Culture populaire et (contre)révolution en Egypte (1/2) : L’endurance du legs révolutionnaire par Alia Musallam

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Graffiti in downtown Cairo during a period of confrontation with SCAF, 2011 (© A. Musallam).

Grâce à la vigilance d’un ami de ce blog (merci à lui !), j’ai pu prendre connaissance d’une thèse, soutenue en novembre 2012 par Alia Musallam à la London School of Economics and Political Science. Son titre − Hikāyāt Sha‛b. Stories of Peoplehood Nasserism, Popular Politics and Songs in Egypt, 1956-1973  (quelque chose comme « Les récits/histoires d’un peuple. Nassérisme du peuple, politiques populaires et chansons en Egypte, 1956-1973 ») ne permet pas forcément de comprendre qu’il s’agit d’une étude de la formule politique proposée au temps de Nasser telle que l’ont vécue et interprétée les couches populaires. Pour restituer ce vécu, la chercheuse s’appuie essentiellement sur des sources orales, les histoires et les chansons de trois groupes sociaux engagés du côté de la révolution de 1952 : les travailleurs mobilisés dans la construction du haut barrage d’Assouan, les Nubiens déplacés par le lac formé par ce barrage, là où se trouvaient leurs terres, et enfin les membres de la résistance à Port-Saïd et à Suez en 1956 (la calamiteuse expédition franco-britannico-israélienne) et 1967.

La thèse est disponible dans son intégralité ici mais je n’ai pu que la parcourir pour ce billet. Une lecture bien suffisante cependant pour comprendre qu’il s’agit d’un travail passionnant, ne serait-ce que par les sources qu’il mobilise et les techniques qu’il met en oeuvre dans sa démonstration. Comme le soulignait dans son message celui qui me l’a fait connaître, elle fait très exactement « raccord » avec le texte d’Ahmed Nagy sur une certaine « nostalgie de la chanson politique égyptienne », celle de la période nassérienne bien entendu mais pas seulement.

En effet, dans le texte donné ci-dessous (moins une citation et une mini-coupe signalée) et qui constitue la « conclusion de la conclusion » (p. 289-292), Alia Musallam revient (à chaud, la thèse est soutenue en 2012) sur les événements de 2011 qu’elle a vécus comme citoyenne, militante et journaliste. Rappelant le développement d’une scène alternative durant la décennie précédente, elle souligne que ses références musicales, celles de l’ère nassérienne (cheikh Imam, Salah Jahine également), étaient malgré tout perçues en partie inadéquates dans le contexte du moment. Lors des manifestations, ce furent pourtant ces chansons (et quelques autres plus anciennes encore, Bayram El-Tunsi par exemple) qui furent d’abord reprises sur la place Tahrir, et non pas cette « musique alternative » plus récente. Avec le temps, cependant, ce répertoire des chansons militantes des années 1950 et 1960 a été adapté et même remplacé par les acteurs du moment. Lors des batailles contre le SCAF (le pouvoir militaire pré-Sissi), la commémoration des martyrs est ainsi devenu un genre particulièrement exploité, par défiance notamment contre les « ennemis de la révolution ».

Malgré tout, selon Alia Musallam, c’est surtout la chanson des années 1950 qui a été le plus souvent reprise dans les moments les plus critiques (en particulier à Suez et à Port-Saïd, en juillet 2011 et février 2012). Non pas par nostalgie, mais parce que cette chanson-là portait en elle, toujours vivants, les échos des luttes passées. On comprend ainsi, toujours selon Alia Musalllam, ce que la présence intacte de cet héritage musical dans la mémoire populaire révèle : alors qu’on le croit souvent exclusivement produit par l’appareil idéologique nassérien, le succès de ces chansons s’explique en réalité par la force des politiques populaires qui ont intégré le discours du leader de cette époque à leurs propres structures politiques.

Cette capacité à faire écho aux luttes du passé (pour la période qui précède la révolution de 1952, il faut absolument relire l’ouvrage trop oublié de Jacques Berque, L’Egypte, impérialisme et révolution), c’est ce qui fait « l’endurance », la capacité à durer, du legs de la chanson nassérienne, reprise dans un temps révolutionnaire qui s’inscrit dans une longue chaîne de luttes populaires.

Ce passage, comme celui qui a pour titre Songs in History, and its Present (juste avant, p. 285-289), porte le sceau des espoirs de l’époque. Qu’en est-il, aujourd’hui, après le « coup » du 30 juin et l’essor de la Sissimania ? Sauf interruption due à une actualité impérieuse, le prochain billet devrait compléter (et sans doute refermer) la longue parenthèse de cette « saison égyptienne » totalement imprévue à l’origine !

