A song to start something: the Arab Spring’s greatest hits

A song to start something: the Arab Spring’s greatest hits

The sound of the revolution starts ominously, a long, dreadful note rising before the lyrics begin. "Today I speak fearlessly on behalf of the people / crushed by the weight of injustice / Mr President / Your people are dead / People eat garbage / Look at what is happening in your own country!"

This is Rayees Le Bled (President of the Country), a Tunisian rap song released underground in December 2010, in the days after Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at his working conditions. Rayees Le Bled seethes with disappointment, with anger, with frustration, with all the emotions, but directs all of those emotions at Zine El Abidine Ben Ali himself, who is addressed and interrogated throughout the song.

Rayees Le Bled was released into a world that is now almost unimaginable, just as the revolutionary world of today was unimaginable then. El General, the singer, was arrested and interrogated for his music in the dungeons of Ben Ali. When asked why he was singing such songs, he replied, "I’m only telling the truth."

Telling the truth was – and remains – a revolutionary act, but protest songs could not aspire to bring about revolution. El General’s song was an outcry, a cri de coeur about the frustration, the corruption, the stagnation he saw all around him. Yet the crucial part is that the song and its singer did not expect much to change. The song planted the seeds, but no one could have foreseen what would come after.

As the protests took hold across Tunisia, the song took on a different meaning. It became a way of channelling and articulating the feelings of all those people taking to the streets for a different life. Rayees El Bled became an anthem for the people, a song Tunisians could hear that spoke of change, with the hope but not the expectation of action.

That’s the power of music. It speaks to something deep and raw inside people, reminding them of what might be. It also reminds them of who they are, of who they could be. The most amazing thing about the songs of the Arab revolutions is how diverse they are, how often the vernacular is different, the slang is different, the music is different. Yet what links them – especially the later protest songs, after Ben Ali was toppled – is how similar the sentiments are. They are direct and decisive, full of expectation. They demand action. In this regard, the archetypal protest song is Irhal (Leave), by the Egyptian singer-songwriter Ramy Essam.

Essam’s song was formed in and by the experience of the long sit-in in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, when protesters set up a mini-village, refusing to leave until the then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down. Essam’s song is made up of some of the slogans protesters chanted against Mubarak, set to music.

The spare, direct lyrics ("We are not leaving / He will leave / As one / We demand one thing / Leave, leave, leave") were played repeatedly to crowds in Tahrir Square.

Irhal is a very different protest song from El General’s. The fear barrier has been broken, the expectation of change is now there. The crowds in Tahrir Square who sang back Essam’s lyrics to him were singing a song written for audience participation. Essam’s song was meant to be sung in squares and to crowds, for its words to be heard by those in power, to embody the aspirations and the hopes of the audience.

There is an expectation to the lyrics: Ben Ali had fallen and the Egyptians sincerely hoped Mubarak would too, but there is no inevitability. The people who sang it in Tahrir Square did so in the full knowledge that, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, maybe a week or a month later, they might be pulled into a dungeon and tortured for their words. The Mubarak regime had too many friends, too much at stake for it to fall. Against the might of iron, how can songs stand?