I still remember the first time I heard a mahragan. It was 2009, and I was living in Egypt. The sound of what seemed like clacking metal pots pierced my ear drums. The tuk tuks danced to the beat as I walked to school. A couple of months later, I started hearing the music on minibuses and taxi rides. I occasionally saw men in street weddings waving their knives as the beat dropped. In under a year, songs multiplied and were played at cafes and restaurants. Cairo was no longer the only hub, as groups from Alexandria started singing about their neighborhoods—the street became a theater of different identities and affiliations I had never heard of.
Fast-forward a decade later to one of Doha’s famous hotel bars. Surrounded by a crowd of white-collared westerners and Arab expats, I felt completely disoriented when the DJ played a mahragan. It was not the first time I had heard the genre in Doha: the music blasted from cars at signal lights and shows by the Corniche. I knew Laa by El Sawareekh as a hit when it was released in 2017, but that time felt different.
If you have money, she will stay with you, but if you do not, she will opt out for a break. She is acting as if her dad is a famous doctor. But he is nothing but a cabriolet driver.
Listening to the song at a famous hotel chain embodied everything I had come to love about the genre. The irony of listening to songs detailing skyrocketing costs of living with skyscrapers at the background played up the punitive sarcasm that characterizes mahraganat. The crowds conveniently ignored the harsh mockery of the upper classes as the electrifying beats forced everyone into submission. Naturally, I joined the dance. With that context in mind, this essay explores the different narratives associated with mahraganat. It explores the genre’s origins and shifting modes of production, and offers an analysis of the contentious relationship between the singers and the state that was exacerbated after the Musicians Syndicate’s official ban earlier this year.
El Salam City: Esha Lena, Ehna Gena
Whether viewed as vulgar or socially conscious, no one can deny that mahraganat as a genre has been widespread for many years now. The songs have hundreds of millions of views on YouTube and many mahraganat singers hold concerts in and outside Egypt. From modes of production and music circulation to concert organization and performance routines, the genre has broken every rule of the Egyptian music industry, and remains immensely popular.
Translated as "festivals," mahraganat was born in El Salam City, a housing project built by the Egyptian army after the 1992 earthquake left more than fifty thousand people homeless. Combining Egyptian folk music with synthesized sounds, the songs are characterized by their fast beats and improvised vocals. Originally, the music was shared via MP3 files on USBs and slowly disseminated from the neighborhood to the rest of Cairo through informal forms of public distribution.
In a country where marriage costs have skyrocketed with recent austerity measures backed by the IMF, mahraganat singers—who are almost always men—do not cry over lost romance. Unlike widely popular Egyptian pop stars such as Amr Diab, mahraganat singers talk about their girlfriends leaving them for rich men. As substance abuse in Egypt is currently double the international average, mahraganat breaks the taboo and explicitly describes consumption of alcohol and drugs. With thirteen million views on YouTube, Kharban is only one of many songs that talk about this shared experience: I was in El Salam and now I am in El Gouna, I feel like I am walking on a wave. The lyrics continue: Everyone is smoking as if it is for free. With hash in my hands, I ask how I can go to the United States. For that, I would need a passport, but with what is in my hands, I can go anywhere.
Despite existing in complete isolation from the mainstream music industry, and ignoring all legal frameworks governing copyrights and censorship in the country, mahraganat still distances itself from the larger genre of working-class music, known as shaabi music. DJ Figo, Amr Haha, Sadat, and Fifty are some of mahraganat most famous self-proclaimed founders. In interviews with local and international media outlets, they repeatedly explain that mahraganat is its own category. For example, in an interview with Ma3azef, Fifty discusses this difference saying: “Mahragan is not shaabi. Why was it classified as one? Because it originated from a shaabi neighborhood. Like imagine if I live in Zamalek and come up with the same music, would you call it shaabi? This is a mahragan, this is how it should always be classified.”
