Speak, O Egyptians

This is an open mic night—the ninth of its kind—in Minya, a city on the Nile some two hundred kilometers south of Cairo. The performances range from the comic and the poignant to the explicitly political, but all have the same purpose in mind: to reclaim Egypt’s public space after the fall of the dictator. “When someone decides to speak their mind in public, even to tell a joke,” explains organizer Shady Khalil as he watches from the sidelines, “that’s political participation.”

On a spring evening hundreds of people are gathered in a public garden in Upper Egypt. At the request of an organizer the boisterous crowd shushes obediently—a rare occurrence at public events—and a young girl on a makeshift stage belts out an ode to lost love. The next act up is a group of teenagers extolling the virtues of presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. Next comes a well-coiffed twenty-something with a guitar who serenades the audience with an Enrique Iglesias song in perfect English.

This is an open mic night—the ninth of its kind—in Minya, a city on the Nile some two hundred kilometers south of Cairo. The performances range from the comic and the poignant to the explicitly political, but all have the same purpose in mind: to reclaim Egypt’s public space after the fall of the dictator. “When someone decides to speak their mind in public, even to tell a joke,” explains organizer Shady Khalil as he watches from the sidelines, “that’s political participation.”

Khalil is part of a local arts group called Oyoon, which launched these public performance programs here in April 2011. It’s an offshoot of Mashrou3 Al-Mareekh, or The Mars Project, a group that began holding open mic nights in homes and private venues in Cairo in 2009. The idea was to enable Egyptians to express themselves in whatever medium they chose, without fear of judgmentor reprisal. Mashrou3 Al-Mareekh co-founder Mohammed El-Quessny worked to spread these open mic nights around the country after the revolution. “We’re trying to regain ownership of the streets again,” says El-Quessny. “We want to return public space to its rightful owners, the people.”

Mashrou3 Al-Mareekh is just one of a surge of such initiatives, which include workshops, exhibitions, and public lectures.For example, El-Fann Midan is a monthly day-long festival held in Cairo’s Abdeen Square that promotes various arts, organized by the Coalition of Revolutionary Artists. The Tahrir Monologues encourages people to share their personal stories from the revolution in front of a live audience. Tweet nadwas, or forums, another initiative, bring celebrated Twitter users to public debates on current issues, often held in the street.

Mashrou3 Al-Mareekh is conspicuous for its do-it-yourself ethos. Toolkits that walk like-minded activists through a how-to on staging their own open mic nights are available to download from its website. The website recently launched a section inviting Egyptians to upload videos of local open mic nights so public performances are shared with as wide an audience as possible.

Less than two years ago, this evening’s gathering would have been either banned or closely monitored by the police. As Egyptians become more accustomed to voicing their opinions in public, topics once considered taboo are being addressed. Some of those who take the stage raise concerns about Egypt’s political future. Others bemoan the state of education, or health care. One brave man takes the mic to candidly discuss his marital problems.

“What’s going on here?” asks one passerby, a man with graying hair and carrying his small granddaughter. Minutes later, he is on stage, the child still perched on his shoulder, reciting verses by an Egyptian poet Sheikh Imam.

Sons of our homeland from the south to the east,

You, with your sleeves rolled up,

The light has embraced our country,

And the sun has ascended with confidence in the hardworking.

Good morning, all you workers.

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