A revolutionary approach to air guitar.

Rock star and revolutionary.

In early January 2011, Ramy Essam was an ordinary student. He studied architecture in a city near Cairo and played guitar, and like many students he was frustrated with his government. By the end of month, however, he was singing to over 100,000 people who had gathered to protest the regime. The moment he stepped on to the stage in Tahrir Square – the student became a revolutionary.

Essam found harmony between the often disparate worlds of the Middle East and West by consolidating rock music with Arabic lyrics. His song irhal, irhal (Leave, Leave), initially written to oust Mubarak, became the anthem of the Egyptian revolution. Still relevant today, it was selected third out of 100 songs that changed history by Time Out Magazine in 2011. The same year Essam was also bestowed with the Freemuse Award in Stockholm.

Before starting his studies in Sweden, Essam paid a brief visit to Helsinki for a live performance in August. We sit at a café overlooking the Senate Square, with warm tea and a blueberry pie between us. Tourists amble by. We begin to talk about the revolution and humanity. For a moment, there is a disarming gap between our conversation and reality – but soon we are standing in the turmoil that was Tahrir Square.

What’s your most important message?

Art, especially music, is the strongest peaceful weapon in the world. After the revolution, my faith increased more and more in this point. You can teach people to ask about their rights and make people know what is good and what is bad about the government and how the government is corrupted. In my country people don’t learn a lot about life and about humanity. So, I believe with music I can tell them anything between the lines in my songs.

What role did music play in the revolution?

We lived hard moments and sometimes it was very boring to sleep in the streets for months, especially with a government who is never listening to you. So, to make the time pass easier and make it more cool we were always singing and singing.

“I wanted to be a
rock star but I
didn’t have a goal
as a human.”

A lot of times people were completely disappointed at the government or at the people who were not accepting what we were doing. So, I used the songs to encourage them. And I’m sure that succeeded every time. The songs are really very strong. The songs also attracted a lot of people who didn’t believe in the revolution in the beginning.

I would say that that art is the main hero on the ground between us.

What successes came from the revolution?

It’s very clear to see that we didn’t reach any of our goals. We have recognised very well over the last two years that there’s no revolution in two weeks like we thought. What we did on 25 January 2011 was just the start. It’s the main thing to start, but we just have to work and to give all we can to our revolution. That’s why I’m still, after three years and half, singing the same songs every day.

On a positive side – now we are making conversation with the Egyptians, talking about rights and how this country has to be better, caring about poor people, and equality and justice.

The revolution made us have a real goal as humans. I was just a guy with a guitar with some political songs. I wanted to be a rock star but I didn’t have a goal as a human. All the people who still don’t understand the meaning of the revolution are victims of the regime and victims of the culture. They don’t have such a goal. In my country I want a lot of things to change. The main thing is justice and equality – simply freedom.

So, how do you change the system?

If I knew the way, I would try to do it now. It will take a long time especially because we are suffering from our culture in Egypt. The poor people just want to eat and drink and survive. They are really only thinking about food. We are waiting for the younger generations so our numbers will increase. There were only 100,000 people in the revolution now, and we need one million. The second thing, we have to not stop doing marches or being in the streets.

Why did the revolution end before success?

We can’t say that the revolution had ended; we’re still fighting. We’re at a hard time after the beginning – we can call it a pause – because the people got tired. Some of us lost his spot in university, lost his job, lost his wife, his girlfriend, his friends, or lost his eyes in the fights or injured himself, or his brother or his sister or his father became a martyr and died in the fights. We stayed in the street fighting for two-and-a-half years. It’s a very long time.

The government also got the poor people to side with them. They used the media to make the people believe that the army will protect them and will make everything better and that’s not true.

How will people become mobilised again to go to the Square?

It will take some years. We are still suffering from electricity cutting out every day, and food and the subways are becoming more expensive. So, the poor people are still suffering. Day by day they will come to know that it’s the same situation and nothing changed. It’s simply about time.

