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Officers and Entertainment: Popular Culture and the State in Egypt

Session IX-02, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

RoundTable Description
From movies, songs, and TV dramatic series to televised football tournaments, the Egyptian state has continuously deployed entertainment in politics throughout the country’s post-colonial history. Since 1952, Egypt’s old and new military regimes invested in entraining the masses to contain, appease, manipulate, or surveil them. They placed under heavy censorship the industries and related public spaces that different social classes relied on for joyous relief from economic hardship or political oppression. Often consumers of pop culture and fans of its superstars themselves, Egypt’s ruling officers always eyed broadcasted sources of amusement as a department of hegemony. This situation started in the 1950s-60s, when the socialist state nationalized the cinema industry, built a TV station, and installed generals as heads of football clubs. Movie stars, singers, football players were either co-opted or excluded from the public scene based on the regime’s preferences. Between the 1970s and 2000s, the economically liberalized state allowed the private sector to make profit from popular culture, but this did not entirely lift the state’s heavy hand in directing the content of entertainment. The current military regime financially monopolizes the production of Ramadan TV series (muslasalat), tames cinema scripts, co-opts young singers, and takes advantage of the globally live-streamed fame of football players like Mo Salah. Participants in this interdisciplinary roundtable attempt to trace how different military regimes in the past and present in Egypt tapped into popular culture for political ends. From historical, sociological, political economy, and mass communication approaches, they start by examining Nasser’s generation of officers first as young consumers of and later the sole financiers of movies. The stardom of Layla Murad and Faten Hamama, with gains or losses from the state’s version of nationalism and feminism, are inquired into. They follow how war movies presented contradictory images of army officers in times of defeat and victory from the 1960s to the 1990s. Reaching Mubarak’s 2000s, they scrutinize how the ex-military president dramatized cherished narratives in the country’s historical memory to refurbish his eroded popularity. Finally, they closely inspect al-Sisi’s regime. While it produced its own propagandistic rhetoric on social media typically used by civilians, it funded musalsalat & movies on heroic officers fighting terrorists, co-opted young music celebrities (no less than Wegz), and backed the national football team in international championships where millions of TV and online viewers cheered for Mo Salah.
Disciplines
History
Participants
Presentations
  • The Officers Entrain the Masses: Military Business and Consuming Pleasure in Egypt While researching the Egyptian military’s business enterprises for several years, it has been hard not to notice the ruling officer’s extraordinary interest in popular culture and their recent investments in this profitable sector. With a political economy approach, I investigate how Egypt’s ruling officers funded televised entertainment to successfully manipulate its civilian consumers, foster their popularity, and make big profits from the 1950s until today. Over eight decades, dazzled viewers across social strata enjoyed uplifting shows helping them endure daily life hardships, while entertaining officers disseminated propaganda, censored screens, and accumulated revenue. In the 1950s-60s, Nasser’s socialist state nationalized the cinema industry. Many of his fellow officers took off their uniform and adopted careers as scriptwriters or filmmakers. Hiring singing celebrities and acting idols, most state-funded movies were commercial hits at box offices. They were also screened on state-owned TV channels. With an ideology for social equality, Nasser’s movies and TV shows were full of faces of peasants, workers, women, etc. enjoying agency in a system that granted them socio-economic rights. However, many state movies showcased uniformed protagonists sacrificing to liberate the nation or fighting wars. In the 1970s, although Sadat’s state allowed private business to return to the entertainment sector, uniformed characters continued to appear in movies with or without state funding. Their roles now were the heroic victors in the 1973 war. From the 1980s onwards, after Mubarak fully liberalized the economy, private capital dominated the sector, and the country had no more wars to fight, faces of officers nearly disappeared from screens. Ex-war heroes were too busy, anyways, with building a gigantic business empire, and their lucrative enterprises appeased civilian consumers with goods other than amusement. Under al-Sisi, army officers made a second debut as both producers of entertainment and entraining protagonists. The military’s business empire now heavily invests in making the masses constantly cheerful, regardless of them losing government subsidies and paying global prices for public services under drastic economic liberalization. The military regime directly or indirectly controls TV networks, cinema firms, live concerts, football stadiums, and wifi providers. It produced Ramadan TV series and movies on officers fighting terrorism. It streamed live matches of the national football team, an epic parade of mummies of kings and queens relocated to a new museum, and another live concert reopening the ancient Avenue of the Sphinxes.
