Few of the pro-democracy protesters who took the Middle East by storm a decade ago had a flag to raise or a leader to follow. But all of them had a song to sing. From the US civil rights movement’s “Freedom Songs” to the Italian partisans’ “Bella Ciao”, revolutionaries throughout history have always rallied around an anthem. The demonstrators who took to the streets in Tunisia in late 2010 and in other countries since took up that tradition, producing rousing hymns of protests packed with the anger, humor and creativity that their regimes had silenced for too long. Here is a playlist of 10 of the most striking anthems of the so-called Arab Spring:
Tunisia was the original revolution and in some respects, “Rais Lebled (President of the country, or Mr. President)” was the original revolution song. The dark and gritty rap song by “El General” paints a damning picture of the state of the country under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with this punchline: “Mr President, your people are dying.” “Rais Lebled” lists all the economic and social ills that led street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi to self-immolate on December 17, 2010 and ignited the first revolution of the so-called Arab Spring.
The song was not just an anthem inspired by what was the revolution, it was part of what started it. Hamada Ben Amor, the 21-year-old rapper behind the stage name “El General”, had released his song on November 7, the anniversary of Ben Ali’s rise to power in 1987. He released another days after the start of the protests and was briefly jailed before the revolt succeeded into toppling Ben Ali. Ben Amor was among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year in 2011 and while his career never took off, “Rais Lebled” was a major inspiration to other protesters and will forever go down as one of the sparks of the Arab uprisings.
Jubilant crowds singing along to Ramy Essam and his guitar on Cairo’s Tahrir square captured the euphoria that marked the early days of the Arab Spring. He was only 24 when he climbed on stage in late January 2011 to sing his tunes to the crowd of revolutionaries camping out on the Egyptian capital’s main square.
“I never looked at myself as a musician or an artist before 2011, it was always the other way round: I was a protester with a guitar who could use it as a tool for the movement,” he says. Unknown to the greater public until then, his song “Irhal (Leave)” that directly took on President Hosni Mubarak soon became the anthem of the revolution. He was beaten when thugs on camelback stormed the square. Then he was arrested and tortured.
“I was so lucky to take part in this revolution. It taught me life, it taught me freedom,” he told AFP from Sweden, where he fled after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took over and imposed his autocratic rule on Egypt. Essam continued to produce music abroad, but some of those he worked with were swept up in the crackdown against dissent in his home country.
In May this year, filmmaker Shady Habash died in prison after more than two years in jail over directing a music video for Essam’s song lambasting “Balaha”, a name given to Sisi by his detractors. Two others remain in jail. Essam admits the revolution has not fulfilled the promise of its heady days, but the singer’s revolutionary spirit seems intact. “I’ll never lose hope. It would be a betrayal. The bond (with the revolution) is written in blood… I will continue until my last breath,” he says.
Libya’s revolution produced one of the most unlikely of the “Arab Spring” protest hits, a viral video starring Moamer Kadhafi himself in an outlandish remix made by an Israeli. After Tunisia erupted into pro-democracy protests, the wildfire of revolts that spread against the region’s dictators did not spare the longest-standing among them. In February 2011, faced with an unprecedented uprising, a haggard-looking Kadhafi gave a rambling televised speech calling for a national march against the revolutionaries.
The song title comes from the dialect word he used for “alleyway” when he vowed to “purify Libya” by hunting down the enemy in every home, in every street. His rant triggered howls of laughter on the internet, and a few days later a dance remix entitled “Zenga, Zenga”, in which Kadhafi’s words were set to the tune of a song by US rapper Pitbull, started making the rounds on YouTube. The realization that the parody video was produced by an Israeli musician, Noy Alooshe, somewhat dampened Libyan enthusiasm but not enough to prevent it from reaching more than five million views.
In the early days of Yemen’s often forgotten revolution, Khaled al-Zaher’s song “Hurriya” (Freedom) became an upbeat anthem for the revolution. The samba beat combined with a distinctive Yemeni lilt made it an instant hit with tens of thousands who took to the streets of Yemen in early 2011. The chorus goes like this: “Freedom, freedom, and we are a free people”.
The song did not travel beyond Yemen’s borders, but it stood out among a flurry of revolutionary anthems that flooded the internet at the time. Zaher, who started singing as a schoolboy, was already known for his patriotic and revolutionary songs. The song’s destiny and the singer’s fame however appear to have gone the way of the Yemeni revolution, now but a distant memory of a fleeting moment of hope.
