CAIRO—“One of two Egyptian music idols has just returned from Dubai, the other from Germany, to shoot a video for a duet sung in praise of a Cairo that they cannot actually stand living in,” wrote a young Egyptian dentist in a Facebook post that was shared more than 7,600 times and liked by 26,000 people as of Wednesday.
“Cairo! Its Nile, its long nights, its songs, its rhythm, its stories, its beauty!” goes al-Qahira (Arabic for Cairo), a music video featuring musical giants Amr Diab and Mohamed Mounir.
The minute al-Qahira was released on Monday, it triggered a flood of polarised reactions among Egyptian social media users, from those who were touched by the way the video captured Cairo’s beauty to those who pointed out that the video was mostly shot on the roof of a five-star hotel.
Our Cairo vs. Their Cairo
“The Cairo they are talking about is all about a hotel by the Nile,” says a dentist whose name on Facebook is Mohammed Ben Gamal. “The video was shot there [on the 35th floor] so it can be far away from Cairo’s noise, Cairo’s pollution and Cairo’s people.”
Dr. Mohamed Shuman, the dean of the Faculty of Mass Communication and Mass Media at the British University in Egypt, finds the song to be "classist." He told Aswat Masriya that the Nile featured in the video is not even "Imbaba’s Nile" or "Old Cairo’s Nile," in reference to middle- and lower-class neighborhoods in the city as opposed to the "dazzling Downtown Nile" where the lights of luxurious hotels are reflected on the water.
It addresses tourists, not the Egyptians living in Cairo, Shuman added.
To Ben Gamal, the song promotes “the Cairo that does not exist, the Cairo we do not know.” “Our Cairo,” he writes, “is different from their Cairo. Our Cairo is an old woman who suffers from breath shortness, has a short temper and cannot bear us…. We are crammed inside her face’s wrinkles, and [inside] her busses, microbuses, and tuk-tuks.”
"A War of Narratives"
For Dr. Rabab El-Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, the polarization that the song represents goes even deeper than class. “The song represents a continued war of narratives between two parts of society: those who think that everything [in the country] is okay, and those who think there are grievances and [there are] matters that are deeply wrong,” she told Aswat Masriya.
El-Mahdi says the polarization “is not about the song itself. It’s about those who are singing the song and what they represent.” After the song’s release, the singers, Diab, 54, and Mounir, 61, were criticized by a segment of social media users, especially those opposed to the president and the government. According to El-Mahdi, singer Mounir “disappointed a segment of youth who used to find a liberating, revolutionary and rebellious spirit in his songs” in the past.
Mounir has expressed support for the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was the country’s defense minister in 2013 and led the military’s ouster of then-President Mohamed Morsi after mass protests against his rule. Morsi hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood group and is currently facing several trials. He was also given a death sentence, which he can appeal.
Diab had also produced a song for then-President Hosni Mubarak after he survived an assassination attempt in 1995. Mubarak was ousted in 2011 after a popular uprising against his 30-year-long rule.
Amr Salama, a young Egyptian filmmaker, wrote on his Twitter account that the difference between al-Qahira and “Voice of Freedom Calls,” another song produced during the 2011 uprising, is “exactly like the difference between January 25 and June 30,” in reference to the 2011 and 2013 regime changes, respectively.
Meanwhile, fans of both singers continue to defend the song and its video. Al-Qahira's songwriter, Tamer Hussein, was quoted in the private Egyptian newspaper al-Watan saying that the video “presents a beautiful… image of Egypt to promote tourism.”
He added that criticism of the song proves that “Cairo is great and can be seen in a thousand scenes and [through a thousand] eyes, and everyone has the right to see it that way they like.”
A version of this article originally appeared in Aswat Masriya.