  • My contribution to the roundtable on “Popular Culture and the State in Egypt: Officers & Entertainment” will be a discussion of the popular memory of Qasim Amina and how it has been used in more recent decades by the Egyptian state. I will be doing so through the lens of the 2002 miniseries on Qasim Amin. By way of background: Over the last several decades, scholars have made important strides in contextualizing Amin’s contributions and bringing to the fore other activists and writers—many of whom are women—who advocated for changes to their societies. In light of these reassessments, Amin has become a less prominent, if more contested, figure in the history of Egyptian feminist movements (see for example, Ahmed, 1992; Cole, 1981; Cuno, 2015; Idris, 2017; McLarney, 2018; Noorani, 2010). Even as he is still the “liberator of women” in the popular Arabic press, among academics, he is almost never referred to as the “father of Egyptian feminism” without qualification. This reevaluation has been necessary and commendable. However, considerably less attention has been paid to the mechanics of how Amin became a symbol of Egyptian feminism in the first place and the impact that had on broader social discourses. One aspect of Amin’s legacy has been his recognition by state officials (through state school curricula, state-sponsored feminisms, and the like) as a feminist icon. For this roundtable, I will focus on a recent TV miniseries (musalsil) that was broadcast in the early 2000s just as the Mubarak regime was positioning itself as a champion of women. I will introduce the basic outlines of the miniseries, including how it departed from previous biographical depictions. Then, some of the questions I would like to propose to the roundtable are: * Which historical narratives are privileged by these kinds of cultural productions? * How do we understand the divergent motivations of the writers/producers from that of the state? * How do we gauge the influence of these kinds of cultural artifacts on the historical memory of a community?
  • "The Star System and State Feminism in Egyptian Popular Film of the ‘50s and ‘60s" ABSTRACT In 1962, Omar Sharif would appear in Lawrence of Arabia, marking the beginning of a successful run as a Hollywood leading man. However, Sharif was only half of a power couple in the star system of “Hollywood on the Nile,” the world of Egyptian popular film. His wife, known popularly in the Arab world as the “queen of the Arab cinema,” was Fatin Hamama. At the time of Sharif’s departure for Hollywood, Hamama had arguably already reached the zenith of her film career, a child actor turned film superstar beloved of millions of Egyptian and Arab film fans. Sharif’s successful transition from Egyptian to international stardom has always raised a particular question in my mind: Why wouldn’t his wife, an actor of enormous talent who would appear in critically acclaimed Egyptian films making the rounds of international film festivals, follow suit? What I want to suggest in this paper is that the starkly different career trajectories of Sharif and Hamama are bound up with the starkly different opportunities available to men and women in American and Egyptian films of the 1950s and 1960s, respectively. While women in the Hollywood star system enjoyed relatively few opportunities to hold the top of a film bill in these years independent of American male leads, women in the Egyptian star system had strikingly abundant opportunities to hold the top of the bill, entirely independent of Egyptian male leads. Indeed, one can list dozens of titles in which actors like Hamama, Suad Husni, and Magda significantly outshone their male colleagues as stars. In their fascinating scholarship, Joel Gordon and Laura Bier have already looked in detail at how Egyptian popular culture during the Nasser years articulated with state feminism. What I propose to undertake in this paper is a more comparative analysis than that attempted before, drawing upon such varied sources as film posters, fan magazines, and box office statistics, to highlight the relatively outsize role that women enjoyed in the Egyptian star system, in particular contrast to that enjoyed by American women in the Hollywood system. Further, I will discuss how this phenomenon may have related to Egyptian screenwriters’ and filmmakers’ desire to engage in what were, at this time, live debates about the changing social and political roles of women in modern Egypt.