Singers like Fifty consciously make this distinction to prevent sidelining their music within a shaabi category. Drawing parallels to mahraganat origins, Egyptian shaabi music emerged from working-class neighborhoods in Cairo in the 1970s. At a time of successive economic changes and deepening dissatisfaction with Sadat’s "open door" policies, many shaabi songs at the time complained about the day-to-day struggles of the working classes. Although the music was not granted easy access to state-controlled television and radio, the cassette industry helped the music disseminate within the neighborhoods where they originated.
The shaabi genre became mainstream, however, when it was heavily introduced in commercial cinema in the 1990s. With story lines based on stereotypes, privately produced, low-cost movies presented comedic plots mocking the social and economic situation of the working-classes. Shaabi people were portrayed as lazy, stupid, and hyper-sexualized, and their neighborhoods were painted as drug- and crime-ridden areas that pose a threat to the rest of Cairo. As shaabi art became a synonym for "low-culture," mahraganat posed itself as a reaction to the media’s consistent marginalization and mockery of its creators, who claim the genre to be part of a new art movement that is inspired by Egyptian music, Reggaeton, hip-hop, rap, and grime, but still stands out as its own form.
Yet after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, international journalists and academics alike rushed to frame mahraganat as a new form of shaabi music. With the slow migration of the music to weddings and parties at high-end hotels, some media outlets argued that the shift was due to a social class awakening amongst Egypt’s young people as members of the middle and upper classes became more willing to engage with social issues across class lines. This interpretation has merit in one sense, as it could be argued that the post-2011 circumstances offered an atmosphere in which music was used as a tool for expressing dissent. However, celebrating mahraganat as a political revolution of marginalized shaabi communities neglects its presence almost a decade prior. The narrative of “the voices of the revolution” reduces the genre to a short-lived, reactive phenomenon and politicizes its chosen modes of expression. It also overlooks middle- and upper-class appropriation of the music, in addition to the lower classes’ shifting and distant sentiments toward the hard politics of the revolution.
Compared to the middle-class musical acts that were mostly featured at cultural centers in Cairo, such as El Sawy Culture Wheel, mahraganat groups did not express the same direct commentary on politics in the country. However, this does not mean a lack of engagement with the changing political climate as mahraganat consistently contributed to post-2011 discourse. Shortly after the revolution, for example, Fifty and Sadat subverted one of the revolution’s anthems into a sarcastic mahragan, taking listeners away from the aspirations of freedom and democracy. The song, The People Want Five Pounds’ Credit, transformed the most famous revolutionary chant into a sarcastic tune reflecting skepticism toward revolutionary unity. The lyrics go as follows:
The people need a new topic, the people want five pounds’ credit.
We will fight for the pound, no matter what.
Oh, wake up, have you heard of what happened?
They say the people have won!
But the people are tired.
A salute to you my country.
For mahraganat singers, local affiliations come before national unity. In the streets of Cairo’s outskirts, the genre’s creators and listeners claim their spaces and construct new narratives, performances, and aesthetics. Mahraganat is thus a proud reclamation of the shunned shaabi neighborhood. It is a movement that is constantly growing across the country, with more groups emerging from the outskirts of Alexandria and Suez City, in addition to groups based in Cairo and Giza. This new public conduct proved to be separate from and in tension with the state’s narrative.
The Loosening Grip: State Censorship between Elon Musk and Hani Shaker
As the genre increased in popularity, successive campaigns were launched against it deeming it as vulgar, obscene, and deviant from “Egyptian values.” Earlier this year, Bint El Giran by Hassan Shakosh and Omar Kamal, became a global sensation as it hit number two on the global chart of Soundcloud. When Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk posted the list on his Twitter account to share the inclusion of his own song, which came at the eighth spot, he inadvertently helped the mahragan gain more popularity. The international exposure generated a new buzz that took over social media and talk shows in Egypt. In the beginning, composer Mohamed Madeen raised concerns over copyrights after he claimed the song was stolen from his composition of Haga Mestakhabeya for singer Mohamed Hamaki. However, these claims were quickly overshadowed when the two singers performed their global hit at a Valentine’s Day party. More than thirty thousand people attended the party at Cairo’s International Stadium that included other famous pop stars like Tamer Hosny and Nancy Ajram.
