyptian pounds will get you a CD of around 5,000 electro shaabi mp3 tracks. The music is not directly a product of Egypt's turmoil, but rather a style whose time has finally come: a style that reflects the reality, values and ideologies of Egyptian youth, referencing the language, fashion, and dialects of the working classes left behind by the political process.

"Culture is politics," says Sadat. "If I talk about the streets, this is politics. Talk about young people and how they feel, this is politics. People in Egypt are so ignorant right now. They label you as a terrorist if you voice your opinion."

Sadat is the embodiment of his band's style. He is sharp, animated and hard to pin down, at times speaking total nonsense, at times deadly serious. "We don't want to destroy the optimism of the older people. They see no other alternative than to vote for Sisi. But this mentality forces you to accept the minimum of dignity. As artists we are forced to create our own channel of expression through our music."

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Sadat & Alaa Fifty Cent Pete Kowalczyk

I'm due to meet Mahmoud Refat at 10pm at 100Copies Music Space on Talaat Harb Street, a 19th-century square now awash in the dirt, noise and occasional violence of a city in turmoil. Refat, a renowned noise artist in his own right, runs this recording studio, dubplate press and live venue, which serves as the hub for the electro shaabi phenomenon in Cairo. I walk down the few backstreets which are not blocked by 10ft-high walls of concrete blocks and barbed wire fencing. Police stop me at a checkpoint and delete some of my photos. I'm allowed to continue if I walk directly to my destination and keep the camera in my bag.

"The sound of the city changed," says Refat when we finally meet. "Everything is louder now since the 2011 revolution. The volume, the intensity. Everything in Cairo got very loud, very aggressive." Refat has been incorporating the sounds of the city into his noise performances since before the revolution, and has noticed a shift in the mentality of his city. He's disgusted with how the revolution has turned out. "People were cheering in the street for shooting up some guys with beards. People were cheering for women getting raped in the street. On a human level we simply can't live together."

Forced to choose between an Islamic religious state and a military government, Refat's response has been to channel his energy into creating a new way forward for the city's youth. "The strength we need is going to come from the studio. In 2011 we had faith in the revolution. But now, music is the only thing we can trust."

Regardless of what happens after this week's elections, electro shaabi music has grown to a point that has moved way beyond the politics of government. Sixty million people now listen to this music. Producers now appear in local movies and are gaining recognition abroad. The kids that shot to fame post-revolution are now untouchable.

"Nobody cares about the elections now," says Refat. "Electro shaabi producers are in control of themselves. These kids were futureless, they were hopeless. But it's not about the doctor or the dentist any more. It's about the street kids, the one with the gun, or the one with the bigger voice." 

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