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In February 2011, a student with a guitar sang a song that helped galvanised the will of a nation to topple its

leader. This is the story of what happened next...
Words and pictures by orlando croWcroft



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ebruary 7, 2013, was supposed to be ramy essam’s big night. A solo gig in his studio

for around fifty friends and fans who were invited through his Facebook page. The singer and guitarist was looking forward to showcasing some of his new material; the latest batch of songs since the political anthems that made him a legend two years earlier in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “I was on the way to the gig myself when I received a text: We hAd To CAnCel, IT’S noT SAFe ,” Ramy says. Welcome to egypt. Welcome to egyptian democracy. A twenty-five-year-old musician, who played to over 200,000 people on the final days of the 2011 revolution, stopped from performing to a few dozen fans due to threats of physical violence. In a statement, posted on Facebook shortly afterwards, his manager and friend, Mai, will confirm: “[our] decision was made after receiving information that groups of Muslim Brotherhood and hazemoon are heading over to the event for the purpose of attacking and assaulting Ramy. our decision is also due to our lack of trust in the egyptian Police, who are supposed to protect us.” So welcome also to the world of Ramy essam. The voice of the revolution. The voice of Tahrir.



here’s a man in a brown leather jacket

chasing me down the street, shouting my name over the roar of the afternoon Zamalek traffic. This is odd, because I only know half a dozen people in Cairo and this guy isn’t one of them. I start back towards him, apprehensively. “hey,” he says, catching up, “It’s Ramy, Ramy essam.” Standing over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a confident air, he’s far from the image of the wiry young musician I was expecting at our arranged rendezvous a few blocks away. It turns out that he had been watching three foreigners at separate tables in the café for twenty minutes from across the road. I’d probably seen him as I got up to leave – annoyed at being stood up – which is when he realised I was his guy. I must be the only idiot in Cairo not to recognise Ramy essam. he sits down across the table from me at the back of a shisha café and sprawls out on the couch, casually dressed, his thick black hair pulled back over his head. It has been two years almost to the day since this small-town engineering student arrived in Cairo at the height of the revolution. Within a week he had become a legend for his rousing political anthems such as “Irhal” (“leave”), performed to hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. Since then he has recorded two albums and featured in newspapers and magazines across the world. he has also been beaten and tortured by the egyptian military and has been prevented from leaving egypt for over a year. And now the trouble with his gig. It’s little wonder that his politics have not mellowed. “The revolution isn’t finished, and anyone who says that it is, is an idiot,” Ramy says matter-of-factly as we order tea. “The situation is the same. The poor still have nothing; they still have no rights. We haven’t achieved any goals and that’s why we are still in Tahrir. All that has changed for most people are the faces on the TV screens.” We are speaking barely a week after violent clashes on the streets of Cairo. These confrontations have been dismissed by many – including former supporters of the revolution – as being the work of thugs and anarchists. earlier this same day, my driver, Mahmoud, had told me that the people in Tahrir were “the lowest of the low” and that egyptians just wanted to get on with their lives now that hosni Mubarak had gone and democracy has been installed. Unsurprisingly, Ramy does not agree. “We are protesting for our rights and I am against anyone who says that what is happening in egypt now is wrong or sees the protesters as thugs. People are getting hurt; no one wants to live like this. For me, and for a lot of protesters, the revolution is in our hearts. It will never die. And any time there is something wrong, or we want change, or we want our rights, we will go to Tahrir,” he says defiantly. And according to Ramy, there is plenty wrong with egypt at the beginning of 2013. not least its president, Mohammed Morsi, who Ramy not only sees as incompetent but as bad as the leaders and generals who came before him. The point was illustrated, he argues, by the death of eighteen-year-old Gaber Saleh – known as Gika – in 2012 at the hands of police during an anti-government protest. The teenager, a former Morsi supporter, became the first “martyr” of the Morsi age. once that line was crossed, Morsi showed his true colours. nothing had changed. “Morsi is a liar, in everything he does. [Since Gika’s death] we look at Morsi as the same as Tantawi and Mubarak. he kills his own people. I am a Muslim but what the Muslim Brotherhood does has nothing to do with Islam. our Prophet [PBUh] never said we had to hate other Muslims, or Christians. I am sad for my religion because the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis make people hate Islam.”
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pecifics are important when discussing the egyptian revolution.