On the ground, to make the revolution come back again faster, we have to make art to keep the people in the mood and to write the truth on the walls and in songs and in documentary films. This is very important. And if any one of us can teach [the poor people] about rights and humanity, it’s very important too. There is a huge gap between the people who understand what’s happening, and the poor people who are just thinking about how to survive. We have to make this gap decrease.

Our government made a very dangerous trick; it’s very smart to make the people only think about food. More than 90 per cent of the people get their money day by day. If you’re getting money daily for you and your family to survive it’s not easy to go to protest or rebel in the streets. So the government put all the people in this corner to make them in the wheel of thinking how to survive, not how to ask about rights.

Do you think the next time you go to the street it will be different?

This time the military is like the injured monster that’s coming back to take revenge. We hurt this monster during the last three years. If we decide to go to the street again and make him feel that he will go down again, it will be horrible the next time.

It will be different because we suffered a lot from the government. By different I mean that it will be more violent from both sides. I’m sure that the military will be very aggressive in dealing with protesters and marches; they already started to show this to the people.

That’s why people are not in the street. We will be more aggressive too, just as a defence.

What will you do differently in the next revolution?

You know what’s funny, in the beginning of the revolution we were so happy that there was no leader, so it’s a revolution for people and we are all the same and there is no one who takes us to his way of thinking. But now, we are saying that we are very stupid; we had to find a leader. It’s very necessary and I swear the revolution will never succeed without one.

I’m talking about a leader from the streets. He has to be just a normal person. And I hope that this leader will be from my generation, because we are the only people who were never muted by the politics. Our mentality is completely clear and we are completely independent and we don’t want any chair or any positions in the government. We know that [the problem is] not with Sisi, Morsi or Mubarak, it’s the system. So we are waiting for the leader.

Why didn’t a leader take control during the revolution?

None of us had the experience to be a leader. If we had this conversation two years ago, I couldn’t say the same things. I’m still learning every day. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who’s still learning. So maybe this leader will be me, maybe it will be Ammar, maybe it will be anyone who I trust. That’s why we didn’t find the leader in the last few years: because he is not ready yet.

How did it feel like being a revolutionary?

I already had some songs about politics before the revolution and that’s why I was ready to start from the first moment on the stage in the Square. [Before the revolution] I wasn’t an activist at all.

I’m happy because I gave something to help people in the Square. It’s amazing to start your live singing in front of more than a million people during the whole day. The feeling I had from the people in the streets was incredible. When I was singing in the streets in the Square, every time I felt that I am the strongest man in the world because of the power you can attract from the people.

Were you ever afraid?

Maybe in the beginning of the revolution, yes, but after some days and especially after what happened to me in the Egyptian museum – I was tortured – after this day I’ve totally lost my fear.

I don’t think I will face another thing worse than what happened. After this day I can say that I faced death a lot of times and now I’m sitting with you. So, nothing to fear. And I lost a lot of friends. Four close friends, I lost. One of them was standing beside me. Nothing worse I will see ever.

My generation who started what happened, they will lead the next, the younger generations. We’ve been in the front lines. The front line, it’s a really dangerous place, it’s full of death, blood, shooting bullets, and it’s very loud. But at the same time, I can say that it’s the most pure area in the world. You’re doing something for others and you’re sacrificing your life and everything. It’s the moment you can feel your white side and your good side. The front line means to me happiness.

What are your future plans?

After the revolution started I became famous and I got a lot of offers from producers all over the world – and I refused it all. A producer will be a part of the decisions about what you will sing, and it’s not acceptable to me at all. I would be away from my revolution and I didn’t want to miss anything. Some of them don’t understand what I’m doing; they just want to get the golden boy from Egypt. Now with a pause in the revolution I want to learn and develop. I have a scholarship to study music in Sweden. But I will never stop singing for the people there. [Afterwards] I will go back and complete what I’m doing, and how the situation will look like I will deal with it.

Alicia Jensen
Image: Mohamad Mosaad