  • On Limitless Liminality: The Mercurial Mo Salah under Sisi’s State. Professional athletes in Egypt are the easy target of state instrumentalization to serve its sociopolitical objectives. Since the “Free Officers” republic’s assumption of power, soccer has been nationalized as a forum for the propagation of state propaganda, with athletes rendered loyalists and conformists. Oppositional politics in sports considered anathema, particularly given the majority of the professional players subject to strict conditions in the country under the Egyptian Football Association--from disqualification and termination, to early retirement. The revolution of 2011 heralded a reconfiguration of athletics as activism—with fans and players overtly expressing their support for the uprising. For example, Former national team goalkeeper Nader El-Sayed famously led protesters in chants against the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF). The most prominent example has been the categorical and systematic defamation of former superstar Mohammed Aboutreika, often considered a sympathizer of the toppled Muslim Brotherhood. It is against this backdrop that Mohammed (Mo) Salah, the most celebrated, decorated, and iconic player in Egyptian soccer history, enters the fray. Without a professional pedigree in Egyptian league, Salah has carved out his career and reach his meteoric clout in some of the top European Leagues which has afforded him a unique immunity from the kind of criticism often levelled at locally-based players. Salah has occupied a liminal space between independent agent capable of confronting transgressions by the state’s football association in public spats (often prevailing against them), and navigating thorny situations where they attempt to coopt him. This presentation showcases the incredibly delicate process by which Salah is able to assert his mercurial independence from all the political forces while at the same time capitalizing on his popularity across all segments in society, which affords him even more insulation from the wraths of power. With the regime cognizant of Salah’s unparalleled popularity in Egypt, quantified at least by the large number who wrote in his name on the most recent Presidential Election ballot, they have carefully underplayed his success. The presentation will go from reviewing the circumstances that render Salah an anomaly in his relationship to the centers of power in Egypt to speculating on the various potential permutations of such a relationship moving forward.
  • Censorship and control of cultural production for the sake of “elevating cultural taste” of Egyptians has been a state project since the 1900s. And much of the same rhetoric surrounding the “vulgarity” and “dangerousness” of lower-class culture persists today. Throughout this history, few sh‘abi artists have managed to crossover into the mainstream. Those who did presented as more palatable to political and cultural elites and did not disrupt the middle-class norms of propriety they promoted. Moreover, their music was widely consumed and enjoyed, but with undertones of class hierarchy. Under the current military regime, lower-class masculine identities have penetrated the mainstream in a historically unprecedented way through emerging sh‘abi trap artists such as Wegz and Marwan Pablo. From working-class backgrounds, Wegz and Pablo have experienced a different reception to their blend of sh‘abi mahraganat and Western-style trap music, evident in how they are discussed with admirative tones in public discourse and the tens of thousands of youth flocking to their concerts. These artists rose to prominence by purposefully portraying young working-class realities: their music videos depict rough urban life and showcase their rebellious/reckless lifestyles, and they frequently rap about being disenfranchised yet rebuked by society. They invite lower-middle class youth to embrace, critique, and unapologetically own their cultural identities. And for the first time in Egyptian pop-culture history, lower-class masculinities are being admired, celebrated and emulated across social classes. The military regime’s response to this emerging genre has primarily been to silence and suppress (e.g. Pablo was banned from performing by the Musicians’ Syndicate in 2021). Only when an artist’s popularity is so undeniable do they resort to co-opting them for their own gain. A prime example is the recent advertisement by WE, the military/state-owned telecommunication company, featuring Wegz alongside Ahmed Mekki, star of military-produced Ramadan TV-series "Al-Ikhtiyar 2." But is the state’s “silence or subsume” strategy effective/sustainable? The Egyptian trap phenomenon is a battle for representation. Its success is evidence that lower-class identities, specifically lower-class masculine identities of a new (post-2011) generation, are competing for a place in the production of national culture, and thus disrupting ruling officers’ mission to monopolize it, promote ultra-nationalism, and prevent mass gathering (such as packed concerts) in public spaces. What does this say about the potential power wielded by trap artists to inspire/effect change in a post-2011 Egypt? And does such a disruption allude to more cultural and political disruptions on the horizon?