Endurance of a Revolutionary Legacy

In the decade or so leading up to 2011, a growing cultural scene in Egypt accompanied the growing political movements.1 To begin, it was focused on regional issues relating to Palestine and Iraq, but increasingly turned its focus to life in Mubarak’s Egypt. The cultural scene involved performances of songs and skits that made stages of old garages, street cafes, and often pavements and bridges. This movement sought to create new public spaces for cultural and political expression, in a country whose streets were spaces for surveillance and governance.

The songs and skits that were sung in these spaces were predominantly the songs of Sheikh Imam, Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm, and at times even Salah Jahin. They were songs that sang of resistance, of social justice, despite a hypocritical state (of the 1950/60s), and chanted that their populace would claim the streets. They were songs that were political, and mobilised an existing audience that either knew the songs by heart because they were the generation of the 1960s and 1970s, or because they belonged to a later generation that inherited the nostalgia of the struggle of the period. After all, for years, people had chosen the arts of the 1950s and 1960s as the language with which to articulate the politics of change and social justice.

There was a consciousness however, […] that the contemporary political reality was one that was haunted with nostalgia of the struggle fought in an era whose politics may not be relevant to the contemporary moment. It was a consciousness that speaking in this borrowed language made it harder to mobilise in a different way and to properly experience the new tyrannies and the new movements. Most importantly, these lyrics made being critical of an older period more difficult.2

With the onset of the January 25 2011 revolution, and the occupation of Tahrir Square, the songs that filled the square were once again these familiar lyrics of Imam, Nigm,Jahin, as well as the political lyrics of Sayyid Darwish and Bayram alWTunisi from an earlier period. This was despite the fact that the art movement budding in Cairo since the mid 2000s had been introducing new lyrics, whether social or political, that reflected their own realities, rather than an inherited memory of an earlier period.

Within days, and once the battles in Suez and Port Said were won, singers from Tanbura band and Gam‛iyyit Muhibi al-Simsimiyya came to the square to sing the songs of resistance of the 1950s and 1960s. The Nubians too came to chant, announcing their origins and their political stances, ensuring their own claim to the revolution.

Within days on the square, however, the songs started to change. Songs by the bands of Suez and Port Said were adapted so that the current struggles were included in the long genealogy of resistance that they chronicled. In the meantime, songs of Imam, Nigm and the others were slowly replaced by songs made up of the chants of the square. Artists emerged from Tahrir Square and created an art that articulated the popular sentiment of the moment, an art that used the chants and existing articulations of politics against the regime. Singers of ballads came from Upper Egypt, one from Menya in particular, came to sing the sira (epic) of Suzanne Mubarak’s ancestry and her sad ending after a revolution in 2011.

As the days stretched, debates ensued as to what sort of revolution that of 2011 would be, as compared to the revolutions of 1952 and 1882. The question of an army’s rule was presented and discussed, and predominantly the idea of a single representation of the revolution, as Nasser had been, was rejected. As the months wore on and the battles extended inside and outside of Cairo, against a military struggling torule, and nonrepresentative politics, more and more songs developed to remember the martyrs, and differentiate the revolution’s people from its enemies.

Still, on the darkest moments of despair, and those moments where triumph reigned strongest, it was the dissident songs of the 1950s (and sometimes the 1920s) that emerged. Perhaps they carried a legacy that reigned stronger, and had lingered longer with a struggling populace.3

These were not necessarily songs that rung with nostalgia for a period; rather they were those that reminded of the pain of a struggle people had survived. They reminded that a people had struggled and somehow prevailed, and that this struggle across generations and governorates continued to bind them. For just as these songs of the 1950s continued to resound on the streets of Cairo, the chants that drew on these songs sprung up in the largest protests in Suez and Port Said in July of 2011 and February of 2012 respectively.

Thus, besides looking at Nasserist Egypt beyond the dichotomy of Nasser’s charismatic successes, or his political and military failures, this study questions what the roots of his power were, and how and why he managed to mobilise so many. It sheds light on the politics, not of a regime, but the politics of a people at times intertwined with, at others existing beyond structural politics.

These songs echo with the struggle of a larger people, and that is the legacy they bring to the present. The reverberations of past struggles locate the latest revolution, such that it did not spring from a particular generation of youth alone, rather, it is that the revolution emanated from a people that had continued to struggle over different periods. This is the legacy that this thesis brings to light.

  1. For a detailed study of the cultural movement between 2000W2010, see (Mossallam 2012). All other observations indicated in this chapter are based on my own research and presence during the 2011 events. []
  2. Though the significance of understanding the 2011 revolution through songs is growing (Colla 2011; Saad 2012), little
    work has been done in understanding the movement leading up to 2011 through songs, particularly in relation to the songs of the 1950s/1960s []
  3. This observation was made particulary in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and thus cannot be generalised beyond this space. It is subject to further research. []