Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim is the most famous Egyptian singer to comment on politics in the contemporary era. His political statements impress fans. Egyptian governments, however, have treated him as a distasteful but useful tool. From the Norient book Seismographic Sounds (see and order here).
In November 2014, Egyptian singer Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Raḥim released a video clip declaring his disgust for the self-described Islamic State (IS), the jihadist group that has seized control of large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. This video clip, «Prince of Criminals», directly addresses Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the commander of IS, and lambasts both Baghdadi and IS for their interpretation of Islam and their bloodthirstiness. The lyrics challenge IS for its practices of beheading captives and trafficking in women. The song laments the foolishness and credulity of those who would willingly join up with IS, and declares that the organization’s actions bear no resemblance to the correct practice of Islam. As Sha‘ban sings «You will receive us by land, by air, and by sea», the director pairs the music with archival video footage of the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) performing exercises, marching in parades, and generally appearing intimidating.
Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim first garnered widespread attention and acclaim for his 2001 song «I hate Israel», in which the singer expressed his distaste for Israeli military actions and occupation of Palestinian territory. This hit was followed by songs about anger at the United States’ political and military involvement in the Middle East and about the Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muḥammad. Sha‘ban also released electioneering video clips supporting then-president Hosni Mubarak. As a result, Sha‘ban became the most famous Egyptian singer to comment on politics in the contemporary era.
Playing it Safe
The self-parodying and vulgar star of Egypt’s sha‘bi musical genre has a reputation for making political statements with his music that impress fans and curry favor with the government at the same time. Before 2011, Egyptian music fans were easily impressed by political songs of any sort, since most professional singers there strove to avoid offending any potential customer. Sha‘ban’s terrible singing voice – he is infamously poor at carrying a tune – and buffoonish clothing style make him a figure for mockery, but people appreciate his music anyway. The Egyptian government has generally treated Sha‘ban as a distasteful but useful tool. Although his songs were occasionally censored from the radio for vulgarity, he has never been indicted for political dissent. Indeed, why would the government complain about his political statements? The singer has yet to voice any opinion directly critical of Egyptian political leadership, apart from the notable exception of the ex-president Mohamed Morsi (an Islamist whose candidacy Sha‘ban vocally opposed and whom he satirized repeatedly during Morsi’s brief tenure in office).
The lyrics in «Prince of Criminals» accuse IS of being a paid minion of Qatar, a claim that reflects Egyptian popular consensus. The Qatari government supported Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist administration, and has mostly had tense relations with current president ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and his regime. An oft-heard sentiment in Cairo is that Qatar actively favors Islamist governments to the degree that the Gulf state is funding the increasingly violent Islamist opposition to the Sisi regime. Sha‘ban piggybacks on this accusation by asking Baghdadi, «How much has Qatar paid you?»
Sha‘ban is not the first Egyptian singer in recent years to underscore his nationalist music with military footage. The practice began almost the moment that Sisi deposed Morsi, in a grandiose multi-singer paean to Sisi’s military junta. And, before the era of video clips, singers like Umm Kulthum and ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz commonly recorded military-style nationalist anthems. In this regard, as in most of his career, Sha‘ban is neither protesting nor parodying, but rather playing it safe.
This text was published first in the second Norient book «Seismographic Sounds».