If you leave me, I will hate my life and all my years, I will be lost, I will drink alcohol and smoke hash. The “profane” nature of these lyrics allegedly prompted the Musicians Syndicate’s official ban of mahraganat music in February 2020. Under the supervision of the singer and actor Hani Shaker, the syndicate announced that any tourist establishment, hotel, or other venues that hire any of mahraganat singers would face legal consequences. The ban included some of the most famous mahraganat singers, including Hamo Bika, El Sawareekh, Amr Haha, and Alaa Fifty, as well as any singer who is not a member of the syndicate.
This ruling comes as no surprise given the fact that the Musicians’ Syndicate has repeatedly expressed its concern over the rapid growth of the genre during the past few years. For example, in 2019, the syndicate began a campaign against one of the genre’s stars, Hamo Bika. In cooperation with other institutions, including the Central Authority for the Control of Artistic Works, the Ministry of Interior, and the Syndicate of Actors and Actresses, the syndicate successfully banned Bika’s concerts. It also filed legal proceedings against him for “corrupting the public taste.” When Bika tried to join the syndicate, his application was rejected.
While the state views the genre as an incomprehensible and degrading "phenomenon" that reflects a deterioration in the public taste, others oppose it on slightly different grounds. In a recent article, writer and researcher Abdo El Barmawy described the genre as a form of art based on “damaged consciousness” and “rotten backwardness.” His concern focused on the abrasive nature of the songs, describing them as absurd expressions of violence that aim to maintain the rage felt by Egypt’s poor and marginalized societies.
Barmawy went on to claim that mahraganat singers do not understand who is responsible for their poor socioeconomic conditions, as they direct their rage to disloyal friends and neighbors, instead of directing it to the state’s failures. The article builds upon a long history of disdain for and undervalue of art forms attributed to the working class. More relevant to the recent controversy, however, is the fact that such analysis lacks context of the genre and its changing trends and thematic diversity. In addition to songs addressing disloyalty and substance use, singers also discuss a range of other topics such as high marriage costs, unemployment, depression, use of weapons, and even masturbation and erectile dysfunction.
Another article published on al-Manassa provides a compelling response to these claims. In her piece, May Aamer explains how mahraganat songs describe a community that is present outside the state and its laws. In this context, threats of violence and intimidation are tactics for survival. Governed by different internal power relations, the betrayal of friends and neighbors are more urgent concerns, as they can lead to substantial losses, imprisonment, and death.
A recent article written by Ahmed Nagi highlights mahraganat’s commitment to stay true to its audience’s daily concerns. The article explores “the golden era for prison songs,” presenting many examples that reflect how the experience of prison has become a primary and repetitive theme in mahraganat music. Detailed descriptions of solitary confinement and poor sanitation conditions show that, unlike the long-standing romanticization of prison that is part of a venerated political struggle in the leftist imagination, mahraganat sees prison as a common experience and a bleak reality that is neither political nor avoidable.
Since 2011, about twenty new prisons have been built with an estimated sixty thousand prisoners overpopulating their cells. The threat of prison shapes the lives of millions of Egyptians, and Hamo Bika has become one of the stars of this subgenre of mahraganat music. In most of his songs, he expresses his hostility toward the Egyptian police state.
Solitary confinement with no ceilings, everyday equates half a loaf of bread. If you want to forget those who oppress you, hide hash and smoke it up. The rooms are locked up and my soul is killed.
The song makes this reality clear: my life is unbearable, I am oppressed, and all I want is to die.
