Defining Popular Culture

The academic study of popular culture has overwhelmingly focused on Western countries and has generally been divided over whether it is commercially-driven ‘brain washing of the masses’ or an ‘authentic expression of the people’ in resistance to dominant relations of power (for further discussion, see Storey 2010). Popular culture remains relatively under-studied by scholars of the Middle East, although there is a growing number of writings, some of which are listed at the end of this article.

Moreover, there is no single definition of popular culture and often it is defined (implicitly or explicitly) in relation to what it is not – such as, ‘high’ culture or 'folk' culture. However, the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low,’ contemporary and folk, among others, are not static over time, nor are they universal. This was apparent during the Egyptian revolution, in which the boundaries between different cultural and artistic styles were challenged through the creative and political practices of those protesting on the streets. For example, during the 18 days of the Tahrir Square sit-in, the ‘folk’ music of Port Said, the early twentieth century repertoire of Sayyid Darwish, and the rock music of Ramy Essam all played a part in unifying the people and expressing their desires for social justice and freedom from oppression (Swedenburg 2012).

Hence, the construction of the boundaries of the category of ‘popular’ should be seen as contingent and context-specific, linked to wider political struggles. Building on the work of the late Stuart Hall (1981), one of the pioneering scholars in the field of cultural studies, this archive and the research upon which it is based, does not limit itself to documenting those popular cultural texts that were ‘popular’ in the sense of being widely consumed or consumed by ‘ordinary’ people. Rather, it is interested in a wide range of cultural texts that, in some way, have sought to define who are ‘the people’ and what did they really want, in the context of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and its aftermath.

Popular Culture as Resistance

Uprising against the Army

In the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings, there was an increased interest in the role of popular culture, as various forms of creativity flourished against a back-drop of unprecedented freedom. Following the outbreak of the 25 January 2011 uprising, ordinary people as well as artists used music, poetry, graffiti, satire, talk shows and citizen journalism to tell their stories and express their viewpoints. Comedy and, in particular, political satire were used to criticize and ridicule the authorities. Citizen journalism became prominent in correcting the omissions or distortions of state-owned media and creating a revolutionary narrative. The figure of the martyr of the revolution (that is, those individuals who died at the hands of the security forces in political protests) was ubiquitous in various forms of popular culture and served to create public sympathy not merely for those individuals but, more importantly, for the cause of the revolution. Unsurprisingly, scholars of the Egyptian revolution have tended to conceptualize popular culture as a medium for expressing popular opposition to the authorities (for example, Abaza 2013a and 2013b, El Hamamsy and Soliman 2013a, 2013b, Mostafa and Valassopoulos 2014, Swedenburg 2012). However, popular culture was also an arena for pro-regime voices, such as the TV presenter Tawfiq Okasha, who used his show to whip up hostility to the revolution and support for the military (Armbrust 2019).

Popular Culture and Identity

The Voice of Egyptian Women

However, popular culture has not only been a vehicle for expressing opposition to the ruling regime but to dominant relations of power more broadly. Specifically, popular culture, such as graffiti, challenged dominant notions of gender identities and expressed demands for women’s rights – particularly rights to bodily integrity in the face of sexual violence and harassment of women protesters. In this way, women insisted that their rights be part of the revolution. Popular culture was also used to express Egyptian identity and define who are the Egyptian people. Whilst in the 18 days of the Tahrir Square sit-in, Egyptian identity was expressed in an inclusive way, later on, Egyptian identity came to be represented in more exclusive and divisive ways. In this respect, popular culture both reflected and created divisions between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents. Various popular culture artists portrayed the Muslim Brotherhood as un-Egyptian and deployed long-standing anti-Muslim Brotherhood prejudices (that members of the group are ‘backward’, whilst the leaders are treacherous) in their criticisms of the presidency and government. These depictions of the Muslim Brotherhood contributed towards demonizing the group and justifying the unprecedented levels of state violence against them after July 2013.

Popular Culture as a ‘Site of Struggle’ over Meaning


In light of the multiple roles of popular culture, we view it as a ‘site of struggle’ over meanings – specifically, the definition of ‘the people’ and of the revolution that they created. This notion of popular culture builds on the work of Stuart Hall and others within the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies (for example, Bennett 1986, Hall 1982, Hall and Jefferson 1976) and is influenced by Antonio Gramsci’s concept of ‘hegemony’, which refers to the ways in which the ruling class mobilizes certain ideas and meanings as ‘common sense’ in order to persuade ordinary people to accept the status quo. In other words, this is a conceptualization of politics as not merely a process that occurs within political institutions (such as, elections and parliaments) but as a form of ideological work that is conducted through culture.

The concept of 'representation' is a crucial tool for understanding the relationship between popular culture and power. 'Representation' refers to the construction of meaning through language, signs and/or images (Hall 1997: 15). The choice of language, signs and/or images is meaningful in a particular cultural context because of the way that it mobilizes existing ideas that may resonate with large numbers of people because they are already dominant (for example, the idea that there exists a unified 'Egyptian people'). However, existing ideas can be subverted or reformulated ('resignified') as part of and in response to new political and social movements, as occurred in the Egyptian revolution. 