Who was where and when? Who did what? These things matter. As a result, Ramy insists on telling me his story in minute detail, occasionally leaning over to check I am writing everything down. Firstly, he wasn’t in Cairo when the protests began on January 25, 2011. he joined the demonstrations three days later in his home town of Mansoura, some two hours north from Cairo. Indeed, even his music, Ramy admits, did not start out political. “I started composing love songs,” he says, adding apologetically: “It is the culture in egypt. It is very rare to find anyone singing with a message.” Ramy’s father died when he was eleven and he was raised by his older brother, Shadi, who he speaks of with reverence. “he is responsible for everything in my life,” he says. “he was the one who pushed me to achieve my goals, my music; he bought me my first guitar.” he tells me how before the revolution he was not a political activist. But then five days into the protests, on January 30, the police went back to their homes – when they basically gave up – and Mansoura became a safer place overnight. “The people protected everything and when I saw that, my faith grew stronger and stronger. everything I saw made me love the revolution.” From here it was a logical progression. “I called my friend in Cairo and he said, Why don’t you come to Tahrir Square?” At first Ramy wasn’t sure whether to bring his guitar into the chaos that was Tahrir (“It’s my baby, you know”), but his friend Ahmed encouraged him to do so. “I was worried. I didn’t know what the protesters would think of a guy with a ponytail and a guitar, and I will never forget how they looked at me. I thought people wanted to hit me. I waited for hours but then I started to get bored. Then Ahmed said, let’s sing!” So Ramy started to play, listening to the protesters’ chants, improvising a few chords and finding a melody for the words echoing around Tahrir. And as his sketches coalesced into songs, his fame quickly grew. When a rudimentary stage was erected in the middle of the square, he was urged to get on it. Initially, an organiser on the stairs had other ideas. “he wouldn’t let me pass, but I said to him, ‘don’t worry, I am not here to play love songs. You will like what I am singing, I promise.’ eventually he said, ‘okay, you have five minutes.’ I got up and played, and when I went to leave he wouldn’t let me get down.” It was about this time that Ramy composed “Irhal”, the song that was to make him famous. he wrote it in a tent in Tahrir, just after President Mubarak had made his second speech to the nation appealing for order. It was a time, Ramy recalls, when some protesters were getting calls from their families asking them to come home. Ramy, like everyone else in the square, was not convinced and so he wrote the devastatingly simple message to the once mighty dictator of egypt: leave. “After the speech, people were very disappointed. But after I sang, they were comforted. We forgot about Mubarak. It was a special moment, at twenty-three years-old, standing on the stage with 200,000 people singing along with me.” The next day – February 2 – was the infamous Battle of the Camels, when pro-Mubarak mobs riding horses and camels attacked protesters. Ramy made the decision to put his guitar away and join the defence of the protest space. “I was hit by rocks and when the people saw that I had been injured, they knew I didn’t just come here to play the guitar or to be famous. on the Thursday and Friday I was singing with bandages wrapped around my head, and all the audience were bandaged too.” Mubarak’s resignation speech on February 11 was, Ramy says, “the happiest moment of my life.” But it also presented

Ramy Essam performs in the garden of Cairo’s Goethe Institute

him with a problem: how to play “Irhal” – the lyrics of which call for Mubarak to stand down – when he had just quit. At the side of the stage, Ramy quickly made some changes to the song – something he has done again and again since, first to attack Field Marshall Mohamed hussein Tantawi, the former military leader of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) and, more recently, Mohamed Morsi. “everything that happened in the street, I describe, so it was easy to change. The song that I used against Mubarak, I simply changed the name to Tantawi, or Morsi,” he says.
he revolution didn’t finish when mubarak stood down, but the patience of the

egyptian military soon wore thin with protesters who continued to occupy Tahrir. It was a month after the fall of the former president that Ramy came to feel the military’s anger first-hand. on March 9, he was arrested, along with two-thousand other protesters, and taken to the nearby egyptian Museum. “They stripped me naked and beat me with sticks, while others jumped on my back and head. My hands were tied with rope, and I had my head smashed against the wall. They cut my hair with broken glass, and burned my back. I was tortured for about four hours,” he says. “Then they took the other protesters to prison, but not me. They took me out a back entrance, put me in a taxi and let me go.” After stopping to recover at a friend’s house in downtown Cairo, Ramy went back home to Mansoura where he spent the next ten days in bed. Another four days passed before he could walk again. he reckons that the army had wanted to teach him a lesson, and stop him from performing in the square. But if that was its goal, it had not worked. As soon as he recovered, Ramy headed back to Cairo and re-joined the protests. our time is almost up, and Ramy drains his cup of lemon tea before we head out onto the street to find a taxi. We’re going to a function at Cairo’s Goethe Institute, where he is due to play a short set after the screening of Tahrir Monologues, a new film made about the revolution, in the garden. he’s looking forward to playing, but even more excited about the concert the following night, where he hopes to play some of his new songs. While the film is being shown, Ramy mills around at the back chatting to friends and posing for photograph with his fans. As the hour of his performance approaches, he paces nervously, eventually taking to the small stage in the garden of the institute. he plugs in his guitar, smiles at the crowd, and begins. As I watch, I reflect on our conversation earlier, as we battled the mayhem of rush hour in the back of the taxi. Ramy was recalling the aftermath of the revolution, those days and weeks when he became a celebrity both inside and outside of egypt. It was a time when he was presented with the choice of continuing to be an independent musician or capitalising on the fact that everybody now knew who he was and cashing in on his newfound fame. he chose the former, and has no regrets about that decision. “I had offers from producers all over the world — from Canada, America, Australia. And I said no. no to all of them.” Then he pauses and turns to look out of the window, the sun setting over the nile, the jutting and jostling of Cairo traffic. he’s worried that producers and record companies would want control, would want to dictate, would want to push him into areas he doesn’t want to go. Above all, he doesn’t trust them, just like he doesn’t trust the leaders, military or otherwise, who are trying to use the revolution for their own ends. Be it music or politics, there is only one thing that Ramy essam trusts. “I’m from the street,” he says. “The street made me. Without it I’m nothing.”
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