“Erhal, ya Bashar”
The rise of Syria’s protest movement was sung to a variety of tunes, often repurposed traditional songs. But one of them came to symbolize the revolution’s tragic fate. It’s hard to overstate the sense of transgression conveyed by the grainy nighttime footage of a crowd gathered in the city of Hama for a protest against President Bashar Al-Assad. Every person chanting “Yalla Erhal, ya Bashar (Come on Bashar, time to leave)” in that video is literally risking their life.
The man who was credited with writing the song, Ibrahim Qashoush, became a faceless hero of the battle against the Assad regime. The words-a rageful drumroll of attacks calling the Syrian president a “liar” and an “ass”-were once spray-painted on walls, blared on minibus radios and exchanged as mobile phone ringtones. The nagging mantra achieved sacred status when word got out that Qashoush, “the nightingale of the revolution”, had been brutally murdered and had his vocal cords ripped out.
His fate became a cautionary tale of the dangers of joining the revolt until a 2016 investigation revealed Qashoush had nothing to do with the song. Its real author Abdul Rahman Farhood had chosen to keep a low profile after hearing of the purported songwriter’s grim demise.
“Iradat al Hayat”
Morocco’s short-lived protest movement also had its song, a Tunisian poem adapted in local dialect and turned into song by a rap artist from Casablanca. The people’s view of the king was different from the rage the Arab Spring ignited against tyrants in other countries, but the wave of protests briefly caught on nonetheless.
And they yielded an iconic song, with rapper Lhaqed’s version of poet Abou el Hacem Chebbi’s “Iradat al Hayat (The Will to Live)”. Mouad Belghawat, whose stage name means “the grudgeful”, paid dearly for posting his protest song and was jailed several times. He was granted political asylum in Belgium.
The protest movement that drew hundreds of thousands in the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in October 2019 became a window for the country’s vibrant youth culture and one song captured it better than others. “Dhayl Awaj” literally means “crooked tail” and in Iraqi dialect is a reference to Tehran’s political allies as “tentacles” of the Iranian regime.
It was aired on Deutsche Welle on the Al Basheer Show, a hugely popular and influential satirical program whose host Ahmad al-Basheer has lived in exile for years. The sleek camera work showcases all the symbols of the October revolution-from the “Turkish restaurant” landmark that became the revolution’s de facto “command centre” to the tuk-tuks that ferried away the wounded. It became a popular meme and has scored nearly 15 million views on YouTube.
It was perhaps not the most poetic of protest songs, but it became the undisputed mega-hit amid the demos that erupted in Lebanon on October 17, 2019. Its chorus crudely takes aim at then foreign minister Gebran Bassil and the president’s son-in-law-the face of everything the protesters wanted to get rid of: corruption, political dynasties and incompetence.
For weeks, groups of youngsters would blurt out the explicit refrain during and after the protests, with joyous rage. On one Beirut street, cars were only allowed through the “Hela Ho” checkpoint once the driver had produced an acceptable rendition of the song.
When Soolking released “La liberté” in March 2019, the streets of Algiers were boiling over with anger and the song became an instant success with protesters demanding freedom and democracy. He released the song with Ouled El Bahdja, a group of supporters of the USM Alger football club known for its fan songs and which lent its organisational firepower to the Hirak protest movement. The song is in French and its heartfelt plea for freedom struck a chord. The anthem went viral in Algeria and across the region and has since clocked up close to a quarter of a billion views on YouTube.
Soolking grew up in a suburb of the capital. A stampede at a concert which left several dead in August 2019 as well as a tribute he posted on social media following the death of army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah later tarnished his credentials as a revolutionary icon.
One of the most powerful musical moments of the Arab uprisings took place in central Khartoum in 2019, when Sudanese rapper Ayman Mao climbed on stage. On April 25, having flown straight to Khartoum from the US, he grabbed a microphone at the main sit-in site, and intoned one of his most famous songs: “Blood”. With every line, the crowd answered “Thawra (revolution)”.
But a few weeks later, the title of what had become the revolution’s anthem took on new significance. The same site was where the most tragic episode of the Sudanese revolution unfolded on June 3, when security forces cracked down on the sit-in and killed at least 128 people. – AFP