Egypt singer who led 2011 protesters in song finds audience has thinned

Egypt singer who led 2011 protesters in song finds audience has thinned
Ramy Essam in Cairo in 2011. He continues to write songs about the upheaval in Egypt. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles)

During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Ramy Essam sang to hundreds of thousands of demonstrators each day. Now, he is playing far smaller venues in North America.

Ramy Essam stood in front of a painting depicting the early days of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, a time when protesters poured Coca-Cola over their eyes to wash out the sting of tear gas.

"How many of you speak Arabic?" Essam asked the small crowd, his fingers hovering over the strings of his guitar.

A few hands went up gingerly. "Shway," someone said, meaning "a little."


"It's really easy, you just say irhal" (leave), he said, encouraging audience participation in his song, perhaps remembering a time when no instructions were necessary. He repeated it once more for the crowd's benefit: "Irhal."

But when Essam, 27, began singing the song that had become the anthem of the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak — and was followed by a series of other so-called Arab Spring uprisings — only one woman, a native of Saudi Arabia, sang along. A few others mouthed the words.

Since he first began performing in a tent in Cairo's Tahrir Square and soon went on to sing to hundreds of thousands of demonstrators each day, Essam has continued to write songs charting Egypt's political and social tumult. Now, he is playing far smaller venues in North America, recently in Los Angeles at the Levantine Cultural Center.

"There are songs for every stage," Essam said. In the months and years since the 18-day uprising, he has posted 48 songs on YouTube, he said.

"Oh Council, You Criminals" was written in reference to the ruling military council in the wake of a 2012 riot that left at least 73 people dead, many blaming the tragedy on negligence by Egypt's security apparatus.

And days before Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a 2013 military coup, Essam released the song "Come on, Resign," echoing mass calls for the unpopular Morsi, who was Egypt's first democratically elected president, to step down.

His most recent release, nearly a year ago, is called "We Don't Belong to Them," its lyrics focusing on being stuck between the military-run government and the out-of-power-again Islamists, a division that has been at the heart of Egyptian politics for more than a year.

In January, he plans to post his third album online; his reach now doesn't extend far beyond his YouTube viewers. He completed the recordings two months ago before leaving Egypt for a two-year artist's residency in Sweden.

The 10 songs on "Prohibited" delve into the current sorry state of Egyptian society and predictions of more dissent and violence to come. With a smile, he told the Los Angeles audience that he expects to be arrested after eventually returning to Egypt once his residency concludes.

The situation hasn't quieted Essam, who was arrested in 2011, nor has the fact that he is singing to an ever- dwindling audience. His songs that once were played widely are now found at the bottom of political playlists, having been replaced by nationalistic tunes.

"Everyday we are losing supporters and we have to keep them with the art," he said.

Most Egyptians have long abandoned the political opposition, eager to return to their everyday lives. What little remains of the opposition has been mostly driven underground, Essam said.

"Most of the people have gotten sick of the revolution and anything connected to the revolution," he said. "But there are those who still believe in the revolution, though there are much fewer of them, numbering only in the thousands. They still need these songs to preserve the spirit of the revolution."

In May, Essam was arrested at a checkpoint and detained overnight, when he was interrogated for seven hours, he said. He was questioned about topics such as his relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood (which he opposes) and why he hates the Egyptian military, he said. He was also interrogated about his lyrics.

Since President Abdel Fattah Sisi came to power in the summer of 2013, Essam has been unable to book an Egyptian venue in which to perform, he said. Festival invitations have also dried up. Organizers regularly tell him that they fear getting in trouble with the military-led government if they allow him to perform.

But after leaving Egypt two months ago, he has begun performing again, including the current tour. In the Los Angeles stop, he performed a series of songs chronicling Egypt's political turmoil.

"The next song was called 'The Mubarak Era,' but now it's called 'The Sisi Era,'" Essam said, adding after a pause, "It's the same song."

He then took a swig of Red Bull before launching into the lyrics that catalog a lack of dignity and basic services offered by the Egyptian government.

When he finished the tune, Yasser Taima, a UCLA teaching assistant seated in the front row, called out, "I hope you change the name of the song soon."

"Yeah," Essam said. "But maybe he will be another" autocrat.

UC Irvine professor and musician Mark LeVine, accompanying Essam on guitar, quickly jumped in: "To retire the song would be the best case."