In addition to the topics discussed by mahraganat singers, looking at the production process reflects deliberate efforts in creating self-contained and sustainable spaces. When the genre originated, singers created a cost-effective and replicable model to disseminate their music. Self-taught creators mixed their music using pirated software, cheap and used equipment, and free downloaded music samples at their home-based studios. Although many singers became famous in their neighborhoods, they did not make money from their music, but still kept producing new songs and began helping other young men from their neighborhoods to record and disseminate their own music.
This model became profitable when mahraganat singers started getting hired to perform at weddings, especially ones at high-end hotel chains. After the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, some singers also began collaborating with record labels such as 100Copies. Based in an office building in downtown Cairo, the company was established before the revolution with the goal of offering recording facilities to new Egyptian musical trends. The founder, Mahmoud Refat, collaborated with the most famous mahraganat singers, in addition to assisting them in engaging with international festivals and radio shows in the United States, Europe, and the MENA region. However, most of mahraganat singers also depend on YouTube to disseminate their music, which have helped them reach wider popularity online. For example, Hamo Bika was awarded the Golden YouTube Creator Awards in March 2020, despite the Musicians Syndicate’s official ban of mahraganat ruled in February. Within this context, mahraganat singers’ persistence to continue making music challenges the allegations made against the genre as a thoughtless phenomenon or a passing trend that will soon be forgotten. As the movement was based on sidelining profit, many mahraganat singers continue living in their neighborhoods and producing their music at their studios. In that sense, banning mahraganat will not impact the singers’ fame as they can still reach their local, regional, and global audiences online and for free.
Across Egypt, and in the streets of working-class neighborhoods, residents clear everything up in their space before big occasions. Slowly, the street transforms into a venue that is open for everyone in the area. When DJs set up their equipment, young men join and showcase their dance moves to mahraganat music. Splits, jumps, and butterflies are combined with hip-hop and Egyptian belly-dancing moves, with stunts using knifes, swords, and even fire. The performances last for hours.
Arguably, the oldest mahragan, El Salam, speaks of the neighborhood as an “international republic.” In the song, the lyrics describe the singers’ pride and loyalties to where they come from. These same places are dismissed by upper classes yet recreated at their weddings and parties. Mahraganat does not present us with middle- and upper-class imaginations of what shaabi is. Despite not discussing hard politics, mahraganat is not apolitical. Rooted in their neighborhoods, the singers draw their inspiration from their social and economic conditions and do not negate the marginalization and violent conditions they live in. Through their music production, writing process, and music circulation patterns, the genre’s creators have built their own spaces that can easily be replicated, joined, and consumed in other neighborhoods across the country.
The recent ban cannot be separated from the state’s attempts to censor different types of cultural content. But, unlike galleries and bookstores, mahraganat songs do not reside in one place and their beats have become the soundscape of the country. With the industry originally based on home-studios and online means of distribution, mahraganat cannot be easily co-opted or censored by the state. Since the ban, Hamo Bika posted around fifteen new songs on his YouTube Channel, and I can still hear mahraganat blasting from cars and dhows across Doha.
 Tuk-tuks are three-wheeled automatic rickshaws. They are considered one of the cheapest forms of urban transportation in Cairo.
 Translates to wake up and listen, we have arrived. It is a verse from El Salam mahragan, 2004.
 A working-class neighborhood at the outskirts of Cairo.
 An Egyptian resort town located by the Red Sea and famous for hosting El Gouna Film Festival.
 Michael Frishkopf, Music and Media in the Arab World, 2010.
 Sara Ramadan, “Long Live the Degenerate Art: The Old State faces Mahraganat Songs,” Freedom of Thought and Expression, 2019.
 This is not meant to negate the misogyny present in most mahraganat lyrics. It does not also negate the gender-based violence and discrimination that are practiced during concerts and street weddings. However, this requires a deeper analysis that goes beyond this article’s scope, and that situates it within a bigger picture that reflects the status of women in the country.