However, whilst the Birmingham School viewed the struggle over meaning as one primarily between dominant and subordinate groups within society, the items in this archive reveal multiple struggles along different axes of social and political differences and tied to competing notions of the revolution as well as of Egyptian identity. Moreover, during the first couple of years following the 2011 uprising, there were no clearly dominant groups –although there were many groups who could be viewed as subordinate in light of gender and class relations and other social inequalities.

Popular Culture and Repression

Presidential hobbies

In light of the importance of popular culture as a terrain upon which the politics of meaning plays out, it is unsurprising that the authorities have clamped down on this sphere, particularly after the military coup of July 2013. Initially, those cultural figures targeted were individuals heavily associated with the 25 January revolution, such as comic Bassem Youssef, musician Ramy Essam, who were forced to leave Egypt, and journalist and TV presenter Reem Maged, who was forced off Egyptian TV. The circle of repression rapidly widened to include those deemed to express any sort of position independent of the authorities. This is not only limited to those whose opinions were deemed to be at odds with the authorities, such as political satirists. It also included those expressing culturally ‘liberal values’, which the authorities considered to violate ‘morality’, such as novelists writing scenes of sex to female pop singers dancing in sexually suggestive ways. More generally, any sort of direct representations of the 25 January 2011 revolution and, specifically, any criticism of the security forces and military, in popular culture became red lines for the authorities. As the regime of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has tried to script the official narrative of the 2011 revolution and its aftermath, it has become increasingly important to document the revolution’s diverse histories and capture popular voices threatened with repression and erasure from the historical record.

In-Text References 

Abaza, Mona (2013a). Walls, Segregating Downtown Cairo and the Mohammed Mahmud Street Graffiti, Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 30 no. 1: 122-139.

Abaza, Mona (2013b). Mourning, Narratives and Interactions with the Martyrs through Cairo’s Graffiti, E-IR, 7 October,

Armbrust, Walter (2019) Martyrs and Tricksters: An Ethnography of the Egyptian Revolution, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.

Bennett, Tony (1986) ‘Popular Culture and the Turn to Gramsci’, in Bennett, T., Mercer, C. & Woollacott, J. (Eds.) Popular Culture and Social Relations, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

El Hamamsy, Walid and Mounira Soliman (2013a) Introduction: Popular Culture—A Site of Resistance, in Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial Outlook, Walid El Hamamsy and Mounira Soliman, eds. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 1-14.

El Hamamsy, Walid and Mounira Soliman (2013b) The aesthetics of revolution: popular creativity and the Egyptian spring, in Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial Outlook, Walid El Hamamsy and Mounira Soliman, eds. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 246-260.

Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Quinton Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (trans., ed.) London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Hall, Stuart (1997) The Work of Representation, in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon, eds. Milton Keynes: The Open University and SAGE, pp. 13-74.

Hall, Stuart (1982) The Rediscovery of “Ideology”: Return of the Repressed in Media Studies, in Culture, Society and the Media, Michael Gurevitch, Tony Bennett, James Curran and Janet Woollacott, eds. London: Methuen, pp. 56-90. 

Hall, Stuart (1981) Notes on Deconstructing the ‘Popular’, in People’s History and Socialist Theory, Raphael Samuel, ed. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 227-240.

Hall, Stuart and Tony Jefferson, eds. (1976) Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain. London: Hutchinson.

Storey, John (2010). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge.

Swedenburg, Ted (2012) Egypt’s Music of Protest: From Sayyid Darwish to DJ Haha, Middle East Report, vol. 42, no. 265,, accessed 5 September 2016.

Valassopoulos, Anastasia and Mostafa, Dalia S. (2014), Popular Protest Music and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Popular Music and Society, 37(5), pp. 638–659.

Further Readings on Egyptian/Arab Popular Culture

Abu Lughod, Lila (2004) Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Armbrust, Walter (1996) Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Armbrust, Walter, ed. (2000). Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond. University of California Press.

Fahmy, Ziad (2011) Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Gilman, Daniel (2014) Cairo Pop: Youth Music in Contemporary Egypt, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hoigilt, Jacob (2018) Comics in Contemporary Arab Culture, London: I.B. Tauris.

Kraidy, Marwan (2017) The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World. Harvard University Press.

Mehrez, Samia, ed. (2012) Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir, Cairo: AUC Press.

Mostafa, Dalia (2016) The Egyptian Military in Popular Culture, London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Mostafa, Dalia, ed. (2017) Women, Culture and the January 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Abingdon: Routledge.

Pahwa, Sonali and Jessica Winegar (2012) Culture, State and Revolution, Middle East Report 263 (summer):

Sabry, Tarik (2010) Cultural Encounters in the Arab World: On Media, The Modern and the Everyday, London: I.B. Tauris.

Sabry, Tarik, ed. (2012) Arab Cultural Studies: Mapping the Field, London: I.B. Tauris.

Sakr, Naomi (2007) Arab Television Today, London: I.B. Tauris.

Shafik, Viola (2007) Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class and Nation, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

Valassopoulos, Anastasia, ed. (2014) Arab Cultural Studies: History, Politics and the Popular, Abingdon: Routledge.

Highlights from the Archive

TV Shows


  1. How can we understand the role of popular culture during the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath? How useful is the concept of ‘resistance’ in this regard?
  2. Can popular culture still play a political role in a context of high levels of repression and censorship?
  3. Can popular culture serve as a ‘people’s archive’ of the revolution?