  • Title: Counter-revolutionary Cultures: State, Paranoia and Public Space in Egypt Abstract: The study of revolution has grown immensely over the past decades, yet revolution's main other, counter-revolution, still gets inadequate attention. This paper is based on a close case study of the counter-revolutionary moment, referring here to counter-movements, reactionary policies, and all efforts of restoration and expanding military rule in the aftermath of the military coup of July 2013 in Egypt. While interrogating Sisi’s rise to power and the theories such as Bonapartism and Caesarism that have been leveraged to this moment, I propose the notion a paranoid counter-revolutionary regime. First, I analyze how political regimes also go through political traumas like personal traumas. I interrogate how the Egyptian regime, especially its backbone, the military and security apparatus, has been enduring a trauma of defeat since the revolution of 2011. Second, I analyze how this trauma has been leading these forces to use excessive repressions and vindictive methods against not only the 25 January revolutionaries, but also systemically has been targeting everything belongs to the Egyptian revolution in public culture and political space. I demonstrate how the excessive repression reflects a paranoid counter-revolutionary regime. Third, I explain the disproportionate use of violence and the counter-revolution’s greedy concentration on the copious seizure of political space in Egypt. I demonstrate how, for the military regime, nothing other than complete political desertification is acceptable. Finally, I conclude by arguing that the military counter-revolutionary regime has been solely capable of restoring fear such that revolutionaries were forced to withdraw the political space. Instead, using interviews with Egyptian revolutionaries, I argue that many also chose to withdraw. Amid widespread repression, even those who were not actively terrorized yearned for stability, such that they were willing to tolerate the dramatic closure of political space. The paper is based on analyzing presidential and military and security agencies statements about January Revolution and Egyptian revolutionaries since the military coup of 2013, as well as interviews with thirty-two self-proclaimed activists belonging to the January Revolution.
  • Throughout the twentieth century, people grew obsessed and fascinated with celebrities, and the rise of gossip periodicals confirmed and fueled the popular culture’s celebrity mania. Celebrity gossip magazines have sold millions of issues, expanding popular culture as a site for cultural struggles. The celebrity press transformed artists into stars, even icons, in mass national culture. What anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod argued for television as a key institution of the production of national culture in Egypt is also true for the importance of the popular press and celebrity publications. However, historians have neglected celebrity and gossip publications as a source beyond writing the history of certain publishers and media institutions. They contributed the least to fields of cultural studies, which include the mass media, the popular press in particular, and popular culture. My contribution to this roundtable is to discuss celebrity and gossip publications as a valuable source of sociocultural history. I will show how these unappreciated materials have played a crucial role in the Islamization of secular entertainment and stars long before the “Islamic Revival” of the late twentieth century. I employ the trajectory of Layla Murad (1918- 1995) as an example in which gossip and celebrity publications used stars to publicize certain notions about the Islamic identity of Egypt and how stars used those publications to conform with conservative values in public. I argue that this “secular” sphere of celebrity entertainment since the Nasserist period, rather than the Islamist discourses, engendered the notion that Islam was a crucial prerequisite to being Egyptian in modern Egyptian society. I will conclude by discussing some practical and methodological difficulties in utilizing celebrity and gossip publication as a source of history.
  • Nasser’s Home Movies: Free and Post-Free Officers as Pop Culture Aficianados Popular culture in Egypt is not the sole product of a military regime, but the successive regimes since 1952 have certainly played an important role in promoting, shaping (including censoring), even in directly producing mass mediated culture. The ceremonies of power, from gala concerts, (new) national holiday fetes (featuring new nationalist anthems), the inauguration of state-building projects, archaeological relocations, to more mundane sightings at film premieres or ribbon cuttings were imbued with pop-cultural spectacle. My discussion, however, will focus, rather, on military officers, particularly those in the highest-level state offices as consumers or receivers of pop culture – movie patrons and concertgoers, purchasers of recorded music, even photographers and home filmmakers. Gamal Abdel Nasser, more than any of his colleagues, new father of a newly independent nation is remembered – and memorialized as a family man taking home movies on the beach. I will focus on the Free Officer/Nasser regime as representing a formative generation of cultural consumers and aficionados (as well as of a new military elite), those who grew up during the heyday of the phonograph and cinema palace and who later in power, as purveyors of a post-independence social revolution, nationalized radio, funded a state cinema sector and oversaw the institution of state television. And, not least, who rubbed elbows (and sometimes more than elbows) with Egypt’s cultural elite, some of who redefined themselves in the context of a new Egypt, some of who were the headliners of a new generation of superstars. In so doing I will freely stray beyond the Nasser years (c. 1952-1970) to suggest cultural, social and political continuities in the decades that have followed, in which first cohort figures (Anwar al-Sadat et al), and then a new generation of officers, steeped in Nasserist tradition, but also confronting a far more rapidly changing mediascape, as well as the ‘vulgarization’ of Nasserist pop culture, sought to evoke and invoke (and perhaps overstepped) their role as cultural connoisseurs.