-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - May 2009
They appeared overnight, without warning. I noticed the first one in Umm Dahab's alleyway off Mahmoud Baysuni street, an incomprehensible jumble of shapes stencilled at a jaunty angle on the floor. There was another in the next alley down by the old shoe stall, and dozens more over the road on Qasr El-Nil. On slabs of paving stone and stretches of tarmac; outside banks, mosques and travel agents – downtown Cairo had been flooded with carbon-copy street-paintings spilling out through the city. Confronted with this mysterious artistic phenomenon, the authorities did what any sensible, level-headed authority would do – they panicked, called in state security agents, and began rounding up suspects.
The local media, of course, had a field day. Who was behind this pernicious outburst of creativity, and what did the strange symbols indicate? As government street-cleaners were drafted in to remove the offending items, commentators speculated that this could be the work of deranged anarchists seeking to ferment discord; others explained that it was likely to be the cryptic calling-card of a previously unknown Shia terror cell, or the chilling logo of a virulent new wave of jihadists. The truth was stranger than all of these theories; the group responsible for the latest unsanctioned addition to the city's art scene, it emerged, was none other than Egypt's very-own emo community.
Just to clarify, that's emo as in ludicrously tight T-shirts, dyed-black fringes, studded belts and thick horn-rimmed glasses, confessional slash-yourself music and a lingering sense of narcissistic self-hatred. In Egypt.
The exposure of the graffiti's true creators did nothing to curb the collective panic now seizing the opinion columns and chat shows of the Arab world's largest country. In fact if anything, it intensified; men with long beards and explosive belts are one thing, but teenagers who listen to My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy in their bedrooms while squeezing into skinny jeans are quite another. True, police now had these particular Banksy-wannabes under lock and key, but how many more were out there and what did they want from us?
Up to 10,000 Egyptians were members of emo-related Facebook groups, we were informed; all were adherents to a western cult which glorified homosexuality and threatened to undermine Islam. Discerning readers were offered tips for identifying emos: they were "driven by punk and emotion", wore "guyliner" and "manscarer" and were to be found "loitering in streets ... often dismal and in tears".
Every society in every corner of the world engages in periodic bouts of moral uproar over the behaviour of its youngsters. In the 1960s there was public condemnation of the leather-clad French youths who listened to Salut les Copains and danced to Johnny Hallyday; today Japanese politicians fret about Goth-Lolis congregating in parks, while the Daily Mail agitates hysterically over Britain's "feral" girl gangs. The frenzies take on different forms in different places, but all have two things in common: first, they depict a youth-orientated lifestyle trend as subversive and a corrosive threat to traditional values, and second, they are whipped up by those who have most to gain through the construction and demonisation of a cultural "other" – normally because it masks genuine problems. Egypt is no exception.
The "backlash" against emo-culture actually began before the street-art controversy, when the host of El-Hakika (The Truth), a top-rated talk-show on Dream TV, devoted an entire episode back in March to the alarming phenomenon of emos in Egypt. In it he grilled a number of self-identified emos, including one gutsy student named only as Sherif who persistently interrupted the presenter and callers to insist that the emos were not an organised movement and were not all gay. "The idea is that there is nothing wrong with admitting that you are emotional," he said defensively. The host, Wael El-Ibrashi, disagreed. "Look, no one can tell you how to wear your hair," the presenter conceded generously, "But when that becomes a group philosophy, it's worrying."
Islam Online soon weighed in with an article warning of the dangers posed to the family by "deviant" emos and several anti-emo Egyptian Facebook groups have since sprung up. The revelation that emos may have been responsible for the stencilled graffiti merely played in to an existing narrative of fear and distrust. And like their counterparts in Mexico and Russia, Egyptian emos have more to worry about than just being mocked by their peers; they are now being actively targeted by the police. "State security sees us as a dangerous underground, as Satanists, as queers and faggots," one emo told a state-run newspaper.
Two forces have a vested interest in hyping up the threat of what amounts to little more than a few well-off, bored teenagers hanging around in shopping malls. One is the government. As a recent column in independent daily El-Dostour argued, President Mubarak's regime has lost all legitimacy amongst Egyptians both politically and culturally, a state of affairs it seeks to reverse by inventing both internal and external enemies of the state and portraying itself as the last hope for the soon-to-be-besieged Egyptian populace. Mubarak's stance on Gaza won him no friends at home; consequently the official papers are suddenly full of details about a Hezbollah terror unit operating clandestinely in the Sinai, with its sights levelled on Cairo. Culturally the government likes to style itself as a last bastion of Islamic values, the irony of which is obvious to anyone witness to the daily security clampdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood. So now emos are the latest hate-figures; their strange looks and vague connections to undefined, sordid western values makes them the perfect foil for a dictatorship on the back foot.
The most depressing aspect of it all is that far from taking the demonisation of emos for the shallow hypocrisy that it is, some conservative Islamist groups – vested interest number two – are singing to the government's tune, just as they did a decade ago when the Egyptian media was full of scare stories about devil-worshipping Satanists (better-known as heavy metal fans). As many have pointed out, there's no reason why Islam and heavy metal or emo have to be mutually exclusive. The 16-year-old son of Ayman Nour, formerly a dissident rival to Mubarak for the presidency, plays in Egypt's premier '"screamo" band; "I love to spend three hours at the mosque for Juma (the Friday afternoon collective prayer) and then play black metal for four hours in the evening," he explains.
Amid the furore, little has been heard from the emos themselves. Which is because there aren't that many of them, and those that do exist tend to hang around in parochial little circles and talk about their feelings – hardly the agents of national decline that have been depicted in the media. Like most youth fads, emo is essentially a consumer culture – it's all about your image and which music you purchase. The vast majority of Egyptian adolescents can't afford to buy in to that scene, or any other subculture – they just get on with their lives, frustrated by lack of opportunity, angry at a state that denies them basic political and economic rights and prevented at every turn from exercising any kind of meaningful dissent against their political masters. Youths everywhere want to rebel, and the youth of Egypt – where 700,000 university graduates each year chase 200,000 jobs – have more reason than most to do so. The only difference is that the upper-middle class teenagers of Cairo and Alexandria have the money to express that rebellion in a different (and ultimately pointless) way. Let the emos have their fun; the real problem with Egypt's youth has nothing to do with bad haircuts and canvas trainers, and everything to do with a far wider political malaise.