Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris joins row over mahraganat music

Egyptians divided after a national musicians' guild banned 19 of the most popular mahraganat performers

FILE - In this Thursday, March 5, 2015 file photo, youth dance at a local wedding in Salam City, a suburb on the outskirts of Cairo. Since the 2011 uprising, the music of "Mahraganat," Arabic for "festivals," has emerged from and spread through impoverished communities, where local musicians play, especially during weddings, their auto-tuned beats and songs that tackle social, political and cultural issues. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy, File)

A ban from Egypt’s musicians’ guild affecting some of the country’s most popular performers is stirring nationwide controversy, culminating in an official complaint being filed against one of the country’s most prominent businessmen on Sunday.

In tandem with Egyptian rap, the mahraganat genre – which typically highlights the experience of the country’s lower classes – has enjoyed a marked rise in popularity over the past decade, to the dismay of Egypt’s entertainment regulators, many of whom feel that the lyrics in the genre are inappropriate.

The latest ban of 19 performers, which was announced by musicians’ guild president Hany Shaker on November 17, was met with outrage from fans of the genre.

Egyptian business mogul Naguib Sawiris was among the first mahraganat fans to express his discontent with what he called “stifling of freedom of expression”.

In a number of widely shared tweets, Mr Sawiris directly addresses the musicians’ guild, making the point that music is a matter of taste and that if someone does not like what they hear, they are within their rights to listen to something else.

Several of the billionaire’s tweets were directed at guild president Hany Shaker, himself a singer.

“I have never seen a singers’ guild president who is proud of a decision to ban singing. The audience should be deciding what they want to listen to, not the guild,” Mr Sawiris said in one of his tweets.

In response, a spokesman for the guild said it was the highest authority on music in Egypt, and that performers who wish to belong to it must adhere to its standards and general ethical codes.

The guild's response to the criticism is that if Mr Sawiris does not like its actions, he is free to “adopt” all the banned singers and have them perform in the city of El Gouna, a beach resort owned and operated by one of the many companies under the Sawiris family banner.

A film festival in El Gouna has gained in popularity over the past five years, stirring controversy of its own because of the revealing outfits worn by attending celebrities.

Two televised phone-in interviews with Shaker and Mr Sawiris only exacerbated the heated exchange, with the billionaire accusing Shaker of being envious of the popularity enjoyed by mahraganat performers.

Shaker responded by saying that if a listener opted to listen to mahraganat over his music, they were unwelcome at his concerts anyway. He went on to say that his music is quite popular in Egypt.

On Sunday, a lawyer representing the guild filed a complaint against Mr Sawiris with the country’s prosecutor-general, citing articles of the country’s penal code that outlaw advocating for immoral behaviour.

If the country's prosecutors find grounds for further legal action against Mr Sawiris, an official lawsuit will be filed against him with a court.

Mahraganat moral panic?

Earlier in November, one of the country’s most popular mahraganat performers, Hassan Shakoush, whose hit song Bint El Jiran has been one of the country’s most played songs for more than two years, commented on being banned during a phone-in interview on a popular Egyptian talk show.

He said that since he had been banned from performing in October, he has been working mostly outside Egypt, where an interest in the genre has increased.

“This ban is ridiculous, obviously. But it’s only to be expected, new movements in art historically are always met with some resistance,” said Mohamed Hany, a music producer based in Cairo.

But some mahraganat performers expressed agreement with the guild’s ban, explaining that some in their ranks are flouting the guild’s ethical guidelines.

Omar Kamal, another important fixture in the mahraganat pantheon, said that he agrees with Shaker’s disciplinary approach.

Despite his apparently moral stance, Shaker was significantly more lenient with the country’s rap performers, saying that he has no problem with rap culture and that he and his son are big fans of Egyptian rap performer Wegz.

After his statement praising rap, Shaker was accused of favouritism, with some celebrities saying that just because his son likes rap does not mean it is automatically appropriate.

“I don’t see how you can praise rap performers when you are coming down this hard on mahraganat. I expected Egypt’s guild president to have a better reason for praising or denigrating a musical style than the fact that his son and wife like it,” wrote Egyptian TV presenter Basma Wahba in an Instagram post.

But some celebrities came down hard on Mr Sawiris, calling his behaviour needlessly combative.

"I am against suppressing any art form. But if all it is is two guys hurling profanities at each other on stage, I don't consider that art or creativity and it has to be stopped," film director Mohamed El Adl said on Facebook. "Mr Sawiris, Hany Shaker is a real artist with almost 50 years of experience in the field. It is totally inappropriate for you to speak about him this way."

Updated: November 22nd 2021, 5:11 PM